February 3, 2012

How Do You Know?

We Are Surrounded By Experts, But There Is One Expert To Trust Beyond All Others – Ourselves.

How do you know? Really. What are you relying on when you feel most certain?

In our world today, we are surrounded by experts. We can watch them on television – experts on managing your money, making birthday cakes, organizing your desk, choosing your outfit. We can read their books – on raising your kids, planting a garden, starting a good conversation, even praying. We run into them in our towns and neighborhoods – experts on choosing the best nursery school, kennel for your dog, church or restaurant.

Some of these experts are objective. Some are open minded. Some are passionate. Some are matter of fact. Some are downright shrill. I’ve gotten some good advice from experts like this. I’ve also heard things that just didn’t ring true to me. I’ve even encountered expert advice so off the mark that it made me laugh. My point is, that I typically feel pretty secure in my filter when receiving advice from these everyday-experts. After all, the world is not going to come to an end if I make a sloppy birthday cake.

But what about when the stakes are higher?

What about when we need legal or medical advice, say? Experts in these areas have years of extra schooling under their belts. They’re highly trained, experienced professionals. Lawyers know the arcane ins and outs of our judicial system. Doctors have encountered cases and studied things that we simply are not exposed to in our everyday lives. Not to mention that a misstep in these areas could be devastating. A mistake in a real estate transaction could cost you added thousands. An unexplored avenue in treating an illness could result in prolonged suffering or worse. It can be very easy in times like this to second-guess your instincts.

Interestingly, working with the most respected medical experts in the nation while navigating my child’s chronic illness has reaffirmed how important it is to rely on my filter and how critical it is to trust my instincts. Never in the course of his illness has a doctor told me point-blank what to do. (Honestly, I received clearer, bossier advice from a highly opinionated mother when choosing a gymnastics class for my daughter!) My son’s doctors – without fail – lay out a series of treatment options. They include risks. They include benefits. They include scads of information. But they don’t include instructions. Without fail, our team of trusted experts leaves the final decisions to my husband and me.

At first this made me terribly uncomfortable. After all, our son’s health hung in the balance! But time and experience have proven over and over again, that our instincts are worthy of our trust. We listen carefully to his doctors. We ask questions. We take the time to read about his illness and the options we’ve been offered. And, every single time, one choice shines a bit brighter than the others. One pathway just feels like the one for us. We may do a little more research to support our instincts, but, without a single day of medical school between us, we’ve felt at home in the driver’s seat of our son’s medical care.

So, in life, how do we really know? How do we know which expert advice to chuck out the window and which has merit? What is it that we’re relying on when we make the decisions (some tough and some not-so-tough) that form our path through life?

We practice.

In addition to all the practice we get off our mats (choosing schools, trying restaurants, experimenting with organizational techniques), those of us who practice yoga get many, many opportunities to practice trusting our instincts each time we unroll our mats. Our teacher may suggest we go deeper into a forward bend, perhaps pressing our body closer to our legs, and we have the chance to say, “No, thank you. That is a bad idea today.” Or maybe he cues us to lift up into a backbend and somehow, some way, we know that today is the day that we’re finally ready to give it a whirl.

Perhaps we have an enthusiastic classmate who is forever encouraging us to try postures her way. “Try tipping your head back. It helped me stay upright,” or “A block wouldn’t work for me in that one. I’d never get any deeper.” Some bits of her advice might inspire you to change, while some don’t ring true at all. Other opinions might sound positively nuts. It’s OK. We take the good and chuck (or ignore) the bad.

Or maybe we’ve started to move through the ashtanga primary series at home after a particularly tough day at work. As we finish the sun salutations, we realize that we have not hit our stride. We can’t settle into our breath. Instead of feeling invigorating and centering, the familiar movements feel draining. What we crave is not the vigorous practice we set out to do. What we really yearn for is a few gentle forward bends, a reclining twist and a long, long rest in savasana. Even if this has never happened to us before, our practice has taught us to honor ourselves, our feelings, and our instincts. So we do. And when we sit up out of that rest, we feel restored, settled and rejuvenated. Exactly how we should feel after practicing.

Even on our mats it seems that we encounter experts of all types – weekend warriors and paid professionals. But practice shows us over and over again that there is one expert to trust above all others – ourselves. As empowering as this piece of advice is on our mats, this is one of those life lessons that yoga is famous for. Following it off our mat is even more powerful. Our instincts are the compass in our pocket as we make our way along life’s path. To answer our original question, our instincts are how we know.

Trust yourselves,
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