This word, tyranny, has been bubbling up in my thoughts lately.
I think I mentioned in an earlier post that my single New Year’s resolution for 2010 is to “have more fun in the midst” of the things I’m doing. In other words, to remember to play, to enjoy, to not take it all too seriously, because it is so easy to get caught up in the pattern of living life as a series of tasks, duties, obligations, “to dos”. This is part of the being over doing practice. Although a lot of people think of me as a playful, silly type, I’ve always carried a super-serious undercurrent that sometimes, well, pulls me under.
In pursuit of my resolution, I made “havingfun” part of the main passwords I use on a daily basis. So every time I type the password, I’m invited to stop and check: Am I having fun in this? Or am I in hyper-focused, “Sue” (the serious, taskmaster personality) mode? This growing awareness has changed, loosened, my approach in the classroom and I have to say, I’ve been having a lot more fun with my students and really feeling absorbed in our conversations. It also helps me play more with my academic writing, and that creates creative openings. It makes the “duties” of my day feel less tyrannical.
This, of course, has raised my awareness of the “tyrannies” I allow or create or at least experience in my life. What do I mean by tyranny? Websters describes it as “oppressive power” of some kind, and we can think of the political iterations of authoritarianism, autocracy, etc. But what I have in mind are activities/relationships/patterns that come to feel obligatory, entrapping, tediously repetitive, and in some way not really optional, not really chosen. Of course, these include things that most of us “have” to do all the time: commuting, laundry, housecleaning, meetings, cleaning up after or taking care of others, paying bills–you know, “the drill.”
It’s when I’m feeling obligated toward such things, when my life feels propelled only or mainly by these things, that I get depressed. Occasionally I just flatline, and it feels like all the life drains out of me. But here’s the big irony: In order to reach goals I set for myself, I set up all kinds of mechanisms that are, in effect, little tyrannies.
If you want to write a book (or even an article), you generally have to break it down to small tasks and routines. If you want to lose weight, you change your behaviors, meal by meal, workout by workout, showing up for each minor and psychological step on a path to transformation. If you want to meditate, you practice, every day, or however many times a day. You show up, whether you “feel like” it or not.
What we are, in effect, doing is setting up a structure that facilitates an end goal. We’re building a little container, if you will, which can also function as a little cage. And, sure, there is always a choice in terms of following through, but a practice is, after all, a way of learning discipline; of “doing the work” or “showing up” regardless of mood or inclination in that particular moment. In a way, you stop allowing yourself an easy “opt out.”
I need these things. If I don’t, for example, try to carve two hours before noon Monday through Friday to spend time with my book, it’s just way too easy to blow it off, because other things always feel more pressing or interesting. And because it’s hard to show up; it raises every nasty fear and doubt in the book. So I have to commit to it beforehand, to give myself that structure. And since I’ve been committed to this “practice” of showing up to my work, I’ve gotten a lot done, even though some days it’s agony.
But what about the days that this practice just adds to my sense of a tyranny-driven life?
At my hot yoga studio they’ve been doing a “30-day challenge” this month. The challenge is to show up every day to yoga, to see how it changes your life. I decided to accept the challenge–not with the goal of coming every day, because that’s simply not possible in my schedule right now, but with the aim of seeing how often I can find ways to show up, and what that feels like. So far I’ve been showing up 4-5 days a week, which is pretty intense, though largely gratifying. The thing is, though: I don’t want yoga, this practice that is really helping me on many levels, to become another tyranny, and especially not an externally imposed one. So if I really don’t feel like going, or if getting there is going to add another 1/2 hour of intense stress in my life to make it happen, I’m not going to do it. If yoga generally attracts a lot of goal-driven achiever and monkish types, Bikram is the evangelical version of this. The teachers are basically fanatical about the discipline, and they spout a fair amount of Bikram-jargon in the process. It is changing my life, but I also have to tune some of that preachiness out when I do it. I recoil from all practices that feel like dogma.
I think this instinct to resist more tyranny is a healthy one. On the other hand, I’m aware that it may be a cop out, or at least the wrong framework for thinking about practices like yoga or writing. If I want to learn real discipline, real practice, I think I have to learn what it’s like to push through my biggest resistances, my most intense moments of absolutely not wanting to do it. I can’t give myself an “out” simply because I can reasonably justify doing so in a given moment. But the thing is, in order to make it not feel tyrannical in these resistance moments, I have to keep an eye on why I’ve made the commitment; I have to return to what it’s about.
Yoga right now is about learning a real practice, and showing up to take care of my spirit and body in a totally committed way. Writing right now is about finishing a project I’ve had in my life for many years and thereby being able to move forward, toward my next horizon. Maybe if I can keep these things in mind I can transform the short-term interpretation of them as tyrannies. And maybe I can interpret the other “tyrannies” in my life as little acts of gratitude.