August 5, 2011

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back.

Humanity is just a work in progress. – Tennessee Williams

Over the winter, my godmother had back surgery that was meant to help resolve the chronic pain she had been suffering for years. Instead, she wound up bed-ridden and fearful that she might never walk again. Months of rehabilitation later, she is slowly regaining her mobility. She has achieved milestone after milestone – sitting upright in bed, sitting in a wheelchair, taking a step or two with a walker, walking longer distances and even driving. I smiled at a note she wrote last week, saying, “While I’m not where I want to be yet, I’m a work in progress.”

If that isn’t a universal truth, I don’t know what is.

There are times in our lives when it is glaringly obvious that we’re works in progress. Like my godmother’s recuperation, these can be times of healing – from illness or injury. They can also be times of study – high school, college, or a professional training program. They can be times of struggle – a rough patch in a significant relationship, a job search, a move or a family crisis. They can be times of seeking – spiritual, professional or personal. They can simply be relatively short times of training – for a race, a performance or even a speech. During times like these, our evolution is at the forefront of our concerns. It doesn’t take too much reflection to see how far we’ve come or to notice when we’ve taken a step (or two) back.

But, really, whether or not we’re conscious of it, we’re always works in progress. I wasn’t the mother I am today when my firstborn was an infant. Though I was paying much more attention to my child’s development than to my own, I was developing too. Some ages and stages were easier than others. Remembering some still leaves me baffled. I suspect, as that same child heads off to high school, my evolution is far from complete. Similarly, I wasn’t the wife I am now during the first year of marriage. Even though I haven’t always been paying attention, I’ve changed a lot over the 18 years that I’ve been married to my husband. Sometimes I have been a superb wife (if I do say so myself). And, as much as I’d like to blame all the tough times on him, sometimes I’ve been a nightmare. Ups and downs seem to be part of the deal.

Nothing has taught me more about staying aware of the journey than my yoga practice. In the beginning, being a work in progress was painfully obvious. I had to develop stamina, strength and flexibility just to make it through class. My physical progress was initially impossible not to notice, but I came to my first plateau within months. Patience and persistence were as hard for me to manage as respecting my limits was only a few months earlier. I learned that the way my body opens and retracts can seem capricious. More importantly, I learned that a loose day does not mean I’m always going to be loose, just as a tight day doesn’t mean I’m always going to be tight. Forward and back, open and close – that has been the nature of my journey.

The same has been true of the deeper levels of my practice. A long run of deeply meditative times on my mat can be broken overnight and I’ll spend what feels like forever dealing with a hoppy, hyperactive mind. I’ve even found that my intentions for my practice can subtly shift without my awareness. Several times, I’ve realized that I’ve become overly focused on my physical prowess. More than once, I’ve drifted into long periods of spiritual doldrums which left me questioning not only my faith, but the very futility of the practice itself. Just as suddenly, I’ve woken up feeling once more the deep connection to the whole of creation and my practice has shifted yet again.

My “two steps forward and one step back” progress on my mat has taught me a lot about my nature and the nature of life. My yoga is helping me to figure out how to celebrate my successes without getting terribly attached to them. I’m also learning how to manage my disappointments. I’m learning over and over again that both are as fleeting as my thoughts and emotions can be. Because I’ve watched my practice evolve and devolve over the years, but continue to sustain me whichever the case, it’s easier for me to watch myself evolve and devolve off my mat. My practice makes it easier for me to be gentle with myself when I’m a less than ideal wife and mother because I know I’ll always get another chance to do better. It’s easier for me to navigate tough times because I know they won’t last forever. Likewise, because I know they won’t last forever, it’s easier for me to be gratefully aware of the good times.

Being works in progress is our reality. Being aware of the fact that we’re works in progress, however, is a tremendous gift. With this awareness comes the potential for even greater works – both on our yoga mats and in our lives.

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