Why Stepping Forward Into Growth Is Not Always A Good Thing.
Abraham Maslow. Giant in the world of psychology… hierarchy of needs, humanistic psychology, positive psychology, self-actualization, peak experiences, metamotivation, and the beautiful concept of B-values. Etcetera. Amazing, right? Right.
I was attracted to him as soon as his existence hit my consciousness. He had a huge influence on my thinking as I journeyed on my own academic path.
No matter how far I was forced to drift into the (unnecessarily) dark and twisty theories of his contemporaries, I was inevitably drawn back to his optimism and his refusal to give in to the deficit-based, pathologizing, and retrospectively-focused approaches of his peers… approaches that suffocated the spirit and sucked the life out of hope.
I was definitely Team Maslow, and actively chose to let his (relatively) simple wisdom infuse my skeletal system to bolster me during those world is too much with me late and soon moments.
I used his words like an academic intravenous sunshine drip… drip-drip-dripping light into an otherwise gloomy field; it gave me hope that there was a place for me in my chosen field of study. Ever since leaving the university realm, I hear Maslow’s voice in my head and continue to be influenced by his outlook on life.
One of my favorite M quotes has always been You will either step forward into growth or you will step backward into safety. That has been one of my mantras for ever.
It has kept me moving forward… constantly… like incessantly (frantically? frenetically?)… always striving to be better, stronger, faster at whatever I was choosing to tackle… to accomplish more than I had up to that point. Stepping forward into growth has been one of the predominant themes of my life.
It wasn’t until a few days ago that I realized that Maslow was actually presenting two alternatives in that sentence.
What? For real!
I was teaching a Yoga class earlier this week, and invited people to let go of their attachment to how the postures look on the outside. I suggested that they go beneath the physical layer of the practice, to tune in, instead, to how the postures feel. To reinforce that idea, I pulled out my fave Maslow quote.
I read it out loud to highlight that we have the opportunity in every single moment to find a new edge (i.e. to step forward into growth in our practice and in life).
Now… in my defense… I wasn’t talking about people pushing themselves to come into full Hanumanasana or holding Chaturanga Dandasana for 18 minutes (I’m saving that for next week’s class). The edge I had in mind involved cultivating a heightened sensitivity to what the body was craving in the moment.
I wanted people to recognize that our edges change all the time, and that progress comes when we work within those boundaries.
However, as Abe’s words tumbled off my tongue, I realized that he might actually have been suggesting that stepping backward into safety was as viable an option. It was literally mind-blowing. I’m sure little cerebral particles landed like fairy dust on my Yoga mat, and I’m sure Maslow breathed a sigh of relief to know that I finally got it.
I haven’t quite reconciled this new interpretation with my approach to life. However, I’m working on it. The new framing certainly made sense as I thought about my own Yoga practice and thought about how to effectively guide students in the classes I teach.
By inviting a deeper awareness about how things feel (beneath the distracting and occasionally misleading surface), we can decide to ease back and invite a softness, or we can push forward to find a new strength.
To translate Maslow into Sanskrit… he may have been saying Sthira sukham asanam. This is #2.46 of Patanjali’s Sutras. Sthira means stable, steady, firm, and sukham means relaxed, comfortable, easeful. In Yoga, the ultimate goal is to find a balance of effort and ease in every posture.
So… I get it… or am starting to get it… on the mat. Outside of the Yoga studio (and probably inside the Yoga studio if I’m 100% honest with myself), I have been all about Sthira (effort). I haven’t balanced that with a whole lot of sukham (ease). But… how do I take this revolutionary new awareness off the mat? Do I even want to?
I have to reluctantly admit that constantly stepping forward into growth is starting to feel… well… wrong. It’s starting to feel like the opposite of what Maslow had in mind when he described self-actualization. My constant need to push myself and my desire to say Yes to everything is actually starting to take a toll on my quality of life.
My family and friends have been cautioning me to slow down and ease back. I haven’t really been listening to their warnings. I guess collectively they must have summoned the spirit of Maslow to see if he’d have more luck than they’ve been having. Well… they did manage to get my attention.
This idea of stepping backwards into safety… even for a moment… even to catch my breath for a little while… is a completely foreign concept to me. I guess we’ll see how it all goes.
PS: I guess I should out myself by saying that I’m already thinking that I need to be easy on myself about taking things easy. That counts as progress right?
PPS: This Wikipedia article is as good as any I’ve seen to get a good crash course on Maslow.
Andrea Baker has a Master of Arts degree in Counseling Psychology and once knew everything there was to know about Byron and Bundy. She is a certified Yoga teacher and ever-evolving student in Vancouver’s beautiful Yoga community. She has divided her life equally between Canada’s east and west coast … never living far from the sea. The ocean has influenced her writing, her Yoga practice, and her approach to life. She distrusts capital letters, loves sticking eka pada koundinyasana, and wishes she was just a tiny bit taller. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or her blog.