In my last post, I wrote a critical piece about yoga teachers and the culture of ‘gratitude preaching’, a phenomenon that frankly makes me wince. I did acknowledge though, that it would be quite wrong to be against the practice of gratitude per se, which would surely be an untenable position. I do actually think though, that somehow, I managed to dwell in that untenable position for a number of years. When I was a younger (less reflective; more stupid?) man I actually hated the word content. I put it in the same bracket as settling (for less). And that wasn’t for me. I was aiming for amazing, perfection and more than. Only a loser would settle for content.
What I have realised, and sadly only relatively recently, is that this quest for perfection or more than is actually something of a thief. ‘Not good enough’ can rob you of feelings of satisfaction, achievement and happiness. Shame is a word I thought I knew, but I actually didn’t; I never knew that it captured feelings connected to ‘not good enough’.
Paradoxically though ‘not good enough’ for many years acted as a kind of fuel. I was stoked up and propelled by it. I suspect many who have a background in professional dance know it quite well. It is part of our job description to not go wrong and do things right; to perfect movement through constant polishing and refining. More than this, a dance career is brutally competitive and an extremely difficult and gruelling career to do well in and sustain. I wasn’t even that naturally talented at it compared to a great many people I met along the way (in terms of bodily facility and technique), but as a result of being driven to do and be better I probably had a more successful career, based solely on the number of dance companies and projects I was involved in, compared to the vast majority of all the people I trained with at undergraduate level. There is no doubt that being a male helped too. My ultimate dream was to dance for Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater. Very few dancers get to talk their way into doing company dance class with ‘the world’s finest dance company’. I did. The week I spent with them; doing company class, learning the ins and outs of how the company works and getting to know some of the dancers, was a priceless experience. That week ended though with me being informed I wasn’t strong enough to be put in front of Pina for a private audition. For a number of years, this experience tainted my entire dance career. I felt that all of the other very considerable achievements I had attained were clouded. I wasn’t good enough to reach the pinnacle. How terribly sad. What a shame.
Learning to feel that you are enough or have enough can be a very powerful and liberating thing. But it takes practice. One element of yoga that recurs throughout the ages is the steeping of the microcosm in the macrocosm. Taking the individual out of their normal ways of interacting with their mundane world and placing them into the larger framework of something bigger. There are a gazillion ways of doing this, which many people would not necessarily equate with yoga practice. An example in popular culture is portrayed in the 90s film Grand Canyon when one of the characters (Danny Glover?) tells us that he goes to sit in the Grand Canyon when he is low to get some perspective on his life. Becoming a part of something bigger made him feel better. For me, that experience can be called yoga. I go for walks in a beautiful local park for the same reason. It gets me out of myself. The feeling of connection (might one say communing?) with something larger makes me feel qualitatively better. Walking in the park is a lovely form of yoga.
A surprisingly similar experience awakened in me whilst doing my family tree. The more ancestors I discovered the more I felt I was connected to a bigger whole. It has enabled me to place myself in part of a much larger framework, which has quite a humbling narrative. I discovered that nearly every single life that preceded mine was endowed with more poverty and hardship than I could ever imagine. And my family history is not at all unusual in this respect. In fact it is indicative of life for the majority. The fact is that the kind of people who are able to read this blog post, live in one of the most comfortable blips in human history. We sit at the pinnacle of a breathtaking growth in prosperity. The Radio 4 podcasts ‘A History of Britain in Numbers’ are well worth listening to. In the episode on the nation’s prosperity, Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Nick Crafts of Warwick University and the economic historian Bob Allen inform us that the recession and austerity that we are experiencing today can be described as a fairly small hole that begins at the end of a giant hill of enormous prosperity. A housemaid in 1890 earned £14 per annum. The adjusted figure for today is £1400 per annum. That is 1/10th of the minimum wage today. In ‘real wages’ the average person now earns five times more that the average person who lived on the eve of the First World War. Just imagine that for a moment. Take your present income. Take away 80% and leave all prices the same as they are today. That is the reality for a time that is barely out of reach of living memory. Transport people back to 1930 (one year before my parents were born) and we would feel worse off. And not only in terms of surviving on a shockingly low income to outgoings ratio; there’d be no television, no mobile telephone and no antibiotics.
These stats can become more meaningful when we connect our ancestors to them and our own lives in comparison. Recently I temporarily felt a little deflated when a lecturer on my MA course told the class that 100 years ago, ‘even the most stupid academic would speak several languages’. I feel less inclined to be deflated when I remember the ‘X’ that my G.G. Grandfather has for a signature on his son’s marriage certificate. The vast majority of my ancestors never even went to school. Compulsory schooling was only introduced in England in 1870. In this light, the fact I am able to study for an MA at all becomes a gift to appreciated. Similarly if I get depressed by the nature of politics today and question whether voting is important or not, I try to remember the arson campaign that my suffragette relative and her friend Kitty Marion got arrested for in their fight for the right to win the vote for women. A fight that was only won in 1928. And if I occasionally feel that I don’t have as much money as I would quite like to have, I try to remember a great uncle of mine who died as a ‘pauper woolcomber’ in a workhouse for the poor and the destitute.
In our ‘default modes’ we don’t tend to see these things. We tend to not look back. We forget. We forget to place ourselves in the bigger picture. Our perception is perhaps based more on how well off we are compared to our contemporaries. By keeping up with the Joneses. But by remembering to connect to a larger picture, we might feel that in comparison to most who came before us – in some cases perhaps all who came before us – we do have enough*. And it is with this realisation that feelings of related unease can be dissipated. Now that is a practice of gratitude which I can subscribe to!
* This post was focussing on overcoming feelings of not having or being enough. Being thankful for what one has certainly does not mean that one should acquiesce to ever increasing levels of inequality in society or to not, on occasion, get angry about it. There is obviously a larger context.