I was reading something called The Bounce Back Book by Karen Salmansohn and stumbled across something the author learned while healing from a traumatic experience. Apparently researchers have discovered that the number-one factor determining your well-being is the power to make choices about your life, activities, and habits -- autonomy. Here's a quote from a study done at the University of Michigan:
Having a strong sense of controlling one's life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of well-being than any other objective conditions of life.
I'm going to make a wild guess and assume that this study grew out of our unique cultural upbringing and perspective on life in the United States for in Eastern thought it seems to me that suffering is eased by letting go of control. Though I suppose letting go of control is a choice in itself :)
Nevertheless, here in the West maybe what we are seeking is to create a balance between doing -- making choices about the next moment -- and being where we just let things come and go with mindfulness.
In the model of Nonviolent Communication, choice is a huge universal need. After practicing self-empathy and empathy for others based on Marshall Rosenberg's book over the last seven years, I've noticed that choice often recurs as an underlying need over and over again during conflicts or difficult moments in my life. Choice appears to be a baseline need in our survival instincts.
Back in 2008, when I was particularly discouraged about my life, things started to improve once I identified my most undernourished needs and actively made choices to fulfill them. Chapter 8 in my book Lemonade Mantras, called "Make Personal Requests" grew out of this experience. This chapter is so simple yet powerful for it asks you to identify a unmet need such as "to contribute" and then make choices to meet this need through concrete actions. You always have the power to make choices, but when you're focused on something outside of your control sometimes you don't even realize choices exist.
For instance, perhaps you believe that when you go for a job interview other people have complete control over your future, including your desire to contribute and have purpose. Maybe. But on the other hand, you have another huge chunk of your life that you could cultivate actions that truly fulfill your need to contribute and have purpose. Instead of letting the almighty job machine get you down, you might turn to volunteering, starting your own business, or tutoring kids to fulfill your need to contribute and have purpose. If you nurture the part of your life where you do have choices then it's possible the other part won't have as much power over your self-esteem and your thinking.
Does your life feel out of your control? Are you chained to your kid's schedule? Do have an unpredictable boss? Are you recovering from a physical assault? Are you interviewing for a new job? Do you have an illness or injury that is affecting your life?
Instead of focusing on the things that feel out of your control, try increasing the choices you make about your life that you can control. Choices that you have the power to put into action, meaning they don't make demands of anyone else but yourself. One easy illustration of making personal choices is deciding to take care of your body through some kind of physical activity. For me, choosing to go to a Bikram yoga class is incredibly empowering. I make the choice to get out of bed and go to class. Then throughout the class, when I'm faced with feeling tired or sick, I experience the power of choosing to get into a posture. I choose. I choose to do triangle pose even though I want to sit down instead. Being conscious of the choice I am making is an experience of my true power.
Maybe your choices are already in place, but you need to take ownership of them. For instance, perhaps you choose to take care of your kids by getting up and packing their lunches before school. By being mindful of this conscious choice and that you are fulfilling your need "to nurture" you take ownership of the experience and re-frame it. You are no longer feeling out of control in a family that has excessive demands on your energy rather you are empowering yourself to make a choice to fulfill a cherished need to nurture others.
Another important concept is re-directing your energy to choose for yourself. Sometimes we avoid our own opportunity of empowerment by distracting ourselves in the game of trying to choose for others so we feel more happy and comfortable. Working with kids, it was enticing to make choices for my students as a way to empower myself, but that's not real power. When you see yourself getting overly involved in the choices people make about their lives, try stepping back and asking what choices am I avoiding in my own life that could empower me?
Lastly, one of the deepest ways I've ever come in contact with changing my thinking was to find my power to choose within the most difficult of circumstances. Maybe it's hard to see what choices you have during a mugging, rape, car crash, cancer, military assault, hurricane, imprisonment, etc. In each of these circumstances there are choices to be made, claimed, and honored. Sometimes your choice is not to choose and that in itself can be a valuable experience. Embracing the choices we make during the worst of moments is coming in contact with your true power.
If you look at your life and aren't sure if you are making choices that are empowering, then try making three choices today. Create projects and meet your deadlines. Make appointments and keep them. Join a class that has concrete objectives and show up. Find, claim, and celebrate your freedom to choose.
The Enlightening Mat is a blog series exploring moments of awareness that come to Beth Hemmila while practicing Bikram Yoga.
To shop for yoga charms that celebrate the different poses click here to view this blog post Sterling Silver Charms for Bikram Yoga Postures.