Recently, a friend of mine started doing yoga. He was really excited about his new practice for a few weeks, but then he started to feel guilty about the time he spent in the yoga class.
I asked him why, and he said that yoga made him feel uncomfortably selfish.
"Yoga makes my mind and body so relaxed and invigorated at the same time, I would do it every day if I could. But that's the problem. I feel selfish doing something that's 'just for me.’"
As our conversation went on, we probed a little deeper and discovered an unconscious false belief that went something like this: If something makes me feel that good, it must be wrong. I must be stealing good from someone else to make that experience happen.
Maybe you feel this way. You have a favorite activity that makes you feel alive and awake, like the world is a good and beautiful place to exist. But at the same time, you feel a nagging guilty feeling. Somewhere in your past, a parent, a mentor, a spiritual leader or teacher told you that you were being selfish. That you should be more responsible. That there is no room for passion and play in the adult world.
We all carry these wounds.
Sometimes they were inflicted by people with the best of intentions:
"Give up on music, and get a real job. You'll never make it anyways."
"Travel is a waste of time."
It can even be something small, like:
"Don't paint your apartment, you're just going to have to repaint it when you move out" (I'm guilty of that one, to my wife’s frustration).
This kind of advice often comes from people who foreclosed on their own dreams a long time ago, and you might be bringing up old hurts with your dreams.
Squishing your dreams with "reality" is less painful than mourning the dreams they gave up a long time ago.
But the universe is not a zero sum game. Pursuing your passions doesn't mean you are being irresponsible or neglecting some greater good in society. It's not a pie with a limited amount of slices. When you do something that makes you feel alive, you're not stealing the last slice of goodness from someone who doesn't have any. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The universe is expanding. When you pursue your passions, whether it's yoga, higher education, art, music, gardening or any number of other things, you are creating good in the world and in yourself.
The books you enjoy only exist because someone shut themselves away for a few months to pound out their ideas on a keyboard. The art class you are taking is only possible because someone devoted themselves to a craft and became an expert through years of practice. The spiritual leaders whose wisdom keeps you on track cultivate their thoughts in solitude and prayer.
This is not a new idea. The greatest women and men throughout history have understood that the most impactful thing you can offer to humanity is yourself.
You have nothing to give, if you yourself are empty, shallow and burned out.
It's the same principle lifeguards use when saving people in the ocean, or that flight attendants tell you on airplanes in case of emergency. You have to take care of yourself to care for others.
As you seek wonder and experience beauty, you will become an oasis that draws and nourishes others. When you treat yourself to something that makes you feel alive, you are doing something that heals and gives life to the soul. You are not selfish, you are bringing joy to the world. It is only by being yourself, that you have anything to offer. It is in your passion, as you flourish, that you can best love your neighbor and help them flourish.
Take care of yourself. Fill the world with life.
Live in freedom, and make the world a better place.
Russ Shumaker is a creative consultant and business strategist living in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.A. He holds an MA in Theology and an MBA. You can find his website here.
See previous articles by Russ Shumaker