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.