“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” ~ Lao Tzu
May 1, 2012. The first day of my Radical Sabbatical, and it was a glorious spring day. The sun was out, the breeze was cool and the sky was azure blue. I was dying to be out in it. I wanted to feel the warmth and the wind on my skin. I wanted to see what was blooming and how the river was flowing. I wanted to sweat in the open air. So I went for a run. Okay, more of a jog. Maybe a walk decorated with brief moments of elevation.
It wasn’t pretty, my friends. Since a bout with plantar fasciitis last fall/winter (click here for the posts on that), I hadn’t attempted any running at all and in addition, my left hamstring was tighttight. Even in the best of my running days, I was more Clydesdale than gazelle and on this morning, I was decidedly warthog.
But what the heck? My sabbatical had begun! It was a time for experimentation and the call of the outdoors was strong. So tally ho and all that! Out I went.
When I’d run in the past, sports watch and Walkman were my constant companions (oy, Susan, how old are you? I mean iPod, of course). I wanted to know how fast I was going and how long I’d been out. I was always preparing for a class or learning or choreographing a new routine, so earbuds inserted, I mentally tracked the music as I moved along the river trail.
This time though, on May 1, I ran “naked”: no watch, no music. As I shuffled along, I took in the scene and scents along the river, and received (a boatload) of information from my body. Did I mention that it wasn’t pretty? It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t go fast or far. When I came to the hill up Hazel Street that led back home, I groaned (audibly) and walked up it (slowly).
Everybody knows Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady wins the race, right? And here’s the thing about it: the only way the tortoise wins is if it’s a long distance race. In order for persistence to prevail, I have to be looking at the long view. And the only way the whole enterprise makes sense is to be present in (and, with luck, enjoying) the moment. That is the philosophy of Turtle GO!: be present and persist, with kindness and care just a little at a time.
Turtle GO! is a way of making choices about where I put my energy. One of the ways I think about the choices I make is to ask myself, “If I keep doing this thing over and over, where will it take me? And am I interested in going there?” If I want to be able to enjoy running outside, but I consistently choose to have a second cup of tea and hang out on Facebook, I’m not likely to be gliding along the river trail in September! If I want to eat more vegetables, I can move in that direction one meal, one snack, one bite at a time. If I want to mediate more often, the best way I know to get there is to keep doing it, a little at a time.
Turtle GO! is about a certain kind of discipline. One of the important learnings for me has been that it is not a perfect, absolute discipline and in fact, it is a discipline of presence and kindness. There was a time when nothing could get between me and my workout. Nothing. Not family, not a holiday, not an ice storm, nothing. That kind of obsessive intensity didn’t support me, and didn’t take me to a happy place. It took me to a closed and disconnected place. I don’t have any interest in going there now. For me, it is important to have ease and care within the long view. It all works best if I don’t put a vice grip on myself, but look at the big picture with soft eyes. I can ask myself, “Am I generally moving in the direction I want to go? Am I making the choices that take me there most of the time?” If I am, then a day or two of not running as far as I did the day before or not running at all, are not just totally fine, they actually help me stay connected to the process.
The second piece of the Turtle GO! approach is the importance of being present and in the moment. This relates to the Discipline-Without-Going-Crazy-and-Obsessing idea. That first morning I went out along the river, while I did enjoy the sun and the air and the scenery, my body was saying, “Holy Moly, woman! What are we DOING??” My body wasn’t used to running, and it was uncomfortable in the unfamiliar movement. I listened to her protests. I didn’t go far, and I walked when I needed to. When I got home, I drank lots of water and stretched for a long time. Pushing is not what Turtle GO! is about. Turtle GO! is about listening closely to what is happening in the moment, and nudging myself forward a little at a time.
A little at a time is The Body’s Way. Our physical forms react most positively and most long-lastingly to small changes made over time. My friend and Nia trainer, Helen Terry, tells the story of a student who came in to her classes with widely everted feet (commonly known as “duck feet”). He wanted to work toward parallel feet to protect his joints, so whenever he was in Nia class, he would consciously and studiously line up his toes and make his feet parallel. And as soon as he walked out of class – quack! – his feet would splay out again. Helen suggested that instead he make the change more gradual and consistent. She suggested making the change “a thumb’s width” at a time.
Turtle GO! is about a consistent change made little by little with awareness. Rather than forcing or bullying myself, it’s about lovingly encouraging myself to make the small choices and micro decisions that help move me in the direction I want to go. If I find lots of resistance, it is a chance to look at what is at the root of the resistance. Am I afraid of failing? Afraid of succeeding? Have I changed my mind about where I want to go? Depending on what the answer is, I can make choices from there. Always gently and easefully; consistent and persistent.
Within the process of Turtle GO! there might also be great epiphanies and break-throughs. There are days when I go faster and farther along the trail than I thought I would or could. There are moments of huge expansion and growth. And just like the times of contraction or resistance, I don’t make it the expectation or the norm. I just keep taking steps in the direction I want to go – sometimes big strides, sometimes not so big – just moving myself along.
I’ve used my Turtle GO! approach for lots of things: from eating habits to teaching Nia classes to writing this blog. I keep asking myself, “If I keep doing this, where am I likely to end up? And is that a place I want to go?” For me, it’s much more approachable and easeful to say “I’m going to sit on my mediation cushion for 5 minutes and increase gradually” rather than “I’m going to meditate every day for 30 minutes.” Yikes. In my experience, lots and lots of small choices and little decisions add up in a big way and in a hurry.
In the two months since May 1, I’ve continued to get out and run along the river trail a couple times a week. Every time I go out, I go just a little tiny bit further. Maybe just a few yards. On that long Hazel Street hill back to my house, I started running up just a little part of it, and then just a little more. The day I ran all the way up Hazel Street, it didn’t feel like a strain. It felt like a natural part of the process.
Let’s be perfectly clear here: I am still no gazelle and I will not be entering any marathons any time soon but I feel pretty good on my jaunts along the river and soon I may change my route to play with going a little further. Or maybe I’ll see someplace else I want to Turtle GO! This week, ask yourself where you want to go and what is one small thing you can do to move in that direction? Then take just one little step consistently and persistently, remembering the famous words of Mother Teresa, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
GO! with great love, my turtle friends!