Let’s just say my relationship with straight men is confusing.
I was harshly gay-bullied all through elementary school and much of high school. And while I harbor no resentment towards the male species, I have often felt that I had to work too hard to find common ground between us.
Until this past weekend …
Sixty empty chairs were arranged in circle formation when I entered the main room of the EVRYMAN retreat where I was invited to guest-teach just one hour of yoga during the weekend and to be a participant if I wanted. And I wanted. Sort of. But my heart was racing and my mouth was dry because I didn’t expect such a large turnout. Sixty straight guys and me on a healing journey? Buckle up, Marc.
EVRYMAN is a scrappy, B-Corp startup with an ambitious mission: to help men become better men by providing a safe space to bond, share, trust, be vulnerable, and listen–NOT to problem-solve (which men love to do), but to deeply listen.
Curated and facilitated by a group of dynamite therapists and life coaches, the weekend demands deep, uncomfortable inner work in a group dynamic. Last year, there were 30 participants. This year, there were 60 plus a waiting list. So this scrappy B-Corp, which deliberately removed the second E in EVRYMAN (they couldn’t afford the EVERYMAN domain name) has clearly tapped into something.
For example, did you know that men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women? For myriad reasons, men isolate, swallow emotions, and suffer in silence. EVRYMAN provides the decompression valve.
As the weekend progressed–whether in small break-out groups, around the dinner table, or on a silent hike–I watched these brave men doff their heavy armor. The trusting and sharing deepened. The laughter amplified. Tears flowed more freely while embarrassment melted away. Decades of unexpressed fear and loneliness released into vulnerability.
This had been the missing link!! It was in our willingness to be vulnerable with one another that I finally found comfort on the soft, fertile, common ground of our shared humanity.
We all have closets. A closet is simply the inability to have a difficult conversation, and gay people don’t hold a monopoly on that. On the surface, our closets may appearto be different (notably, mine sports a rainbow flag), but they’re not.
The commonality that all closets share is that they’re dark and lonely on the inside. And our willingness to be vulnerable with each other about that feeling of isolation holds the power to free us from it.
On Sunday evening, at the end of the weekend, we all filed back into the barn for our closing circle. Only two days earlier, we had sat in the same formation, alone together … sweating, unsure, isolating ourselves in our own minds. Now, as I looked around the circle with 60 closet doors flung wide open, one thing was palpably clear:
In just 48 hours, vulnerability had turned Every Man into EVRYMAN.
How much information should a yoga teacher reveal?
When is personal information too much?
In an article in the New York Times entitled Students Learn from the People They Love, the author–a rather dry, conservative, buttoned-up Yale professor–recounts that he wrote an email to his students simply stating that he had to cancel office hours the following day because of some difficult personal issues he was experiencing. That’s all. No details.
Fifteen or so students immediately wrote back to wish him well and to offer assistance if needed. He was struck by how sharing one moment of personal vulnerability could spark such a warm, unexpected, response. The matrix softened, and the tenor of the class shifted from that moment until the end of the semester. They (both teacher and students) seemed more present and receptive. No longer was he the clinical, aloof professor but a “regular Joe” just tryin’ to get through life like everyone else.
There is a symbiotic link between emotional relationships and learning. In the past, it was widely thought that in order to be rational and “think well,” one had to suppress those pesky gremlins called Emotions. But new cognitive data now shows that emotion is not the opposite of reason but essential to it.
So how personal is too personal in the yoga studio?
On one end of the spectrum, I’ve experienced the over-share that is common in L.A.–a mecca for the frustrated-out-of work-actor-turned-yoga teacher, the teacher who uses the captive audience (the students) to perform and talk. And talk. And talk. About themselves. Gah!!!
And on the polar opposite end, there are the teachers who dispassionately download knowledge into a student’s brain with no personal touch. I’ve had conversations with yoga teachers who have confided in me that, on retreats, they have zero social contact with students outside of the sessions. Zero. They even eat their meals in a different location to avoid interaction. I understand conserving energy, but jeez!
So where is the middle path?
In skillfully navigating these waters, fellow teachers, here is what experience has taught me: Open your class with a personal story to set a foundational theme. That’s great. But then, very quickly, that personal story must become Universal. The “I” in all your sentences must turn into “WE.” Your work as a teacher is to take that story and blast it open to include everyone. Otherwise, it’s performance. Your story may be one of personal suffering, and that’s okay. But if at any moment your students start feeling like they need to take care of YOU, you’ve crossed the line. They didn’t sign up for that.
Very often students will approach me after class and be amazed that my theme resonated in such a deeply personal way.
“It was like you could read my mind!”
“This is exactly what I am experiencing right now!”
And while I would love to fancy myself some great clairvoyant or mystic or world class intuit, the truth is I am simply sharing a personal experience that holds the potential for a Universal teaching.
On some level, it belongs to me, but really it belongs to We.
“My humanity is bound up in yours,
For we can only be human together.”
~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Let’s share some experiences together this upcoming year, shall we?
Ten years after heart surgery, blood work is still a challenge for me. Taking daily anticoagulant medication (blood thinners) requires blood monitoring every four weeks, and it’s my least favourite ritual. It keeps me feeling like a perennial patient.
Having sampled countless phlebotomists from all over the world, I’ve become an astute connoisseur in, well, The Art of Blood Extraction. After 120 mini-invasions into my vein over the past decade, I believe I’ve earned this distinction.
I’m a fierce data collector in the moments before a needle slides in: I observe how the technician enters the room. Are they yielding to the space around them or aggressively pushing through it? I watch how they handle the vials, how they grab my arm to tie the elastic armband, and how they apply the alcohol swab to that tender area on the underbelly of my arm. Is there eye contact? Are they distracted? What is the quality of their voice? And what does my intuition tell me? If I’m bracing and my heart is racing, the red flag goes up. The cumulative effect of these experiences has made me more sensitive and bold in equal measure.
If I sense something is amiss when I sit in The Chair, I’ll politely excuse myself and ask for another phlebotomist.
Blood extraction takes ten seconds, but my energetic data-gathering begins way before that.
I’ve learned a great deal about teaching through my experiences in the blood lab. The way I enter a yoga class, in no small measure, is informed by a decade of observing scores of phlebotomists. I want my students to feel the same way I’d like to feel when I enter a lab: safe, relaxed, trustful.
That process begins way before the first Namaste.
How do you move through your yoga practice? Through your daily life? How do you pick up a water glass or transition to triangle pose? Are you thumping your feet and aggressively “pushing air” with your body? Or, rather, as my friend and colleague Tara Judelle would ask, are you “gracefully painting space”?
Your movements send ripples through the fabric of the cosmos. They carry signals. When you notice that people feel relaxed and safe in your presence, this is a sign you are making progress on the path.
This ⬆︎ is the card I drew from an Angel Card deck in Bali three visits ago after a crystal bowl sound healing session.
*Bali, Angel Cards, Crystal Bowls . . . Could I possibly shove any more granola-hippy clichés into one sentence?*
BUT (guilty, counter-cliché time), instead of returning the card to the deck, it went in my pocket, and I accidentally took it home. For the next two years, this absconded card has been used as a bookmark, tucked in drawers, lost under the bed, and almost trashed–all the while, popping up again and again at the oddest intervals, taunting me, reminding me that I was depriving someone else of the opportunity to pull this card. Or, perhaps, reminding me that I haven’t contemplated Opportunity fully. After a few years of this little bugger stalking me, I finally returned it to its rightful home on my third trip to Bali.
Initially, I thought the card was beckoning me to keep my eyes peeled for what opportunities, subtle or obvious, were presenting themselves to me. Or maybe it was encouraging me to be more assertive and proactively create my own opportunities versus passively accepting ones that just fell in my lap.
But a simple gratitude practice today revealed a reinterpretation of Opportunity that resounded strongly for me with some self-inquiry:
- What opportunities am I creating for OTHERS?
- Am I creating pathways for others to flourish?
- When I am teaching, am I being too heavy handed? Am I talking so much that I am depriving my students of the opportunity to have their OWN experiences on the yoga mat?
Decades of Opportunity Memories flooded through my brain and heart. I especially remember one of my earliest teachers Sue Elkind. After my first Teacher Training in 2002, a primetime slot opened up on the City Yoga schedule. She wanted to see if I had the chops to handle a 90-minute class, so I taught an “audition class” for her and my peers.
The class went so horribly wrong that my ears still turn red when I write about it all these years later. She called me into her office afterwards. I couldn’t even make eye contact.
And then she offered me my very first teaching job.
When she saw my shock, she simply said: “There is room for improvement, but I see your potential.”
Pay opportunity forward. Penetrate the surface to see potential. Give someone a chance, or a second chance, to flourish. It could change the course of a life.
And don’t steal Angel Cards.
Recently, I was asked to teach a large-scale, outdoor yoga class with an estimated attendance of 30,000 people. The yoga class would be part of a larger weekend of other activities including running, social events, and more. How exciting! I was all in. That is, until I asked the organizer what I would be paid.
“No pay. The exposure is the pay.”
I paused. I reflected. It was tempting. That’s potentially 30,000 new subscribers to my website and eyes on my social media platforms. My photo and bio would be printed in the event magazine that sits in the hands of 30,000 new people.
And yet . . . I had to say No.
Thankfully, I already have several income streams from YogaGlo and retreats and workshops. But, generally speaking, yoga teachers are grossly underpaid for the services they provide. The reason I said No is because I couldn’t, in good conscience, contribute to a culture that perpetuates this cycle of undervaluing Yoga Teachers. What’s more, this event was not for charity. There was a budget. It had many sponsors. The money was there. But, apparently, not for the teacher.
Purushartha is a key concept in Hinduism that can be translated as The Goals of Life, of which there are four. One of these goals is Artha or Prosperity–our material welfare and what we need to survive and prosper. Artha is what provides us with food to eat and a safe, warm home in which to live. Artha is essential to fulfilling our Dharma–the work we are destined to perform in this lifetime (Dharma is Purushartha #1). For example, in order for me to continue to teach yoga and ayurveda, I need income to buy books, further my education, eat healthily, and sleep soundly, and even to have the time to plan my classes.
Bottom Line: Artha requires not only knowing your value but materializing your worth in order to transact in the workplace. And as good as it may sound to have it, “exposure” won’t pay the rent.
Reflecting back to my early years as a new yoga teacher, I had many well-educated, accomplished, non-yoga friends (and still do) who knew me and accepted me and valued me as I was. But when I’d meet new people in these circles and tell them I was a yoga teacher, I could feel their energy shift. Perhaps my own insecure mind was imagining it, but the shift was subtly disheartening. At some point in the conversation, I felt the need to casually sneak in the fact that I held an undergrad degree in Finance/Accounting and that I used to be a CPA. My subtext was “Hey, even though I teach Yoga, I’m smart like you.” Ugh. Sometimes knowing your worth also means wrestling the demons of what you fear others believe your worth to be (or not to be).
All this said, there’s a very satisfying ending to this tale (drumroll, please): the event coordinator got back to me one week later to say that he found money in the budget, and he would pay me for the class. He even admitted that he had learned a valuable lesson through our interaction.
I don’t pretend to be some great deal-maker or relentless negotiator. I’m just finally learning to come to terms with my worth.
No matter what your profession is . . . Know your worth.
Believe it. Live it. You’re worth it.
I just finished reading a stunning article in the New Yorker magazine entitled “The Heroism of Incremental Care.” In it, the writer tracks the journey of Bill, a 57-year-old man who has been suffering from crippling migraine headaches since adolescence. Desperate for relief, Bill did what most of us generally do–he searched for the magic pill, the One Heroic Solution that would save him. There was the dentist who fitted him with a mouth guard, the Botox injections in the muscles of his forehead, hypnotism recordings, high-dosage vitamins, herbal treatments, promising new pharmaceutical drugs. Occasionally, a remedy would help for a brief period, but nothing made a lasting difference.
Finally, he met a new primary care physician who suggested a different approach. Instead of reaching for a fast, dramatic “cure,” she lowered expectations and opted for a long-term outlook for improvement–Prevention and Maintenance (how novel!). Together, they embarked on a non-dramatic, non-heroic strategy called Incremental Progress. It would take patience and trust. Bill was all in.
It took three long years–three years of listening closely to the body, keeping a tedious headache journal, titrating drug dosages by miniscule amounts, measuring and adjusting, and enduring the frustration of “one step forward, five steps back.” And then, finally … (drumroll) … the headaches became less frequent and ultimately stopped.
I’m not a doctor, but I imagine many doctors (and yoga teachers) are drawn to the aura of heroism, by the chance to charge in and solve a dangerous problem. For a doctor, it may be performing a life saving surgery or delivering a baby. For a yoga teacher, it may be swooping in to “fix” a student’s lower back pain. To be sure, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with these intentions. These are worthy aspirations, and they’re often born from a place of great integrity.
But while one-off procedures garner much of our resources, it’s the valuable, unglamorous work of steady, Incremental Progress that gets starved.
Ayurveda, by its very nature, is incremental and non-invasive in its approach. When I teach the habits of Ayurveda (Dinacharya), successful habit change requires allowance, patience, and longevity. If you want to be that person who wakes up before sunrise but you are currently waking up at 8:00am, don’t set your clock for 5:30am (yet). Set your alarm for 7:45am three mornings a week, and progress from there.
A great example of this philosophy is Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps. His daily grind of small routines was the key to his success. We, the audience, only saw the Heroic Moment when the gold medal was placed over his head–the music swelled and so did the tears. It was an awesome sight to behold! Bravo!
But what we didn’t see were the many private, smaller, incremental “wins” Michael earned every time he got out of bed before dawn and practiced his strokes or measured out his food portions. By the time we witnessed his very public victory on TV, he’d already claimed hundreds of smaller, mundane victories.
“Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We’re proud of you for having them. But it’s possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you–the shift in daily habits that would mean a re-invention of how you see yourself.” — Seth Godin
So set your lofty goals and resolutions for 2018 for overall guidance. They are important! But a huge body of research has shown that small wins have a compound and durable effect.
Don’t be a Hero. Focus on the daily victories. That’s where the gold is.
In meditation and in our daily lives there are three qualities that we can nurture and cultivate. We already possess these, but they can be ripened:
Precision * Gentleness * the Ability to Let Go.
– Pema Chödrön
My lumbar spine regularly chants (and sometimes shouts) a mantra after every backbend practice: “OUCH, STOP!” A recent X-ray confirmed my suspicion: Osteoarthritis. It’s in my low back; it’s substantial, and it’s painful.
But, gosh, I still love backbends. My vitality, passion, and metabolism soar after a deep backbend practice. And yet presently, even the gentlest lumbar extension has me limping out of class. Backbends, at least as I used to know them, have left the building. And I’m OK with that. I’m starting to Let Go.
I’m using “backbends” here as both a literal and figurative example, but when the going really gets tough and your tidy, predictable, life suddenly goes sideways, how do you begin to Let Go . . .
. . . of family and friends who die?
. . . of children who leave home for the first time?
. . . of resentment after a deep betrayal?
. . . of your favorite yoga poses that suddenly shift beyond your reach?
From the Bhagavad Gita to the Sutras of Patanjali, there is no shortage of teachings on Non-attachment, and they are resonant. But one thing my own experience has taught me is that Letting Go cannot be forced. You can’t clench your fist, furrow your brow, and will something away.
The Art of Letting Go is really about the Art of Surrender.
It begins with surrendering to the reality – with stark, clear-eyed honesty – of what is happening at any given moment. For me, this surrender is crucial because I’m a virtuoso at tricking myself into manufacturing realities that are more pleasant than the ones I am actually experiencing. It’s a survival tactic that I refined long ago to avoid emotional and physical pain. We humans are quite adept at creating alternate realities, but we can’t work with lies. Letting Go absolutely depends on Honesty – a truthful recognition that the time is right.
So let’s witness Pema’s formula at work, shall we?
In 2007, during a routine physical exam, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening, congenital heart issue that required immediate surgery: my mitral valve needed to be replaced.
Step 1, Honesty: I looked the diagnosis straight in the eye and surrendered to this reality. The sonogram proved it; my dad died of it at the age of 53, and the symptoms were palpable. There was no ambiguity and nowhere to hide. I left the doctor’s office, and, in the privacy of my own home, I had a full-blown panic attack.
Step 2, Precision (AKA The Yoga of Action): I pulled myself together and got to work. I sought out alternative, pre-op modalities to strengthen my heart. I became an online “expert” on open-heart surgery. I found others who had undergone the same surgery and picked their brains. I improved my diet, chose my surgeon carefully, and even picked a date that was astrologically optimal. I was not passive here. I was aligned, diligent, and precise. I did my best. Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t control the outcome – I had to let that go – but I did have control over how I arrived there.
Step 3, Gentleness: I was easy on myself in the process. I increased the positive self-talk. I rubbed oil on my body, and I let currents of love flow in by allowing myself to receive more tenderness, prayers – and yes, even gifts of money (UGH, not easy!). I asked for help and reminded myself that I am worth it. I became better friends with myself and with my perfectly imperfect heart valve.
Step 4, Let Go: I couldn’t force this. As I was wheeled into the operating room, the work in Steps 1-3 had prepared me for this moment. I couldn’t control what happened at this point. All I could do was exhale and pray because my life was, quite literally, in someone else’s hands. I looked the surgeon squarely in the eye and asked him to please operate on me as he would his own son. And then I released myself fully to his care.
What I have noticed over the years is that while I may not be able to Let Go on-demand, the time it takes to release and move on is becoming shorter and shorter. This is progress on the path!
Recently, I was looking at an old photo (circa 2005) of me and my three buds Noah Mazé, Chris Chavez, and Todd Tesen. We 4 Musketeers would gather every Wednesday afternoon at a park in Beverly Hills for a playful but intense asana practice which usually included multiple scorpion poses and drop-back backbends – poses that no longer spark joy for me and have slowly vibrated out of my life.
With Pema in my heart and taking a page out of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I have learned to Let Go: I bow to these poses; I thank them for the service they provided for so many years, and then I say goodbye and pass them on through my teaching. Whether it be yoga poses, relationships, old clothes, or your heart valve, there are things in our lives that serve us well for many years. Until they don’t anymore.
And, if we can be Honest about that, we will have arrived at Step One of Letting Go.
Want to embody this practice of Letting Go? Click HERE to access a great YogaGlo class that puts Pema Chödrön’s quote into action.
Kevin Pearce was an Olympic-bound snowboarder with his eye on the gold–a dream of his since childhood. Tragically, while training for the 2010 games, that dream was dashed when he had a near-death fall and suffered a severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Within seconds, snowboarding vanished as a career and even as a passionate hobby. But the story doesn’t end here. Kevin and his brother, Adam, eventually would join forces to create Love Your Brain, a non-profit organization which, amongst many other offerings, brings Yoga to TBI sufferers and their caregivers.
While watching a documentary on Kevin’s life, I was particularly moved by a moment of raw honesty. When asked what the most difficult aspect of his journey was, he confessed that it was learning to live with his new identity. Basically, on a Monday he was Kevin, the Olympic-caliber snowboarder, and on Tuesday, he awoke from a coma, a stranger to himself, as Kevin, the guy with the TBI. Understandably, he plunged into an unshakable depression.
Yoga has a lot to say about Identity and Attachment. Most traditions concur that one of the most common human tendencies is to cling to our surface identity–I am a boy, I am a girl, I am a teacher, I have blond hair, I am a night owl, I am gay–and we define ourselves purely and solely as such.
Now, the tantric tradition will say this is all very real and true and perfectly fine. It’s not an illusion or a problem.
BUT THERE IS ALSO SO MUCH MORE!
My meditation teacher, Dr. Paul Mueller Ortega, would often refer to the Ego as “The Identity Assemblage Point,” meaning, that point on the spectrum of Consciousness where we assemble our sense of self/Self. He writes:
In Consciousness, at the superficial surface of life, there is to some degree a crude, locked-in-place, a condition of bondage. It is that limited reality of our own individual mind, the narrow perspective on life– that we are not rooted in the vastness of being –that must be transformed. That transformation has to happen through extraordinary spiritual practice.
Well, that process is called Yoga. Meditation. Ayurveda. Selfless Service (Seva). But primarily, it’s meditation. Through systematic, daily, progressive, cumulative practice, our awareness goes deep inside ourselves. And there are no shortcuts.
Every day we are faced with challenges and assaults on our ego. For Kevin, it was a tragic accident. More often it’s a subtle moment when you are consumed with self-doubt or feeling unloved. This is where your cumulative spiritual practice will rise up to meet you.
Because even when the surface mind doesn’t feel good about us, in our depths, we have access to a simultaneous place of divine sweetness that reminds us what we are in a challenging moment.
Yes, you are a body. You are a personality. There may be flaws. And, yes, there may be suffering. And, yes yes yes to all of our humanity.
Yet at the core of that humanity, there is a golden temple of radiating perfection. We want to be that. We want to sit there, to be charged with that energy, to rise from that place of action, expression, service, and practice.
Recently I had the great privilege of teaching a benefit class on Yogaglo for Love Your Brain. It’s an inspiring, one-hour asana class with mantra, meditation, and live music by sublime guitarist Kevin Paris.
You can preview or take this class by clicking below. You can even try a 15-day free trial if you are interested in subscribing to the Glo. It’s a phenomenal resource with thousands of classes and dozens of outstanding teachers.
No matter where your Identity Assemblage Point lies on your heart’s Google Map, you’re in the right place.
I love you. I need you. But you are a fickle friend ….
How is it that on certain days, we wake up feeling deeply connected to our life’s purpose and utterly unstoppable in our resolve to manifest our vision when, on others, we are plagued with a self-doubt so deep and pervasive that we second-guess even our most mundane decisions?
Here’s an example of the unpredictability of my own struggle with confidence:
I have 17 solid years of experience successfully teaching yoga and 54 years of life experience, yet sometimes before a workshop or training, I still wring my hands, hyperventilate, and manage to convince myself that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
“Oh, my mind, be kind to me.”
Confidence is a delicate proposition that cannot be understood without humility. The right amount of the right kind of confidence yields fortitude and courage. It propels you, like a magnet, closer to your life’s purpose. Alternatively, confidence without humility results in an over-confidence that weakens you. It can obscure your connection to reality and threaten to turn you into a laughingstock.
Now, to be sure, you can cultivate a superficial sense of confidence in superficial ways, like conjuring up memories of past successes or drinking a cup of strong coffee (caffeine is a great, short-term confidence-builder!), but this doesn’t address the deeper mystery: how to get confidence to show up as more of a permanent, ongoing condition rather than an ephemeral, fly-by-night feeling.
To direct this quest, the fifth chapter of Ayurveda’s ancient text Charaka Samhita, offers us a clue:
Daily Routines (Dinacharya) that align us with Nature build character and confidence.
Or, as Aristotle so eloquently puts it:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
So, follow me on this as we break it down:
Habituation moves your mind into the field of confidence.
Confidence is what makes the mind firm.
The firmer the mind, the more readily and healthily it can connect to its instruments, the five sensory organs (eyes, nose, tongue, ears, and skin).
The more connected the mind is to the five sensory organs, the more capably they can do their job – to gain knowledge – and the more easily they will come under the control of the mind rather than being led all over the place, distracted, and not functioning optimally.
In other words, by doing something repeatedly, your memory becomes fixed to certain actions and will produce a sense of I KNOW THIS based on an experience of syncopation of mind and body. This is how confidence begins to build deeply and organically in a sustainable way.*
So let’s be more proactive with Confidence. Yes, a “rugged-individualist” approach to life sounds sexy and may work some of the time, but why not tap into that humility and lean on your best friend? Her name is Nature. And by cultivating a committed relationship with her through Dinacharya Habits, your source of Self-Confidence will migrate from surface to core.
And so will your Excellence.
P.S. Want to infuse a little Confidence into your yoga practice? Join Elena Brower and me for our co-taught Cultivating Confidence class on YogaGlo. Super inspiring!
*If this still sounds a little complicated, don’t worry!
Because on Saturday, October 29, at 9:00am PST, I am conducting a free tele-seminar event with my teacher/doctor, Dr. Jayagopal, to talk more about the history of Ayurveda’s Healthy Habits and how they can boost your own self-confidence. To learn more about this offering, click here for details.
This free event will also be a perfect introduction to my own signature Ayurveda course, Evolutionary Habits, which launches on February 2, 2017 for the fourth consecutive year! The ancient wisdom of Dinacharaya paired with the modern Science of Habit Change is a powerful 10-week game changer designed to create durable daily routines that sustain.
Human Evolution. It’s a lengthy, multi-million-year process that looks deceivingly brief when viewed through the lens of Darwin’s time-lapsed Theory of Evolution chart. You know that iconic image: a handful of hunched-over monkeys, dutifully marching through time, in line, and ultimately morphing into a modern, upright–walking Man! VOILÀ.
But new studies by evolutionary biologists have now proven that evolution is happening at a much faster pace than was previously thought. And the acceleration is linked to … stress?
The studies focused on flora and fauna that have set up camp in urban sprawls vs. rural forests. With urban centers carrying a higher degree of stress, they found that City Mice carry genes for heavy metal tolerance (since urban soil contains more lead and chromium), City Birds have a capacity to sing at a higher pitch (to be heard over the din of traffic), and even City Grass is acquiring a shorter stature due to the relentless regime of the lawn mower.
And our Inner Evolution? You know, emotional and spiritual maturity, living a life of purpose, releasing outdated beliefs and fears, expanding one’s capacity to experience more gratitude and love … do the same rules of stress apply here?
I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I vote yes.
Every perceived hardship falls somewhere on the Intensity Spectrum, from a simple work deadline (ugh) to, say, a divorce (ARRGGHH!!). Stressors raise the bar by applying pressure. Stressors ask us–or sometimes force us–to relinquish aggrandized notions of our capabilities.
Herein lies the great paradox. While a fiery circumstance may initially contract us, the end result is that we step into a more expanded self-identity. We learn that we are way more resilient and courageous than we previously thought. And ultimately, our tiny, crawling, inner-monkey evolves into an Upright-Super-Hero-Hanuman-Monkey. Welcome to your New Normal.
This Theory of Evolution equation applies equally to non-humans.
For example, the Summer Olympics in Rio were plagued with controversy from the get-go which continued right up to the opening ceremony and beyond. And while there are still problems in the aftermath, the stress of the deadline and sheer scope of the event served as powerful catalysts for urban revitalization and improvements that might have taken another 20 to 30 years to realize.
A wonderful life coach named Gay Hendricks talks about how our happiness hinges upon moving through different zones: from our Zone of Competence (Meh!) to our Zone of Excellence (Better!) and, finally, our Zone of Genius (Wow!). Liberating and expressing our natural genius is the ultimate life expression. It makes our hearts sing at a pitch that rivals a City Bird.
But there is one zone that we must leave behind in order to evolve into the others, and that’s the COMFORT Zone. Stepping outside of that zone often requires a fire under the ass, and it beckons us to lean into the sharper edges of discomfort.
Fire + Edges = Evolution Accelerators
You may feel that you’ve bumped up against your upper and outer limits, that there couldn’t possibly be any more evolution left in your future because you’re tired of the fire and edges. But stress will always reappear and challenge you to reexamine what your limits are.
And, as any record-breaking, gold medal Olympic athlete will testify, limits are entirely negotiable.