How to give up, start over, and take a hint from the newbie.
Here’s the honest to god truth: after over twenty years of devoted (bordering on obsessive) yoga and meditation practice, I am amazed at how much time I still spend criticizing myself, judging others and wanting things to be different than they are. Wanting things, in general. Or, not wanting things. Being mad at how our planet is evolving. I used to hear stories about long-time practitioners who suddenly gave up practice after years and years, and I couldn’t understand how anyone could be so silly. How could you give up after putting so much time in?
I get it now. What use are all the months and months on retreat and pilgrimage and attending hundreds of teachings and classes and conferences? I’ve spent thousands of dollars and many years, cumulatively, in intensive practice situations. I’ve sacrificed steady jobs, long-term relationships and stable housing situations.
And good old ego keeps asking: Why are you wasting your time?
I answer with things like this: These practices settle me, I’m more stable emotionally, they have allowed me to earn my living while traveling the world, often in places most people only dream about. It’s been an incredibly rich experience.
Or more to the point: I don’t have a choice.
Ego answers: You’re a failure at this. Give it up.
And of course this is true—I am a failure at it—because there is nothing to achieve. There is no goal and ego hates this. But along the way I’ve become more peaceful, more relaxed, nicer to be around. People tell me so. I think this is the point of these practices. But you can’t really measure that. And how do you list that on your resume?
I’ve understood the point of practice to be a realization of the nature of mind—a realization that fundamentally shifts your perspective of reality. One that allows loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity to infiltrate every situation that arises. And though these qualities are more familiar than they were in the past, for the most part, I still look at the world in the same old way: through the eyes of ego, which asks in an endless variety of ways: what’s in it for me?
So I have decided to give up. I mean really, give up.
I’m giving up the negative thoughts that still sabotage my peacefulness. I’m giving up the self-flagellation that stains my awareness. I’m giving up the illusion that I have plenty of time to practice later, because I don’t know if I’ll have another twenty years or not. I may, but I may not. I’m going back to the beginning to learn again.
My first yoga teacher, Richard Freeman, was (and still is) appreciated for his Level One beginner’s class. What originally drew me to yoga practice was Richard’s constant reminder to keep coming back to the beginning. So that’s what I am doing. Back to the beginning: back to the mat, back to breath and bandhas, back to questioning my ideas about how things should look.
Ego complains that things are never as I think they should be. I keep thinking I should be more of this and less of that, somewhere else on the spectrum. But I’m not. So I am recommitting to stay present with the truth of the moment, whether or not I like what I see. Being a beginner is humbling. Humility can be a profound teaching, if you are brave enough to face it.
As a beginner, you open yourself to new possibilities—you have no idea what you are in for. Openness is the most important tool you have when learning something new (like how to live your life). It is also how to keep practice fresh. If you lose this, you lose the whole point of practice. Openness is not just about flexible hips or shoulder joints. Openness means acceptance, curiosity. If I cannot do a posture as a beginner, I can accept that. After all, I have only just begun. But if, after 20 years I can still not do that posture (or maintain that ideal relationship or the perfect teaching situation), I might encounter embarrassment or vulnerability, and that is powerful medicine.
The best way to tune in to this experience of being a beginner is to use the breath. It is always present, and always in the now. The breath is the connector between our inner and outer experience—the communicator, or, you could say, our wireless connection. It is our lifeline. The more aware you are of your breath—which is to say the more finely tuned in it is—the stronger your connection. Connection to what? To everything, but let’s just call it source.
The most important teaching Richard ever gave me was to listen to myself, even if everyone else was doing something different and telling me to do the same. I love him for saying this. You know yourself better than anyone else ever will. With practice your innate wisdom will develop its voice, and at the same time, you will learn to hear it, by listening to the breath. And the more you practice, the more you will come to know this voice. It is with you always—it is the voice of your heart. But to hear it, sometimes you might need to become a beginner again—to keep coming back to the breath, and to not knowing, again and again. And again.
So here’s my current practice: Breathe in, Breathe out, Smile, Repeat.
Ed: Caroline Scherer