Authenticity – freeing ourselves from the prison of expectation

Stone walls to do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone that fly above,

Enjoy such liberty.

~From “To Althea, from Prison” by Richard Lovelace

I had a terrifying dream last night that I was being sent to jail.

I can’t remember why exactly, all I can remember was that I was sentenced for 90 days and that I felt my condemnation was unfair. The dream was permeated with a sense of dread, and as soon as I realized it was a dream I was flooded with relief. I am free!

Then I got to thinking: where in my life to I create self-imposing limitations? How am I creating a prison around myself?

A key to unraveling this puzzle came to me when I was in a yoga class the other day. It was one that I usually enjoy; yet I left the session feeling more stressed out than when I entered. “What’s happened in that class?” I thought, “Yoga is where I go to rest my mind and nourish my soul, so why do I feel so drained?” I pondered this, wondering if something about the instructor had changed. Or maybe it was something about the studio, or the other members of the class. But then I realized: the only thing that changed was me.

I had set up a particular set of expectations in my mind about how the class would play out. I didn’t let the poses sink into my body like liquid soaks a pumice stone. I was impenetrable with my “know it all” outlook. And I also made the mistake of thinking more about how others perceived me than about the practice. I caught myself peering over at my neighbor’s mat – judging my own competency in comparison to hers. I wasn’t living in the moment, which cut me off from the source – the divine space that had drawn me to class in the first place.

Expectation truly is the root of all heartache. This is because expectation is a limiting attitude rather than an expansive one. Once we have an expectation set in our mind, we create situations in order for those projections to come true. But when we do this, we are not living in the moment; we are living in a fantasy world created by our ego mind.

The solution to freeing ourselves of expectation is learning to relinquish control. We have no idea how each day will play out; perhaps you had a plan to go to the movies, and the show sold out. Expectation leads to disappointment. The ego stamps its foot and has a little tantrum because it did not get its way. I like to picture the ego like my 2-year-old self on a bad day. It wants, whines, and throws fits when it doesn’t get its frivolous needs met. So instead of indulging our inner terrible twos when our mental reality did not come to fruition, we can choose to see it as an opportunity for something better to come along. Instead of seeing the movie with your friend, maybe you end up talking over tea and having a truly magical conversation. We never know what the Universe has in store.

In the adult world, expectation is usually linked to the ascertain of power. Having expectations is the first step to cultivating control. And we like to control things best when we are scared. We are scared we aren’t good enough, we are scared we won’t have enough, and we are scared about how others perceive us. But usually when we are trying so hard to gain control over our lives, we forget to actually live it. We lose a sense of authenticity in our dealings.

So what does it mean to be authentic? The best definition I’ve come up with for authenticity is acting from a place of inner strength, instead of trying to gain happiness from external sources and worrying what others will think. It is a form of power that is unshakable, and completely independent from the ever-changing world around us. Gary Zukav, author of “Soul Stories”, explains it as follows:

Do you use titles to impress people – like “beautiful,” “educated,” “strong,” and “wealthy”? That is using external power. It is very different from authentic power. You forget to be frightened when you use authentic power. You are always frightened when you use external power.

And this is because external power comes and goes. It is undependable. Sooner or later someone always becomes richer, more beautiful, kinder, smarter, stronger or more efficient than you, and then they get the power. Authentic power feels different. You are confident, you don’t compare yourself to others, and you don’t worry about failing or making a mistake. Experiences are exciting and fulfilling. You have a sense of purpose. And that’s because you have the whole cosmos behind you! When you are acting from a genuine and humble space, you become a channel for whatever the Universe requires. It is hard to know what it will need from you, and at times it may seem crazy or illogical. I felt this difference as a yoga instructor as well as a student. When I try to plan my classes and stick to the lesson too much, I lose my intuition and the focus comes off of my students and their needs and instead becomes about me teaching the perfect class. And that is extremely limiting.

A large part of being authentic is learning to let go of control. I learned a great lesson about letting go when I tried paddle boarding this summer. I was scared to go on the paddle board for fear of looking weak or silly, for falling off or flailing like a geek when my friends effortlessly navigated the gently undulating water, doing tricks like pivot turns and headstands. I knew my body was strong enough, but my ego threw up its tiny two-year-old hands and said, “No way, we might look like a fool. Forget it.” But I took a deep breath, grabbed a paddle, and waded into the water with my life jacket on anyways. My friend showed me the basics, and before I knew it I was standing up and even starting to get my stroke more powerful. I surprised myself! Sure, I still need a lot more practice, but looking back it seems silly how afraid I was. Paddling is one of my new favorite summer activities, and I could have missed out because I expected to hate it. Looking out over the sparkling water, feeling the cool water lapping at my feet as my board gently rocks with each passing wave, I feel a sense of deep calm wash over me. Yes, I have to keep my core engaged constantly, and at any moment a boat’s wake could make it even more difficult to maneuver a steady course. However, I found a freedom out in the middle of the lake on my board unlike any other. When I am able to let go a little, paddling becomes serene and easy. Sure, I may fall off. But the worst thing that could happen is I get wet. And honestly, with the searing mid-August heat, it would be a welcome mishap.

Just like the rippling water under my board, life will never be stable. We have to get that idea out of our heads, otherwise we will never be able to take those leaps of faith in order to reach our fullest potential.  If I were too afraid to fall off the paddle board, I would have never got on. And then I would have never known the freedom of being out on the water with my beautiful friends, the lake all around, with nothing on my mind but this very perfect moment.

Happy Monday, everyone. Namaste.

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