Finding the Time to Practice

Sometimes we think we don’t have time to practice.  A better time will come when this finishes or that happens.

Here are some brief words of wisdom from Pema Chodron, an ordained Buddhist nun, prolific author and teacher:

The key instruction is to stay in the present. Don’t get caught up in hopes of what you’ll achieve and how good your situation will be some day in the future. What you do right now is what matters.

Another well-known teacher, Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, puts this into a slightly different context.  In a recent article in Tricycle Magazine, she talked about her early days of finding a personal practice and how she went through a dilemma over which practice path to follow.  She writes:

In order to practice, we have to surrender, we have to take a risk. . . .Often the obstacle is fear: we don’t think we’ll ever succeed.

One of the strongest experiences that I had of this happened somewhat early in my practice when I was living in India. . . . Unable to decide between the two traditions, I would sit . . .and mostly I would just think, “Should I do this or should I do that?”

I wasn’t really learning a lot from my practice since I wasn’t really practicing much. I was mostly just thinking about which practice to do. Finally I said to myself, “Just do something. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, just do something for the sake of the doing, for the engagement, for the involvement.”

After much vacillation, I concluded, “Well, I’ll just do one form of practice for six months,” and that’s what got me into actually practicing. It’s not that one needs to do only one practice forever,  and I certainly haven’t.”

Years ago I recall speaking with a friend who claimed to want to quit smoking cigarettes, but always found some reason why now was not a good time.  For example, when we spoke her father was coping with advanced cancer and she was helping her mother attend to him.  She said, “Once this crisis passes, then I’ll quit”.  My response was, “There is never going to be a ‘right time’.  You just have to make up your mind and do it.”  This was no revelation of great wisdom on my part.  I was speaking from my own experience.  I, too, had been a smoker.  During a great crisis in my life, I came to recognize how important it is to take control of the things you can control while you can control them.  Many of us operate under an illusion that we are in charge of our lives, but there is so little we can truly control in this life.  Although smoking is an addiction, it was still a choice I was making.  One of the few things I really did have the power to control.  It took a decision and a daily commitment, but I did it – despite the emotional turmoil in my life at the time.

Another friend of mine who was a collector of rare books and ephemera used to speak longingly of spending more time exploring his passion.  Instead he continued to work at a job he disliked intensely because he thought it was something he needed to do.  Then one day he was afflicted with an aneurism and died suddenly.  He never got to do the things he wanted to do most while still on this planet.  This, too, was a lesson to me.  Life is uncertain, but death is inevitable.  We know it will happen to all of us, but we don’t when or how.  All we have is this moment, right now.  Sounds so simple, yet so hard to truly accept.

And, of course, all of this comes back to my passion for practicing yoga and Pilates.  Many of you have heard me say that we all need to move while we can move since we never know when we won’t be able to move anymore.  So rather than wait until _____________ (fill in the blank – you lose some weight, or the kids go to college, or whatever life issue is keeping you from doing what you know you need to do), as the commercial says “just do it!”  You will need to make a decision and re-commit each day.  But if you make that decision, you will find a way.  Start small.  A few minutes a day is better than nothing.  Consistency is the most important ingredient.  Just keep at it.  People often tell me that they wish they could do some of the things I do in class the way that I do them.  Here is a revelation:  I was not born knowing how to do these things. I don’t even have any particular talent or skill.   I could not do these things when I first started either.  But with regular practice I have learned that I am able to do much more than I thought I could.  Practice itself is an amazing teacher.

Notice I mentioned “decision”.  For me, this is the most important requirement for making it happen.  This was recently echoed in an interview on Sounds True with Snatam Kaur, an American singer who was raised in the kundalini yoga tradition.  She is the lead singer for the Celebrate Peace tours and has released eight records.  As a travelling musician with an international performance schedule who also recently became a new mother, she talked about how she maintains her practice despite an overwhelmingly busy and demanding life.  She said:

. . . after I had experienced having a baby and being on the road as a touring musician and my daily practice just kind of, you know, evaporated. . . . But then . . . I figured out my bottom line. And it was, I’ve got to have a half hour of yoga every day. And it was amazing. I made the choice in my mind, and then I was able to do it. I have to have a half hour. And then it was like time and space moved for me.

Just in case you are unable to relate to any of these situations and you are still feeling like your particular circumstances are unique, here are a few more words of encouragement and inspiration from and article in Tricycle by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an abbot of Metta Forest Monastery and the translator of numerous Thai meditation guides:

In times of crisis, we often feel we don’t have the time or energy to practice, but those are precisely the times when the practice is most necessary. This is what we’ve been practicing for: the situations where the practice doesn’t come easily. When the winds of change reach hurricane force, our inner refuge of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment is the only thing that will keep us from getting blown away. . . . And we needn’t be afraid that this is an escapist shelter.  When the basis of our well-being is firm within, we can act with true courage and compassion for others, for we’re coming from a solid position of calmness and strength.

We may be powerless to change the past, but we do have the power to shape the present and the future by what we do, moment to moment, right now.

Amen to that!

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Continuing Reflections on Change

Today was an absolutely glorious day in the Black Hills!  A tantalizing reminder that winter really won’t go on forever.  Of course, as Mark Twain said, if we don’t like the weather we can wait a minute and it will change.  This is just one more reason to enjoy each moment while it lasts.

How about taking a lesson from our weather and recognizing that change is happening all the time all around us.  Externally and internally.  So when you think that you will always be a certain way because that’s the way you think you’ve always been, my favorite philosopher/astrologer Caroline Casey would say “until now!”  Very little is etched in stone.  And even if it is, the stone is likely to erode or crumble at some point.  Change is always possible.  It’s all a matter of attitude and perception.

In a recent article in Tricycle Magazine, Sharon Salzberg, a well-known meditation teacher, reflected on mindful meditation as being “ like going into an old attic room and turning on the light”.  She writes:

It’s never too late to turn on the light. Your ability to break an unhealthy habit or turn off an old tape doesn’t depend on how long it’s been running; a shift in perspective doesn’t depend on how long you’ve held the old view. When you flip the switch in that attic, it doesn’t matter whether it’s been dark for 10 minutes, 10 years, or 10 decades. The light still illuminates the room and banishes the murkiness, letting you see things you couldn’t see before. It’s never too late to take a moment to look.

Change doesn’t always happen instantly, though, even when we really want it to.  Sometimes breaking an old habit can be tough.  It requires practice and a recognition that the change may take some time.  First a commitment is required and then a consistent effort to let go of the old and familiar and bring in the new and unknown.  But I believe all things are possible with commitment and practice.  We’ve all heard the old story of a musician being asked what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall and answering “practice, practice, practice”.  There’s another old saying – “fake it ‘til you make it”.  Sometimes going through the motions of practice is enough to maintain the consistency until you can feel it happening.  Be patient and kind to yourself.  Give yourself a pat on the back for following through on your commitment.

In my classes I will often hear new participants lament “I can’t possibly do that move; I’ve never been able to do that move.”  My own experience tells me a different story.  There was a time when I could not do that move either!  But I kept trying and eventually, with practice, I found (sometimes to my surprise!) that I was actually doing it.  Maybe not perfectly by some standards, but well enough to know I was receiving the benefits.

As a firm believer in practice, I hope you will just keep at it.  Whatever you are trying to accomplish, keep practicing.  Be confident in the knowledge that change will come.  Maybe not the way you expect it, but it will come nonetheless.