Delete “Should”

A friend recently expressed her frustration with the requirements we establish for ourselves.  “The word “should” needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary,” she exclaimed.  Amen to that.  I would also add the word “expectation” to any list of tyrannical and misleading words.  You can all probably think of others.  And – yes – I think the word “tyrannical” applies since we hold these words over our heads like mallets ready to bludgeon us whenever we perceive a shortcoming in ourselves or others.   Sharon Salzberg has some enlightening thoughts on this subject on the On Being website which she has expressed in an article called “The Tyranny of Aspiration”.  In it she talks about a friend inviting her to Washington, DC to see the cherry blossoms.  As she observed the beauty of her surroundings, her friend remarked that the trees were past peak.  Suddenly her enjoyment changed to let-down as expectations clashed with reality.  One more reminder that making plans can be useful as long as the outcome is left out of the plan.  Let outcomes be whatever they become.  There’s probably nothing you can or could have done to change the outcome anyway so accept what it is and let go of labels and categories.  It is what it is and that’s the best it can be right now.

At this time of year when celebrations abound, the specter of “should” can feel particularly threatening.  Did I do everything I was supposed to do? What could I have done better?  As I sit here watching the snow fall outside my window, I wonder about all of those people who had travel in their plans.  Some may be patting themselves on the back for leaving early, but others may be disappointed that their plans were disrupted.  Still others may have decided that all the warnings didn’t apply to them and their determination to do what they said they would do will somehow bestow some kind of badge of honor upon them.  I hope none of you reading this are in this latter category.  But many of us have been there at one time or another.  During my commuting years I remember all of the times when getting to work or some other commitment seemed so important that I was determined to get there regardless of horrendous weather.  There were times when a 20 mile drive could take as long as 3 hours.  But all the “shoulds” and expectations would not allow me to acknowledge that my presence at whatever place I was headed to was not really that important.

Fortunately, I’m older and at least (hopefully) a little wiser now.  Or at least more experienced.  But I can still fall into the “should” trap just like everyone else.  Another friend recently talked about the need to stop comparing abilities today with those of yesterday.  She said “I need to stop reminding myself of all the things I used to be able to do”.  That was then, this is now. The things we’ve accomplished in our past may have been fabulous.  But the fact that our abilities have changed is not a cause for disappointment or sadness, but rather a time to recognize and enjoy what we can do today.  Like everything else in the world, our bodies have changed.  This is a fact no matter how old you are.  And here’s another reality to consider: every day we age a little bit more and everything continues to change.  I saw a quote recently, “Without change there would be no butterflies.”  Not sure who said it, but it’s a good thought.  Accepting and adapting to where you are today is one more opportunity for practice.  There’s that word again – practice.  Everyday presents another practice challenge.  Practice itself is not about achievement.  It’s about trying again each time we fall back into the expectation trap, recognizing that it’s not the end of the world.  Just another experience to add to the many that make us who we are.

Another concept that inspired me this week was described by Elizabeth Gilbert in an interview on “On Being”.  She spoke of choosing curiosity over fear, primarily in the context of expressing creativity.  But I would take it a step further.  Many of us let fear prevail because of cultural conditioning.  We are the sum of our experiences, good and bad, positive and negative, and everything in between.  This brings me to the other word I would like to banish:  “expectations”.  We expect things of ourselves and others because of repeated messages we receive and internalize.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be curious about unknown people or ideas, we often let fear prevail keeping us from learning something new and perhaps unexpected.  At this time of year when we are especially focused on giving and receiving, it might help to think of the knowledge we receive by overcoming fear as a gift.  In an article called “Acceptance as Giving” the author Madisyn Taylor speaks of “allowing ourselves the gift of seeing through another person’s eyes”.  She goes on to say that although giving and receiving are part of the same cycle, we often try to be too controlling on one side or the other.  By letting go of expectations we open ourselves up to experiences that may be unlike anything we could have imagined.

This all may seem very esoteric and beyond our real life experience, but let me bring these concepts back to the main topic of this blog – exercise.  When you come into a class or begin whatever movement modality you practice, start with the conscious intention of letting go of “shoulds” and all other expectations.  Although practice does require a daily choice and commitment to follow through, it does not require you to look or feel any particular way.  Each day and each effort is different.  If on any given day you can’t seem to perform with the same energy that you had yesterday, so be it.  Tomorrow will be different.  Just do what you can.  Maybe you’ll stop a bit sooner than you might have on a different day.  Or maybe the idea that less is more will be your new reality and you need to learn to accept it.  Either way do the best you can with what you have to work with today and it will always be exactly what it is supposed to be.  By giving yourself the same compassion that you would give to someone else you might even receive a bit more patience and tolerance for yourself.



Overdoers Unite!

This morning I checked the outdoor thermometer and saw that it read 9 degrees.  The wind was howling through the trees as they swayed to the sounds sending cascades of snow in clouds through the air.  Still the sun was out, although it was having no effect on the snow-covered ground.  Although 9 degrees is, indeed, cold it was still a major improvement over the -20 degree reading of yesterday. (That’s right: 20 degrees below zero!) After a mesmerizing extended Fall, winter has clearly arrived.

During the winter my mantra has always been “There is no bad weather; there are only poor clothing choices.”  I know how to dress for the cold and I usually enjoy being outdoors regardless of the weather.  But I’ve had a couple of relentlessly busy weeks that have left me feeling tired and sore.  Still, deciding not to go out for some kind of exercise is a major hurdle for me.

In this blog I spend a lot of time addressing those of you who need some extra prodding to maintain a consistent exercise practice.  Most people can easily talk themselves out of exercise for any reason or no reason at all.  Reminders of how to overcome those objections and stay motivated are helpful and necessary.  However, there are some of us, myself included, who need the opposite motivation –  permission to rest.

So today’s message is for the over-doers who adhere to their own internal schedules no matter what their bodies may be telling them.  Both over- and under-exercisers generally suffer from a similar problem – lack of balance.  We are the essence of extremes on one side or the other.  In the philosophies of traditional medicine there are the concepts of yin and yang.  These are terms for the fundamental principle that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites.  For example, there is light and dark, masculine and feminine, night and day, warmth and cold, positive and negative, etc.  Theoretically all of these opposites exist to varying degrees in everything. Within ourselves balancing these opposing forces requires attention and effort.  An article in Yoga Journal titled “Staying Healthy During Winter” talks about these two energies and how we tend to buck them at this time of year in particular.  Winter should be a season for hunkering down and conserving energy.  Yet we seem to find ourselves doing exactly the opposite during the holiday season.

For over-achievers, this is not just a holiday problem, but a chronic condition.  Even when we commit to slowing down, we find ourselves gradually falling back into the old groove: over-scheduling,  making too many commitments and still trying to maintain our own physical well-being.  We rationalize and tell ourselves convincing stories about how we really have slowed down.  Eventually, though, if we actually face reality, the stories begin to hollow out.  Something has to give.  For me, it begins with my attitude.  I find myself becoming tense and irritable.  Little things that usually don’t bother me get on my nerves. Physical manifestations come next.  Simple movements become difficult.  This makes me unhappy which fuels more tension and irritability.  A vicious cycle ensues.  A dear friend of mine says that most of us won’t change anything until the need is “right in front of your face” and you can’t get past the wall it creates without accepting change.  It might be as simple as a change of attitude.  But usually by the time the cycle becomes that extreme, a stronger change is needed.  For an over-doer, that can mean actually stopping and accepting the need for rest no matter how foreign that concept might seem.

Rest is an alien concept for some of us.  But rest can also be taken to extremes.  As I’ve said many times in this blog there is a danger in resting too much.  It can become so difficult to get moving again that inertia takes over and decline begins.  Another vicious cycle: the less you move, the less you want to move so motivation to start moving again becomes that much more difficult. Once again, it is a matter of balance.  Finding that balance between rest and activity is a delicate dance.  Rest might not mean staying in bed or sitting on the couch.  It might mean simply changing your routine or at least becoming more mindful about the choices you make.  Perhaps a particular activity is causing pain.  Instead of automatically adhering to your daily running routine regardless of how your body is feeling, try allowing yourself a shorter, slower session or eliminating the offending activity entirely.  Maybe try walking instead of running, or hiking a flat stretch instead of a strenuous hill climb.  This morning I opted for a gentle restorative yoga session instead of piling on the clothing and pushing myself outdoors.  For an over-doer, active rest like this might be enough to slow things down and encourage balance.

But sometimes what feels like slowing down might not be enough. There are times when extra sleep or sitting with your feet up might be the right prescription. Prioritizing commitments and deciding what is really important and what can be released is another way to face reality and take care of your own energy.  Learn to say “no” by considering honestly what you might have to sacrifice if you don’t.  Taking the time to weigh the pros and cons of any action can be a useful and surprising exercise. Another friend of mine talks about how protective she is of her time, especially as she ages.  Time is a finite commodity for humans.  Having the option to decide how to spend it is an important gift not to be taken lightly.  That choice might be taken from us at any time or at least limited by circumstances beyond our control.  It is incumbent upon us to use that decision-making capability wisely and thoughtfully.

When I first discovered running and the endorphin rush it gave me, it became almost an addiction.  If I had to take a day or two off for any reason I would become anxious, fearful that I would lose the gains I had made and have difficulty getting them back.  It took many years and assorted injuries and other challenges to finally convince me that it was OK to back off every now and then.  These days I am better about accepting my limitations, but I still can fall into the trap of over-doing and expecting too much of myself.  There is another good article in Yoga Journal on this subject called “Being vs. Doing” which is definitely worth checking out for all you over-doers.

Finding that balance is different for each of us and one more aspect of life that is always changing. Just when you think you’ve found the right mix circumstances change and adjustments are once again needed.  A good place to start is to be honest about your current reality.  Accept where you’re at today and find the rhythm that works for you right now. That in itself requires daily practice since it will probably be different tomorrow.