On ritual and its relationship to discipline

Here is a lesson from today’s yoga class: It is good, even when you don’t feel like doing your usual ritual, to just go through the motions. Even if you feel bleh and tired and distant, the motions are not wasted.

This morning I woke up ten minutes before yoga and I just really, really, really didn’t want to get up. But I knew I needed exercise to counteract a sluggish weekend, and plenty of yoga in preparation for my day at the Colorado conference on Friday. So I got up and went to class in a so-tired-eyes-won’t-focus daze. All through class I remained sleepy and not fully present, and I felt as though all my energy had been depleted. I almost decided partway through to spend the rest of the class in legs-up-the-wall pose just so I wouldn’t have to exert myself any more. Yet I kept going, and in the end I got up into a really good handstand, and a very decent pigeon-prep pose too. I’ve noticed this counterintuitive truth time and again in yoga, that “not feeling it” that day in no way impedes my ability. And then, when I do something impressive through my distant daze, I can still feel the satisfaction. I always leave these classes reminded that the days I most need to go to yoga are the days when I most don’t want to. It’s a good lesson, and one I need to constantly re-learn.

It’s a lesson that applies particularly right now, after two weeks of really subpar discipline in art-making (which, in their turn, followed two weeks of especially focused art-making). I find that for me, unsatisfactory work or work habits build their own momentum, to where it’s very difficult to (a) change, and (b) care. I do know I’m improving because even just a year ago, when one thing started to slack, everything would go to pot, whereas in recent months I’ve managed to only lose one or two things at a time. For instance: last week I made almost no art, but exercised five days out of the seven, and the apartment is almost clean (though, granted, this happened in a burst of activity on the seventh day). Nevertheless, I still struggle with wanting to just give up any time things start to slow. I think, “Oh, well, I didn’t do my morning pages yesterday, so I might as well not do them today.” It’s a viciously self-defeating pattern.

I’ve read that this is a common problem for anyone trying to change ingrained habits — dieters, for example, or recovering alcoholics. Every time we fall off our wagon(s) we want to throw up our hands and give in to the failure… in fact we secretly want the failure, because it means a return to the more comfortable, more familiar way of life. Unable to put the old life behind us, we have trouble seeing each day or even each moment as an opportunity to succeed in our new life.

Often I wonder whether I’m particularly prone to this kind of thinking, because for most of my life I did not need to make prolonged, concerted efforts at single pursuits. School projects were easy for me, and anyway they never lasted more than one term. I was never any kind of athlete worth mentioning. I preferred to draw quick, finished pieces rather than work on long-term projects. The closest I came to a long-term effort was piano, which I dutifully played for more than a decade before coming to really love it in high school and college… but seeing as I then developed tendinitis, I’ve never had the chance to see whether I could practice on my own without the added push of a class and a teacher. (Or perhaps my unwillingness to do daily wrist-strengthening exercises speaks for itself?)

I know that some people (ahem, my mother) have seen my quitting grad school as just further evidence of my inability to see a thing through to its full fruition. But I think my current challenges are my greatest test yet. Since I am now striking out almost completely on my own in terms of my art — no advisors, no art school, no contracts or deadlines except those I set for myself — this is my big chance to prove I can do a thing properly on my own. Some days I know it doesn’t look like I can, but when I look back on the past year and a quarter, I see the trend is very much toward success. Maybe one week I make nothing, but if the week before that I made more than ever before, and the week after I surpass that, then it’s a good trajectory.

I didn’t really think when I left grad school that it would take this long to get to where I am now. But now that I’m here, I realize it will take still longer to get to where I want to be. But this no longer surprises or dismays me, because I’ve learned that worthwhile pursuits do take, well, years sometimes. And that means some days, I just have to get up and go through the motions: just put down my mat and do that first downward dog, just clear the desk and move my pen across the page, or my pencil over my sketchbook. Last September I printed up and posted above my desk this Twyla Tharp quote: “Art is a vast democracy of habit.” Finally, finally I have understood this vital truth. Sometimes the work lies not in the task itself, but in the act of showing up and doing it. It’s the process.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com. I hadn’t yet, at this point, figured out that creativity has cycles.]