Challenge and Ease
I was in a yoga practice earlier this week engaged in a relatively uncomfortable hold in a deep lunge. Had I been practicing at home I might have avoided this posture all together or only stayed in it for a few breaths. However, I went to a class that I knew would encourage me to go a little deeper. So, there I was, feeling the burn in my right thigh, listening to the voice in my head that said “out,” fighting the distracting urge to escape the moment. Suddenly, doing the dishes and folding the laundry seemed way more appealing.
As I continued to sustain my lunge another thought arose, “You chose this challenge.” My entire experience shifted. “Nobody is making me stay here. I can exit into child’s pose and that is a completely valid option. It’s up to me.” This time I chose to stay, directing my attention fully on the breath, the sensations in my right leg, and the feeling of my feet firmly grounded into my yoga mat. When we finally released out of the pose and came forward into Samasthiti (equal standing) pose I felt a deep satisfaction of a profoundly awake mind and body.
My Kripalu yoga teacher training emphasized that will and surrender are polarities that need to exist in balance; like two wings of a bird that need to function in tandem to create flight. Too much force and we risk becoming rigid and hard. Too much emphasis on surrender and we risk becoming stagnant or over-flexible. A beautiful metaphor for life.
“So how do we know when to challenge ourselves and when to emphasize ease? The truth is nobody gets to answer this question for you. There will be phases in all of our lives when we have the capacity to say “I want more; bring it on!” And there will be times when we are already weighed down by life’s challenges. Here we might say “I can barely get out of bed; life is hard enough, I cannot handle any more stress.” The balance of will and surrender is one that evolves to match the ever changing phases of our lives.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Think about your most significant memories of the last year what comes to your mind? Are they your days at the office? Are they the items you crossed off of your to-do lists? I’m guessing not. Likely what stand out are the moments that took your breath away. Or the times when you discovered new possibilities in yourself. Maybe you recall the times that you felt you made a difference in the life of another or deepened your intimate connections with loved ones. Or a time you had to fight for something or someone that you believe in.
Perhaps you have set forth into this New Year with resolutions. I’m guessing that your intentions for this year are more related to your larger life aspirations than your to-do lists. Maybe you have identified new health and wellness goals. Perhaps you have identified a need for greater introspection or self-care. However, whatever it is that you have chosen it is likely that achieving your goal will involve some challenge. This may be the challenge of “will” such as adding 10 more minutes to your morning run to prepare for a race or signing up for a meet-up group even though it scares you. Or your challenge may require “surrender” such as asking yourself to sit with uncomfortable feelings or adding in a mindfulness practice into your daily routine.
As you look at your intentions for the year ask yourself how much do you long for the life you envision. Reflect on the challenges that will likely accompany this goal. Is it worth it? Are you worth it?
Will and Surrender
Ideally facing challenges involves a balance of willful engagement towards your identified goals and acceptance of what is. Dr. Marsha Linehan incorporates Zen Buddhism into Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) reminding us that radical acceptance of who we are is a necessary condition for change and growth. Likewise, Gestalt psychotherapy (Fritz Perls) works with the polarization between the parts of the self that are seeking growth and parts that are seeking safety. Resolution requires that we listen to the voice of both sides of the polarity. As a result we evolve without force or aggression but through the honoring of each part.
My Kripalu yoga teacher training emphasized that will and surrender are polarities that need to exist in balance; like two wings of a bird that need to function in tandem to create flight. Within this yoga practice you begin by actively engaging in physical postures, emphasizes alignment as a means to concentrate on the sensations in your body. Deepening into postures fear and pain can arise. You may want to run. You meet your experience, back away, and return again. You might feel irritable. You move from thinking to feeling. Something shifts inside and you feel the experience energetically. There is a surge of emotion, a shake in the body. No longer are you telling your body what shape to take, you are now guided by your sensations. You return to the familiarity of the postures you were taught and find another spontaneous impulse to move. You surrender to impulse and sensation. You continue to follow the urge to move eventually softening into stillness.
“Like a grain of salt dissolves in water, so the mind becomes one with the highest self.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika (4.5) Svami Svatmarama
The Tale of the Sands
The Tale of the Sands is a Sufi story written by Idries Shah which further explores the relationship between will and surrender as we proceed towards our goals. In this story a stream longs to reach the far away mountains. This stream has already travelled a long, long distance. It has carved its way through rocks leaving behind impressive canyons. This stream has changed landscapes and meandered across the vast countryside. The stream was confident that it could cross any barrier.
Soon the stream came to the edge of the desert and was convinced that its destiny was to cross over to the great mountains in the distance. However, no matter how hard it tried, the stream would disappear into the sand. The water tried to hurtle itself across the sand but could not find a way.
Then the stream heard the whispered voice of the desert saying, “if the wind crosses the desert so can the stream.” The stream was discouraged thinking “the wind can fly but I am not the wind.” The voice spoke again, “Your accustomed way of hurtling yourself into the sand will not let you cross. You must allow yourself to be absorbed into the wind.’
The stream did not like this idea and was frightened of losing its identity. Again, the desert spoke, “The wind will carry you over the desert to the mountains.” “How can I be sure of that?” wondered the stream. The desert responded once more, “In either case you cannot remain the same for if you continue in this way you will either disappear or end up as a marsh.” So with great courage the stream surrendered. Lifted as vapor, the stream was carried by the wind to the faraway mountains and as the rain fell it once again became a stream. Purified by letting go, what is essential remained.
Were the stream to have no aspiration it would have disappeared into the sands. As you walk through this New Year I invite you to join me in choosing challenge, whatever that means to you. It takes great courage to want something so much that you are literally transformed in the process. Are you willing to let go of the self that you know and learn how to dance in the unknown?
Photo credit: Abstract in sand and sky (8398922985) by Peter Dowley
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About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.