The opposite of good is bad. Duh. As a people-pleasing, first-born child, I’ve known for absolute sure that bad is — not to get too fancy or anything – really, really bad. Doing it right and fulfilling others’ expectations has always been high on my list. I’ve always been sure that the best way to get love is to be good. But recently, all my certainty about good and bad has been turned on its head.
A friend recently loaned me Claire Dederer’s, Poser: My Life in 26 Yoga Poses. I opened it with some caution as some yoga books wander in radiant wonder for so long that they annoy me. Deeply. All that transcendence and inner peace…pulease.
I approached warily. Any regular practice – be it yoga, or parenting, or simply getting up every morning – are day-in-day-out affairs that encompass a whole lot of everything. Any descriptions of these practices that include constant angel choirs and perpetual, patient peacefulness leave me with eyebrows up and arms crossed.
Turns out, Dederer’s book doesn’t have any angel choirs. She writes with humor, honesty, and self-deprecation that resonate with me as a practitioner, a teacher, and a writer (she actually gave me my first full-blown case of writer-envy). Overall, reading was a pleasure of recognition and affirmation. But a couple of times, her words took my breath away with revelation.
One example is when she tells of learning about ancient yogic teachings that warn against effort in one’s practice. This confounds her since effort, she thinks, is the whole point of yoga. She writes:
It would be a long time before I could entertain the notion that maybe my yoga would improve if I didn’t try so hard, and a longer time still before I began to question why my yoga needed to improve at all.
As a lifelong over-achieving, direction-following self-improver, this hit me where I live. Truly, isn’t all practice about getting better? Isn’t improvement an inherent part of practicing? But after I gave Dederer a little chuckle/quizzical-face, I wondered, what would it be to practice without the goal of getting better?
With that tantalizing yet unimaginable seed planted, she tells of taking classes at Naropa University in Colorado:
The red-haired yoga teacher with the Indian accent … said: “Those of you who are really bad at yoga, you’re in the right place. I hope everyone will allow themselves to be really crappy today, to walk away from being perfect. The real yoga isn’t in the perfect pose; it’s in the crappy pose that you are really feeling. You want to feel it from the inside out, rather than make it perfect from the outside in.”
Okay, this, I get. As a teacher of mindful movement, this is what I want for my students: for them to feel it in their own skin and move/choose/respond from there. Parroting my movements and following what I do is entirely and precisely not the point.
But what Dederer writes next stopped me cold and has utterly changed my thinking about practice and life. She says, “I had a sudden thought: What if the opposite of good isn’t bad? What if the opposite of good was real?”
What if the opposite of good was real?
The truth of this stopped me. I thought of how much energy I put into improving my practice, my teaching, myself. I not only see but feel the tension and anxiety my students can put into doing things right. The notion of constant improvement carries the paradoxical enticement that someday, if I work hard enough, I’ll be good enough while simultaneously knowing I never will.
And when I’m not focusing on getting better and when I let go of doing it right? What’s left but real? Real and true and authentic.
The opposite of good is real. This so shakes the perspective of constant improvement that I’ve held as my main tool for getting love and acceptance, that I’m still processing it. When I find myself breathing shallow and calculating how to get it right and stay in the lines, I ask myself what would real look like right now?