I went somewhere once where I was gifted one of the all-time greatest personality hacks on the planet. They kind of slid it in under the door without saying anything. I just kinda picked it up and ran with it because that's what they do in that place.
I needed it. My personality - which has its plusses & minus' - often didn't match up to my knowledge or my skills, so I usually found myself performing my way through jobs, relationships and life. It was as if one part of me was a rabbit and the other part a turtle, and the two of them were going in different directions.
Performing vs. authentic BEING. No contest.
That resulted in profoundly disappointing outcomes for myself, so 10 years ago I decided to get off the grid for a while. I went someplace where I was given the hack in such a subtle way I didn't even know what it was. I just did it. The result was that within 3 months my rough edges melted down along with the murky swamp of fear they fed off. The field within me gave rise to a softer, gentler Greg. I even forgot how to curse during that time, which is hard to imagine. Before this, curse words took up about 60% of my vocabulary. I told myself I was just "colorful". Within 3 months of getting this gift my personality underwent a noticeable transformation. My finer qualities rose to the surface the way foliage transforms a landscape that's been littered with abandoned cars. I became sweeter and easier to be around. People seemed to want to be around me and my interactions were generally smooth and enjoyable. I felt likeable. I liked myself. I liked people.
When I returned to "the world" most of my old habits re-emerged, but I'm clear about why. It wasn't about where I lived, though that played a big part in things. It had more to do about what I did differently during that year. I picked up one habit in particular that cultivated a gracefulness and gentility I never knew I had. Since we're right around Valentines Day I'm going to share it for those of you wondering how to add a new dimension to your relationship. Because this is a personality hack that is guaranteed to transform your relationships.
In 2008 I went to live in a spiritual community known as "Yogaville". Located in the mountains of Central Virginia the ashram grew up around the feet of a realized master in the 1970's. Though Sri Satchidananda died in 2002, a couple of dozen of his monks remain and along with other devotees operate a year long meditation, yoga & spiritual retreat center. I prayed, meditated and lived there for a year. In 2009 I left and landed in the middle of the Caribbean. As I was leaving everybody kept saying, "you're so lucky you're going to live in paradise" but after a year of ashram life I knew I'd seen paradise and it was no where outside of me.
When I arrived in the West Indies, my initial encounter with people was like the Ice Bucket Challenge. Instead of "namaste", most people I greeted doused me with ice in their eyes. Imagine being a fish and suddenly finding yourself on land. For the first few months it was hard to breathe. Maybe I was just holding my breath without realizing it. I rarely felt comfortable and must've looked like a goldfish flopping around on the floor. The mundane conversations with my co-workers at lunch drove me insane with boredom. I had no interest in office politics or other worldly things. It was difficult to get comfortable in social situations. I wanted to fit in but fitting in meant abandoning something precious inside of me.
The effect of the food (from vegan to a traditional West Indian diet) was shocking to not only my body but my mind. Within a week of adding meat to my diet I felt more aggressive, quicker to anger, more impulsive. My energy level waned. I resisted the music (dancehall) which was incessantly trying to take up residence in my body. Little by little I gave up, one concession at a time. A curse here and there. Goat meat once a week. Then twice a week. Then I discovered Goat Water, 'nuff said. Within a month I stopped wearing yoga gear to work and started adopting the workplace attire: nice slacks, button down shirts, slick tie. The first day I showed up like that the staff stood up and applauded me. The more I remolded myself to squeeze into that little box the more encouragement I got. Encouragement to shrink.
Notice this: In most places you have to shrink if you want to fit in.
I grieved the loss of silent meals. The loss of community. The loss of kirtan (singing sacred songs of devotion to the creator along with community members) was devastating to my psyche. Had I known how deeply that was going to impact me, I might not have ever left. But there was one loss that impacted me so profoundly it surprised even me: bowing.
In an ashram it's customary to greet (and depart) people with a pranam: "Namaste" while holding hands together in prayer pose and gently bowing. It's not the same as "Hey, how's it going?" which is more of a social guideline. Most people don't really want to hear your answer to that. A proper pranam is a moment of felt acknowledgement. You can't rush it. You bow and take a moment to remember. It is a sacred zikr, an act of remembrance of our shared divinity. Your divinity. My divinity. Divinity without borders.
The more I bowed "namaste" to others, the softer I got. Each bow knocked a chip off the shoulder of my persona. I started to become a graceful person. My cursing decreased from 60% of my vocabulary to maybe 1%. 20 or 30 times a day I got to stop and remember the only thing worth remembering.
Bow. I see the Lord of Love that you ARE. I see my reflection in the mirror that you are.
After one year of bowing I was so accustomed to it that by the time I left, it felt odd not to do it. It made people visibly uncomfortable so I dialed it back. I decided to compromise and do it subtly, without making a show of it. But in "the world" most people are terrified of even that much intimacy. Notice the dull glaze in most people's eyes during a typical interaction. Many people never even really see you during a conversation. They're not really with you. They're in their thoughts. There's an absence of presence that sounds like a painful howl.
So eventually this habit, along with so many other virtues, fell to the wayside. I slipped back into that realm of forgetting. The gift of bowing melted into the recesses of my heart, trading places with the old thorns hibernating, waiting to re-assert their dominion in my personality. Soft, gentle & kind traded rooms with hard, harsh and fearful.
In looking back its clear: The act of bowing was the single most potent behavioral trait I ever picked up. More than prayer, more than gratitude listing, perhaps even more than meditating, taking a moment several times a day to stop, bow and remember our shared divinity cultivated a grace in me that made me feel like I belonged in this world. It gave me life.
I want to bow again.