Years ago I was living with a jewelry designer who noticed the intensity that I brought to my yoga practice. In particular I was struggling with a posture called pasana. You crouch down with your knees together, keep your heels on the floor, twist your torso to the left, loop your right arm around your knees, reach the left arm behind your back, and (if you're lucky) clasp your left wrist with your right hand. Then, for fun, you do the other side. The literal translation of pasana is noose pose. There's no more to say. You get the idea.
In any case, my girlfriend watched me struggle with the posture. Though she didn't say anything about what she saw, one day she gave me a talisman for my practice. It spelled out in beaded letters: "You are not your pasana."
It has taken me a long time to understand what she meant. I grew up in a world, as so many of us do, where we learn to value ourselves on the basis of our achievements. For me, it was academics. Going to an elite school. For others, it is money, beauty, or sports. But whatever you're measuring, the bottom line is the same. Your are only as valuable as your achievements.
And achievement in this system is always comparative. Being the smartest, the wealthiest, the most beautiful, or the most athletic. Enough to join the ranks of the chosen few. Enough to prove definitively that you are truly special.
Because what's at stake is your lovability. Feeling special enough for others to love. When value is about achievement, and achievement is about winning, the only way to feel special is truly to stand out. If you win, you feel special and therefore worth loving. If you lose, you feel worthless and completely unlovable.
Moreover, we tend to treat ourselves with the same conditional judgment. If we go to Harvard, earn tons of money, become a model, or make the pros, we secretly believe we are God's gift to man. But if we're rejected, squeak by, get turned down, or don't get drafted, we attack ourselves harshly with hatred and loathing.
To make things worse we almost always equate possessions with achievement. We treat our houses, our cars, our clothes, and our offices as indications of success and thus as proof of lovability. And invariably we include everything else in our orbit. Our wives, our kids, our friends, and our acquaintances. They all become gauges of our success, and we need them to achieve for us to feel lovable. If they don't, we feel disgusted and push them away, afraid that their failure will somehow infect us.
Needless to say, this is a challenging way to exist. Always feeling judged, judging ourselves, and judging others. Afraid we'll be left if we don't constantly win. On the verge of leaving others because they fall short. More or less living life on a tightrope with no net.
For many people this is the only life that they know. And they're confounded when I suggest that there may be another way. It's as if I'm describing an unthinkable universe. They can't imagine a world where love isn't based on achievement.
Or to put it in terms of my girlfriend's talisman, they can't imagine a universe in which you are not your pasana. In which your value isn't determined by what you do, what you own, what you look like, or whom you know. In which your value isn't determined by achievement at all.
This was my experience when she gave me the talisman. Which is why I didn't understand what she was trying to tell me. She was saying that she didn't love me for my pasana -- or for any of the other achievements I had spent my life amassing. But if she didn't love me for them, what else was there to love? I couldn't find anything else of value to point to.
Then I realized that it wasn't about me. It wasn't so much that my girlfriend loved me, it was more that she loved how she felt in my presence. God knows what it was about my presence that worked for her. I'd like to think it was my integrity, my honesty, and my compassion. But it was at least as much my confusion, my self-deception, and my guilt. And all of this filtered through the lens of her subjectivity. None of it in any way an impartial measure of my value.
In other words, I realized that she loved the way we fit. And the fit had nothing to do with being the best and the brightest and had everything to do with the quality of our connection. She liked how she felt, and that was enough. My proficiency at yoga was completely irrelevant.
Which is not to say that she didn't enjoy watching me practice. Appreciate my professional and personal achievements. Or take pleasure in my appearance and how we looked together. It's just that they had no bearing on the nature of her love. They didn't affect our connection or change how she felt. They colored the landscape but didn't alter the ground. For her the ground was solid enough on which to build a life.
Unfortunately, for me, the same wasn't true. I was as hard on my girlfriend as I was on myself and unable to forgive her for her humanity. Only now, many years after I ended the relationship, do I understand how my girlfriend was able to accept me despite the many ways I was neither best nor bright: she cared about fit, about the connection between us, about how good she felt when she was around me and not about what I had managed to achieve.
Realizing this, even late in the game, allows me to shift what I look for in relation. Rather than scanning for objective achievement, I focus instead on subjective attachment. How do I feel in relation to the other? How do they feel in relation to me? What is the nature of the connection between us? And the same goes for the relationship I cultivate with myself. How does it feel? Is it wholesome or parasitic?
Understanding the distinction between achievement and attachment also enables me to empathize with any patient or student who has come to believe that love is based on performance. It helps me to understand why the stakes are so high. It helps me to recognize why the pressure's so great. And it helps me to invoke the unthinkable hope of striving to achieve because it feels good.
And this in itself is a wonderful gift. For without the risk of rejection to push us ahead, we can finally stop and ask ourselves what gives us pleasure. And even if we continue to do the same things, why we choose to do them can fundamentally change -- a change that can transform our experience at the root. Pasana for pleasure, who would have thought? That is an unthinkable universe, indeed!