"What do you think is the biggest waste of time?"
"Comparing yourself to others," said the mole.
-The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse
Many moons ago I used to regularly attend yoga classes and devoted myself to teaching them as well. At the time I thought I was practicing for mostly the right reasons, but now I truly question my intentions. At a surface level I was searching for a greater understanding of myself and the world under the tutelage of Eastern schools of thought. At a deeper level, I was obsessed with proving myself worthy and hoping the truth would emerge. A core philosophy of yoga is the concept of unity (yoga roughly translates as "to yoke" or "to unify") and that is an alluring concept to the majority of humans. After all, who isn't looking to merge with a higher purpose? But when we phrase unity like it is some kind of static end state that we as individuals must attain, we go horribly wrong. There is nothing about God, unity, happiness, life, fulfillment, or success that is static. They are all dynamic and infinite, and therefore, ungraspable. When we think otherwise, our egos are running the show instead of our hearts.
I can say with confidence that I was in the top 90% of other students when it came to yoga postures. I could hold my own in a wide variety of backbends, forward folds, arm balances, and the like. This may sound silly to some of you, but to others, it will strike close to home (just substitute yoga for whatever niche environment that you excel in). My success was due to both natural athleticism and routinized discipline. Ironically, I always shunned the competitive yoga scene, but what I didn't realize is that my attendance of classes, my private practice, and my own identification as a yogi were actually the pinnacle of competitiveness. I was driven by an urge to outdo both others and myself- to become better than normal" people and also better than an inferior past version of myself. I was chasing an image of what I thought would bring me joy, instead of listening to what I actually needed. Such is the folly of youth, I suppose.
In one particularly memorable class, my instructor quoted the Vietnamese Buddhist thought leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, from one of his talks. I will paraphrase here. He said that people suffer from three types of complexes. The first is a superiority complex, where we think we are better than others and therefore separate. The second is an inferiority complex, where we think we are lesser and separate from greatness. And the third is an equality complex, where we insist that everyone is the same and we become overfocused on the "church of the self." All three pull us away from unity by emphasizing the ego, which is by nature incomplete. Only by focussing on our uniqueness in context to everyone else, can we break free. We are most human when we recognize the interdependence of all people and things.
Fast forward to over a decade later, and I no longer attend yoga classes with the same regularity, vigor, or misplaced intention. Now, I attend classes to support the teacher, to decompress after a stressful week, or to learn about how to improve my range of motion. I could care less about who else is there or how I look. Truth be told, I have chosen to pursue a strength-oriented sport and my lifestyle currently doesn't lend itself well to attending scheduled classes. Instead, I stretch and move my body in a way that suits my needs and brings me joy. My choices in my physical regimen are based on things feeling good, keeping me from getting injured, and being fun to do. The same goes for other areas of my life.
I'm almost certain that in ten years' time I will have a more refined opinion of my actions today and be critical of numerous aspects. I am far from perfect or enlightened, which is what I sought so badly back in my 20s. Now, I am more interested in committing my precious hours to the handful of things that I find most motivating and useful. The more interconnected those things are, the better. I try my hardest not to get caught up in comparisons, and I often fail. In those moments I remind myself to trust that what I am going through is precisely what I need to learn. We must all remember that our individual egos and lives are mere pieces in the tapestry that is Creation. Each of us is important in the same way that each thread is essential to hold together each other thread. And on and on it goes.