Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Really Into Suffering" - Or Not

I spent last weekend camping and hiking out in Shenandoah National Park, in the mountains of Virginia.  It was absolutely beautiful out there - crisp mountain air, wonderful hiking trails, hardly any crowds, leaves just starting to turn orange.  I went with a friend and my sister and we had a great weekend.

We also had a cold weekend.  It was much colder than we'd expected - we were prepared for it to be down into the 50's or 40's at night, but it clearly went down into the low 30's, because we woke up on Sunday morning and saw snow.  When we made camp on Saturday night, it was cold, rainy, and windy.  It took us ages to get our fire started, and the wind actually blew some rain up the side vents and into our tents, so that everything was covered with a thin layer of water.  Long story short, it was the coldest sleeping experience ever.  It would have been fine with a nice all-weather sleeping bag, but we only brought our mid-weight sleeping bags, and the sleeping bags got wet on the inside.  Oh, and we pitched our tents on a slight hill.  So my friend and I spent the night with our sleeping bags pressed up side-by-side, trying to keep warm and trying not to roll down the hill.  It was totally worth it, but man was it cold!

A few days ago, I was in the yoga studio parking lot before class trying to organize my sleeping bag and tent (which had been hastily flung into the backseat of my car when we broke camp on Sunday morning).  I got talking with one of my students, Hugh, who was also there early.  Hugh is totally into camping, so he was interested to know where I had gone and how it was.

I told Hugh about our lovely cold-weather camping adventure, and he said, Hmm.  It sounds great, but his kids probably would not like it.  He has two young boys - ages 7 and 10, I think - and he wanted to take them somewhere over the weekend.  But, he said, the boys were not fans of cold-weather camping because "they are not really into suffering."

I thought that was great - hilarious and to-the-point - and for some reason, it stuck in my head.  I've been thinking about those words for the last few days, trying to unpack the implications.  Little kids, we have decided, are not really into suffering.  What about the rest of us?  Are we really into suffering?

Well, yes.  Kind of.  I mean, we don't really like it when it's going on, but we sure love to brag about it as soon as it's finished!  We come back home, out of the cold, and we just love to tell our friends how it was so cold.  Back in Shenandoah, on Sunday, we hiked up to a summit called Mary's Rock and literally sat in clouds of snow.  There were six other hikers up there at the same time - three 11-year-old boys and three middle-aged men.  (All of them were awesome.)  As we climbed back down, out of the wind and snow, one of the adults grinned at me and said, "This will really be something to tell them at the office on Monday!"  Snow hiking!  We get bad-ass wilderness points.  We get bragging rights.  Sweet!

In hot yoga class, people do this all the time, especially the new folks.  They're proud of themselves for surviving - and rightly so! - and they run right out to tell their friends about it.  I remember one lady who valiantly struggled through her first class.  After the class, while recovering in the lobby, she asked me how hot the room had been and how many people had been in the class - she wanted to text her daughter to brag about what she'd just endured.  Adorable.

Almost everybody does this, at least to some extent.  It's not limited to newbies, either.  Bikram junkies - you know who you are - we have all done this at some point.  After the brutal class, there is the Facebook status update: "Forty people in class today, 70% humidity, only sat out once."  Go, you!  (Yes, of course I have done this.  I probably wouldn't even sit down.)  There's also the overachiever version: "Just did 10 classes in a row - without drinking any water!"  And the teacher training version: "175 degrees in the yoga room, fingers and toes went numb after eagle pose, girl behind me puked, and half the class left the room including Bikram."  Ohgod.  Really?  Are we really proud of this?

It sure is fun to glorify our suffering sometimes, and it's totally fine and normal - up to a point - but is this really a great idea?

Hugh's two little boys are "not really into suffering," and this seems like a more reasonable approach.  Even Bikram says it, in his book: "You don't have to be a hero or a martyr."  Just do the best you can, one class at a time.

Here's the other interesting part.  The more we pay attention to our own suffering - you know, ohgod ohgod, I'm done, I'm dying, fuck all these turtles, stick a fork in me, I'm done - the more we actually suffer. I'm not against some creative internal cursing in class - that actually helps.  But if you clutch onto your suffering too tightly, you can prolong it.  If you lie on your mat chanting, it's too hot, it's too hot, it's too hot, you might not even notice it when the room cools down.  You'll miss out on the relief.  You can create a whole world of suffering for yourself inside your head.  In the meantime, reality might be doing something completely different.  The teacher may have taken pity and turned the thermostat down when you weren't looking.  Anything can happen!

It's all about noticing what's actually happening.  Don't get stuck inside your head.

Here's an example which I've just been dying to use.  In the dialogue for fixed firm, near the beginning, there's a line about the knees and feet.  "If your knees or feet hurt, you can open your knees."  [Yes, dialogue nerds, I am fixing the typo.]  One of the teachers at my studio has changed the line just ever so slightly.  (Unintentional, I'm sure.)  This teacher now says: "If you have any knee or foot pain, you can open your knees."

Now, this is so nit-picky that I feel bad about even bringing it up, but I see a big difference between those two lines.  If you ask someone, "Do your knees hurt?" - that's the correct version - you are asking them to assess their present situation.  The word "now" is implied.  Do your knees hurt now?  But if you ask someone, "Do you have any knee pain?" that is a totally different question.  That isn't a question about now.  That is a question about a person's history.  That will make the person think about how her knees felt this morning, yesterday, last week, last month, last year.  Any knee pain?  Yeah, in February my knee really bothered me.  Guess I'd better not do this posture.  Whoops.  Wrong question.

Your body is different every day.  And if you're paying attention, you can see differences from day to day.  Your past suffering doesn't matter, is not relevant.  Do your knees hurt now?  The answer can change, but only if you're asking the right question.

As Bikram likes to say: "Don't listen to your fucking brain!"  (I love that.)  Your brain may be totally into suffering.  Your body might tell you a different story.

My teachers in New England pointed out something really cool to me last month - something that I had already witnessed, but hadn't completely noticed yet.  As a teacher, I know that everyone comes into class with a different story.  Some people aren't too concerned about their stories - they just get in there and do the class as well as they can.  Some people are really concerned about their stories - they can't do the class without telling the teacher a laundry list of their (perfectly normal) aches and pains.

Which students do better in the class?  Well, by now I'm sure you can guess.  (If you think about it, it's obvious.)  The ones who are constantly retelling their tales of woe will have a hard time.  They tend to give up pretty early in the game.  But the ones who are open-minded and give it a fair try will end up telling a totally different story.  A new story.  A story that starts with these words: "I used to."  As in: "You know, I used to have so much back pain that I couldn't put on underwear, but now I am wearing underwear again!"  That's a true story.

Absolutely wonderful.

The lesson, I think, is simple.  Pay attention to your body, take care of yourself, but don't be attached to your suffering.  Don't glorify it.  Just let that story go.  Before too long, you'll have a new story to tell.

"I used to...."

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