What does the practice of yoga, meditation and spirituality have to do with self love, and furthermore, how can you leave out discipline? If you find yourself asking this question, then it probably means you’ve been punishing yourself into good health, like I have.
“Practice out of love for yourself, not out of discipline.”
The guidance I received from the wonderfully wise and experienced teacher, Gregor Maehle, when I shared my current physical struggles in my yoga practice was incredibly simple yet deeply far reaching into my physical, emotional and psychological being.
Today, as I was scratching my cat behind his ears, eliciting a low constant purr and a blissful look on his face, I realised that the expression of love is simply care — offering care in a way that helps, nurtures or pleasures someone.
Which means that if I do things that don’t help, nurture or pleasure my own self, then I am not acting out of love for myself.
Stressing myself, expecting too much, doubting my proven abilities, demanding constant high performance, even perfection, getting upset at myself for not being as good as someone else, or as good as I previously was, starving myself or feeding myself what is unhealthy, exercising too much or too little, not sleeping enough, caring about what others think or say when it's not helpful but harmful, pretending to be something I'm not, acting as I think I'm expected to, and doing things that I don't really want to just to make someone else happy — these are all acts of abuse that I am regularly guilty of committing towards myself.
There was a time when some of these ideas were considered to be good parenting. But even the worst psychologist today will tell you that this sort of behaviour towards your child will cause them long lasting psychological and emotional damage.
And yet, I'm guilty of all of these things on a regular basis. All because I believe that I have to prove I'm great, constantly, in order to feel great about myself, and get the same feedback from those around me.
And I know I'm not the only one who does this to themselves.
Why don't I eat because I love nourishing myself and keeping myself happy and healthy? Why don't I exercise for the sole reason of respecting my body? Why don't I comfort myself when I feel down, or give myself permission to rest when I'm tired, or let myself do fewer things when I'm too busy to keep up with my own plans? Why are these things so hard, and why do I need something like discipline to stay on track?
Why do I feel lazy, when actually, I’m just tired?
I love myself. I do. I work really hard to keep myself on track, to be as healthy and happy and beautiful and smart as possible.
But this love isn't true. Because the love I have isn't for ME, it's for my mother who I want to make proud, and my friends who I want to feel I deserve, and for all the strangers out there with whom I just cross paths, without even a second glance at them, let alone a conversation that even allows them to know my name.
If I really loved me, I wouldn't feel bad when I'm tired and didn't get through my to-do list. I wouldn't stay hungry for hours because it wasn't yet time to eat. I wouldn't have that glass of wine just because I don't want to be a party pooper. I wouldn't dress up just to bask in the admiring glances of people I don't know. I wouldn't stress myself out for not having done enough each day, week, month or year.
It turns out that I love everyone else more than I love myself. Because it’s easier for me to write this and share my experience in the hope that it could be useful to someone else, than to simply stop torturing myself for not being useful enough on a Saturday.
So what does this have to do with yoga, meditation and spirituality?
Well, basically everything. Because everything that we do to our body and mind eventually seeps down into our spirit (or call it consciousness, aatmaan, or soul, or even our genetic DNA) and continues to impact the way we manifest our reality through our subconscious, our beliefs and actions, and even the unspoken messages we communicate to our peers and our children.
In other words, when I believe that I need discipline, rather than love, not only does that impact my own life experience, but also impacts the very same people I am trying to keep happy around me, and eventually also my progeny, without me even having to tell them so in actual words.
Is it any wonder that we are eating away our own home planet like it’s a gingerbread house, without any care for the future, when so many of us in the world today are suffering from a scarcity of love for ourselves? We aren’t eating to nourish ourselves, we are eating to ground ourselves in the face of the incredible anxiety we feel about our own purpose and value.
The programme that causes this anxiety about our own value lives in our own bodies and minds, and we can disable it by learning to love ourselves.
By learning to care for ourselves.
By helping, nurturing and pleasuring ourselves in ways that are kind and loving in the way we would for our child, our partner, or even our pet.
The peaceful happiness that comes from nurturing pleasure affects the molecules of our beings down to the deepest level. Safety and care create a relaxation in the body that eliminates the need for survival strategies like stress, anxiety and fear, which in turn cause both, an overuse of reserved resources and a constant state of rigidity, friction and inflammation. In contrast, the pleasure caused by care and safety create suppleness, fluidity, flow, which can manifest in beautiful ways such as creativity, ecstasy and even transcendence.
One way to love ourselves is to remove the programmes from our systems that are keeping us in fear and anxiety, telling us we are in trouble.
Yoga is a tool to remove the programme from our bodies. Pranayama is a tool to remove the programme from our breath, which connects our inner world to the outer world, and reconfigure our brain’s hemispheric synchronicity. Meditation is a tool to remove the programme from our minds. And once we start to remove the programme telling us that we are not worthy of our own love unless we act out of discipline and do our fair share of productive work, then we can start to affect the program at the deepest levels of our consciousness.
Imagine that within you sits a gold ingot in the shape of your deepest, strongest and oldest ideas about yourself — at the most abstract, pre-linguistic level. Now imagine that every experience you have ripples inward into your being, through your body, breath, mind and beliefs, and depending on how significant they are, how painful or delightful, they accordingly resonate more deeply and therefore leave a mark on this little soft gold object inside.
Over time, it’s become deformed and misshapen, and since it’s a representation of your idea of yourself, it’s deformities leave you feeling not so great about yourself.
Now imagine that all the outer layers of body, breath, mind and beliefs are heated until they become liquid, then vapour. Every single impurity that was stuck within simply releases and evaporates outward. The heat becomes so intense that the gold ingot starts to melt and reform into a liquid drop of gold.
Meanwhile, each and every experience that you now have passes right through all the layers without leaving any residue along the way, because of the feverish heat that pushes it through, and once it reaches inside, it cannot leave a dent on that beautiful little molten golden drop.
As long as the heat remains and it stays steady at a high enough temperature, you can experience anything without it getting stuck in your being like a grain of sand in an oyster. You no longer have to work really hard to turn it into a pearl just to stay at ease. It simply finds no host in you anymore, you’re immune to its viral ways.
That feverish heat is the nurturing and caring love for yourself. And it will protect you and keep you safe from all harm, through and through. It will dissolve the need for the bouncer at the door called your ego. It will keep you safe from the hatred or jealousy of others, from the pain of rejection and loss.
It may not keep you safe from a bear or a lion. It also won’t keep you safe from the melting ice caps.
But perhaps when our love for ourselves is complete, we will be able to resume our duty as the stewards of the bear, the lion, and the ice caps, instead of just being caught up trying to turn annoying little grains of sand into pearls inside our selves, trying to minimise the pain of existing within a body and a mind that seem to control all our choices and actions with their programmes based on fear and insecurity.
Perhaps instead of causing the planet to have a fever to extinguish us, we can raise a fever within our beings to extinguish all that keeps us from caring — most of all, for ourselves.
Perhaps we need to act out of love for ourselves, and not out of discipline — because one creates pleasure, nourishment and relaxation in our beings — and the other creates stress, fear, anxiety and unworthiness.
The question I’ll be asking myself each time I catch myself acting out of a form of self punishment is this: What would I advise a friend, or even a stranger, in this situation, if I saw them hurting themselves? Would I tell them to work harder, to keep pushing, or to be kind and gentle, and to go easy? Would I cheer them on, saying “You can do it! Just a little bit more!”, or would I pat them on the back for a good effort for the day, and remind them I’ll be there to cheer them on the next day all over again? Would I tell them to lose some weight, or eat a little more? Would I tell them to drop whatever was worrying them, or would I help them solve a difficult problem by asking for a friend? What would I do if it wasn’t me, but a friend I cared for?
Eventually, I hope I’ll be that friend to myself. The one that acts out of love, and not out of discipline.
Eventually, I hope we’ll have so much love for ourselves, we won’t need discipline any more than we need ego.
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