August 22, 2013

Action Before Movement

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve promised myself to get more exercise, call an old friend more often, or spend more time in my studio making art, then failed to follow through, I’d be  writing this post from the terrace of my house in Bali with a pitcher of mimosas by my side. I suspect that I’m not the only one frustrated by this predicament. Slogging through theories on why we don’t do what we say we want to do to foster our mental, spiritual, or physical health just make the light at the end of the tunnel more difficult to see.

As a practical person with a Type A personality, planning and problem solving are my go-to strategies, but the items on my list don't respond to this m.o. The process that helps me honor my commitments in my professional life doesn't seem to apply here. Apparently, I’m the only one to whom I won't keep a promise.

Yoga is as close as I’ve come to clearing the haze. Since starting my asana practice two years ago, I’ll occasionally have what I think of as baby epiphanies. For a person whose mind seems never to stop, it's oddly liberating to be in an environment where my mind exists only to be of service to my body. After a few months of regular practice, I noticed that these periods of not thinking brought me a sense of clarity that I missed when I reverted to my default mode of over-thinking. A few more months, and I started to see that much of what I was working on in class was not all that different from what I was dealing with outside the studio.

One morning early this year, my teacher, Cindy, was instructing us on how to position our right ankles to help us move into a difficult pose. She suggested we create what she referred to as an action in the ankle, rather than a movement. This action, she said, was subtler than a movement; we should be able to feel the rotation internally, yet someone else looking at our ankles might not notice any difference. This would, she said, offer us greater ease in the pose. She was right; the pose came more easily to me. The action was more than intention, than deciding simply to do--there was a physical component too, after all, although more internal than external. But that moment of action was palpable, crucial to the movement, to the effect. 

In those few seconds I took to prepare by creating action in my ankle, my mind and body were intimately and inextricably linked, joined in a common purpose. It was a uniquely satisfying experience. This, of course, is one of yoga’s big gifts: the union of the internal and external that arises from being fully present in the moment. 

This action, I thought later, was what was missing from the process I'd been using to meet my personal goals--whether to exercise or get into my studio more often. I’d been doing everything I usually did when I planned a project or an event. I’d made 'to do' lists, I’d scheduled appointments, I’d purchased supplies. I’d checked off all the preliminary activity that would ensure success. I’d made sure there was external movement. What I'd missed altogether was the action piece. 

I’d assumed that desire--I really did want to get more exercise!-- was enough to carry me through. And I’d relied on my past experience, which told me that ideas tend to crash and burn because of poor planning and execution. I hadn’t seen that achieving what we’re not required to do because our jobs depend on them or because our families are counting on us calls for new skills we may not have much practice with, and for hefty amounts of internal action. Often, our list is made up of dreams that mean little to anyone but ourselves; we don't act on them because of lack of time or money (so we say), fear (far more likely), or for reasons we'd rather not explore. Pursuing these demands deep, passionate action; without it, no amount of movement is enough.

I hold this new definition of action close now, and try to nurture it. More than desire, interest, or hope, it's the resolute intention that arises from knowing what is truly meaningful to me. It's a nearly imperceptible internal shift in energy that moves me from wish to engagement. It asks me to accept responsibility for creating a life that fulfills me. 

What I've found isn’t the simple resolution I was hoping for.  And yet, something that I once found baffling seems simpler, and getting there, wherever "there" is, seems within reach. That’s more than a fair trade for the easy answer.   

Image by vvvracer, on Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.

July 19, 2012

Is It Better to Be Good or Kind?

Image by Cary Bass

For years, in whatever community I was living, I had a gym membership and made regular use of it. I aimed for five workouts a week and if I met my goal , I'd say "I was good this week." I used the same phrase when I had meals that were low in whatever I was counting at the time--calories, fat, or carbohydrates. 

Unfortunately, this meant that when I didn't reach my exercise target or when I ate more than I thought I should, I was accustomed to thinking or saying that I'd been "bad."

Most of my female friends talked this way about themselves too, so I didn't give much thought to the terminology or to what it said about how we saw ourselves. I think now that, unconsciously, we were making statements about what we valued, what was important in our lives.

Today, when I say those phrases out loud, I cringe a little.  For starters, they seem like the words of a child, not a woman (that in itself is worth a separate post). But mostly, I find it sad that I judged myself so harshly based on how much I exercised or ate.

These days, I practice yoga. I don't visit the gym, but going to yoga classes isn't a substitute for a workout. It's more than a physical practice, although I'm glad that it's good for my body too.

After a yoga session, it's not unusual for me to notice how glad I am that I was kind to myself by coming to class. But it wasn't until recently that I noticed the actual words I'd been using.

I don't remember when I made the transition from being "good" or "bad" to the notion of being kind to myself. I do know that it feels very different from my old habit. When I thought of myself as being good or bad, my ego was in full force; I either felt proud proud about achieving or guilty about failing.

Being kind to myself, on the other hand, isn't ego-driven or boastful; it's a small, deep pleasure--an appreciation.

I'm being kind to myself when I take the time to meditate on days when I'm rushed and think I don't have a minute to spare; I'm kind to myself when I eat enough ice cream to feel satisfied but not so much that I feel full. 

And here's what resonates most strongly: treating myself kindly means accepting that I'm human, that my decisions will be better on some days than others. If I decide not to meditate today, I note it and move on. Tomorrow I'll have a new set of circumstances and a new opportunity to choose, and I suspect that treating myself with compassion helps me make wiser choices.

This was the main problem with my old way of thinking: there wasn't much room for compassion. The standard was perfection, so if I wasn't being "good," then surely I was being "bad." I was either a success or a failure. 

I've heard it said that our thoughts are who we are--or who we become--and that we reinforce these thoughts in the way we speak. What's important to remember is that we can use this to our advantage.

So consider: If your actions don't match your intentions, will berating yourself really help you behave differently? Or will it just strengthen your belief about how "bad" you are and reinforce a negative pattern? It's worth a thought.

Do you struggle with treating yourself kindly? What works for you?

Image by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license.

July 12, 2012

When Talent Needs "A Little More Time To Bake"

I met Ana, a mixed-media artist, while I was managing a grants program for a municipal arts agency in Miami. The amount of money available from the agency for community arts projects was always—surprise!—much smaller than the total amount requested, so the application process was highly competitive.

Part of my job was to help artists make a persuasive case for their ideas in writing. My special talent was finding the angle that would seamlessly link an artist’s vision to whichever political scheme the city’s Commissioners were most enthused about at the time. With luck, this could up the the artist's chances for funding.

I’d helped Ana get a grant for a group show in an empty neighborhood storefront. Her intuitive arrangements of found objects on bright canvases were graceful, joyous and very beautiful. Ana experimented with everything: concepts, techniques, materials, and collaborations. “If you play it safe,” she’d say, “you’ll never know what you’re capable of.”

I learned that she had started painting only as an adult. Growing up as the child of a civil servant and a teacher in Chile, art was not in her sensible parents' vocabulary of career options. Ana was encouraged to study law or finance, professions that they believed offered a stable future. She graduated from a university in the United States with a degree in international finance. "I studied business to satisfy my parents," she said, "but I had zero interest in making a life of it."

She took the first job she was offered after graduation, as an assistant in an art gallery on Miami Beach, and soon found herself spending much of her free time painting. She started exploring mixed-media compositions soon after.

Over a cup of tea in Ana's studio one afternoon, we talked about her recent work. She'd spent the morning painstakingly weaving filaments of copper-colored silk thread into a small painted canvas. The delicate fibers and the size of the piece were a departure from her usual imposing work. "I don't know how I feel about it yet," she said. "It needs a little more time to bake. I'll keep working on it and see what happens."

The conversation turned to me and my writing. "I can't imagine not writing," I said. "There's something about it that's addictive--in a really good way. Still," I added tentatively, "I've also thought a lot about working with images."

"And...," Ana encouraged. "And nothing." I said, "I just don't have the talent for visual art. I tried, and I'm not good at it."

Ana set down her cup. "Talent, schmalent!," she said in an exasperated tone, adopting the vernacular of her elderly Jewish next-door neighbors. "How does anyone know whether they have talent--whatever that is--until they do something, and then do it again, and then do it again some more? You don't really think having talent means things are easy and perfect the first time out, do you?”

Her hands unconsciously mimed motions of gathering and placing as she described her frustrating early attempts to integrate three-dimensional objects into her paintings. 

I listened, but I didn't have the nerve to tell her that, yes, I did think that talent was innate and not learned. I didn't have to do and do again to know that it was something I lacked.

When she brought the subject up a few weeks later, I deflected it, telling her I was too busy to start anything new. "I really am busy," I repeated to myself. And I was, wasn't I?

How busy are you?


July 10, 2012

What Would You Do if You Had Nothing to Do?

I wrote recently here about my mania with to-do lists and getting carried away with how much we think we can accomplish. But what if there were no such thing as a to-do list? Yes, I know, the world as we know it would come to an abrupt halt because no one would remember to do anything. Yikes!

Well, maybe. That's probably what I'd think on my most hurry-hurry-ding-ding* days. And if your list is attached to you like one of those sad tethered children at the mall, you may be having similar thoughts right now.

But stay with me.

What if tomorrow the universe suffered a temporary bout of amnesia about to-dos in general?
What if as a side effect we also lost the ability to feel guilty, or anxious, or angry, or annoyed, about what we weren't "getting done"?

Even better, what if there were no repercussions for not crossing something off the list?

Your boss won't care that you don't turn in the weekly report; your mother won't mind that you don't call; your son's lunch will appear magically on the kitchen counter, nutritionally sound and artfully packed.

But wait. It gets better.

Your boss emails that she'd rather write the report herself and tells you to take the day off, your mother decides to take the initiative and call you, and your son asks to pack his own lunch. And so it goes for anything else that might have been on that pesky to-do list that no longer exists. 

So. You have an entire day to yourself. A whole day. To yourself.

There is nothing you have to do.

What do you do?

*from the 1968 film, Sweet November, in which free spirit Sandy Dennis vows to get Anthony Newley, a British businessman, to relax and to cure him of his unhealthy fixation with time. She refers to his problem as "hurry-hurry-ding-ding" because he's always looking at his watch and waiting for its alarm to ring.

July 5, 2012

Making Room for Yourself on the List

It's time I confessed. I have never, ever checked off all of the items on a to-do list. I am a midlife woman and I've been making these lists since I was a child (should I consider that last part pathetic?), yet I've never had the satisfaction of placing a crisp checkmark next to that final to-do. 

My husband, a wonderful man who hyperventilates just thinking of making a list, says that I'm too ambitious a list-maker. "It's not ambition, it's optimism!" I respond. Each evening when I make my to-do list for the next day I'm convinced that I can complete every single task in the next 24 hours. 

After all, if I didn't think I could get everything done, I'd be setting myself up for failure, no?

And why would I do that?

Set myself up for failure, that is.

I had a conversation with a friend about this a few years back. She said that she'd asked herself similar questions and had come up with a possible answer:

"If I make a list so full that it's impossible to complete," she said. "I must be incredibly busy, right?  And being incredibly busy is the reason I don't do have time to do the things I keep saying are important to me."  My puzzled look encouraged her to elaborate.

She explained that she crammed all manner of things on her to-do lists, from minor tasks that she could complete in under five minutes ("email my accountant to confirm our meeting this Tuesday") to major undertakings that would take much longer ("update my financial records for the quarter"). She also included activities that she loved and wanted to do more of, such as playing the piano and taking lessons to improve her skills.

"Because my list is long, I always have unfinished tasks that roll over to the next day," she went on. "It's a given that I'll prioritize the things that I consider most pressing, the ones that have deadlines or that involve commitments to others. So It seems I never get around to spending time at the piano or scheduling lessons."

She paused.

"I suspect there's something else, too. If I'm too busy to play or study, then I don't have to face my fears that I'm really not very good or that I won't get any better."

Does any of this sound familiar to you? It did to me. I'd occasionally had thoughts along those lines. Why was time for the things I was passionate about, like writing, for example, always so hard to come by?

That afternoon, as my friend generously shared that she might be sabotaging herself because she was afraid of not living up to her own expectations, I promised myself that I'd take a closer look at how I was choosing to spend my time each day.

What did I do? Well, one thing didn't change.

I still make to-do lists that have way too many items on them. I still don't know why. I've stopped worrying about this.

But I did modify how I handle my lists:

1. As I prioritize the "must-dos" on my list, I make sure I've included one thing that's there purely to bring me pleasure. Some days it's a small thing, like making sure I schedule an extra half-hour for reading a book I'm really enjoying. Other days, it's getting time in for catching up with a friend over coffee, or for starting an essay for my writing class.

Planning ahead and scheduling these on my calendar makes it easier to keep the commitments.

2. I pay attention to that which, like my friend, I have strong positive feelings for but have conflicting feelings about. For instance, I try to figure out why I'm hesitant to begin or to return to a specific writing project.

Whether or not I uncover the reason, I start anyway.  I let myself off the hook by committing to work for only 15 minutes. Usually I get so engaged in what I'm doing that I keep going after the 15 minutes are up.

The fact is, it's not about how long or short our task lists are. It doesn't matter whether we keep them on sticky notes, on our computers, or in our heads. What's crucial is that we hold a choice spot for ourselves in them. 

Each day merits a gift that we give to ourselves. If not now, when? 

Where and how do you put yourself on your list?

Image by Liz Henry, on Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

June 28, 2012

To Boldly (and Cautiously) Go Where No One Has Gone Before

I'm sometimes a little irked by articles about personal development in which the sentences all seem to end in exclamation points. Maybe I'm more sensitive to it because I write a lot about this topic. In fact, I started this blog in order to share my perspective as a midlife woman on the subject.

I welcome conversation about growth and transformation. I'm a convert to the benefits of gratitude over complaining, to living in the present instead of staying mired in the past, and to substituting compassion for self-recrimination.

I'm wildly supportive of dialogue that promotes taking personal responsibility, engaging in positive action, setting ambitious goals, and other such wholesome pursuits.

So it's not the concept of personal development that bugs me. And the profusion of exclamation points? Well, that's just a symptom of a deeper concern. What is it, then, that I find troubling?

It's a specific type of pronouncement about how to proceed on the path to self-fulfillment--specifically, the claim that there's only one way to get there. This singular way, we're told, is by jumping off a (metaphorical) cliff, preferably without looking over the edge. 

Overcoming fear and risk is a key theme in these articles; the word "fierce"--as in "facing fear fiercely!"--shows up often.  But whatever the actual words or the number of exclamation marks, the message is urgently clear: "Get over it and kick butt! Don't let anything stand in your way! Just do it! Jump!" 

There's nothing inherently wrong with this message (with the exception of the exasperating punctuation, mind you). There are times when direct, uncomplicated action is the best option. Eventually we need to stop ruminating, face our fears--maybe even "fiercely!"--and forge ahead.

Unfortunately, though, zealous declarations like this one tend to ignore context. The result is a one-size-fits-all prescription for whatever it is that ails you.

There's a phrase my wonderful yoga teacher, Cindy Dollar, sometimes uses as she leads us through a complex pose:

be bold; be cautious.*
The "be bold" part of the phrase is shorthand for moving into the pose with curiosity and interest rather than with pre-conceived assumptions about what our bodies can't or won't do. "Be cautious" suggests taking the pose thoughtfully, listening attentively to our bodies to learn what's available to us in that moment. We move both with resolve and with respect for what is possible right now.

Not everyone is ready to jump (or even "jump!") at this instant. Readiness depends on interrelated conditions that include our physical circumstances and our emotional and mental states. The same step that's easy for some can appear incredibly difficult to others, and the type and amount of preparation that we need is different for each person.

I'm convinced that we need both parts of the equation: boldness and caution. Yes, we need to be bold. Some of us, in fact, need to be pushed, gently, from "what is" to "what could be." Me, for one. I've been guilty of spending way too much time building a barricade made from every possible misfortune that might befall me if I dared to venture outside my comfort zone.

If this sounds like you, consider how you might test-drive the new environment--whether it's a different career, a location, or a behavior--in small, incremental ways. These "sneak peeks" can help you build the confidence to tackle the bigger moves. 

So be bold. Do more than you think you can; act as confidently as you'd like to feel; stretch the muscles you'll need for jumping. 
But don't fall into the trap of believing that there's something wrong with you because  you temper boldness with caution. Instead, congratulate yourself.  Boldness and caution complement each other; each brings out the other's best qualities.
Ultimately, you are the only one who knows when the time is right for you to take action. 

Throughout, pay close attention to what your body tells you and listen with compassion. Find a pace that feels right to you and stay the course. And remind yourself that every day is new; what may not have been available to you yesterday may be possible tomorrow. And watch out for those exclamation points!

* attributed to B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of the style of yoga that I practice.
Image by R. Jay GaBany, on Wikimedia, under a Creative Commons License.

June 26, 2012

Is Living Well the Best Revenge? Not So Much.

"Living well is the best revenge*" is one of those sayings that surfaces regularly. When I was struggling with the fallout of a divorce 16 years ago, I repeated it to myself like a mantra. It was a goal for a future I couldn't yet fathom.

Recently, I heard a modified version: "Moving on is the best revenge." At first it struck me as a more helpful variation of the original, which always sounded a little desperate: "I'm going to live well, dammit! I'll show him/her!" 

"Moving on" was more empowering, I thought. It connoted a willingness to let go of the past--in my case, a past connected to someone who was no longer a vital part of my life--and create a more autonomous future.

Yet as I weighed the two phrases, I understood that my issue was with the word "revenge." When I was parting from my soon-to-be ex-husband, there was a part of me, the angry part, that wanted revenge. It wasn't the juvenile notion of slashing tires or transforming into Nicole Kidman overnight, but one that I hoped would be more emotionally gratifying.

I figured that arranging my life into a semblance of happiness would do the trick. I started taking classes in yoga and volunteered with the area's literacy council; I repressed my introvert tendencies and spent most weekends exploring the local attractions with friends and acquaintances. 

Other than fighting my introversion a little too hard, most of what I did was smart and healthy. Less healthy was my wish that I'd run into my ex so that he could see what a "good" time I was having and recognize that I was doing "just fine" without him.

Is it natural to have revenge fantasies? It strikes me as pretty darn human to have such thoughts occasionally, though acting on them is clearly a different story. I doubt I could have traveled the path of my separation and divorce without encountering them, and I don't berate myself for having had them.

Still, what troubles me now about the "revenge" part of the equation is that it keeps us connected to the targets of revenge. Revenge is about settling the score, about punishing, about retaliating. It's not about the joy of living well or the peace of moving on, not really.
When we 'live well' purely for our own well-being instead of to impress others or to try to teach them a lesson we increase our capacity for spiritual and emotional growth. 
We experience our emotions--negative as well as positive ones----without the overlay of what we want from or for someone else. As a result, we start seeing things more clearly. Clarity helps us reinforce the healthy behavior, which helps us gain clarity, which…Well, you get the picture.

Living well, then, isn't anything other the best way to try to live. Why not leave it at that?

*The phrase is attributed to George Herbert, an English clergyman and metaphysical poet, 1593-1633.
Image by JaneArt, at Wikimedia Commons, under a creative commons license.