Recently I read a quote in class that impressed so many of the students, I was a little taken aback by it. It was one by Deepak Chopra:
“Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask yourself if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future.”
It is a brilliant quote, but I was intrigued by how, amongst all the quotes I read in class, this one struck such a cord for so many people. Their enthusiasm in recalling it from a few weeks back came on the heels of my reading another quote about freedom:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” – Nelson Mandela
On a weekend when we celebrate freedom, these quotes strike me as especially poignant. Usually we discuss our outward liberties: the ones you can see, like voting, and freedom from tyranny and oppression. But what about freedom on a more intimate level?
Based on my own experience and my students’ responsiveness to the above quotes, what we most want freedom from is ourselves. As human beings, we can’t help but be familiar with our tendencies, our particular brand of reactions, the same thoughts that circle our brains constantly. Change, when it comes, is often incremental, and proponents of positive change suggest sustained practices over long periods of time rather than a one shot boost of whatever our go-to resource is.
Sometimes it seems our yoga practice only reinforces our habits and strengthens our past reactions and experiences at the expense of a new, open, and liberated future. I see so much self-denigration and perfectionism, even violence, towards our bodies and minds in many classes, an ongoing obsession with fixing ourselves.
My yoga teacher once asked of our class, “do you want to get it right or do you want to be free?” Here he was talking about the habit of perfectionism, but I could easily ask the same question like this: “Do you want your same old reactions and habits or do you want freedom?”
Freedom tastes like spaciousness, openness, boundlessness. It feels like fresh air, like we can breathe for the first time. It has no echoes of the past. If we can steadily cultivate freedom from our past, the world is brand new; it’s fresh and there’s nothing we can’t do because we don’t have any idea things can be different.
This is why coming back to the present moment is so often touted as the key. The present moment, the real present moment, has no room for the past. Each moment is quite literally a new beginning. We just don’t believe it.
A few years ago, I read a novel in which a woman finds herself trapped in a gas station bathroom. She starts to freak out, recalling her time in prison, and begins to bang at the door, push against the knob and even tries to phone her husband to come get her out. In a brief moment of clarity, she re-approaches the door, turns the knob and it easily opens.
In yoga philosophy, this is enlightenment. Simply opening the door. Waking up to what is real, this moment, not our terrors from the past or engrained reactions to the future. We have to keep reminding ourselves, moment by moment, day by day, year by year.
Standing in the present is not always easy. It is uncertain and we hate being uncertain. It’s like being perched on a cliff, not knowing what is coming next. Our habits are something safe to hold on to, the way we deal with an uncertain future. But as Seneca said, “He who is brave is free.”