A new year brings a fresh beginning and an influx of energy. Many people squander this energy by making grand if not grandiose resolutions. Such proclamations ultimately cater to wishful thinking but not the reality of how human beings create and incorporate new habits. Big, lofty or imprecise goals are more likely to implode than smaller, less dramatic and measurable steps. If you haven’t spent time cultivating the attitudes that underpin manageable progress, you’ll likely burn out quickly or give up in frustration. At that point you might believe you’re a failure for, once again, not fulfilling your resolutions. Why endure the trauma of such drama when there are better ways to improve your life and achieve what you’d like to do?
If, in the first weeks of January you’ve already ditched your resolutions, consider yourself lucky. You can learn from your false start and set your sights on less ambitious activities that could, over time, lead to sustainable and pleasurable change. Having bellyflopped time and again from my own desire to make large shifts quickly, or exhausted myself by compensating for periods of stagnation with bursts of intense activity, I now heed the wisdom of Moshe Feldenkrais, whose method of somatic education I’ve been studying. One of his many succinct and thought provoking, if not mind blowing, nuggets is this:
“In our willpower, we are practicing our insecurity.”
Western culture and conventional wisdom tout willpower as a way of overcoming inertia, character “defects” and even the body itself to arrive at a desired goal. Many folks still believe that a lack of willpower is a personal failing, deserving of shame. As Dr. Feldenkrais writes in The Elusive Obvious, “They think willpower is the real way to achieve correct functioning, and consider that repeated attempts will ensure excellency. In fact, exercising for the correct final state only produces familiarity and makes any errors habitual.”
According to the false logic of willpower, if we keep pushing and trying hard, we can bring about desired results, even if those are accompanied by physical or emotional pain. Indeed, many people, who have internalized the mantra “no pain, no gain”, welcome physical pain as a sign that they are improving or pushing past their edge. Pain, however, is the body’s way of signaling that we’ve done too much, we’ve moved ineptly, or in a way for which our particular body wasn’t designed. If we force and power through an activity, it’s because, at bottom, we don’t believe we can do whatever it is we’ve set out to do. We’ve staked our worth on achievement rather than the process of experimenting, learning, and growing. That is how we practice our insecurity, by believing that the ends justifies the means. If you felt comfortable in your own skin and knew at a deep level that you would accomplish your goals or whatever else you’ve resolved to do, you would trust yourself to do so at a human pace. You’d integrate the changes over time, not overnight.
Instead of willpower, we can practice the power of skill. Skill, in this case, is not talent but attentiveness. To be skillful with ourselves requires not speeding up or leaping ahead but slowing down enough to actually feel our bodies, emotions and physical sensations. Such awareness allows us to work in harmony with who are right now and not run roughshod over our actual selves in an attempt to be our ideal selves. As I keep learning, staying with myself is easier said than done. I’m frequently inspired by lofty dreams and long-term goals yet can become frustrated by the pace of my progress because I’m “not there yet”. This disconnect is precisely why I don’t make resolutions anymore, because they highlight the gap between my current and my ideal self. That gap makes me more likely to push and strain myself rather than experiment, with care and curiosity, to find pleasant ways to do even challenging things. When I feel stuck, rather than beat myself up for not being as productive as I imagined, I’ve learned to do a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lesson, many of which are designed to replicate the organic learning of children. Precisely because the pace is slow, the lessons demand that I place my full attention on the here and now and get in touch with my body in novel ways, much as infants find fascination in discovering themselves and their environment. In The Elusive Obvious Feldenkrais explains: “Organic learning is lively and takes place when one is in a good mood, and works at short intervals. The attitude is less serious, and the spells are more erratic compared with a day of academic learning or study.” Thus refreshed, I can return to my work and tasks with an attitude of ease rather than steely resolve. When we lower the stakes, we can accomplish more. Go ahead, ditch your resolutions. Unless, of course, you’ve resolved to do less.
More personal essays about the Feldenkrais Method can be found here.