when your practice fails

Control Issues

Now that you’ve all read about my Morning Routine (both here and in other places) it’s obvious that I’m on the fast track to enlightenment. Why, if you squint slightly you can see the beginning of a halo forming around my head (it helps if the sun’s behind me). And obviously if I have the temerity to write a personal development blog, I’ve already got the personal development down, right?

In case you missed it, that entire sentence was written in what we professional designers call “sarcasm font.”

If I didn’t think it would be counter-productive (and somewhat self-indulgent) I would list for you all the ways my personal practice has failed me over the last week or so. The engine of my practice has been sputtering like a muscle car with water in the fuel line – it looks pretty, but it doesn’t seem to be getting me where I want to go very efficiently.

Stressmonkey, Ho!

The "William Blake" Instagram Filter makes for some interesting selfies...
The “William Blake” Instagram Filter makes for some interesting selfies…

I recently had a change in the medication my doctor prescribed to deal with some thyroid issues. The pharmacy tech asked if I was aware of possible side effects, and I rattled off a few of them that I knew of. She nodded, and I felt pleased that I was a self-educated patient.

Except: what I’d actually rattled off were the symptoms of what could happen if I didn’t take the medication. Weight gain, depression, fatigue. Hey, I’m a middle-aged self-employed male on the tale end of a Wisconsin winter – those three things are what I cope with all the time, no problem, right?

Over the next few days the slings and arrows seemed to fly fast and furious: I’d be triumphant about work, then suddenly exhausted at the mountain of to-dos. I’d miss friends and loved ones terribly, but want to be left alone. My partner seemed to go out of her way to say and do things that just infuriated me, and even during some of the good times like going to a movie the feeling of her holding my hand almost drove me out of my mind with don’t touch me!

In short, while I was meditating twice a day, journaling, exercising regularly, and doing well with my diet (including a carefully-managed splurge at an ice cream shop) I was one Big Ball of Stressmonkey.

“The Unknown Unknowns”

Bless Donald Rumsfeld and his way with words. You already guessed, right? Turns out that the web is full of people asking WebMD and other sites what they should do about their “sudden mood swings”, “irritability”, and “hypersensitivity to touch” that often accompanies the kind of titration of this med that I’d just had.

Of course, I found this out as I was cooling down from losing my temper over a pretty ridiculous mishap. I had at least had the presence of mind to remove myself from the situation, before my mood caused more collateral damage. But sitting there, reading on my phone about all these similar situations that other people had experienced, I felt betrayed.

Not by my doctor; they had given me a list of possible side effects. Not even by my own loss of control. No, I felt betrayed by my practice. I meditate, I exercise, I’ve even been doing damned yoga; and now, right when I needed it, a little 250 microgram change in medication sends it all out the window? What’s the point, if that’s all it takes to send me off the rails?

“Practice makes perfect. But nobody’s perfect, so why practice?” – George Carlin

One possible explanation is that I’m not practicing correctly (“Bad Buddhist! No cookie!” as one old friend used to tease me). However, that kind of puts us back in the whole achievement/never-good-enough kind of loop that is pretty antithetical to practices like zazen and yoga. There aren’t Zazen Sit-Offs or Yoga Smackdowns.

Instead, perhaps the perspective to take is this: how much worse would I be if I had no practice? And does knowing both the feeling of practice and (now) the feeling of those mood swings happening give me better tools for dealing with it in the future?

The answer is yes, it does. But even that’s not the point. The point of practice is not to get better at anything, or for life to improve, or for that stylish aura to appear around your head. No more than the point of my meds is to make my mood swing wildly, my body to sweat uncontrollably, or for me to suddenly look remarkably like Jared Padalecki.*

The point of both the meds is to make me healthier. The point of practice is to recognize life as it is – not as it could be, not as I want it to be, not as it was. Life as it is. Yes, some people also experience calm, joy, serenity, a thousand-mile-stare and a tendency to eat more fiber from sitting – but your mileage, and mine, may vary.

When your practice fails you, it might be worth it to check your expectations. And then do some yoga, pull out your journal and a nice pen, or just sit there for a while.

“People imagine enlightenment will make them incredibly powerful. And it does. It makes you the most powerful being in all the universe- but usually no one else notices.”
– Brad Warner

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