I’ve started and stopped a post every day for the last couple of weeks. There’s been a lot on my mind and I’ve been struggling to express it all. I feel I’ve been overwhelmingly overflowing with thoughts and ideas, but have taken a step back to observe. The words observe, process, and progress have stuck at the forefront of my brain for the last couple of weeks. Then, I was listening to a talk by Gabrielle Bernstein and she was challenging the idea that personal self-growth is a time-limited event…some goal we reach for and attain at some point. To those people saying “well I’ve done XYZ to grow spiritually and as a person, I’m done, I’ve grown, yay me!” Gabrielle says “What Did You Do Today?” Bam. That hit home and brought all these thoughts together.
In yoga, we are focused on the process NOT the goal. The goal is the process. To me, this is yet another perfect analogy of yoga to life. Perfection in yoga is being present, focused, aware and respectful of exactly where we are at in this moment. The old adage “it’s about the journey, not the destination” is true no matter how cliché it may be. We get to our destinations by participating in the journey, there is just no way around it. The lessons learned don’t come on the day we walk in our caps and gowns across a stage, “graduation” in all its various forms is simply a symbol of the process.
One of my yoga instructors last week said “forget the plan you showed up with today. Where are you now, in this moment?” This opened an opportunity for a personal breakthrough for me, because I had shown up with a plan. I do show up with plans. And when plans go astray, my biggest challenge is to let go and roll with it. I always set my intentions for the class at its commencement. Planning is a good thing, but the plans can take us over. We can lose touch with our needs in each moment when we perseverate too deeply on the all powerful plan. We obsess about things happening according to plan, and miss out on the lessons of the process. In this moment, I realized I had misinterpreted the purpose behind “setting intentions” in yoga. In setting my intentions, my ego was getting the better of me. I would say to myself: “My intention for this class is to do every pose without falling out of any posture” or “My intention for class is to work as hard as I possibly can for the full 90 minutes.” But when I became fatigued later in the class and my body was telling me to pull back slightly, my ego would berate me for losing touch with my intention. But that’s counterproductive. Being mean to myself about “failing” in the last posture certainly isn’t helping me focus in the moment on the next one. Instead, a more helpful intention for me is to say “My intention for class is to be in each moment fully and listen to my body and allow it to do the work it needs to do. Respect where I am in each moment. Focus on my breath. Be here now.” Once my intention was set to be present here now in each and every moment, on and off the yoga mat, the process revealed itself to me and breakthroughs started to occur.
The process becomes progress when we let go and observe. Interestingly, in yoga as in life, the biggest bursts of my own progress seem to come immediately after a time when things didn’t go according to my plan. The challenges and barriers arise in the process, and suddenly, we learn something. In yoga, it always seems breakthroughs in postures (going deeper, for longer, reaching closer to the ideal form of the posture) come after a difficult class. My body faces the challenges and opens itself to them. Progress happens in challenge and process. In life, it’s when I don’t perform well at something that I progress, because I am blessed with opportunities to learn (as long as I can see it for the opportunity it is and don’t fall into a pit of egotistic despair at how atrocious I am as a human being).
Competency is the opposite of progress. In life, I’d rather receive the “most improved” ribbon than the “#1” ribbon. Most improved means I’m progressing. Fighting against the process, avoiding things that are difficult because we don’t want to look stupid, only doing things we are competent at, and being cruel to ourselves when we don’t “do the best” only serves to stall the progress of the process. The challenge isn’t about improving, that part will happen naturally simply when we keep working at something. The challenge comes from allowing ourselves to be in the process. It’s often the case that yoga students like to avoid postures that are particularly difficult because they “can’t do it right” and they look forward to the postures that come naturally or with ease. But it’s the difficult postures that bring about the most progress in our health, well being, and yoga practice. The same goes for life. When I was in grade 3 we used “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” to learn how to type. This is way back when the internet didn’t exist in day-to-day life and we had computer labs that we visited once per week, not lap tops on each desk. I stayed on the “home row” (asdfghjkl) for as long as I possibly could because I was good at it. My speed was amazing. I managed to get away with this for a number of weeks, looking as though I was really an amazing typist. I felt great, but also a little like a cheat…because that’s what I was. When I finally ventured beyond the “home row,” I didn’t look as awesome as I once did, but it wasn’t until I challenged myself to participate in the process and expand onto the harder keys that I improved my skills.
As another example, let’s take academia. Students (myself included, at one point) will berate themselves when their thesis proposals or manuscripts come back with revisions. I remember the first time I received a paper back chalk full of “track changes” and my undergrad supervisor’s comments and deletion/insertions all over the paper. I was devastated. Now I recognize the immense value of the red corrections all over my page. It was part of the process. I wasn’t a failure as a student, I was simply participating in the process. No one becomes a tenured professor without participating in the process themselves. We go to school to learn, but too often students confuse this with perform. We are not in school to prove our perfection, we are in school to learn, which is a process that allows us to progress. Yesterday, I received my thesis proposal draft back from my supervisor with quite a few comments and queries from him on areas for me to improve my writing. 8 years ago, this might have devastated me. Today, it makes me thrilled at the opportunity to progress.
Observation has been a theme for me these past few weeks. On the mat, I’ve been focusing on calm observation of each moment as opposed to the emotional and psychophysiological turmoil that can sometimes occur when we are working hard or struggling with something. Ego likes to mess us up and have our “monkey mind” work against us while we try to progress. But instead of progress, we simply end up with struggle. Once I was able to let go and detach, I’ve found myself progressing in areas of previous struggle in leaps and bounds. In a particularly difficult posture in yoga, where I may have once become frustrated and upset with myself and my body, I now push myself to the limit and stay there, breathe, and stay calm. I do not go beyond my limit no matter what my ego tells me to do. It doesn’t matter that the person beside me is far deeper in the posture. It doesn’t matter that I wish I was deeper in the posture. None of that matters. I simply stay where I am, and allow myself to be in this moment. When we go beyond our limit, we often end up injuring ourselves or losing the benefit of the process because our bodies let us down (since we’ve let our body down by pushing it too hard.) I think this works in life as well. We must know what our limit is and go there, but stay there. Do not go beyond it. Simply observe our reactions, our feelings, our inner and outer struggles and stay here. Work through the process toward progress. It’s the observation and awareness of ourselves that allow us to do this. Do not struggle and blame. In yoga: the heat, the wrong towel or outfit, not having drank enough water, the instructor talking too fast, the annoying person beside us. In life: the barista making our coffee wrong, the traffic, our spouses, our friends, our bosses, our workloads, etc. The list of blame goes on and on and on. Chaos happens, it’s a fact of life. It’s also a fact that while planning and being organized can be a helpful coping mechanism to improve productivity, it does not control the chaos. The difference between coping with chaos and allowing the chaos to take us over is the ability to observe each moment calmly and give in to the process. Forget about the goals, and focus on the process. One foot in front of the other, one tree stand per day.
What Did You Do Today?
Gabrielle Bernstein helped me pull together these thoughts on process, progress, and observation by reminding me that any kind of growth is not a goal, it’s a journey. Sure, having goals and ideals and plans can be a helpful thing to keep us on track, but it’s today that matters. Reminding ourselves to work each day to be our best selves is the best thing we can do. Throw the plans out the window. Or keep them, but remind yourself that it’s a guideline, not a rule book. Be where you are in each moment and observe yourself, observe your environment, and do what you need to do in each moment to be your best self and care for yourself. It’s not about what you did last year. It’s not about what you are going to do next year. What did you do today? What are you doing right now? It’s the process. It’s progress.