I woke up on New Year’s Day with the Southern California sun streaming through the guest room of my folks’ house, beckoning me to do yoga outside. I smiled at the thought of starting the year on the mat, and snuggled deeper into the blankets to give the sun time to evaporate the dew from the east-facing deck. The idea of starting off 2020 with some yoga in the sun created warmth in my heart.
Then, this happened in my head:
“Yes! 2020, big year deserves a big start. You should do 108 sun salutations!”
“Um, well, my head hurts a bit (for obvious reasons). I don’t think I have the energy for 108.”
“But it’s an important day! Remember how you were gonna do 108 for the winter solstice but holiday preparations and family stuff got in the way.”
[Guilt starts to creep in] “Family’s important…”
“It’s a new decade. You need to something momumental.”
[Feeling shame now] “I really don’t have the energy for—”
“You could do the first 24—”
And instead of heading to the mat, I reached for my phone.
This is the tyranny of should: when “should” posits perfection as the expectation. What are the default responses to tyranny? Compliance or rebellion. Compliance won’t always be negative. Pushing our boundaries is what makes life exciting, and we can embrace the journey toward consciously unreachable ideals as one that ever extends our comfort zone. However, far too often, perfection’s standard becomes a source of unproductive stress. Eventually, there will come a circumstance (like a hangover) that doesn’t allow for obediance to a “should”, so we’re left with rebellion.
This is how “should” leads us into a realm where perfection is the enemy of good. The morning of January 1st, I didn’t have the energy to do 108 of anything. I had the energy to do some yoga, but for my monkeyed mind, getting to the mat became an all-or-nothing situation. I envisioned doing less than 108 full surya namaskars and feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing the day justice. Since I couldn’t meet the arbitrary “should” standard, it wasn’t worth doing at all. To escape that potential discomfort, I seized on a mindless distraction (the phone).
Our modern world offers thousands of such distractions from mental/emotional discomfort. Many of them are useful tools (social media, Netflix, snack food, shopping malls), which make the harder to recognize as obstacles. When theses tools keep us in a state of perpetual distraction, they no longer serve us. Those things we’re avoiding are still there, and our brain knows it. Every time our brain pokes at our avoidance, it creates unproductive stress.
Of course, “should” can offer gentle guidance, as with my inspiration to do yoga in the first place. The trouble arises with the monkey mind setting conditions on the inspiration. Suddenly, the activity becomes a chore. Happy longing turns into heavy reluctance.
Here, in the thick of resolution season, the “shoulds” and “should nots” arise to constrict habits and behavior. By the end of the month many of those resolutions fail. We adhere to the “should”, maybe even more strongly than our original standard, then we feel like we “should” stay there or “do better”. Then, if we fail to meet the increasingly unsustainable standards, we punish ourselves with guilt. A build up of guilt often flips to defiance and we abandon the resolution completely.
So how do we navigate this?
1. Push Pause
Next time you find yourself diving into a snack or social media, stop. Breathe. Disrupt the stimulus-response with your breathing. This might be the hardest part, and it will take a measure of mental toughness to open up the space between urge and action, but stick with it by taking a few long, slow breaths. With practice, it becomes easier to employ the strategy.
Recognize the distraction for the avoidance that it is. Sure, sometimes mindless distraction is what we need. Most times, it’s a reflex against mental discomfort. Honestly assess if the desired action is a habitual response to undesirable states of mind (stress, boredom, dissatisfaction). Breathe through the first layers of rationale. What are we distracting ourselves from? What is the discomfort we seek to avoid?
In my case, the compulsion to scroll was an attempt to smother the shame of not living up to the “should” of a perfect, decade-inaugurating yoga session.
3. Settle in
Instead of avoiding discomfort, hang out with it. In yoga, we move into poses and find the edge of discomfort and hold there, exploring the sensations that arise, determining if the intensity is that of stretching and strengthening or of damaging, and then adjusting as needed. We can apply that to our minds. Hang out with the discomfort that the mental ripples create in your body, explore their shape and tender points, keep the breath long and intentional. If thoughts get overwhelming, stick with the breath and perhaps a mantra (said aloud or internally) to calm the whirlwind.
That’s what I had to do: I put aside the phone, lie on my back, silently breathed the mantra SO-HAM (“so” on the inhale, “ham” on the exhale–it means “I am That”) until I could decouple the urge from the action.
4. Be Good
Good is always enough. We can’t let perfect paralyse us from doing what’s good, whether for ourselves or others. We can’t let ideals short-circuit what serves. We don’t always have time or energy or resources to match our dreams. It’s okay—more than okay: it’s the challenge of being alive. Material existence is limitation. Doing good within the real conditions of any given moment is how we thrive.
I unrolled my mat with no expectation at all. I let the sun warm my face. I let my (slightly hungover) body move whatever way it could, exploring what felt good and what didn’t. It was glorious. Good is always enough and it is glorious.
5. Allow for Mistakes
If we forget to halt up distraction-behavior, there’s no need to pile on the stress with frustration or shame. We’re not going to shame our way to thriving. Old grooves are easy to slip into, and we will slip into them. The work is in continuing to move away from undesirable habits and create new grooves. “Cheating” is not failure. It’s part of the process. Employ the strategies when you remember. The more we practice, the more mindfulness becomes a habit.
May you enter 2020 with compassion, curiosity and courage.