Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Change and Practice

In the process of a fundamental, genuine change, there is always a period of outmost uncertainty and confusion. When we have left an old habit behind but yet are not in the position to fully exploit a new habit. The more important the context, the more nerve racking the experience. That's where practice comes into the picture. Practice in the sense of learning Kyudo, for example, or yoga, or any kind of art form or physical activity that requires fine muscle coordination. In such practices, we go through stages of learning over and over and learn how to control our anxiety.

Here is a related quote from Carlos Castaneda's ``Tales of Power'':

``You are in a terrible spot,'' he said. ``It's too late for you to retreat but too soon to act. All you can do is witness. You're in the miserable position of an infant who cannot return to the mother's womb, but neither can he run around and act. All an infant can do is witness and listen to the stupendous tales of action being told to. .... For you there is only witnessing acts of power and listening to tales, tales of power." ---p. 56, Tales of Power

I may be in a similar position. It's quite frustrating specially since it `appears' that my whole life depends on how I act and decide. I emphasize `appear' here, because part of this is an illusion constructed by my conscious/logical/rational mind, an extremely powerful illusion. Our lives depend on many factors, within and without, that are out of our control, that do not follow our puny reasonings. And yet, trusting that we do not need to pretend to know and control everything ... that trust comes at a high cost. When things get dire, when we feel hitting a wall, no way forward nor back, it becomes unbearable. And yet, things always work out one way or the other.

Here is another fascinating piece of puzzle. The transition period is naturally filled with a `helpless' attitude in addition to anxiety:

``There is nothing wrong with the feeling of being helpless,'' he said. ``All of us are most familiar with it. Remember that we have spent an eternity as helpless infants. I have already told you  at this very moment you are like an infant who can't get out of the crib by himself, much less act on his own. ... an infant wants to act and since he can't, he complains. there is nothing wrong with that, but to indulge in protesting and complaining is another matter.'' ---p. 82, Tales of Power

Put anxiety and helplessness together and you have a good recipe for `depression'! No wonder that people like me who learn fast and learn often are plagued by depression episodes. The curious thing is that the best response to these feelings of anxiety and helplessness is to -not- indulge in them and instead try to stay calm. Easier said than done!

And we are back to the idea of `practice'. The only way that one can stay calm under the heavy weight of anxiety and helplessness is to be his/her own soother. Similar to what a mother does to her infant, one needs to be able to contain those emotions and stay calm and centered. But how? By practicing them over and over in a not-life-threatening setting, what I call a daily `practice' of a physical  exercise or an artistic talent.

At a deeper level, the act of soothing is a bodily act, something that we need to learn with our bodies and not our logical/rational minds. The unfortunate separation between mind and body that the current human culture thrives on makes this counter-intuitive and difficult. We have severed a natural tie between different aspects of our being:

I  said that I could not conceive that my body was acting by itself as if it were an entity separate from my reason.
``It isn't but we have made it so,'' he said. ``Our reason is petty and it is always at odds with our body. This, of course, is only a way of talking, but the triumph of a man of knowledge is that he has joined the two together. ...'' ---pp. 83-84, Tales of Power



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