Progress, and why we don’t seem to make any….

We all want to change something.

Perhaps we want to lose weight, run a marathon, learn to play an instrument or learn a foreign language. But sometimes these goals remain stubbornly elusive and the lack of perceived progress can lead to a sense of defeat, and ultimately, to giving up. We try again and again, but there seems an invisible force blocking our progress. All we seem to end up doing, is reinforcing a pattern of failure so that we feel defeated even before we’ve hardly begun.

seedling

In his remarkable book ‘Philosophy of Hatha Yoga,’ Swami Veda Bharati quotes his father as saying, ‘If you’ve fallen in mud, you cannot expect to get up from a marble floor.’ This perfectly down-to-earth expression captures the practical importance of beginning from where you find yourself N THIS IS ALWAYS here and now. No matter how ‘muddy’ things might seem where you find yourself now, THIS IS YOUR STARTING POINT.

This seems almost ridiculously obvious. After all, we are only ever here and now, aren’t we? Yet oftentimes, and especially when we are learning something new, there is a tendency to think of ourselves somewhere ‘out there’ — like a phantom self, a product of our desire to supercede our current image of ourselves. To be ‘better’. It is certainly possible for that phantom to become a muse that inspires us to develop our practice. More often than not, however, it hangs around our head like a nagging aunt, berating us for our inadequacies and driving a wedge between our desire for change and any possibility for meaningful growth.

In accepting that we first need to rise in mud, we take our imperfect selves with us on the journey. We accept the unvarnished reality of where we are, without plans or embellishment. This is what Zen masters call ‘beginner’s mind’. This ‘beginner’s mind’ is the womb of all effort.  In meeting this reality we meet ourselves exactly as we find ourselves–imperfect, vulnerable, undisciplined. In short a little on the muddy side.

The biggest obstacle to leveling up our practice is the idea that there is something wrong with where we are.

Engaged Curiosity

Progress comes not so much from believing we are capable of more than we think, but from becoming actively curious about our capacities as they present to us in this very hour. Replacing goals with curiosity is a magic key. Goals lie outside our immediate control, and we can even wonder if they are truly our own or ‘expectations’ that we have become conditioned to internalize. Curiosity is always within our agency. Curiosity has a childlike quality that softens the nose-down toil and struggle with breezier elements of exploration, play and adventure. When we struggle through our endeavours, we fall victim to an uncompromising logic that says, ‘If I do this, then such and such should occur….’ Curiosity says, ‘Let’s see what happens when/if….’

There is nothing wrong with aspirations in and of themselves, so long as they don’t launch us away from the step right in front of us. It reminds me of a friend who keeps telling me, “I must learn French” when, in fact, he is already learning French. Perhaps the aspiration itself needs to remain grounded in the respiration of this very moment. Yoga is anchored in the breath for good reason. When we inhabit the spacious allowance of where we find ourselves now, we don’t need to hunt down our future. The future  finds us.

Just as the full bloom exists within the bud, so is the future budded within the present. If you want to know where you are headed, bring your attention to where you are now. You are not just on the path. YOU ARE THE PATH.

Admittedly, it’s not fun to realize that you’ve fallen in mud. It’s grubby and humbling. But this is the essential beauty of the image of the lotus that in Buddhism depicts the path from ignorance to enlightenment — with its roots in the mud providing the compost from which the unsullied lotus flower emerges. What we are now, in the present moment is our compost. This is perfect effort, the path of least resistance, where we say ‘yes’ to the mud even as we rise and grow out of it. Like all good gardeners know, you don’t fiddle and poke at young shoots; you give them what they need to thrive. It’s amazing how little they need. A little water and sunlight. Then the growth takes care of itself.

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