My New Year’s resolution this year isn’t all that new. I adopted it sometime last summer when I noticed my mind whirring in a panic of discontent around all the books I hadn’t read that would surely, once I’d read them, make me a better writer.
On the corner of my desk I caught a glimpse of another stack of books that promised improved self-awareness, spiritual growth and all around better-ness. My abdomen tightened at the thought of the time I had allotted to read and the chunks of reading I’d assigned myself. Plus I had undertaken a variety of different practices, including asana, to improve one aspect of my life or another.
Even my relationships emulated this earnest trying. A kind of wanting to please, to make everyone happy or to like me. And in one brief moment, I realized the impossibility of it all. I couldn’t sustain a practice of should-do-mores and try-harders. What I needed was to un-try. To catch myself in the throes of self-improvement and let go of striving.
At first I thought this would help my breathing and my state of mind. But a deeper unravelling began to happen in my life. Things I did to “keep it together” no longer worked in my un-trying. Truths about myself arose in ways that were less than comfortable and I realized all this trying covers up our deep anxieties and insecurities, it keeps us from knowing ourselves as we really are.
One of the self-observances of yoga, one of the niyamas, is santosa -- which translates as contentment. Some translate it as acceptance. A few years ago, I heard someone say that spiritual practice was basically this: radical self-acceptance. Accepting yourself as you truly are. The more I examine this, the more difficult it seems. In our nit-picky culture of comparison and judgment, self-acceptance would appear to be a set up for failure.
Now, in this fresh start season of January, I wonder if it is as elusive as I believe.
This winter, after many winters of talking about it, I have finally taken up cross-country skiing. I love being outside, love the quiet of forests and mountain trails, love the steady rhythm of moving my body. Yesterday, my husband and I set out on a nine-kilometre track under a stack of quietly flaking cloud. My gear came from a used sports store, it’s old and unpretentious, it eats blisters into my heels, but it works.
My husband glided well-ahead of me and sometimes I felt the pull to keep up, or the belief that I wasn’t a good enough skier. Then I brought my awareness back into my body, to relax my hands around the poles and to the undulating movement of my sacrum which helped the gliding push of my legs. I realized that I loved being there, that my body was happy just to move like this and that I never needed to get better at it and I could set my own pace and continue to enjoy it.
And this seemed to me a breakthrough in understanding santosa and my ongoing practice of un-trying. That the paradox of self-improvement isn’t by adding more layers of goals and striving, but to remove layers and offer the body and mind spacious moments of contentment where joy can seep through and overtake you.
There's a scene in Harry Potter where our heroes seek to save the Philosopher's Stone. The leap from the trap door (guarded by the three-headed dog) and are caught by a net of the magical plant: Devil's Snare. Once they drop into the trap tendrils wrap around their arms and legs; the children wriggle to free themselves, but matters only worsen. Finally, brainy Hermione remembers that the way out of the situation is to relax with it.
I've been thinking how this Devil's Snare is a perfect metaphor for the sticky trappings of our minds. The way we find ourselves trapped in certain situations and the way we struggle that only furthers our entrapment.
A few days ago, a familiar pattern of tension rose up my neck and cast its net over my skull. The pain causes discomfort and arises when I've tweaked my shoulder, worked it without awareness, or when I've been trying too hard. As I was in bed, trying to relax, I realized I was experiencing an urgent sense of wanting to rid myself of the pain. This, I realized, only made my tension mount.
Interesting, I thought. And I wondered what would happen if I stopped trying to fix it, stopped trying to make it go away as is so often my habit. Soon, I found all tension sliding away. I realized how much we resist 'what is' in subtle ways. We don't want to feel pain (aversion to pain), so we 'fight' against it. This pain could be as simple as a noise that annoys us or, indigestion. Tension mounts in our resistance to our annoyance, adding fuel to the fire.
Years of asana hone our sensitivity to the subtle changes of our inner bodies/minds. Within a pose, we discover where we are open, both psychologically and physically, and where we create resistance (sometimes within the same asana!). Notice thoughts like: ah, I can't do this pose ... I hate this pose ... I love this pose! ... I've had enough of this pose. All these judgments simply reflect our mental process, we are not required to stop these thoughts from arising, but to notice and be with them. Sometimes, however, we mentally thrash out, adding more judgment (I should stop thinking about how I hate this, what a terrible yogi I am, etc.) Physical cues that guide us to the breath or the relax of the eyes can help quiet the mental noise, loosening its grip.
When an unpleasant experience arises and I find myself bulking in resistance, I like to think of Pema Chodron (a Buddhist nun and author of many books) who says of her Life: I am open, to salty. And I am open to sweet.
All of our experience exists. Not just pleasure, not just pain. And in yoga, we can learn to relax with what arises, to create space, and drop from the tendrils of that Devil's Snare.