Our Expansive Nature

Emotions can generally be categorized into two types: expansive and contractive. Expansive emotions make us feel light, full, buoyant, content. Examples of this are love, joy, gratitude, freedom, curiosity, playfulness, generosity. Contractive emotions are those that make us feel small, withdrawn, or sucked of our energy. We can only take so much of them before we’ve had enough. These are feelings like anger, sadness, jealousy, boredom, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment. It’s hard to imagine having too much love, too much curiosity. But we can easily feel overwhelmed when we experience only a little anger or a blush of humiliation.

In an interesting video by Jason Silva on his YouTube channel “Shots of Awe”, he names dopamine as the chemical responsible for humanity’s rise to power on this planet. Silva argues that the chemical reward – the dopamine rush – that we get for exploring new horizons is why mankind has achieved artistic, scientific, and social triumphs.

“This addiction to the new is responsible for a species that did not stay in the caves, didn’t stay on the planet, and won’t stay in the limitations of biology.”(check out the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOlGw9VESiQ&list=UUlYb9NpXnRemxYoWbcYANsA)

I think it’s amazing that we’ve evolved this chemical reward system! We literally get high from overcoming our perceived limitations. I can attest to this in many areas of my life, specifically in my yoga practice. And I’m sure it’s easy to recall a time when you overcame a challenge or achieved a long-sought goal. It makes you feel amazing. Connected. Alive. Expansive. And craving more.

So if our reward system is rigged to attract us to the new, and we feel a physical high when we experience expansive emotions, what keeps us stuck? Why do we have days when we don’t feel like getting out of bed? Why do we make the same mistakes?

Often we think of our bodies as containers for our mind, but I think it’s our mind that’s a container for our bodies. I would argue that our mind – our ego – is responsible for holding us back.

Humans are made mostly of water, and like water it is our prerogative to flow, to be fluid, to be open, and to change shape. It is our nature to be empowered. But water can only fill space, and take the shape of it’s container. Likewise, our mind sets the perimeters, the limitations of our spirit. We can only expand as far as our mind will allow. If you think of a goldfish in a bowl, they will stay the same size until death unless they are moved to a bigger tank. Plants will only grow as tall as they can grow deep. But when given the space, they grow. However, we are suffocated by our mind – by our concern for looking good or our fear of failure. We trade the possibility of expansion for the payoff of safety, cozy smallness, and familiar mediocrity. We deny our own evolution.

Partly, the mind uses structure to make sense of things, to be able to take care of tasks like eating, going to work, taking out the garbage, telling time, and interacting with others in cooperative situations. Without some left-brain rigidity we would not survive. But, there are times when we can let go of structure, soften, and explore. These are our “light bulb” moments, our “ah-ha!” moments, when we are able to think outside the box and create something new. Or maybe we let something go. We let go of an old way of being to make room for new. We breathe new life into an old space.  Do you think a tree ever worries that its branches won’t look right, or the other trees will judge it or be jealous of it the taller it gets? Of course not. Nature is imperfect. And so are humans. In this way, perfectionism is a form of contraction. We cannot stand fully in our creative power if we are concerned about the outcome of our growth.

“Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, grow…grow.” -The Talmud

Yoga is simply moving our bodies into shapes in tandem with our breath. And if our mind is indeed a container for our body, then softening this container will allow our bodies to move into new shapes. So when we step onto our mat we are making a promise with ourselves – and the rest of humanity – to grow. Once we step on the mat, we agree to give up an old shell of ourselves. On a biological level, our cells will not be the same afterward. We will build muscle. We will gain flexibility. We will create new neurological pathways in our mind. We will drop what we think we know and allow our bodies to become fluid and malleable as the framework of our minds falls away. And, if the intention exists, this is a promise we make with every breath. It is our retaliation against the ultimate contraction, the antithesis of growth; it is our answer to death.

I believe that one of the most powerful human instincts is the one we have to grow, and to expand. We are made of the same particles that created the stars, the planets, and the ever expanding cosmos. And as the universe continues to press onwards and outwards in distances that we could never fathom, so we, as humanity, desire to extend our spirits beyond the confines of our minds, into a realm of infinite possibility.

expanding universe

Namaste. 🙂