Identifying what needs will be met by our practice
Updated: Feb 3
THIS IS PART 3 OF 5 POSTS ABOUT BUILDING A SUSTAINABLE YOGA PRACTICE
One recent morning, I went down to get my coffee and let the dogs out. I was disappointed to see that the sky was still filled with smoke from the nearby forest fires, confirming what I already knew by looking at the air quality monitors on my phone: the air was unhealthy and there would be no morning hike for me. Disappointed, I came back inside with the dogs and noticed the ceiling paint swelling over the fridge, a big ball of water waiting to burst. I had had a simple repair done to the toilet on the second floor two days before and it struck me: something had gone wrong with repair and now there was water soaking the internal structure of my house. I saw plumbing repairs, framing repairs, new paint, and I had just lived through a major remodel. I was done spending money and done sharing my house with workmen. But here we seemed to be going again… I cried for a little bit, called the contractor, and considered just going back to bed with my coffee. Skipping my morning meditation felt like giving myself a break. And here is the interesting mental twist many of us struggle with: why does skipping the very thing I know is the best, most helpful thing for me to do so often seem like a good idea? In fact, skipping the actions that are the most deeply nourishing can feel like an act of self-care. Just like I can convince myself after a hard day that a pint of Ben and Jerry’s is self-care, even though I know that the most likely outcome of that is that I will eat the entire thing in front of the TV and feel bad about for the next 2-24 hours. We have these conflicts because we have conflicting needs. On the one hand, eating the ice cream and watching TV meets my needs for comfort and pleasure. My long term needs for health and longevity and self-respect are really low on the list when I am in pain, so my more immediate need for comfort wins out. Likewise, that morning with the smoke and the plumbing leak, I was in emotional pain because I was seeing a future of expensive home repairs on top of the disappointment about not being able to have my morning hike and deep fear about the state of the world, not to mention sadness for the pain and suffering of all the people and animals losing their homes and lives because of the fire. It was almost unbearable, really. And my brain can convince me that the way out of that pain is to live outside of myself: to take my coffee back to bed and zone out looking at my iPad, even though I know that will only bring me more bad news. My brain is convinced that sitting still will bring more pain, not less. But it’s wrong about that. It may be that I need to spend a little time feeling the pain that I’m experiencing. I need to hold it and care for it for a time so that I can move on. There’s a paradox here. The antidote to suffering is to be in the present moment, but the present moment feels painful, so we flee, looking for a better present moment. But the better present moment is fantasy and therefore totally elusive. There is no other moment than now, with whatever messiness and pain that exists in this moment. Once we really embrace that, what happens is that we realize that right now, at least the vast majority of the time, we are actually ok. In fact, right now, things are really pretty good. I fought my impulse to go back to bed and instead I sat down on my cushion. After a few breaths I realized I was ok. I was better than ok. Looking out my window at the eerie, smoky view of the neighborhood rooftops in the distance, I saw birds flying, branches and leaves dancing in the wind and reflecting what light there was. It was beautiful. I looked down and there were my two small dogs curled up at my feet, patient and trusting and loving. Yes, I was staring down the barrel at an another expensive home repair, and even more terrifying, the unknowns of a global pandemic and climate crisis. But the truth was that right at that moment I was relatively safe and comfortable and pain-free. We practice so that we can build the muscle of being able to choose the present moment. We can go through anything if we can live in the here and now. But our brain will constantly try to convince us that there is a better present moment out there, and that the one we have is not good enough. There is more pleasure or less pain if we turn on the TV or zone out on Facebook or drink the third glass of wine or buy another pretty item for our shelves or closet. Why we don’t practice If we are choosing spiritual practices that either don’t actually bring us to the present moment or that don’t meet our needs in other ways, the escape hatch will always win out. Many of us are trying to make practices work because we see them work for others (or we think that’s what we’re seeing) so we don’t understand that they’re not working for us. It’s like trying on a dress that doesn’t fit and blaming yourself for it, maybe even feeling self-loathing and shame instead of realizing that the problem is not you; it’s the dress. The dress should be taken off and given back immediately so that you can find the dress that does fit. Likewise, we see people practicing meditation sitting on a cushion with a ramrod straight spine and an idyllic smile, and we think then that if we did that for an hour a day then we too would be happier, perhaps even enlightened, if we kept at it long enough. But we sit like that for five minutes and it’s absolute torture. Instead of realizing that it’s not the right practice for us, that it’s not meeting our needs, we blame ourselves. And then we blame ourselves again when the next morning we choose not to do it. And the next and the next and the next. Finally, we declare that we can’t meditate or we don’t like yoga instead of realizing that we just haven’t yet found the mediation or yoga practice that works for us. You are not the problem. You are perfect and beautiful and whole. We can find a practice that fits your perfect, beautiful, whole self. It’s a journey, but it’s worth the effort. It will bring you home to yourself. You will not always feel happy. Rather you will have a range of emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, and you will be able to weather all the storms, big and small. You will be able to experience equanimity because you will have trained for it.
Acceptance Aliveness Authenticity Awareness Beauty Belonging Care Celebration of life Challenge Clarity Communion Compassion Companionship Connection Consciousness Consistency Contribution Creativity Discovery Ease Emotional safety Exploration Faith Flow Growth Harmony Healing Health Honesty Hope Inclusion Inspiration Integration Integrity Internal peace Joy Kindness Learning Love Making sense of life Mattering to myself Mourning Movement - aerobic exercise
Movement - flexibility
Movement - strength building Nurturing Order Peace of mind Play Pleasure Power Presence Purpose Rejuvenation Rest Self-acceptance Self-care Self-connection Self-expression Self-knowledge Self-realization Self-responsibility Space Spontaneity Stability Stimulation Support Tenderness Touch Warmth
In other words, almost all of our human needs can directly be met by a spiritual practice, especially when we can meet in community to practice.
For this week’s writing, please list what needs you have in relation to spiritual practice. These are likely to be needs that are unmet in other areas of your life. For instance, some of us will need a sense of community from our practice because we live alone or in a small family, while others of us have established communities and networks and are less concerned with community in relation to spiritual practice. Likewise, some of us may be getting our needs for movement met by other disciplines. We play a sport or hike or dance. In this case, we may list unmet needs around self-knowledge or relaxation. We will all have a different list, and you may identify needs that are not on this list.
If we really understand what our needs are, then we can create and cultivate a practice that will genuinely meet those needs. This tailored practice is much more likely to be sticky because we will receive so much benefit from it.