“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” Thomas Merton
I’ve decided to be topical and write a few brief meditations for the new year. These won’t be the kind of meditations that give you high hopes of changing your whole life by January first, and leave you feeling deflated by February. They’re really “anti-new years meditations” in that they assert that progress often comes in small steps—not with the flipping of a calendar page, that accomplishment can start right where you are with what you already have, and that sometimes “I’m dong my best,” is the only mantra you need.
Meditation 1: Everything counts. This is part of the premise in a book I recently read and highly recommend called, “No Sweat.” Dr. Michelle Segar, the author, is a motivational psychologist who has researched not only what motivates people to exercise, but more importantly what motivates them to stay with it over time. I originally came across her studies in the NY Times. I highly recommend this book if you’ve ever struggled with staying motivated to exercise, but I also found her principles applied to most areas of life as well.
Dr. Segar found that people do much better keeping up with exercise if they enjoy what they’re doing and get some immediate satisfaction from it. When it comes to making decisions (should I exercise today?), studies show that we’re lead by emotion, not reason. It sounds pretty basic and obvious (like most truths), but when people only focus on long-term rational results like “I want to be healthy,” or “I want to have a long-life,” they are not tangible or emotion-based enough to keep them motivated. Or if they think working out has to mean sweating for an hour in the gym, but they hate working out in a gym, they quit after a few weeks. But if your walking time becomes sacred to you because you enjoy walking and being in nature and feel better every day you do it that day, you’ll probably stick with it. If you lower your anxiety that day, get more energy and focus that day, and enjoy the movement of your body on that day, you can frame it as self-care rather than a chore. She calls these immediate gains “The Right Why.” “The Wrong Why,” even though they’re perfectly good and valid reasons, the more long-term, abstract reasons I listed above, do not keep us motivated on a daily basis.
Besides examining your “Why” and finding the “Right Why” to reframe exercise as a gift to yourself rather than a chore, she teaches the principle that everything counts. If a client of hers tells her she finished work late and would’ve missed the first ten minutes of her exercise class so she skipped it altogether, Dr. Segar asks why she didn’t attend for the last 30 minutes? We have this mentality, and it’s especially prevalent in exercise and dieting , that if we don’t do everything just as we imagine it should be done, for the full amount of time, we might as well scrap the whole thing. This mentality leads to failure. All or nothing leads to nothing for the majority. Instead, Dr. Segar says, everything counts. If we’re having a rough day and only get to take a ten minute walk- it’s still better than nothing. On my walks, I’m often so captured by the nature around me, that I have to slow down and take photographs. The above sky is one of them. I don’t demand that I finish walking in record time or work up a true sweat. Because taking those photographs is part of what sustains me and keeps me going on those walks. I stop to take those photos and my walk still counts as exercise.
New Years, I think, can be a time ripe for the all or nothing kind of failure because we think we’re going to start everything new and finally get it right, the way it “should” be done. It seems easier to start with a fresh slate than to start where we are initially, but in the long-term, starting where you are and acknowledging what you’re already doing and building on that- will not only surprise you, but it’ll be more consistent and lasting. Instead of saying you’re finally going to start a whole new exercise program, why not see what you’re already doing? If you walk your child to and from school- that counts. Instead of telling yourself that you’ll finally write that book and giving yourself rigorous schedules and deadlines (sometimes we need those!) why not look at the writing you’re already doing or have done, revise some of it and start sending it out. It counts. Instead of throwing away a giant resolution because you couldn’t maintain it perfectly- writing every day for three hours- why not be happy with squeezing in ten minutes before bed or when you wake up? Why can’t that count too?
They recently tore down an old restaurant in our town that had been out of business for some time. It only took a few days to tear it out. Constructing the new building, which I’m told will be a bank, is taking more than a month. We live in a throw-away, demolition, all the way down to the foundations society. We knock a house down rather than renovate it; we buy the new phone and get rid of the old, and we toss out worn clothes rather than repair them. We are not a society of builders and menders. Building and mending take time and the unsightliness of being “in process.” While there are some projects that need to be knocked down to the foundations and rebuilt from scratch, a lot of what we’re doing counts and shouldn’t be discounted.
It’s great to let the new year mark a freshness to our goals. But this year, I don’t plan on throwing away all of the things I have already done- no matter how small or in process. I’ve already had my life torn down at the foundations once involuntarily, and found rebuilding takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. I’m not going to look forward to some day in the future when I’ve got it all together or can achieve my goals perfectly. I’m going to start where I am, with what I have, and do it because I enjoy doing it “this” day. Because the hours in each day really are sacred, like my walk: each day is not a chore- it’s a gift. I’m going to keep building and keep mending, slowly and steadily, even if that means scaffolding surrounds me on most days. Everything counts.