Friday, February 25, 2011

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A few thoughts on perseverance....

I’ve been making a lot of changes lately. Making life changes is hardly ever easy - it involves hard work and often, periods of discouragement. If we’re fortunate, there are also moments of encouragement that keep us going, but in order to keep going, we need a lot of perseverance. Where does that come from, anyway?

The bad news is, there’s no magic wand to give you your daily recommended dose of perseverance. The good news is, you have to capacity for it within you - but it requires that you pay attention to your internal dialogue, and choose wisely. Just this morning, as I was starting my yoga practice, those old lazy thoughts started to arise, “I don’t want to do this. I have a headache. Eh, just blow it off.” Fortunately, just as clearly, I could hear another thought arise, “Would it really be better for you to sit on the couch? You know this is the best thing you can do for yourself.” I had to agree with that second thought - it was the voice of my higher self looking out for my best interest. A little later as I was practicing holding a handstand at the wall (which is not easy for me), the voice of resistance reappears: “This isn’t fun - it’s uncomfortable. Just come on down now.” And, just as clearly, the voice of strength: “You can do this. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but this is how you get stronger.” So I did. And I had the most blissful, relaxing finish to my practice than I’ve had in I don’t know when.

Part of cultivating perseverance is knowing that there are different parts of our brains vying for control of our behavior. Our more primitive, pleasure seeking brains want immediate gratification, which in my situation, would have been achieved by sitting on the couch. So, we have to learn to recognize that voice of laziness (“eh, blow it off”) and see that it’s only interested in immediate gratification. Our higher level brains can anticipate consequences, and can put off pleasure seeking now in the service of long term benefit. Of course, if we make it past our thoughts of immediate gratification (i.e., laziness) and take action, we also have to able to distinguish between the voice of ego (“do it so you can be better than anyone else!”) and the positive, self-supportive voice that encourages us to do what is in our best interest. Healthy perseverance is not done in the service of ego. It’s also not self-abuse. Part of my work in holding that handstand (at the wall, by the way) was determining - am I hurting myself? I knew I wasn’t hurting myself, that it was just uncomfortable, and this a key difference. We have to remember that we often have to endure, to press through our discomfort/fatigue/resistance/fear/whatever to make progress. We have to learn to tolerate some discomfort and also to distinguish between the healthy discomfort of change, and potential injury.

At the end of practice, I was pleasantly tired and recognized that pleasant feeling you get when you’ve done your best. That’s how perseverance brings us peace of mind: it frees us from that gnawing feeling of guilt (“I should have done x,y,z”), and allows us to rest in the knowledge that we’ve done our best. We can surrender our efforts and let go of the outcome. And of course, giving ourself enough rest is also necessary if we want to sustain the kind of work that creates real change.

Learning to persevere, to make change, to grow and develop, requires that we become behavior-focused, rather than feeling-focused. In doing so, we learn that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it ultimately leads to better outcomes. We learn to stop, take a deep breath and acknowledge our feelings, but we don’t necessarily let them call the shots. And we learn to continually ask ourselves, “what is the best thing for me to do right now?” instead of, “what do I feel like doing right now?” And when we do it, we can relax, knowing we’ve done our best. And we make progress. Now, back to that handstand...