The most physically painful experience of my adult life was having an IUD inserted. I will neither gross you out nor bore you with details, except to mention that I found it so painful that the next day my groin muscles were incredibly sore from having clenched my thighs into wobbly submission during the procedure. Just happy to have it over with, I didn’t think much of the experience at the time. But in a recent yoga class, I saw something more profound in how I tightened against the pain.
In yoga class, the teacher guided us into standing splits. It’s an advanced pose that my tight hamstrings don’t like. It was hard for me to stay in position, standing on one leg with the other reaching as far upward as it could muster. It was hard to keep my balance, hard to twist my body into the right shape, hard to even know where my body is in space. I felt the foot I was standing on tighten up and my leg start to shake. Because of the difficulty of the effort I need to make just to be in the pose, I end up struggling against the pose too.
I clenched muscles that didn’t need to be involved. My jaw set firmly with determination, my legs stiffened, and my shoulders, eager to get in on the action, hunched up to my ears. I ended up adding to my own burden. I realized that, despite my body parts’ honest desire to help, I was actually piling tension and struggle on top of an already hard thing, making the pose more stressful and challenging than need be.
But when I let go of the extra, self-imposed struggle– when my jaw and shoulders just observed and I loosened my grip on the pose– then I no longer struggled against myself. I just tried to stay in the hard pose. The pose hadn’t gotten any easier, I just struggled a bit less.
Now I sometimes think, “Oh, this is just hard,” and I can relax a bit.
When I was graduating from college, my favorite art professor gave me this advice: “Don’t get in your own way.”
She knew that I was heading for a job, not as an artist, but in the environmental field (I was a biology and art double major), but she argued that was no reason to stop making art. Art doesn’t require the big things that I’d taken for granted in college– a huge, beautiful printmaking studio, unscheduled blocks of time, and help from fantastic professors. I could keep creating in small ways, in sketchbooks and small cracks of time. Just don’t get in your own way, she said.
These words ricochet around my head every so often. Taking her advice, I buy myself new pens and make sure to always have a journal or sketchbook in my life. Still, I am often (perhaps usually) the one standing in my own way.
Sometimes, I catch myself in the midst of daydreams that are not dreams at all, but waking hallucinations about things that can go wrong. My mind plays a vivid movie reel of what I will say in my defense when I am confronted at work for going to yoga at lunch, or what I will do when I a loved one (someone who is not even sick at the moment) dies.
I try to catch myself in the middle of these stories and ask, “Is this worth thinking about?” No, the answer is always no.
Today, I was walking to the train to go to work and feeling harried, messy and grumpy. Usually when I feel upset or sad, I try to swat away my feelings and coax myself into a better attitude. I have a good life, I tell myself. I am lucky to have all of the things I do. These things are true, but so are my feelings of worry. Trying to beat my worries away with gratitude does not make them dissipate. If anything, it piles on guilt for not being more grateful over top of my other worries. The worries need to be aired in order to, sometimes, float away on their own.
When I wrote down what was bothering me it was this: I had a stuffy nose, I had forgotten my train pass and had to buy a new ticket, and was worried about my relationship. Put into words on a page, these concerns seemed small.
“What’s really stopping me from being happy right now?” I managed to ask myself. The usual answer: Nothing. I felt overheated, pulled off my jacket, and let myself be happy. It was not a wild happiness, just a feeling of contentment that minute, a realization that nothing right then needed my attention, nothing was really wrong, and nothing needed to be fixed.
Image: “One and Three Chairs” by Joseph Kosuth (1965)