The Opposite of Good

opposite of good PoserThe 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?

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17 comments
  1. Blue said:

    Oh how I love this post! I was just thinking this same thing about some of the work I have been doing. One is that I am preparing a 2 minute speech for the TEDx Charlottesville Open Mic I am doing (Sept. 29th). I can say that in the past when I had to write something I was often looking for people to read it and help me edit and give me feedback. This time around I had a thought–I don’t want it to be “good”–I want it to be real. True and authentically my own voice and way of saying something.

    Furthermore, as someone with a hearing impairment and speech impediment I have been approached by people suggesting I go to a speech therapist. Why? So I can be taught to speak like a robot news reporter without my own inflection, accent, lisp? How I speak is uniquely me and I don’t want to try to talk like someone else.

    It feels good to relax into who I am and drop the effort of trying to be a good speaker, writer, person, musician, etc etc.

    • Love it, Blue. Truly, being ourselves is the greatest challenge and gift! Excited that you’re doing the open mic night for TEDx! xo ❤

  2. Zanaramadamma said:

    Perfect, suzen, just purrrfect!! And in the letting go, the depth burps up from nowhere, effortlessly….!

    As Mary Oliver so wonderfully puts it:

    You do not have to be good.

    *****

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

    This was the aim of Carlos ‘s Sunday Nia class for the last several years before his retirement. No striving, no effort, jst being ith Nia. I had watched him strive to improve over the years, to perfect his baby Nia. And yes I strove right alongside him. To the point a dear friend kndly said to me, “You always seem to need to be the best at whatever you do.” Aside from helping me let go of trying to perfect a failing marriage, it helped me let go of striving in Nia…in my humble opinion, my practice rose to a whole new level. “You always need to look good” said my teacher to me. Heard. And he was speaking to himself as well, didn’t I know it!

    Sister, like you, I was the first born, type A, over achieving one who just, as Prince sings, finally knew I “had to let it go.”

    P.s. due to technical glitch I start work
    Tuesday not tomorrow, so yay get to dance with ya!!!

    • Right, it’s a little complicated since I do think there is something to discipline and attention to detail and doing our best to be our best. I saw that in Carlos, too, I saw him change some of the most stubborn habits in a profound way. And I saw him raise teaching to an art of love and joy. And there is something to letting go of the tightness and seeing what’s there. And I love that Mary Oliver poem and thought of it whilst writing this. xo ❤ SuZen
      PS so glad we get to dance before your job starts!

  3. Sherry whaley said:

    Very thought provoking entry I so can relate sherry whaley

  4. Jo Ellen said:

    Reading “what is the opposite of good isn’t bad,” I felt my belly soften and a deep, easy breath flooded in. . . what an “opening” thought. . . . Thanks, Susan!

    • I had the same response. A sense of trueness. You are welcome. xo Susan

  5. Oh, I love this. It reminds me of the first lines of a poem, Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver that has given this overachiever and ever-recovering perfectionist so much release in life. The idea that we don’t have to be good, just be who we are:

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.

    • Oh you’re good. I was thinking of that poem when I wrote the post and read it in class today. I will again tomorrow since it’s Mary Oliver’s 78th birthday tomorrow. Love that. xo S

  6. Madeline said:

    Love this. Thank you, Susan. It’s exactly where I am, too. I’ve asked myself recently whether I could shift my goal on a given day to being as relaxed and open as possible as opposed to improving X, Y, or Z … Or instead of giving the ‘best’ (read perfect!) performance I possibly can – slippery slope. The striving is honestly exhausting and never allows us to truly appreciate where we are or who we are now. I don’t think we’re in danger of losing our discipline or not continuing to grow if we allow ourselves to breath more deeply and be exactly who we are. 😉 Madeline

    • dearest Madeline, I’m not a musician,but the musicians that I love the most are the ones who are willing to be real in their performance. The ones who really truly show up and reveal themselves in their music. I don’t know how “perfect” their skill is, but I know how their realness effects me. I feel their unique expression and energy and I feel connected to them. THAT’S what I love in a musician and person. And in you. ❤

  7. Lisa said:

    Oh so wonderful and this week’s intention seamlessly connect with last week.
    The journey becomes more spacious and free when the steps are our authentically ours.
    Only through letting go of perfect can creativity really flourish and at the same time be as true as the river runs deep.
    Thank you thank you thank you for encouraging the realness…..

    • As the song goes, “you cawn’t fake the realness.” Nope. You cawn’t. Keep doing your creative and real work in the world, Lisa!

  8. Mum said:

    This, my wonderful, overachieving, wanting to “get it right/perfectly but is never satisfied” daughter…this time you have
    had a breakthrough. Perfection need not be the goal. Feeling happy,fulfilled, doing your best and being comfortable in that both physically and mentally
    is what I hope for you…and, in that, you succeed spectacularly !!! You amaze me – challenge me – and I love you fiercely!
    Mum

    • well, it’s official. the first comment on my blog that made me cry. No one knows better than you how those “get it right/perfect” tendencies can get in the way. I’m still learning, of course, and it feels good to have and share an insight. I love you like crazy right back! xo SJ

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