Being Okay With Where You Are

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“Yoga is about being okay with where you are today,” said the teacher as we slowly worked our way through poses in a mid-morning class. I’m not sure the ancient Yogic scriptures included that in their philosophy, but hey, it’s a nice thing to hear on a Monday morning. I’ve been practicing yoga for twenty years, and have for the most part been totally okay with those days when I’m more wobbly or the decline in my flexibility over the years. I’m pretty chill with where I am, at least on the mat.

It was also a reminder that outside of yoga class and perhaps the workplace, I often am not okay with where I happen to be in a given moment, which keeps me unfocused, wrapped up in my own thoughts and the lies I tell myself, unaccepting and unable to let go, and unable to comfortably remain in the present moment.

I had a very profound moment of not being okay or accepting of where I was during my second dan test. Everything was going well: I had retained my balance and strength during a very difficult slow-motion kicking portion, put power and precision into my forms (and it meant a lot to me that my mom said I should compete in poomsae at future tournaments), executed my self-defense well (and kinda accidentally hurt my partner, but that’s what he gets for attacking me), and fought two bigger, stronger black belts without getting whacked in the head. Cool. I was going to ace this test.

We ended the test with my favorite activity, breaking. We practice breaking quite a bit in classes, but it’s a rare thing to actually get to break boards. I love breaking not even so much for the challenge and creativity of putting a sequence together, but let’s just face it, hitting shit is FUN. Breaking stuff is cathartic. Black belt promotion tests are years apart so unless there’s a demonstration, actual breaking is a very rare treat. I was beginning my sequence with a spinning knife hand strike followed by a punch. I had practiced this countless times and had successfully completed it at a demo last year. Yay! Let’s do this. I took a deep breath, wound up, spun around and–

THUNK.

The board didn’t break.

Crap.

I was in shock that I didn’t get the outcome I was expecting, but I didn’t skip a beat and tried not to show my disappointment externally. I kept going, thankfully nailing my final break on the first shot, which was a flying roundhouse and the one in theory that was the most difficult. In the end everything was broken, there were shards of wood everywhere, and all was well.

Only in that moment it wasn’t. My mood dropped significantly, and I had to force myself to smile in the photos we all took after the test. Other than my breaking, I knew I did well, and I’ve known before the test that I had already earned that second degree with all the work and dedication I’ve put in over the past two years. My masters assured me that it was not a big deal and overall I had done a good job. On the way to lunch at my request for some “coaching,” my musician brother told me about a time he saw Billy Joel, one of his idols, make a mistake on national television. Billy just rolled his eyes and kept playing, and it helped my brother accept those times when he made mistakes in his own performances.

Not passing my test wasn’t the issue. I was disappointed that I didn’t perform at the level I expected, especially during my favorite testing portion. I wasn’t perfect, and I had a hard time accepting that. I was still able to enjoy a celebratory lunch (and of course Champagne and cupcakes) and a pleasant afternoon with my family, but my dampened mood nagged at me. I wasn’t okay with where I was that day.

I think my next big challenge and perhaps something I should focus my efforts on in 2018 is letting go of specific, “perfect” outcomes related to what I love the most: taekwondo and my personal relationships. Experience has proven that “letting go” and not agonizing over a particular situation opens up doors of opportunity to outcomes even better than I could have imagined with my limited knowledge. I care too much about certain aspects of my personal life, and all that does is cause me stress and pain.

I have mastered the practice of healthy detachment with my career, partially to keep myself from getting too stressed out about work and partially to spite society, which assumes that women who do not have partners or children MUST be married to their job and be absolute workaholics. I’m very good at what I do, like and respect my coworkers, care about my clients, have a fantastic work-life balance, and am happier with my job than I ever have been before. Just this year I got a big private office and the shortest commute I’ve ever had, plus twice the salary of what I made when I first started with my company…but I could walk away from it all in a heartbeat and never give that job or anyone related to it another thought.

It’s not that I don’t care about work. I’ve had plenty of moments of being upset, angry, or worried about work-related situations. But I don’t let those feelings overtake me or serve as a sense of purpose or fulfillment in my life. I love my job, but I don’t let work define me, whereas I seem to do the opposite with my personal life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes at work, but I’ve been able to brush them off quickly and remind myself that they don’t impact my overall performance.

If I don’t have work at least I still have my personal life, and perhaps that thought keeps my work detachment going. But if aspects that I value in my personal life go away or I fail or I’m rejected, I feel like I will have nothing. I’m holding on to those aspects so much that I can’t open myself up to the organic growth and opportunities that I’ve seen with my more relaxed take on my career.

I’m okay with where I am in my career. You could even say I’m content. I’m not always okay with where I am personally. Throw in one little metaphorical wobble to my personal life, namely taekwondo or the ambiguity of some of my personal relationships, and I panic. I feel lost and scared without the security of knowing that things will be okay, that I will still be accepted in my dojang and by the people I love. I berate myself for not trying harder and for supposedly disappointing the people I care about. I’ve put this same undue pressure on myself regarding my physical appearance since I was a teenager. Hell, I’m still underweight thanks to an intestinal parasite, but I habitually still look for flaws. “Thin” is such a an unfamiliar descriptor to me that I have a hard time attributing it to my physique. I’m holding myself and the rest of what I value in my personal life up to such impossible standards that the foundation threatens to crumble beneath me.

I can take disappointments at work in stride, and I long to have that healthy sense of detachment with my personal life. The fear of loss and the pain that it causes is unbearable. I never feel hatred or jealousy at work, and I rarely feel doubt. I can’t say the same for my personal life, and all that does is cause more pain.

Not breaking the board the first time wasn’t the real problem. Being so attached to things going my way was what made my mood crash when my expectations weren’t met. I’m so afraid of losing taekwondo or people I care about that I let the worry and fear overtake me before anything even happens. That causes more unnecessary stress and sometimes more mistakes.

I want to be okay and content with being who I am without those safeguards I’ve built into my personal life. I want to be able to not give them a second thought when they’re not needing my attention. I want to detach from everything and everyone in a healthy way.

Perhaps not breaking that board on the first attempt was the best thing that could have happened. It was a good reminder of where I am with the unrealistic standards I put on myself. No matter how I did at Saturday’s test, I’m still a black belt, and I’m still going to class tonight, ready to keep practicing…in a healthy, detached way of course.

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Loss and Gain

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It’s actually possible to be sad even when you’re in a pile of puppies.

My brother’s dog has been so depressed since I left after a weekend visit that he won’t eat and had to sleep in bed with my brother and his wife. They said they’ve never seen him so despondent before.

Either that little dog has a pretty smooth racket going or we are witnessing grief in its simplest and most innocent form.

Unless we are unbelievably fortunate or are hermits we have all experienced loss—the loss of a job, of a friendship, of an opportunity, of a romantic relationship, some of us have lost our minds, and most of us have witnessed the loss of life. I’ve recently experienced a major loss in my life. At first I was like my brother’s little dog—I couldn’t eat or sleep and I wandered aimlessly around the house looking for a ghost who had long disappeared.  After getting through the initial stages of grief I seem to be at the stage that’s not as glamorous as denial or anger:

Now what?

The “now what?” stage is that moment of clarity: well, X happened, and I’m still here so…now what? Experiencing a loss doesn’t mean you have to immediately fill that void with something else that will superficially cover up the pain. In fact, I recommend giving the void some breathing room. Let it be and see what happens. Then look around and see what else is already in your life that you haven’t been to experience something fully. Or, you know, do what I did and begin an intense contact sport.

A few years ago I’d emotionally hit rock bottom and decided to go back to taekwondo after a twenty year hiatus. For years I had focused on the loss or lack in my life and was blind to all the wonderful things I did have. The emotional pain was still there even as I mastered low block, middle punch, and roundhouse kick, but as it dissipated I knew I had gained something special. I still can’t put my finger on it, but it broke me of the habit of dumping all the responsibility of self-worth and validation on another person. I know I have more confidence, a better sense of priorities, and…OK, well, I also love the way my lower ab muscles pop out. Taekwondo opened my eyes. I gained the Me that had been buried for decades under decay and darkness.

Taekwondo was there long before I experienced my recent loss and will be here long after the pain has lessened. It’s a great source of comfort—I’m learning something new, I have a goal to focus on, there’s never a lack of endorphins, I’m out and around people–which is a nice break from being in my introverted head all the time, and we laugh a lot more than you’d think in martial arts classes. 

Yesterday during class I felt a little tug—the sense of community that I have shrugged off my entire life. The sense that even though the ache of grief and loss is still there, it is surrounded by something positive that I love to do and embraced by people who care about me….and who also won’t think twice of kicking the crap out of me or throwing me on the floor.  We’re weird like that.

If you are grieving for a loss and don’t know what to do…let it be. It’s here and it’s terrible, but you’re still standing too.  You might not be able to erase the pain, but you can gain new insights and ways of experiencing joy that you might have overlooked before.  The answer to “now what?” is “anything you want!” Fight back by continuing to live.

Happy update: my brother reported that his little dog’s spirits are back up again. I almost felt bad for even visiting and letting him get attached to me since my absence caused him so much pain. But my little puppy “nephew” was just experiencing what anyone (or any animal) who is capable of loving is bound to experience: loss. It’s encouraging to know that after experiencing loss and grief there is love, hope, and happiness around the corner.