Why do we do what we do?

Decisions can be hard. Big life changing decisions, small insignificant ones, they can all fox us from time to time. It can be difficult when we feel we have too many options, and possibly harder yet when we feel we have too few, but the strangest, quietest, most challenging moments are when we don’t realize we’re making a choice at all. 

I have a lovely friend who I both adore, and occasionally want to throttle. Whenever I’m complaining to them about having to do this, that or the other, they most often reply ‘Well, why do it then?’. Why indeed?

Have you ever seen a sculpture in an early proto-type phase? Some sculptors begin by creating a rudimentary form from wire mesh. They mold this into the core of the shape that they intend to make and then gradually flesh it out with layers of plaster and fabric. We all have a version of this wire mesh at our core. Ours is made up from the traits that we’ve inherited, our genetic material, and the environment we grew up in, the behavior we saw in others and experienced in our interactions with them. This is our basic core form which then gets fleshed out with layer upon layer of experience. This is how our conditioning occurs and develops. Nature and nurture bequeath us certain tendencies, and these color how we experience the world, how we react to it. This conditioning is powerful and stealthy.

Often when we react to a situation, we perceive our actions as being the only option- it doesn’t occur to us that there might be a different choice to make. We become tunnel visioned, and this is why my friends question is so wonderfully infuriating. When we stop to ask ourselves why we do what we do it can be uncomfortable. We have to dig through layers and layers of our history and acknowledge that, were we not so committed to our way of seeing things, there could be other possibilities. Fate doesn’t make you cook every meal from scratch even when you’re exhausted, exercise through an injury or work until midnight to please your boss. These are all choices, but the rules we’ve set ourselves from childhood can make us blind to that, making us feel that we have to do these things or we are not being our true self. This is not true. We’re not made of plaster. If we decide to start remolding our core form, we won’t crack and break apart.

Our conditioning often shows up in our yoga practice. Some of us may push ourselves to ever more intense and complex expressions of a pose, while others might back off without trying because some deep doubt is nagging at us. Whenever we’re moving on the mat and allowing our old notions of what we can or can’t do, or do or don’t want to do to determine our movement, we’re slipping into the trap of letting our conditioning take charge.

We can’t rid ourselves of our genetic inheritance and conditioning. It’s what shaped us in the womb and as we grew, but we do have the power to question, to investigate what drives us and not simply accept situations that feel wrong. We can’t make our life perfect, but we can tinker with the formula and alter how we react to what we experience.

Many years ago I volunteered with an organization that helped people who were in emotional distress. All we did was listen and ask questions, and quite often, this was enough. By gently helping people to reflect on their circumstances and what might be possible for them, the thorny knots in their lives could begin, over time, to soften and unravel. There was no judgement, we’re not responsible for what we’re born with and into, but by reflecting and prompting like my adorable friend, some of the mist could start to clear and clarity could begin to arise.

We can all be our own listeners, if we just take the time to ask the questions. We can choose to invite some softness and pliability into that wire mesh at our core so we can begin reimagining and reshaping the choices we make. What can you recognize in yourself? Why do you do what you do, and what can you begin shifting and reforming today?

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