It's Never Gonna' End - On the Nature of Finding & Enduring Softness
As I drove to teach class this morning, I came up behind a woman on a bike with stuffed front and back panniers, and a sleeping pad and tent rolled up on the back. I could tell by the woman’s tan and the grime on her panniers that she had been out on the road for some time.
Seeing her, I was immediately reminded of how 12 years ago my then boyfriend and I had set out on the 76, a cross-country bike route. I remembered how my loaded-down bike weighed over 50 pounds. How terrifyingly close the logging trucks would rush by on country roads. The rawness of my butt despite two pairs of padded shorts. The days of interminable climbing of hills, lungs gasping to fuel my burning thighs and to exclaim breathy obscenities at the sheer godawfulness of it all. I remembered how it felt like it would never end.
I had experienced the same sickening thought this morning in my practice. “This is never gonna’ end.” Not the yoga pose I was in, though I know that thought paired with that experience very well.
No, this morning it was the fear that my experience of being alone will never go away. Whatever wounding it is that is deep inside of me and makes me feel alone, unloved and like an outsider no matter how untrue that may be in reality will always be there and will continue to get in the way of true happiness in my work and personal life.
Without processing that feeling fully, I left to teach class, still feeling heavy and tight. It was only a few minutes later that I saw the woman on the bike and was reminded of how it felt to endure such a long and difficult ride.
But as I came along side the woman on her bike, to my surprise I saw that on her front handle bars was a basket with a small dog calmly sitting, watching the scenery go by.
In an instant a surge of warmth and lightness spread through my chest as I imagined what it would have felt like to have a soft and unconditionally loving presence looking up at me at each revolution of the pedal on that ride 12 years ago. Instead, I had stared down at the map I had attached to my handlebars, constantly measuring my progress, dreading the inclines, yearning for the downhills.
The truth is, though I saw beautiful, bucolic scenery, had hours of perfect harmony of breath, mind and body, and met some of the kindest, most generous people in the most serendipitous of ways, I was mainly waiting for the suffering aspect of the trip to be over. And god knows that any time you’re simply waiting for suffering to be over, it never ends. The only way I saw to end the suffering at the time was to go home. And so we did. After just a couple of weeks we called the whole trip off, missing out on a truly remarkable experience.
But this post isn’t about regret, because in retrospect, coming home that summer was the best thing I could have done for all sorts of reasons. This is about what it means to endure.
The word endure comes from the Latin, indurare, which literally means “to make hard.” When we’re undergoing suffering of some sort, trying to bear or tolerate something, desperately attempting to maintain, we harden. We tell ourselves that it is our strength and that very hardness that gets us through, when in fact the hardness is exactly what makes the whole thing feel unsustainable at best, heartbreaking, infuriating and nauseating at worst.
Suffering needs our participation. Whether it’s in the form of a physical challenge or an emotional threshold, we need to be soft enough to feel, unconditional enough in our own presence to simply stay, and sensitive enough to discern when the suffering is too much or useless and it’s best to back out or walk away.
It’s hard to buy into this idea. So let’s try an experiment: Pick a yoga pose that’s hard for you. One that makes it challenging to breathe, your thighs scream, your core quiver. Get a timer out and set it for 2 minutes. Now do the pose, focusing with all of your might on enduring the entire 2 minutes. Notice how it feels. Can you hold it for the entire time? If so, what do you sacrifice to do so? What kinds of thoughts go through your head?
Now take a moment to stand in tadasana. Breathe. Feel the weight of your body, strength of your legs, your arms. Feel your clothing on your skin, the temperature of the air around you. Stand until you can find the slightest sensation of mushiness. Not the “I’m a gooey mess” type of mushiness. More like a ripe fig—perfectly prepared by the elements, filled with an odd and surprising interior that is beautiful and delicious.
Let yourself stay tuned to this softness as you set the timer and repeat the pose. Even as you call upon your strength, pledge an allegiance to your softness. What do you notice now? Were you able to be in the shape for 2 minutes? How did it feel?
Typically the response to this experience is that the second way feels quite different than the first. Not only is it more sustainable, the pose actually feels more dynamic and alive. Yes, it’s still hard, perhaps even quivery, but there’s an underlying steadiness. An accompanying kindness. Kind of like a small dog in a basket reminding you that there is more than just the struggle.
So whatever it is you’re enduring, that you’re hardening to, that you’re waiting to be over—whether it’s a yoga pose, teaching a class in which nothing seems to be going right, interviewing for a job, going through chemo, writing a thesis, attending to an inner demon—can you simply soften? Participate. Focus less on the map for how to get through or out and more on what’s actually happening. Allowing for the mushiness doesn’t mean you have to give away your strength. Quite the contrary. You will use your strength. You will use so much strength that you will also gain more. And along the way you won’t deny yourself of the surprising deliciousness of it all. And then at some point it, whatever it is, will end.