Celebrating Sameness

This morning I listened again to one of my favorite podcasts:  “The Biology of Spirit“, an interview with Dr. Sherwin Nuland from the weekly radio program “On Being“.  I could easily fill this space with inspirational nuggets from this talk, but there were a few ideas that are particularly relevant to the kinds of topics we discuss in this blog.  For example, Dr. Nuland talks about some of the things that are universal among all human beings.  First, there is the biology. We are each constructed of approximately 75 trillion cells. Each one of those cells experiences an estimated 4 million cell divisions per minute.  Since it’s “impossible for the DNA to replicate perfectly each time, little mistakes are made.” That’s where the DNA repair molecule comes into play.  “It travels like a little motorboat up and down the DNA molecule. It finds errors, snips them out, corrects them, and puts the right thing back in there. This is the ultimate wisdom of the body.”   Think about that for a moment.  It’s quite a concept. All of this is happening without our even noticing and most of the time dangers are thwarted and equilibrium is restored.  The human body is truly amazing!  We abuse it in so many ways and yet it still works so hard for us. So often we tend to focus on its shortcomings when we should be marvelling at how much it does right.

Having spent his professional career dealing with ways in which things go wrong, Dr. Nuland has developed “an enormously healthy respect for normal”.  He describes what it’s like to be “in surgery and you look inside an abdomen and realize how many things could go haywire and they don’t. . .  everything is just humming along beautifully, nobody is running it.”  How incredibly miraculous!  And this is true of all of us – regardless of race, religion, country of birth, political views, background, what we look like to each other – whatever differences you can think of, these are ways in which we are all the same.

It’s not just physical.  Dr. Nuland also reminds us that “pain and response to pain is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. . . .It teaches you a sort of understanding.”  Recently I was talking with my family doctor about how my own pain has given me a new understanding of what it’s like for other people in similar circumstances.  We may not want to think about negative emotions or sensations like pain, or sorrow, or even guilt or embarrassment but it can be comforting to recognize that these are universal experiences. The fact is we all – yes, all! – feel these things at one time or another. Fear of people who seem different from us may lead us to make judgments. We think that such a person doesn’t have feelings like we do. Or perhaps that person doesn’t care about the same things we do. But chances are if we really got to know that other person, we would find that their fears and concerns are similar to our own and in the end they want the same things we do.  It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from or what you believe, we all want to feel secure, take care of our families, have a safe place to live and enough to eat.  These are universal qualities.

Similarly, we often feel as though our own suffering is unique. It tends to keep us isolated. We become reluctant to make our feelings known for fear that we will be rejected by others as somehow deficient. But one of the eternal truths of life is that everyone suffers in one way or another. The epigraph, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” is mentioned during this interview.  When we take that dangerous leap of bridging the gulf of fear that separates us, we learn that everyone has a story and no one escapes its scars. It can be comforting to realize that no matter what we experience, there are billions of others who are or have experienced the same thing.  Dr. Nuland says, “You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word? Everybody needs to be understood.”

As human beings, Dr. Nuland theorizes, with the capacity to process information in a unique way we seem to have an “awareness of the closeness of chaos”.  He thinks this is partially because of the complexity of the biological processes that are constantly occurring within every one of our cells. But it also could be related to our awareness of our own fragility. Despite our unwillingness as a society to address the finite nature of our existence, we are reminded daily that nothing lasts forever. Still all of our biological processes are geared towards detecting and attempting to eradicate threats to survival. In fact, even the ancient Greek philosophers “without knowing anything about cells or anything about how the body really worked, [understood that] we live in chaos and seek the reassurance of stability.”  We all seek harmony, order, and integrity as well as unity and predictability. Predictability is elusive, though, so most of us construct a series of habits, routines and patterns that make up a comfort zone.  This can become so familiar that we find it difficult to let go even when change might be in our best interests. As uncomfortable as pain or obsessional thoughts might be they are the devil we know.  Dr. Nuland puts it this way: “They represent a sort of comfortable familiar thing that I could come back to. It’s almost as if they represented family. And it’s hard to give those things up.” Part of that is fear of the unknown. If I let go of this feeling, what will replace it? Change also means loss.  Maybe its something we’re better off without, but we don’t know that until we get to the other side. It takes a leap of faith to believe that the other side will be OK.

At times of change, we would all do well to remember all of the times in the past that we have weathered a change that forced us out of our comfort zone.  Everyone reading this can probably think of a time in their lives when this has happened. In most cases the change has at the very least been a learning experience, but also it has probably brought about unexpected results which never could have been anticipated ahead of time.  I know this is true for me.

So if you’re contemplating making a change in your life, or if a change is being forced upon you due to circumstances beyond your control, it might help to remind yourself that there are many other people who are now or have experienced the same thing you are going through. Dr. Nuland says, “The brain has a way of evaluating what is best for the organism.” Although we as humans sometimes ignore what we know is best and manage to rationalize choosing another direction, we also know that “when we choose what is best for the organism, it will usually make us feel really good.” It might also help to remember that no matter what is changing there are a zillion other people faced with the same choices and experiencing the same dilemmas as you. Try remembering that each person you see has the same 75 trillion cells that you do and each one of them is engaged in the process of survival just like you.  We are all part of the big club of human beings.  There is comfort in belonging.

Curbing Judgment

 

One advantage to getting older – at least for me – is that experiences accumulate.  Through the years, just like all of you who are reading this, I’ve encountered many challenges.  Recently it has occurred to me that there is at least one positive result of living through difficult circumstances.  Each of them helps me to become less judgmental of others and of myself.  The word “never”, as in “I would never respond that way”, is gradually disappearing from my vocabulary as I loosen my grip on fixed ideas coming from years of conditioning. Increasingly the truth of constant change becomes more evident as well as how little in life is really under our control.

Even though we have similarities as human beings, we are all also uniquely different.  Each of us has our own individual characteristics as well as our own gifts.  There is really no “one size fits all”.   That also means there is sometimes no universal notion of right and wrong or good and bad.

Still we all want to do the “right” thing, even when we’re not really sure what that is.  And we are often quick to berate ourselves (or others) when we think we (or they) have gotten it “wrong”.   We often hold ourselves to impossible standards.  Some of this comes from all the things we’ve been told by others throughout our lives. Experiences of praise or punishment, consequences of actions we’ve taken or witnessed – all of these things contribute to the person we are today and the ideas we’ve formed.  We may no longer even know where those ideas originated, but they are part of us nonetheless.

Changing these ideas, or just finding ways to be open to new ones, can be really difficult.  Maybe, though, instead of being daunted by that prospect and giving up before even trying, we can learn to recognize this challenge as an opportunity for practice.  An article in Yoga Journal by meditation teacher Sally Kempton titled “Make Peace with Perfectionism and Make Mistakes” provides an example of one idea for this type of practice – retraining your inner critic.  The article cites Patanjali‘s advice to “Practice the Opposite” from Sutra 11.33.  The Yoga Sutras are a collection of verses describing yogic philosophy.  This practice suggests that you talk back to your inner critic.  So, for example, when you find yourself saying “I shouldn’t be doing this because I can’t do it right” counter this with “I can do lots of things right and my way of doing this is just as good as anyone else’s.”  Similarly, if you start to think “I can’t possibly survive this crisis” remind yourself that you’ve survived numerous crises in the past and you can survive this one also.  I’m sure you can all think of many other ways to try this out.  You might even find it interesting to come up with a counterstatement for every negative thought about yourself (or someone else!) that comes to mind.  Here’s another example:  “I keep forgetting to do this practice so I might as well give up”.  You can counter that with “I’ve remembered before and I can remember again.”  Each new moment is a new opportunity to try again.  Just recognizing that you forgot is a huge step in the right direction.  Give yourself a big pat on the back for that.

Recently when I mentioned to a woman that I am a yoga teacher, she said “I can’t do yoga because I can’t relax”.  All of you, myself included, can probably relate to that statement.  We all felt that way at some point when we were new to yoga.  Some of us may still feel that way. In fact, sometimes yoga itself can be stressful if we put too many expectations on ourselves.  Also I know many “Type A’s” who don’t like yoga because it’s “too slow”.  My response is “it’s a practice thing”.  The more you do it, the easier it becomes.  However, I also know that I didn’t always feel that way.  Finding it difficult to relax could be one more reason to keep trying.  But it could also be another example of how we are each different from each other.  We all need to find our own way to what will best serve us.

As I get older I’ve noticed that I’ve become more open-minded and less likely to automatically dismiss or condemn another point of view. That also has made me less likely to try to impose my opinions on anyone else.  My classes are a judgment-free zone.  Come as you are and do what works for you.  And if it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK, too.  Maybe the timing is not right or perhaps there is a different type of practice waiting for you down the road.  Just try to keep an open mind and remember that everything is always changing.  What you feel today may be different from what you feel tomorrow.