You’ve heard the phrase “knowledge is power.” I’ve been thinking about this. Information is a useful thing. Especially information about yourself and how you handle things, react to things. Knowing yourself makes life easier and nicer. It helps you engage more deeply with the world, to want to engage more deeply. It helps you avoid pitfalls and obstacles, or at least accept them and move through them more gracefully. Even things you don’t really want to know, the stuff you avoid knowing, is necessary to look at, finally.
Most of what you know, you find out through experience. When you do something again and again, when you have a routine, you start to notice patterns. You start to notice whether or not these patterns are working, whether they make you feel good or bad. Just being aware of the pattern and how it feels might help you start to change it.
Sometimes you realize something out of the blue, and it seems so obvious, you don’t know why you didn’t see it before. Or someone tells you, and you can’t believe you needed someone to tell you. Or you didn’t realize it until you heard it in just those words. Or you finally admit something to yourself and see that it feels better to know it than to pretend you didn’t know.
Sometimes you need to do the work of finding out. You need to go to the doctor, or to therapy, or to AA. It’s not always fun, but ultimately it’s a relief to understand. And to have some guidance about what to do next.
Because once you know things, you can’t just sit around and know them. You need to use them, to apply them. That, I believe, is living fully.
Here a few things I know about myself:
— I am not a morning person.
— I’m funny.
— I’m a little boy-crazy, even at 41 (see Simon Le Bon, Robert Downey Jr., et. al.).
— I get snappish when I’m frustrated or distracted.
— I get quiet when I’m tired.
— I get skinny when I’m sad.
— I love being with people, but I’m also a homebody.
— I like to feel on top of things, and to have things in order.
— I’m a recovering perfectionist.
— I couldn’t live without books and music.
— I’m stronger than I used to think I was.
— I subscribe to The Four Agreements.
— I think there’s some higher, divine order to the universe. I don’t really need to know more than that.
Here are a few things I know about myself and yoga:
— I am not afraid of backbends and never have been, even though opening your chest and heart brings all sorts of emotions to the surface.
— Lately, I actually love them, because I finally figured out how to really get my shoulder blades down my back.
— My left thigh bone doesn’t fit perfectly into the hip socket. The right one absolutely does. Things that feel great on my right sometimes hurt on the left. It’s frustrating, but I can work with it.
— I have a bit of scoliosis in my lumbar spine. It curves out to the left a bit. This makes me tip that way sometimes. I can work with that.
— My Achilles tendons get tight, and pressing down through my outer foot helps in poses like triangle.
— I tend to tuck my chin into my chest, and I have to remember (or be reminded) to lift it. This makes breathing easier and nicer.
— I can’t yet kick up into a handstand, but one day I will.
— I really don’t enjoy utkatasana (chair pose) or warrior 1 (seriously, what is with the placement of the back foot?). I adore ustrasana (camel), and I also really love and appreciate ardha chandrasana (half moon).
— The Universal Principles of Alignment are key, no matter what we’re calling them these days or who made them up. In yoga and in life.
Here are a few things I know about myself and running:
— I don’t do well in humidity. I prefer 35 degrees to 75 degrees.
— I like to run in the morning, but not too early in the morning (in the summer, this is going to have to change).
— I love running outside and detest the treadmill.
— I can run in a snowstorm or a rainstorm.
— I need to drink a lot of water before and after, because otherwise I get dehydrated, and I also get a horrible headache.
— If my knees or ankles start to hurt, it helps to pull in to the midline (yoga trick).
— I can go six miles, which means I can probably go 12 miles. Or maybe even 13.1.
Today on my run I decided that when I’m going downhill, I really feel like a runner. (And I’m from the Midwest, so every slight rise is a hill.) Uphill, not so much. Of course, I know the reason for this: gravity. Downhill, I can go faster, my form is better, and I just feel good, strong, capable. Uphill, I struggle, slow down, breathing is tougher. I feel like I’m puttering along, and I certainly don’t feel masterful.
However, I do know that the hill won’t last forever, and that I can do it. I will make it to the top.
And then I’ll get to coast down again.
The words at left were written by my younger daughter, Sara, on her dry erase board. I’m not sure what moved her to write them; it wasn’t me telling her to clean her room or brush her teeth. Here’s what it says (it kind of reminds me of an e.e. cummings poem): I do my best mama/Mama I’m not trying to be mean but when you say to clen my room I try my best to clen my room and when you say to brash my teth I try my best to brash my teth and that is all I want to say
Maybe she’d just been carrying these thoughts around since the last time I asked her to do such things. At any rate, it touched me, and it made me think.
One thing it made think is that I’m completely fascinated by this little girl. She’s the daughter I look at and wonder, “Where did you come from, and how can I be more like you?”
It also made me think, appropriately, of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. Because agreement number four is Always do your best.
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
I find it interesting that he leads with the fact that your best is going to vary day to day, depending on how you’re feeling physically, and, I think it’s understood, emotionally. He offers an invitation off the bat to not be hard on yourself about doing your best. (This is such a service to those perfectionists among us.) If you always aspire to do your best, in the parameters within which you find yourself, you will have no regrets.
Of course, it’s not always easy to be okay with the fact that your “best” on a given day doesn’t even feel like what you’d consider “good.”
For all the love I profess for this book and for these ideas, as much as I strive to use them in my life, and as much as I’ve seen and felt them working for me, I often fall short.
As a Cancer I have a tendency, when I perceive that I’ve been hurt, to hide in my hard little shell and snap with my claws at anyone who might come near to discuss it, or just to chat because they don’t even have a clue that they’ve hurt me.
I know this doesn’t serve me. It involves taking things personally, making assumptions, and not being impeccable with my word (because the only word I’m thinking at that point probably starts with an “f” and goes along with “you”). And then I might fall back on the self-judging thought that “I’m being too sensitive” or the self-abusing decision that my feelings aren’t legitimate, don’t matter: I’m overreacting. I don’t have a right to be hurt and mad. It’s not their fault, it’s mine.
Well, at least I’m aware that I’m doing it.
On days when you feel good, and things seem pretty effortless, it’s easy to speak up for yourself, to ask for what you need, to let people’s comments and issues roll off of you without getting in any digs of your own. It’s easier to embrace and own your feelings, because they feel good. It’s harder to do this on days when you feel bad, or when you’re going along feeling good and then suddenly something stops you up and makes you feel bad. Instead of letting yourself have your feelings and making an informed decision about what to do with them, you might just lash out at whoever caused them even while you deny to yourself that they matter.
In yoga, we talk about the fact that you feel different in your body each day. Some days you’re clear, alert and strong; your warrior poses feel rock-steady, and you can push up easily into a backbend. Other days you’re muddy, and everything just feels yucky. You just want to crumple to the ground and crawl out of class.
All you can ask of yourself on either kind of day is to make your best effort and try not to get frustrated. Because whatever efforts you make toward the poses, you’re going to feel better in the end.
So when tears of anger or hurt brim in my eyes and I feel myself pulling into that shell and hissing mean words under my breath, I try to breathe more deeply and maybe just sit with it. Take my time deciding how I should react, and what I can do to feel better. Try not to do or say anything rash.
Do my best, like Sara.
It’s been a while since I raved about the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. Last year I wrote about the first agreement, Be impeccable with your word, and the second, Don’t take anything personally.
The third of the Four Agreements is Don’t make assumptions.
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Once again, it sounds simple, but it’s not, quite. It can be scary to be straight with someone, especially if they’re wound up tight. But consider how much grief you could avoid, for yourself and for others. Think about how often you get bogged down in things because you assumed someone meant something by a look, or a comment, or an email. Think about how many times a friend has told you another friend did this, said this, and asked you what you make of it, or urged to you agree that the other person is a jerk. It’s also true that we often make assumptions about other people’s actions based on our own issues and feelings, though we may not even be aware of it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just look one another in the eye and say “What did you mean by that?” or “I was hurt by what you said” or “It made me angry when you took credit for the work I did”? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just clarify complicated things? In so many instances, a potentially charged situation could be quickly diffused.
I just did a workshop with my older daughter through the Girls Leadership Institute, an organization co-founded by Rachel Simmons, who wrote The Curse of the Good Girl, which you should read if you’re the parent of a girl, if you used to be a girl, or if you’ve ever met a girl or a woman. If you are female, I guarantee that you’ll see yourself in this book: as a schoolgirl, a teenager, a college girl, a woman. It’s about how girls communicate (or fail to), how we often sabotage ourselves and our friendships by not expressing our feelings or even letting ourselves feel them, by not letting others know what we need and want.
This workshop, for second and third grade girls and their moms, met for a month, once a week. The girls (and we) came away excited about their new pals and empowered to communicate better with their friends, their siblings, and their parents. The workshop literally gave them tools for standing up for themselves and being the wonderful, beautiful, authentic girls they are. Things like:
Say how I feel.
Ask for what I need.
Make eye contact.
Stand on both feet.
Use a firm, clear tone of voice.
Ask a question.
Apologize if you’ve done something to make the situation worse.
Remind the other person what it means to be a friend.
Instead of assuming a friend was “just kidding,” didn’t mean to hurt them, or that their hurt or sad feeling doesn’t matter–that they’re “too sensitive” or that they overreacted–they are now able to identify how something made them feel, talk about it, and do something about it.
Needless to say, these are skills for everyone, not just 8- and 9-year-old girls. I’m so grateful that Kate is starting to learn about this now, though, because it takes many of us a lifetime to figure it out. A lifetime of unnecessary anger, resentment, and hurt.
It’s so easy to see how learning not to make assumptions can indeed transform your life.