By Catherine DiMercurio
In the late afternoon, before the light began to fade, I stretched on my purple yoga mat in my bedroom. The puppy, (now two years old), is always at my side and it is no different when I’m standing on my head or sinking into shavansana, corpse pose. He’s right there, at least one paw on the mat, connected to me. When I finished, I found myself thinking that as I go into the new year, one of the things I’d like to move toward is a daily yoga practice. Right now, I do a couple of half hour sessions a week, but I remain stiff in some poses, can’t do some of the things I used to be able to do. So, I’m deciding that I will try to do at least 15 minutes a day. I have other goals for daily exercise, ranging from dog walks to long hikes, and I’ll still do longer, deeper yoga sessions a couple of days each week, but 15 minutes on the other days seems like a reasonable goal, and something I know will benefit me both mentally and physically, particularly as I try to get through these long, cold, dark months. I realized, as I sat on my mat, petting my dog, that my goal did not need to be about getting back to where I was with my yoga when I was younger, or reaching a certain point of mastery over a pose. It is simply this: I feel good when I do yoga. I feel like me and I want more of that.
As I continued to think about how setting this type of goal differed from the ways I set goals in the past, I realized that what I’m after is a practice that is more about habit and effort, rather than outcome. And I began to reflect on how this type of goal setting might be helpful in other areas of my life. Too often I set goals that are achievement-based. I want to be able to do this type of pose perfectly, or get this number of pieces of short fiction published. Then, I further encumber such goals with a timeline. Life teaches us to do this. Self-help books, social media posts, and professional development materials, all often insist that goals need to be measurable and time bound. I even remember reading someplace that goals without a timeline are just wishes.
But I am curious about this: what naturally evolves from a habit-based practice versus achievement-based effort? If I practice yoga for 15 minutes every day and observe my body and my mind, what benefits might I notice? This is different than saying, I am going to do yoga for 15 minutes every day so that I can do a back bend by the end of February.
Likewise, if one of my writing goals is to submit two short stories to literary journals every month, what could grow from that practice of writing and submitting? And how might that practice differ than if I aim for getting, say, three acceptances in the coming year?
My point is that there is so much we are not in control over. And what discourages us, depresses us, keeps us in a sluggish instead of vibrant mental state is that feeling of failure, of letting ourselves or others down, of comparing ourselves to others and not measuring up, because we haven’t gotten to where they are, and shouldn’t we, by now?
Yet, I have little control over whether or not something gets published. I can keep writing, and choose what to submit and to whom, and after that it is out of my hands. We can, to some extent, choose how to spend our time, though we all have responsibilities that can make even this challenging. Still, we can control our own efforts, shape our own habits. What we can’t do is force the world to react to any of that in a certain way.
My writing practice, my yoga practice, my pottery practice—these are more important to me, the doing of them, than the achievement markers that indicate to the world that I’m successful at them. But I get hung up on the proof sometimes. I try to avoid the trap of external validation, though, like most people, I enjoy it. So I want to point to publication as proof of my writing effort; I want to show up in a yoga class and prove I belong because I can keep up; I want to throw a large piece or create something exquisitely artful as evidence that my hard work and practice has paid off. But, what am I really trying to prove, and to whom? Is my desire to demonstrate effort a performance for an audience? Does someone else saying that’s good or I can see you tried really hard matter more than me saying those things to myself? I don’t think that it is wrong to envision what we might accomplish, to want those things, to work toward them. But I’m starting to wonder if practicing with achievement-based goals at the forefront of our effort is the healthy way to go. Maybe, we could let achievement be the by-product of effort, of habit. And if our effort does not produce those tangible markers, then so be it. If we are working with our own satisfaction, enjoyment, thrill of discovery, etc., foremost in our hearts, rather than what we hope to prove to ourselves or others, wouldn’t the habit itself be more delightful to cultivate?
This is not news to everyone, this idea of practicing the things you love, that are important to you, for the sake of the practice itself rather than what you can show for it or get out of it. It’s not even news to me, but sometimes we lose our way a little. The world teaches us to be goal-oriented, our professional lives hammer home messages of efficiency, productivity, success. But I’m finding there is little living happening in that way of doing things. There is striving and measuring, but not breath, pleasure, joy, satisfaction.
While I am often resentful of the notion that I should make New Year’s resolutions, I have always found that it is a good time to reflect. But in reality, I’ve been doing so since the solstice. The time frame between solstice and the new year has been, continues to be, a rich one for contemplating what I’m learning, what makes sense, what doesn’t. In the coming year, I want to stretch as if I’m waking up from all that has kept me asleep, and still, and sad. I want to “relax into the pose,” as my very first yoga teacher taught me.
As the new year approaches, I’m going to continue to reflect on what other habits I’d like to cultivate with a heart focused on the habit itself, rather than what it produces, or how efficiently. This coming year, I want to relax: into poses, practice, purpose. To unfold, to deconstruct the beliefs that have led me to approach goals as rigid, structured things measured by success and failure, beliefs that have led me to view myself in the same way, like an origami crane made of glass, something that can be easily broken, instead of something sturdy yet flexible, something that can be unfolded, smoothed out, and remade.
After my yoga practice, just after dusk, I heard a great horned owl. Across the street, behind a row of brick ranch houses, is a creek and little woodland strip that separates this subdivision from the next. It is the home for a lot of wildlife—deer, opossums, groundhogs, skunks, hawks, and owls, among others. I don’t know that I can ever hear an owl without thinking of some kind of sparkling magic happening just outside my door. I want more of my life to feel that way, infused with the everyday magic of living things being themselves. I want to be part of that, be completely and unselfconsciously myself, making and unmaking myself as needed, as easily as my owl friend hoots in the settling of night over the woods, as soft as moonlight on feathers. I think our habits and practices can lead us there. Don’t you?
2 thoughts on “On Owls, Cranes, Practice, and Purpose”
Much of what you wrote here resonates with me. I’m in a self-reflective state, myself (not deeply, yet) and letting the notion of picking up old hobbies and practices tumble in my head without pressure. It is very hard to separate “accomplishments” from the practice, and I agree that it’s almost a natural thing to tie the practice too much to outcomes. The practice is the important thing since as you say we cannot make the outcomes happen since so many outcomes depend on others.
I envy you your owl. I haven’t heard any owls in my area in years. In fact, the only one was back in June of 2016 when I heard a screech owl through my bedroom window. They’re kind of eerie too, though not as impressive as a big hooter like a great horned owl.
I hope another owl finds you! And I’m really glad this resonated with you. I know I’m going to have to practice focusing on habit over achievement. We are trained to push toward the obvious goals rather than patiently minding our practice, our art, because it is good, and it is part of us.