Power in Community

January has come and gone.  According to just about every article on the subject, most New Year’s resolutions have now reached the graveyard of good intentions.  Fortunately, any time is appropriate to get back on that bandwagon and try again.  As we all know, every day is a new day and a new opportunity.  There are many tips for setting goals and maintaining resolve, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the value of community.  A group of like-minded and supportive practitioners can help keep you motivated, especially when barriers start appearing in your path.

The great Vietnamese philosopher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote “A good [community] is crucial for practice.” He continues “A good teacher is important, but sisters and brothers in the practice are the main ingredient for success.”  Of course, he may be referring to a different type of practice here, but I would venture that even he would not object to expanding the meaning more broadly to include many types of practice.  Especially those practices with the ultimate goal of self-improvement.

If one of your self-improvement goals is to add more movement to your life, a group can be a huge help to keep you on that path.  A recent article in the Washington Post  cites two new studies that demonstrate the value of even “light activity” as being “helpful for outcomes like daily functioning, mental well-being, good quality of life and so on.”  Improved methods are now being used to conduct such studies.  In the past they have mostly been based on self-reporting which is notoriously inaccurate.  But with new technology such as Fitbits and similar activity tracking devices, more objective data can be collected.  The result of these 2 studies show that the benefits of movement, even light movement, are far more impressive than previously thought.  In fact, these studies found that “the most active subjects had a 50 to 70 percent decline in mortality during a defined follow-up period compared with the least active, most sedentary participants. Previous self-report research had pegged this benefit at about 20 to 35 percent.” This is comparable to the health benefits gained by non-smokers vs. smokers.  So it is particularly significant.

Interestingly, these studies tracked individuals (male and female) in their late 60’s and 70’s.  The researchers believe that the results will correlate to younger people also.  But the results add further evidence to support the notion that it is never too late to start moving.  Furthermore, any movement beats being sedentary.  The studies show that “all physical activity counts toward improving health status. You don’t have to play basketball for an hour or run three miles to accrue benefits. You simply have to move . . .”

One great way to do that is to join a group.  That’s what exercise classes provide – a group that is working together to keep moving.  Classes also provide a specific time and place for this activity.  You can set that time aside in your schedule and like any other appointment.  Not only will this help you remember, but it can also help you keep other appointments from interfering.

The word “yoga” is translated as “union” from Sanskrit.  This can mean many things.  It can mean union of mind and body.  Or union of movement and breath.  For this purpose I would suggested that “union” can also refer to a group that practices together.  This is true not just of yoga, but of any group that practices movement together.

Recently one of the members of our Pilates group was sick.  We missed her while she was gone and worried about her sending healing energy for her quick return.  When she got better we were elated to have her back and welcomed her accordingly.  As part of a group your well-being becomes important to others as well as yourself.  Of course, your friends and family will also benefit from your good health, but wouldn’t it be great to have a supportive group to share your efforts with.  You can and should continue to move on your own, but a group can encourage that also.  The more you move, the better you will feel which will encourage more movement.  So if you’re still hoping to at least try to fulfill your pledge to yourself, let a group help you.  We all need each other.  Take advantage of the benefits of community.


Choosing Assistance

There are times in all of our lives when we need a little help from our friends.  Yet some of us have a hard time acknowledging that.

Last week I was talking with a friend who was commenting on the struggle she was encountering with some home repair projects she was trying to complete on her own.  Any of you who have attempted something similar, especially after the loss of someone you relied on to do these things, will recognize the dilemmas these tasks present.  It can seem like an overwhelming chore looming over you like a black cloud. You find yourself succumbing to the procrastination mantra:  I’ll do this when ________.  Fill in the blank with any mythic event in the nebulous future that will somehow enable you to handle this on your own.  As we talked, we both wondered why it was so hard to accept that sometimes you just can’t do everything all by yourself.  And, in fact, there are times when it is better not to even try.

Our culture has ingrained in us this mythical idea that self-sufficiency is the ultimate noble goal.  We need to be strong and face all of our challenges by ourselves.  This concept seems to be in our national DNA.  In fact, our society carries it to such an extreme that we get upset with people who we perceive as “not carrying their own weight”.  You can see this in the current debates raging around us, particularly when it comes to social services.  Policies are built with rules that will prevent the “undeserving” from obtaining services.  This means that arbitrary moral judgments need to be made about who is or is not deserving.  Sometimes following those rules is so daunting that even the “deserving” can’t get access to services.  Thus everybody complains and nobody benefits.  Somewhere along the line we have lost the sense of community and common good.  Or worse, our sense of community has become so distorted that only certain people are allowed to join.  If they don’t meet the requirements they become outsiders, not worthy of our generosity or even compassion.

This scenario may seem extreme, but I think you all know what I mean.  Still I can hardly profess to having the answers to all of the world’s problems.  One thing I do know, though, is that we can all do a better job of accepting our own limitations.  Sure we’ve all heard stories of people overcoming impossible obstacles to achieve some amazing goal.  Those stories can be inspirational.  But too often we forget that these are the exceptions, not the rule.  When we find ourselves unable to accomplish similar feats we can easily become discouraged, focusing on perceived inadequacies rather than recognizing that we, too, each have our own amazing skills.  Instead we withdraw into our safe little cocoons afraid to let anyone know that we might not measure up to the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  And – yes – we impose these standards on ourselves.  You can try to blame outside circumstances, but ultimately we make our own rules for acceptable behavior.

Let’s all engage in a little thought experiment.  Look back in your own life and try to find at least one achievement or experience you have had in which you accomplished something that you didn’t think you could do.  My guess is you’ll find something.  Probably more than one thing. We have all faced struggles and challenges.  Chances are, too, that each of these has been a learning experience. This is something that the “vulnerability expert” Brene Brown talks about in her speeches and writings.  Her message is that even though we think that putting on a brave face is what is expected of us regardless of how we feel, it actually takes more courage to acknowledge that not being perfect isn’t a measure of self-worth.  In an interview with Krista Tippett on the program “On Being” Ms. Brown said, “the most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could get out from underneath. . . the moments that made me were moments of struggle.”

So needing help on occasion doesn’t mean inadequacy or even failure.  What it means is that each of us has certain gifts, but no one is always good at everything.  We can fall into the trap of thinking that other people have it all figured out, but somehow we missed the boat.  We are obsessed with perfection.  Interestingly, though, perfection itself is in the eye of the beholder.  There is no hard and fast definition of perfection that works for everyone.  I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition: “an impossibility, something unattainable, something that cannot be reached..ever.”  Even the Cambridge English Dictionary defines perfection as “the state of being complete and correct in every way”.  Does anyone know of any person or thing that meets that consistently meets that definition?  Of course not!  And yet somehow we expect it of ourselves.

Here’s another thought experiment:  think of all the times when you have helped someone else.  Usually, you feel good about helping and give your assistance freely.  You feel glad that you were asked for your help.  Why not spread those good feelings around?  When you ask for help you are giving someone else the opportunity to experience those good feelings.  So instead of feeling needy, you can actually feel altruistic.

All of this can, of course, relate to my favorite topic – exercise.  Sadly, I still hear people say that they don’t want to come to a class because they are sure everyone is going to point and stare and laugh because of their inability to be perfect.  There are, of course, many flaws in this viewpoint not the least of which is that everyone starts somewhere and even people with innate abilities were not born experts.  All attempts, no matter how rudimentary, are opportunities for learning.  So give the people around you credit for their willingness to support and help you along your journey, wherever you are on that path.  Accept their help at whatever level it is offered. You might be surprised to learn that none of them is perfect either.