The Gentle Art of Effort and Rest

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I’ve been working on being able to do a chin up.  I haven’t been able to do one for as long as I can remember, and I like the idea of being able to do something that I’ve never been able to do before.


Sometimes it’s easy to accept that we’re not yet able to do something difficult.  At other times and in other situations we can create a lot of stress for ourselves by believing, regardless of the difficulty of the task, that we should be able to accomplish it.


It’s easy for me to acknowledge that I don’t yet have the capacity to do a chin up.  I don’t stand around looking at the chin up bar telling myself I should be able to do a chin up right now.  That if I were just a better person I could do that chin up, and the fact that I lack the ability must be a clear sign that I’m just not good enough.




I just can’t do one…yet. 


There’s a certain gentleness in acknowledging that we have limitations.


We have existing (and movable) limitations in many areas of our lives.  For example, how we relate with and consume food.  How much love we bring to difficult conversations and other provoking situations.  How organized and efficient we are with our time, energy and money.  How much attention we can handle from other people, both loving and hostile.  And how much courage we can muster to share what’s closest to our heart with the world.


I don’t know about you, but I used to think that if I were simply a better person I could get myself to do all the things I felt I needed to do.  If I were good enough I could meet the ideal I held about how best to handle these various situations.  “If I were a really good person, I could show up for that difficult conversation with so-and-so, and I wouldn’t get agitated.  I would stay perfectly calm and centered, I’d clearly articulate my boundaries, and I would have real compassion for their position.”


But that’s the relationship version of a chin up…though maybe not for everyone.  We all feel challenged by different things.


I think it takes a lot of tenderness and self-compassion to–still holding the vision of our ideal–acknowledge that we don’t have the capacity…yet.  We’re not hopelessly flawed or simply “a bad person”.  


Just as I can choose to repeatedly show up and challenge myself with chin up like work, and slowly expand my capacity and strength over time.  I can choose to accept, without blame, my current capacity for other challenges.  I can show up, with gentleness, and do as much as I can do, but not more than I’m ready for.  I don’t have to hurt myself in the process of building strength, or any other quality I long for.


Interestingly, each time I show up for my actual chin up like exercise, what happens is that I do as much as I can do, until I either give up or fail (meaning my muscles give out).  Once I attain the chin up, this pattern will still exist, because then I’ll just try to do something harder.  It’s funny that success will be built on these countless small failures.  In fact, it’s nice to be able to listen to my body tell me when it’s done, and simply cooperate with that.


It seems to me then, that when we’re working at the limits of our ability, within the nurturing embrace of compassion, that failure becomes a mundane occurrence, and because the stakes are not high it’s easy to tolerate.


The real success is showing up.


It’s the repeated showing up and challenging ourselves that changes the limits of what’s possible for us.


Once we find a way to start building the skill and strength, or the other qualities, we succeed each time we show up for the challenge.  Regardless of what happens after we show up.


And just like when we apply work to the body, we need to honor the period of rest before we challenge ourselves again.


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