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.