April 20, 2012

It’s Not Really “Your Way Or The Highway.”

At the very least, exchanging ideas is a way to better understand the people you disagree with.

I lived in Brooklyn when I had my first child. Through a series of encounters in the parks that filled our neighborhood (the loneliness of first time maternity leave drives perfectly sane women to bare their souls to utter strangers, you see), my first circle of “mommy friends” developed. In addition to providing much craved adult companionship in days dictated by the nap and feeding schedule of a tiny being who could not answer my questions or laugh at my jokes, these women were fonts of advice about all things baby.

The women in this group had opinions about every single aspect of motherhood and they shared them freely. I was instructed in the best way to feed a baby. I was taught the only way to carry a baby to preserve the mother-child bond. I was lectured in the dangers of a nursery versus “co-sleeping.” From diapers, to strollers, to the occasional use of a babysitter, these women had passionately strong opinions.

This was all well and good until the next crop of new moms started to show up in the neighborhood parks seeking companionship and even advice. By this time, I had started to develop a few opinions of my own, some that ran counter to the group’s earthier tendencies. As I shared my experiences with a younger mom, I noticed one of the group veterans rolling her eyes and shaking her head in a not-so-subtle way. Rather than joining our conversation to share an additional perspective, she waited until this new mom and I parted ways and pounced. As I walked past them on the way to the swings, I overheard her pointing out the “flaws” in what I’d said.

We’ve all run into people like this in our lives. People who seem to feel that opinions are a zero-sum-game; that there cannot possibly be two right ways of doing things. If you don’t agree, one of you must be wrong. Maybe you have a friend who can’t fathom why you make chicken parm the way you do. Maybe a colleague at work is constantly niggling at you to change the format of your staff meetings to run more like his. Maybe you do it, too?

I’m not proud to admit that I think my husband should drive my car more like I do. This can make me a very annoying passenger. When I’m not watching my mouth, I find myself instructing him in things like parking, backing up, even slowing down. I’m pretty sure he learned all these skills a lifetime ago in driver’s ed. Which is to say that I need to zip it and accept that there is more than one way to drive my car. In fact, if I’d shut my mouth and open my mind, it’s possible that he could teach me a thing or two.

Exchanges like this are even harder to handle when dealing with bigger, more emotionally loaded topics. Religion, politics and other social issues can be veritable minefields. Have you ever embarked on a conversation about faith, only to find yourself with your back to the wall the first time you expressed a difference of opinion? This is a shame because engaging in conversations on topics like this can be a great way to learn and grow. At the very least, exchanging ideas is a way to better understand the people you disagree with.

It’s ironic that a practice that is designed to teach us to set aside judgment and to constantly seek “beginner’s mind,” can foster just these types of opinions. Whether it’s our own particular style of sun salutation, the way we breathe, the way our teachers string together a series, the way we chant before and after class, or the way we place our hand in a specific asana, yogis can have opinions that rival the unwavering passion of the mothers I met in the parks of Brooklyn.

Just because we practice yoga doesn’t mean that we don’t fall prey to the temptation to share our opinions. How many times have you overheard a student critiquing something about a class as you leave the studio? We can also come face to face with our own close-mindedness on our mats. How many times have you tried a new class and been tempted to do things the way you always do them rather than following the cues of the teacher?

Our yoga practices offer us some powerful tools to help us steer clear of the pitfalls of unilateral belief. On our mats, we learn to observe. While this same skill can lead us directly into judging the person next to us for taking a posture differently than we do, the skill of observation also helps us catch ourselves when we slip into a judging mindset. The simple act of noticing our judging thought patterns is the first step toward changing them.

We also learn on our mats to stay curious or to cultivate “beginner’s mind.” This mindset helps us maintain our sharp focus on our own practice as we wonder what each posture will feel like today. It helps us avoid the self-fulfilling prophecies of assumptions. It can also lead us to wonder what the person next to us is experiencing when they take a posture differently than we do. This wonder can lead us to try something new. While you may hate it, it is just as conceivable that you will like the way it feels. If you do, you’ve just received the gift of a new tool to add to your yoga tool belt.

You’ve also learned the powerful life lesson that just because someone does something differently than you do doesn’t mean that one of you is wrong. The fact that there is another way to do something need not make you feel vulnerable or scared. The reality is that, as you’ve learned from trying the pose the way the person on the mat next to you does it, they have the same opportunity to learn from you. Whether you eventually adopt the new way or not, the act of experimenting will enrich your understanding of your practice.

As with so much of yoga, this lesson serves us off our mats as well. In life, though, the lessons we learn are wildly more important than how to do or not to do a stretch. It is possible that the understandings that develop when we deliberately listen to one another, share with one another and experiment with one another’s ideas could change the world we live in.

Imagine that.
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