In this excerpt from her latest book, Aruni—a life coach and 20-year Kripalu faculty member—explores the idea of practice as a conscious experiment in compassionate self-observation.
The concept of practice is both misunderstood and underutilized in our culture. Our Western minds set us upon a new endeavor as a task, like a dog with a bone. Go get it! Gobble it up. Finish it. Do it and complete it. Check it off your list of to do’s. We certainly are a linear and goal-oriented bunch. This Western approach does not necessarily lend itself easily to an attempted lifestyle change or spiritual development.
The word practice, as it implies, is an invitation into a consistent, long-standing relationship between you, the practitioner, and It, the thing to which you are committing. To practice mindfulness, to practice prayer, to practice a sustainable plan for healthy weight loss, to practice an exercise regime—all demand release from the idea of “completion” or “perfection.” Practice encourages us into a conscious experiment to watch without judgment, to allow the natural evolution of the process to unfold. Like in the expression “two steps forward, one step backward,” we notice, we watch without judgment, and we continue to realign to our commitment. We can continue moving forward, strengthened and informed by our “backward” steps.
If you were teaching a toddler to walk and the child fell, your response probably would not be, “Get up, you loser of a baby. Walk right, or I’m leaving.” Of course not. Even the mere sound of this response is ludicrous. You would say something like, “Oh, good walking, you smart baby, you. Great falling. Try again! There you go, one more step, great.” And yet, aren’t we terribly harsh and self-rejecting with ourselves, without patience for our human failings? Don’t we reject ourselves and sabotage ourselves, in response to the times we fall.
How can we begin to develop a relationship with ourselves that encourages experimentation, that allows imperfection, that releases attachment to the results, and that supports ongoing involvement in the process of growth? This the practice—of practice!
It seems we have limited tolerance for the process of change. We just want to be done, damn it. However, change is a process, not an event. Change can engage us in the spirit of conscious experiment where there is no right or wrong, no complete or incomplete, and certainly no good or bad. It is a fluid evolution, filled with rich emotional and spiritual data. It is a journey of self-discovery, the ongoing practice of being present in the moment.
In my world, my foundational spiritual practice is the trusting of reality. This offers me powerful grounds for conscious experimenting. There are moments, perhaps even chunks of time, in which I am certain, in my body, mind, and spirit, that all is exactly as it should be. Usually this happens when I am teaching or coaching. I simply know in my core that nothing is askew. That woman in the third row in the red turtleneck is exactly where she needs to be, emotional and open. The tall, lanky guy in the Harvard baseball cap is as he should be, sitting perfectly still, seemingly untouched by my words. Energetically it is not my role to change these folks. My role is to let it be as it is, to be a conduit through which change happens. Life works, I am positive, and I am relaxed and certain.
And yet there are so many other moments, perhaps most of my life, in which I am uncomfortable, doubting, struggling, and pushing reality away. My partner is frustrated, and I believe it is my job to change her. The dog is injured, and I must solve all resulting problems. I want to get in there, to mastermind reality, and make it right, according to my version of life. Inevitably—I suffer. Wanting life to be different is surely the fast lane to suffering. There are certain actions to take, plenty to do, but two prerequisites exist for successful action: to take it in the spirit of ultimate acceptance of what is, and to let go of our attachment to the results.
This is the muscle of practice. We all could so benefit from this flexibility, this fluidity, the acceptance of the forgetting as well as the remembering. Forgetting and remembering are both essential parts of the puzzle of sustainable growth. Swami Kripalu taught that the highest spiritual practice was “self-observation without judgment.” Noticing and realigning, that is my job.
I have learned to respect and to explore the vast power of incremental steps in creating change. Tiny actions lead us successfully in the right direction and have the inherent capacity to sustain. Generally our inclination is to over-commit, to over-extend. We believe so fully in the outcome we hope for that we leap over tall buildings to get there. Yet our actions are unsustainable, resulting in internal defeat and potential emotional despair. Without step-by-step cumulative actions, we are often ultimately ineffective in creating change. As a coach, my job often is to simply talk folks down from the ledge of over-commitment and over-extension.
In working with Beth, a client of mine who was fiercely committed to losing the 40 pounds she had gained through the physical and emotional stressors of menopause, job loss, and a divorce, this human foible was never so obvious.
“I commit,” Beth said passionately, sitting in my office in a posture of such determination, “to go to the gym every morning for the 7 a.m. Boot Camp class.” She pumped her hand into the air for emphasis. “I will do that for however long it takes.
I shuddered. Clearly Beth was fully committed, ready to do whatever it took to begin to shed the pounds that now compromised the quality of her life. But seven days a week? After not moving for years? She was setting herself up for failure, physical injury, and an emotional roller coaster.
After much debate and negotiation, Beth decided to begin her morning Boot Camp class with two mornings a week, and to walk a third morning. She did this for two weeks, after which we assessed, and added a second walk and a personal training session on weekends. After several months of assessing and tweaking the plan, she is doing fine, losing her weight at a slow, steady, and sustainable rate.
People resist, not wanting to hear the suggestion of moderation. No matter what your mind says as you prepare to commit to a practice, give yourself the gift of starting small. Assess your practice, tweak your plan, and recommit to its essence, while you continually create your revised structure of practice, responding to the data you are being given by your body and spirit. We want the end result so fully—the weight loss or the exercise program, the yoga practice or the healthier nutrition. We have little tolerance for the tiny steps that increasingly build up, moving us in that direction. As we said so regularly in the ‘60s: the destination is useless and improbable without an embracing, a relaxing into the journey.
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