The last two days have been full of chores and increasing anxiety about a conference paper that needs to be magically well-written. Getting onto the mat…well, it’s hard to believe that within the first week it’s been so difficult. (What might this portend for the remaining 361 days?) Truth be told, what I need is a good-quality sweat found in one or two classes at the studio. But the aforementioned anxiety limits my ability to even think about devoting an hour and a half plus talking, travel, and other such good times to a yoga practice. Why travel there when I can work on my arm balances here?
Good news, though; I have made it to the mat. Last night’s practice was short but sweet: a few sun salutations to stretch out my tightening back and a gentle sequence designed for the piercing headache that crept in around 7 pm. Yoga provided more relief than my two alleve. Today’s practice was sandwiched in before lunch and my work. I crept to the mat slightly grumpy about the chores that needed to get done in the house, the fact that I was missing two apples for an apple rum raisin bread I planned to bake this evening and I had just gotten home from the store, and the hyper-activity of two dogs. Plus, there’s that paper to write and time for gathering my evidence, finding my threads, and crafting a narrative…all after reading additional articles and at least two other large books on the topic. Just where is time hiding these days? Sadly, little relief was found. I got into my groove and then lost it, mostly because my silly legs kept sliding off my arms in a series of arm balances. Is it just the case that my skin is too supple and too soft? About then a dog yelped to be let in. Off I tumbled off my mat and into my day, still slightly grumpy.
It’s easy to imagine how these last two days might work with tapas, or discipline. But since I’m devoting this month to the study of ahimsa, or non-violence, the focus changes slightly. In the back of my mind is the question: How do I practice non-violence towards myself? Certainly I can watch and try to alter the thoughts I tell myself. But what about these habits of mine? This recurring sense of restlessness, which, if and when I’m being honest, I acknowledge is related to certain stories I tell myself about my capabilities? What of procrastination? Or the habits that enable me to wriggle and wrest free of my seat, like surfing the internet, reading rather than writing, worrying about long-term and short-term possibilities that only need time and patience to reveal themselves, or adapting the seat I take in shamatha? Which of these habits might be violent? I suspect that some of them are, insofar as they allow me to write and then affirm a certain negative story about myself.
But a project of changing habits in order to alter stories can be as violent as what it hopes to remedy. Pema Chodron reminds us that telling ourselves “if only I were a little more…(productive, focused, etc.)” can be an act of aggression against ourselves because it suggests that perfection may not only be possible but it requires radical change, or a disavowal of who we are, what we feel, and what our experiences have been. She does not mean that change is bad, but she does want us to shift our understanding of it. Digging out the wisdom buried in my poor or violent habits might be more beneficial and also more kind than allowing those habits to become additional hairshirts, donned in a self-negating mortification aimed at some kind of self-perfection. It’s treasure-hunting time.