Struggle & The Zen Muscle

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We can learn from our small struggles how to deal with the big ones, because sooner or later, the big ones are coming.

Last night, like most weeknights these days, I was in a room heated above 90 degrees, stretching my complaining spine into uncomfortable angles. But hey, it feels great when you stop! I have become a bikram yoga advocate since I started about two months ago, but there are times when it is pure struggle. With each pose, I promise myself I’ll take the next one off (one advantage to the insanely hot room is that no one questions you for taking a short break), but if I can do the next one, I almost always do, because, well, why else am I there?

The teachers advocate a present, in the moment, attitude of observing the body without other distracting thoughts. I try this sometimes, but often take the opposite approach of bombarding my brain with thoughts so that I don’t notice quite as much my aching lower spine, the endless sweat, and the unrelenting heat. Last night, I distracted myself by considering the zen approach to struggle—the one the teachers advocate. The philosophy is this: everything is always in flux. If you are currently unhappy, try to find stillness, things will change. If you are happy, try to find stillness, things will change.

It’s a philosophy our culture could use more of, and I thought about writing a short essay using the yoga class as a frame: just accept, you can get through this. But then I thought how trite and overplayed that is, and how my ability to zen my way through the last twenty minutes of a yoga class wouldn’t help someone in an abusive relationship, facing foreclosure on their house, or in physical danger. You know, serious, less transient struggles.

The post-yoga shower washed all those thoughts from my mind. It really does feel good when you stop.

It so happens that when I got home, a friend called to tell me about another friend who, well, isn’t doing well. I’m not going to go into why, other than to say that the examples I listed above are comparable to what he’s going through. After a few emotional phases (shock, sadness, judgment) I found myself looking for something to hope for, and all I had was that my friend could reach a zen-like acceptance, where the knowledge of his situation didn’t preventing from finding emotional equilibrium while still doing what he could to improve things. And that’s life, yeah? Either you constantly work to get above emotional water (more coffee, more sugar, more stuff, more internet, more tv) or we find a way to be okay without our creature comforts. Getting to the end of the yoga class usually just means you get to the end of the yoga class and then you go home and record scratch your equilibrium until you are back to familiar territory, but zen is a muscle, and it's a struggle to build, but you never know when you'll need that emotional foundation.

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