Letting go the Autumn Leaf of Approval Seeking

As autumn colors the world with leafy vibrance, it’s the perfect time to reflect on surrender.

As natural beings, our bodies and minds move eagerly to the rhythm of the seasons. In the natural world, the trees break down the chlorophyll to free up nutrients. Once that’s complete, plant hormones send messages each leaf stem to start weakening the cells so the leaf can drop away.  Notice our own seasonal tendencies as the night lengthens into out waking hours: our cravings for warm comfort food grows, our impulse to get cosy arises, and even with the availability of summer fruits, we steer more toward apples and pears. Our mind is primed to move “indoors” and get cosy.

What leaves will I relinquish to the season? What chaff needs separating from the grain? There’s one aspect of myself I revisit again and again: approval-seeking. Something happens in the mind when we start doing the thing we love for approval: the joy gets pushed aside and is replaced by anxiety. 

In Indian philosophy, there is the concept of vasana. Vasana is translated as “impression”, usually referring to impressions or grooves in the mind that create habits of thought. Habits of thought become habits of action; habits of action become behaviour; behavior becomes character. These grooves are either carved deeply or shallowly depending on their influence on our character.

Vasanas are neither “bad” nor “good”. They can be useful, as when they help us complete tasks with minimal effort. Think of how easy it is to scribble out a note to someone, and compare that too how a small child struggles to print out her name. Imagine you had to labor over your writing everytime you put pen to paper. The mental-physical vasana allows you to conserve energy as you utilize your hand and access the spelling of various words to put them in a coherent order. On the yoga mat, knowing a sun salutation well enough that you don’t have to ponder which pose is next or when the inhale or exhale occurs allows the surya namaskar to be a moving meditation, allowing you to go inward.

The danger is when vasanas cease being grooves that allow us to flow and instead become ruts that close in on us. And this is where approval seeking comes in. It’s probably one of the most deeply carved vasanas I face.

As social animals, we’re hard-wired to look for in-group approval. In childhood, we seek it from our parents. In adolescence, we might rebel against the childhood impulse, but shift the need to our peers. If we don’t get enough (and after the warm glow of approval subsides, is the ego ever really satisfied?), we might react by isolating ourselves. The inverse of approval-seeking is rejecting others—two sides of the same coin. I spent the first half of my life wildly ricochetting between the two.

I grew up writing like a maniac. I wrote my first “novel” at ten. I’d fill my solitude and boredom with writing. If I had a notebook and a pen, I was happy. Stories, poetry, fantasies, thoughts—I’d write on the beach, at a bar, during trigonometry. I wrote out my heart. I even wrote my way out of an eating disorder.    

Then, someone suggested I try to publish some of my work. I’d excelled in writing classes, so why not? I got myself a Writer’s Digest and started submitting to magazines that sounded cool. This was before I understood targetting submissions. I just figured my literary brilliance would fit anywhere and everywhere. Naturally, I was rejected. Unbowed though, I sat down to write stories that would appeal to a specific audience, and I got published! I got some minor awards! And then… I stopped writing. 

The eternal danger of seeking for satisfaction outside ourselves is that it never lasts. My ego got some treats and the fleeting attention made me feel happy, but writing stopped being a refuge for my soul. The space was no longer my own. The shift to approval-seeking had introduced a desperation to the work which smothered the bliss. 

Autumn is the time for letting go. Even though I’ve worked on this aspect of myself, the old vasanas can still trip me up, especially when they appear in new contexts. It’s okay, though: I’m getting better at recognizing the approval-seeking tendency and at navigating my way out of those mental-emotional ruts. By letting go of the external need, I clear the way for inner joy. 

What about you? Has the quest for external accolades leeched some of the fun away from an activity you once fully loved? Maybe there’s another vasana that is ready to be broken down and released. Look for it in your next yoga practice or perhaps free-write it out. Let this week’s challenge be identifying your autumn leaf. 

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