I am very much an all or nothing kind of person. I am EITHER going running, eating quinoa, reading philosophy and flossing my teeth OR crashed out on the sofa watching crap TV and eating family sized packs of Kettle Chips. There is an element of compulsion, or obsession in everything I do. I have always been this way and though I know I feel much better when I am leading a healthy lifestyle it seems that after a certain amount of time I feel the need to go and revisit some of my old negative habits. I have been thinking about this a lot since lock down as I had imagined that I would use this unique time to get super-fit and healthy. As yet, this has not happened! I realise that I tend to set myself up to fail by aiming for very difficult to reach goals. I am getting better at spotting this and I do truly believe that compassion is much more likely to lead to the realisation of ambitions than self-loathing. And I also know that setting realistic goals starts the ball rolling for me. For example in the context of doing my practice, I can lure myself onto the mat if my aim is to only do 10 minutes, whereas if I declare I am going to do a 90 minute practice every day I will probably fail. It feels as if all my ‘good’ habits are roped together like rock climbers on a mountain face. If one person slips and falls whilst on the rock face, they are protected from plunging to their death by the safety rope, but the other climbers are placed in peril: it becomes very difficult for them to stay put and almost impossible to progress, and there is a very real danger that they will all be pulled off the mountain before too long.
Once my good habits have plummeted into the depths my bad habits come scrambling up the rock-face at incredible speed, like a pack of starving wolves, and my bad habits seem so much stronger than my good ones. When I am working in my garden I see this play out with the plants I cultivate that need endless tending and mulching and pruning, and dividing and staking up and feeding just to keep them alive, whilst the weeds need no such coddling, they are strong and virile and difficult to eradicate.
Now is the case of my garden it is true that the weeds have been there much longer than the cultivated plants. And it is also true that most of my bad habits and negative thought spirals pre-date my newer more positive habits. In yoga philosophy our habits are called samskaras. Samskara simply means a pattern that is repeated without thought. Think about it: we all have plenty of ‘positive’ samskaras or habits, beneficial things we do without having to think about it. Brushing our teeth, showering, putting on deodorant, wearing clean clothes. We don’t need to be reminded to do these things, we just do them. (This does not hold true for all teenage boys however). Now for me there are two different circumstances that cause me to part ways with my good habits. The first is an episode of depression that even after all these years I fail to recognise. If I ‘can’t be bothered’ to brush my teeth, or take a shower or put my clothes in the laundry basket and get out some clean ones, then the sirens should be sounding!! This is the first rock climber losing her footing and falling, finding herself suspended in space and putting all the other good habits in peril. The second is this: if I have been practicing my good habits and feeling great, I then reward myself with some of my bad habits. I think we all have our ‘guilty pleasures”:binge watching an entire boxset, downing one too many gin and tonics, hitting the chips and dips with great relish, and there is nothing wrong with this. It only becomes a problem if we have an all or nothing the mind-set:
“Oh I have blown it now so might as well stop doing all the healthy stuff and just accept that I am lazy and undisciplined and my future will probably involve having to be cut out of my house by the fire brigade still clutching the remote control and the biscuit tin.”
Do you remember this rhyme from childhood
“There was a little girl and she had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very very good but when she was bad she was HORRID.”
Ring any bells? The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow apparently wrote it about his daughter Edith. That for me sums up the dichotomy of ‘good’ Michelle and ‘bad’ Michelle and historically I cut myself NO slack whatsoever. If I slipped up just ONCE then I was bad, and all my good habits were thrown up in the air like a pack of cards. These days I do better. I am much more forgiving of myself when I slip, which actually makes it much easier to get back on track.
So, back to those samskaras. Think about this, if you walked across a meadow with lush waist high grass every day for a month, you would wear a track into the undergrowth. Once the track is clearly visible, you are much more likely to walk that track than set off in a different direction and battle your way through the undergrowth. Why? Because it is easier. It is exactly the same with our habits. When we repeat the same behaviour over and over again it creates a path or groove in our consciousness making it easier for us to repeat that behaviour without having to think. When this gives rise to a good habit like always having a nourishing breakfast, remembering to put on sunscreen, or going for a walk in your lunch break, we are happy and we feel good. But when this gives rise to a bad habit, like having a large glass of wine the minute you get in in from work, then another, then another, you are heading for trouble.
This pandemic will have thrown all our usual patterns into disarray, and everyone has reacted to this upheaval in their own unique way. Some are thriving, enjoying the slower pace, and feeling very content whilst others are struggling and feeling very much at sea. Many people are now either facing more risk at work, which is very stressful, or are unable to work which gives rise to its own stresses. I have heard from some students that they are on their mat regularly and really getting into their yoga practice, and from others that despite their best intentions they are yet to set foot on the mat. Some people are getting more exercise than they did before as they have a more flexible day, or more time, or both and can get out for a walk or a run, but others are getting less, perhaps because their “commute” to work now involves walking from the bedroom to the dining room table to open a laptop, and the gyms are no longer open. For those with kids at home I wonder how they carve any “me-time” out at all.
I think it is now more important than ever NOT to compare your coping strategies with other peoples. If you do, it will have one of two effects, either you will see yourself as doing better than most other people and your ego will inflate, or you will see yourself as doing worse than most other people and your ego will deflate, and neither of these outcomes are beneficial to your soul. If you are coping well, understand that others may not be, and if you are not coping don’t start beating yourself up because everyone else seems to have adapted more easily than you.
My mantra this week has been “Just keep swimming” from the film “Finding Nemo”. Now I have never been a huge fan of animated children’s films, but this one I loved, which is strange as I have Thalassophobia (fear of the sea).For those of you who have not seen it, it is about a marine fish that gets caught in the wild and taken thousands of miles away to an aquarium. The adventure begins when his father sets off on what seems like a hopeless quest to find his missing son. He is helped by a character called Dory , a fish with a memory span of about 30 seconds. This means that she hardly ever has a clue who she is, where she is going or why, so she sings to herself “Just keep swimming! Just Keep Swimming!” Lets just say, over the last 11 weeks, I have found that I can relate to Dory more than usual!
So here is my suggestion. To help those of you who are struggling to find your groove at the moment I have organised this weeks lessons in a different way. I have broken the classes down into 10 minute segments that all stand alone as short practices. I have called these short practices ‘sparks’, as it only takes a spark to ignite a fire.
Now, if you are struggling to get on the mat this is what I would like you to do. I want you to set yourself a sankalpa each morning when you wake up. A sankalpa is an intention. I want you to say it our loud and then write it down, or draw it. Each day, I want you to commit to doing just ONE of the ten minute practices. You can do the same one every day if you want to or try a different one each time, whatever suits you. Ten minutes. And there is more homework. If you are not in self-isolation and able to leave the house, I want you to find a walk in your neighbourhood, perhaps just around the block that is between 5 and 10 minutes long, no longer. You need to walk briskly so that you get warm and slightly breathless. Every day. Rain or shine. If you are confined to the house, you could either walk up and down the stairs briskly for one minute or run on the spot for one minute, or do star-jumps for one minute. Every day. Whichever day you start I want you to commit to these two habits every day for a full week, because if we want to establish good habits we have to repeat that behaviour over and over again to wear that ‘groove’ into our consciousness. And yes that takes some effort and some commitment.
So your sankalpa might be something like:
“Today I am going to nourish my body and soul by making the time and space to do my yoga and take my walk. I am going to make these two things a priority and I am going to put my well-being at the top of my agenda.” However you choose to construct your sankalpa it needs to be phrased in a positive way so that it sows the seed of this new behaviour into your subconscious, thus using self-compassion rather than self-loathing as your motivating force.
If it all falls apart, forgive yourself, and then have another go. And another. And another.
And let me know how you are getting on.
I will leave you with these words By Charles Reade
“Sow a thought, and you reap an act; Sow an act, and you reap a habit; Sow a habit, and you reap a character; Sow a character, and you reap a destiny”