004 Metaphors for Living
“Just stick to your shapes”. I never thought a bit of olympic weightlifting advice would end up being one of my favourite metaphors for conducting yourself through life.
For those who don’t know what that phrase refers to, it’s all about how you approach a lift. There are certain positions your body will travel through whilst making a lift, and you ideally want to stick to these optimum positions - “shapes” - regardless of how heavy the load becomes. When the load becomes heavier, or maybe in the context of competition, a common pitfall inexperienced lifters make is to change their technique. The sheer weight of the bar, or the pressure of the crowd gets to their heads. Instead of trusting their shapes, something breaks down. They miss the lift.
For me, the yoga sutra-s are my optimum "shapes" for how to approach life. The text, attributed to Patañjali, is an important authority for yoga practitioners. It contains a depth of wisdom that can only be uncovered through a thorough understanding of the sanskrit language, or a good teacher. A single sutra is one thread of the text, succinctly expressing an idea, a tool, or a piece of advice. Whatever “load” arrives in life, there is an applicable sutra (or sutra-s) that can help you engage with that situation most efficiently.
What does it mean to be successful at life? To make a metaphorical successful lift? I quite liked a definition of success that I read by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle postulates that you cannot become successful, only that you can BE successful. And I feel that to be true. What he means is that if you apply yourself appropriately to each moment you live, that if - to continue with my metaphor - you consistently stick to your shapes, you ARE successful. Lack of success (I use this phrase as I don’t believe true failure exists) only occurs when you apply yourself inappropriately to any given situation. A life full of continuous successful moments is also very likely a life of someone who is content and happy with their lot.
Why is this helpful? I find this kind of thinking helpful for when I’m not succeeding at something, when I am not getting a situation right. And there are always tell tale signs of this: I feel emotional, unwell, discontented, I have knee jerk reactions, my ego is looking for someone else to be wrong and blame etc. All of these things are signs of, what we refer to in yoga as, klesha. Klesha are obstacles that stop you from being able to see clearly, when you let things like memory or projection cloud your judgement and perception.
Through the practice of yoga we look to reduce our individual klesha so that our interactions through life are clearer and, in a sense, more efficient. Like a good lift, life without klesha looks and feels fluid; we become a master of our own actions.
I first reflected and realised the phrase, "just stick to your shapes" was useful outside of lifting when I was playing tennis. Naturally, as another type of sport, the carry over was very simple. My tennis coach pointed out how I play differently in a game situation as opposed to training; my shots would become a lot more tentative, and I would lose a lot of my power. And then it suddenly popped in my head whilst next playing a game, I said to myself, "Tissie, just stick to your shapes". After that, the game became about moment to moment, just trying to make sure I hit each ball as successfully as I could with good technique. It radically changed that game for me, and I played the best I had in a while.
It was after that that I started reflecting how I could apply this concept elsewhere in life. I loved how repeating that phrase brought me into the present moment, made me stop doubting and start trusting myself and my and abilities.
In fact, it helped me to stop being influenced by klesha and the activities of the mind. Yoga sutra 1.2 states, "yogascittavrttinirodhah". One translation and explanation of this is that yoga begins when the mind is in a state close to consciousness, when it is undistracted by its usual mental activities.
During the tennis match I stopped thinking about whether or not I would win the game, or worrying that I wasn't playing my best, or being influence by the memory that I knew I could play better. Instead, I simply played.
So let's try a more complex and subtle situation we're not succeeding at, one, perhaps, where we're having friction with someone with whom we're in a relationship. Even before something has escalated to the level of an argument klesha would have been present, and our actions influenced by them. It would have probably started with a subtle feeling, they said something, and without our minds even having had the chance to intellectualise why what they said was offensive or hurtful, it would have triggered a memory and a behavioural pattern. It might have started with a feeling of internal heat rising, or a sudden shutting down of our inner selves, or a small jolt of fear etc, but either way it's too late and now we're reacting instead of responding.
How do we pull ourselves back from a situation like this? It may not be something so direct like an argument, we might be alone and suffering from internal conflict about a situation, but if we have enough awareness to just acknowledge the fact we’re struggling with something, then there is a way back. For me, that acknowledgement can be as simple as saying to myself, “just stick to your shapes”. And I love it as a way of pulling yourself up because it’s so depersonalised. To me it’s like, “hey, something has got to your head, the load of life has made you break down in some way, and you need to either stop being affected by the past, or projecting into the future, you need to focus on handling yourself well in this very moment. Don’t worry about what’s to come, just try and be successful now.” After that the real work begins. We can then actually try to start implementing our “shapes”.
Without this being the space to dive into numerous yoga sutra-s and their complexities, here is a summarised version of said “shapes”:
1) Acknowledge what you’re feeling in simple terms, e.g. I feel angry, sad, jealous, scared etc
2) Allow yourself to explore that feeling without shame or judgement. Notice how the feeling affects you physically, e.g. my stomach feels tight, my throat feels choked up, I have a sinking feeling in my chest etc.
3) Keep focusing on how it feels, and then hold that focus whilst also concentrating on your breathing - maybe you’re breathing fast and hard, maybe it feels tight and you’re holding it in. Just keep breathing and focusing for as long as it takes to start to feel things shift, and release. A good sign is if you cry, or start to yawn a lot, or your breathing pattern changes and relaxes - this usually means a release from your nervous system.
4) Once you feel like the emotion has less power over you / shifted, then you can begin a process of reflection. Often this means breaking things down into simple tenets, e.g. who is perceiving? what it the object of perception? what was the trigger for you and why is it a trigger for you?
5) Ask yourself how you can take responsibility for what happened? Do you need to apologise to anyone, or do you need to take measures to stop yourself from being triggered in that way again? Do you need to alter a relationship, or the way you interact with something or someone? Does a boundary need to be established?
6) Importantly you need to put this change into action. Reflection and understanding don’t mean much unless you actually are willing to take action to prevent future suffering. The best rehab is always prehab. Break the action down into small steps, and execute them in order to reach your goal.
7) Keep refining this process until you have a new established behavioural pattern that serves you, that enables fluidity of action.
Manageable steps are always important, and the more practical the better. In some ways I really feel "alternative therapies" need demystifying from very vague concepts and statements into easily accessible terms. It doesn't have to be "stick to your shapes", you can find your own metaphor or way of thinking that works for you. Try thinking about when you feel most successful, what happens for you in those moments? What helps you switch off your chattering mind, and just focus on the task at hand?
And if you would like to learn more about the yoga sutra-s, please feel free to get in touch with any questions or comments. I’m also looking to write more reflections on individual sutra-s as part of my blog, and hopefully set up a yoga philosophy class including an internal practice for anybody who lives in KL. Will keep you all posted. Thanks for reading!