It has been a very lean summer. Everyone is cutting back, stores are closing, and I don’t know anyone who takes their job (if they still have one) for granted. Those of us who are self-employed continue to blog, network, write our books, and drum up gigs wherever we can. We are all caught up in the Half-Empty, Half-Full game: the constant choice between focusing on what is not so great and what is still pretty good.
The metaphysics of this game are complex, but anyone can play. Just pick somethingâ€”say your child has the chicken pox. She is cranky, feverish, and can’t go to childcare while she’s sick, which means that you have to stay home from work and watch her. You are suffering from sleep deprivation not to mention lost wages, increased health care costs and heightened anxiety. What do you do? Do you bemoan your fate or count your blessings?
I currently play several versions of this game. There is the almost daily trip to the post office, where I see whether my mail contains more checks than bills. When it brings in more bills I try to adopt a zen-like attitude and let my money worries flow through me like a mountain stream till I end up refreshed and re-focused. Some days this is easy, but sometimes my attempt at calm equanimity feels more like grim determination.
Then there are the days when the checks outnumber the bills. Oh, happiness! Yet are these too mere fleeting moments, or are they a sign that things are improving? The conundrum of the Half-Empty, Half-Full game is that no matter which answer you choose, it somehow never feels quite right. Hey, I’m an American! Don’t I get more choices?
Last month I re-injured my shoulder in a particularly strenuous yoga class. I took some time off to heal, went traveling to Chicago, and returned to yoga a week ago ready to face the new state of my body. Predictably, I was distressed at the decreased range of motion my shoulder has. After getting so much better over the past year, I could now barely lift my arm over my head without feeling strain across my neck and upper back.
It felt good to be back on the mat, though. Doggedly, I started finding work-arounds to some of the more shoulder-intensive postures, and have had some success with staying more mindful of the energy flow through my back and shoulders. But today I found myself in a familiar mental loop. I was sureÂ my body was too old and cranky to overcome the injury and get better at yoga. Then I felt I could do it by cultivating more patience, which was a virtue in itself anyway. I should be grateful I hadn’t broken my leg, right?
Drat.Â I had landed right in the middle of another Half-Empty, Half-Full game.Â
Fortunately I was deep into a 90-minute yoga session when it happened, sweating a river just like everyone else in the room. Either I was going to stay cranky or I was going to let something else show up, so I started breathing deeper with each movement.
The moves I could do, extending and strengthening my lower body, I did with full energy. When a posture required me to arch my back or extend my arms, I let my whole upper body fill with breath like a balloon that was inflated several inches beyond my torso. It felt like a protective cushion that supported my back and spine, expanded my rib cage, and didn’t allow any strain to creep into my shoulders, neck or head.Â
I stayed with this visualization through the intense part of class, and felt an increased sense of lightness in my body. I kept at it as we moved to more gentle stretches and twists, and then it hit me. The whole transition of middle age is about letting go of how our bodies “used to work,” and accepting that we are more energy than form. What I was experiencing wasn’t a setback, it was a preview of things to come.
The solution to this particular Half-Empty, Half-Full game was to realize that I needed to shift my entire perspective. Instead of concentrating on building physical strength or endurance, it was time to learn about being at home with more breath, more ki, in everything. Eventually the body falls apart. But perhaps the spirit has even more to offer.
One of the things I love about yoga is that I am such a beginner at it. Now I feel even more like a beginner than before. This is a good set of problems to have: learning to readjust my expectations, and re-center my practice for a changing body and changing times. I don’t know where the glass is, but at the moment I feel pretty happy about the whole thing.