The Participation of Your Truest Self

Taking a bite

If Vanity Fair ever decides to interview me (and surely, my invitation is in the mail), I already know how I’d answer one of the questions in their Proust questionnaire:

Question: “What quality do you most admire in a woman?”

Answer: Agency.

I admire women who make things happen for themselves. I admire kindness in a man (okay, so I know how I’d answer two questions), and agency in a woman.

I wouldn’t have answered this way ten years ago, but as I settle into my mid-thirties, I’ve observed that women whose character I admire most seem to have this quality in common. I admire it so much because it’s a quality I’m focused on cultivating in myself.

Yoga has taught me a lot about agency. It’s taught me to set an intention and then take action toward that intention… and to treat this process as a practice, where continued, intentional effort is its own reward. And another practice in my life, the art of improv, has taught me that sometimes, the opposite is true: that intention can arise from action… that sometimes, we need to act before we know why. In other words, sometimes agency means having enough confidence in yourself that you act without knowing the end goal. You just know you need to act. You let you your intuition guide you.

Which brings me to pregnancy. (Whoa — didn’t see that coming, did you?)

This morning I did a new prenatal yoga DVD, and at the end, the teacher, Elena Brower, said something to the effect of, “Honor the ways in which you’re participating in your pregnancy.” (Sound of record screeching.) Participating?  You mean this pregnancy isn’t just something that’s happening to me? I’m not just a passive recipient of symptoms, from fatigue to headaches to a growing belly? You mean I have an active role to play?

Obviously, I had a role to play in getting pregnant in the first place (ahem). But once you’re pregnant, it’s so easy to feel like Pregnancy with a capital P takes over — kind of like that other P word, Puberty — and you’re just along for the ride, with all its ups and downs. And in many ways, you are. A biological process is underway, and all the intentions in the world won’t alter its course. You are not in control. And this, of course, is an important life lesson to learn in the face of parenthood (and an important life lesson, period).

So how am I a participant in my pregnancy? Are we participants in all of our bodies’ biological processes? Am I a participant in my heart beating, in my blood flowing? Maybe I influence these processes through my habits — what I eat, how much stress I have in my life… but then, there’s the chain smoker with picture perfect health, and you wonder just how much your choices really do determine your health.

I think of Kris Carr, who over 8 years ago was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and — talk about agency — took the bull by the horns, and transformed her diet and lifestyle, in addition to seeking more traditional western treatment. Over 8 years later, she’s thriving. This is an inspirational story, to be sure, and you could certainly say she participated in her cancer, instead of allowing it to happen to her. But what about all the people who do everything right — who eat well, and exercise, who minimize the stress in their lives — and get cancer anyway? Were they participants, too — just participants with less fortunate outcomes?

If participation doesn’t mean controlling the outcome, what does it mean?

Mindful engagement? Showing up? Giving it all you’ve got?

For me, participating in my pregnancy means finding continuity between my sense of my self and my body pre-pregnancy, and my sense of my self and my body today. Today, I did the first downward facing dog I’ve done in months, and I felt a thread connecting me to the Amanda who’s assumed that pose hundreds of times before. That felt like participating. Writing this post feels like participating.

Maybe participation means finding the links between our truest self and the process at hand — whether it’s sports or politics or being a vessel for new life inside you.

In what ways are you a participant?

Image by Flickr user Sharyn Morrow

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