When to let yourself off the hook
Every few years, I take on a thirty day challenge - a yoga sprint that tests my discipline, resolve and personal fortitude. For thirty continuous days, I commit to getting to class every day, battling traffic, lethargy and a jam-packed schedule to make it to my mat and sweat in a heated room for sixty minutes. By the month's end, I have been reminded of a deep inner calm and physical strength I posses, emerging victorious with a revived sense of accomplishment and relief as I cross the finish line.
Over the years, I have taken on other thirty day challenges: A month of making no new plans, thirty days of intuitive eating, thirty days of spontaneous acts of kindness.
I love the structure of it; a purple monthly calendar tacked to my refrigerator, neat check marks as I track each day's progress, my left brain and ego fed by the order and discipline (never mind the inner competitive urge that keeps me motivated to complete all thirty days).
There is science that supports this approach as well: According to Maxwell Maltz in his groundbreaking work on habits in the 1960s, it takes anywhere from 21 to 66 days to form a new habit, which is why a monthly experiment of trying out a new pattern - continuously and systematically - is a great way to internalize and routinize a new practice. For example, Matt Cutts in his short Ted Talk Try Something New for 30 Days explains how he was able to hike Mount Kilimanjaro, give up sugar and write a novel using this tool.
To fortify the challenge, I have at different times made use of accountability partners - coaches, educational programs, various friends - to help me maintain the structure and follow through on my commitments. In truth, I've never needed much prompting in this area: As a self-professed personal growth junkie with a strong sense of inner discipline, I recently came across a stack of old papers from my childhood, monthly calendars from middle school where I set out each month's "learning theme" and tracked "lessons and observations" at the month's end in brightly colored markers. I did this for years. Starting at age fourteen. So, yeah, this gal likes structure.
In fact, following the rules, in many ways, has always been easier than breaking them - even when the rules are self-imposed and in service of my own creativity, freedom and exploration.
This time around, I woke in mid-July, run ragged from nearly sixteen days of continuous yoga and an insanely full schedule that included a long stretch of 13-hour long days volunteering at the University of Santa Monica. I was bone tired, my body heavy and sluggish, and dreading the prospect of one more day of yoga. Awakening on day sixteen, I realized that I had unwittingly crossed the line from productive learning experience into punishing, relentless, inflexible attachment that had more to do with my inner critic's opinions about failure and my social conditioning about 'finishing' than it had to do with my own self-honoring choices.
How do we know when the rules are serving us, and how do we know when we are serving the rules? When do we know to let ourselves off the hook? And when is it time to step back from our rigid commitments versus pushing forward?
A few practices below can help steer the course towards your best life and help you determine when to stay strong and when to let yourself slide:
1) Read your body compass. The body never lies. Check in with your body now. Now pay closer attention. In you lives a deep inner wisdom that honors cycles and always knows what it needs (whether that is broccoli or chocolate cream pie, a cardio burst or savasana). Checking in with the body will help you harness a major source of wisdom and guidance and learn to trust your inner voice of truth.
2) Lean into gentleness, lean away from force. Self-compassion and wisdom always feel gentle. By contrast, when the inner critic is present, the energy feels punishing, self-flagellating and forceful. As you cultivate your new practice and habit, apply liberal doses of self-compassion for your learning, even (and especially!) when you fall off course. Use this as an opportunity to get right back into your new practice without indulging in inner drama.
3) Take responsibility for your choices. Remember your why. When you are deeply in touch with the larger purpose behind a challenge or commitment - quitting smoking, cutting down on social media, building a new mediation practice - the new behaviors and habit follow naturally. Remembering your larger 'why' allows you to fully take ownership for the sacrifices and pitfalls that may befall you on the journey.
And so - sixteen days in - I took a day off. And then another. As the month concludes, I am the proud finisher of exactly 26 of 30 days of yoga, beaming and filled with gratitude for my self-honoring choice to take those four days off.
Learning how to follow an inner compass of gentleness while walking the path of growth has transformed my way of moving through the world.
When the intention (thoughts) are clear, the emotions and behaviors line up neatly, gently and cooperatively; dissolving inner conflict and resistance over time. Ease, grace, and flow lead the way, gently revealing transformation and shift until one day you wake up and the unfolding of your life has happened inside and around you effortlessly.
For now, my purple pages will remain fixed to the refrigerator door to remind me where I am headed, but with a new understanding of how to move forward always with gentleness and permissiveness, relying on the unshakable wisdom to respond to each day, each moment.