“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” Center for Action and Contemplation
We’ve all been tempted to criticize. My husband hates the way I load the dishwasher. And I’m not a fan of the way he makes the bed. There have been moments (weak ones) where we chose to share our thoughts with each other. These moments didn’t go particularly well for either of us. Without any discussion, we have both opted to express our opinions in a quieter way. We simply load the dishwasher and make the bed “the right way” in hopes that the other will catch on eventually.
As we’ve raised our children, we’ve done much the same thing. We’ve tried to model behaviors and choices that we hope they will make themselves one day. We do this in the way we love each other and in the way we love them. We do this in the way we argue and apologize. We do this in the way we speak and (more importantly) listen to them. We do this by using our turn signals in the car and by picking up trash we find in the woods.
I don’t know about my husband, but I get countless opportunities to practice this skill on my yoga mat. Honestly, each and every time I do yoga, I do something wrong. I learned very quickly that it was a waste of energy to critically rehash my practices. What works better (and is infinitely more pleasant) is to simply note the mistake. After all, I do actually have to notice when I’ve messed up in order to avoid doing so again. This mental note is a sufficient reminder to do things differently the next time I do the posture.
In short, I’ve learned on my yoga mat that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. This doesn’t mean that I always get things right the very next time I do the posture. In fact, on my yoga mat at least, I can be a glacially slow learner. But the intention to “practice better” seems to be enough. It keeps my head in the game. It keeps my thoughts positive. Rather than failures, each of my attempts is a step en route to that eventual attempt when things go right at last.
The world is a big place filled with things we can be tempted to criticize. Politics. Religion. Finances. Fashion taste. And, yes, ways of loading the dishwasher or making the bed. The next time you feel moved to criticize, take a breath. Pause for a second. Ask yourself if it is possible for you to “practice the better.” It is often the best way of all to inspire change.
“It is not the answer that enlightens but the question.” – Eugene Ionesco
Twenty years ago, I would have told you that the secret to being a good parent was in having the answers. In my mind, a good mom knew what to do no matter what. From a massive diaper failure or a sudden fever, to a fussy baby between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon, to be the kind of mom I wanted to be, I needed to have the answers.
Today, in a full reversal, I firmly believe that being a good parent is not about having the answers at all. The secret to being a good parent, I believe, is not just having questions, but being comfortable having them for a very, very long time. Whether navigating the teen years, a college search, or the astounding act of watching your child become an adult, I have found that resting easy (or at least somewhat easily) with questions – “Will we get through this still loving one another?” “Will she find the right school?” “What will he be when he grows up?” – is the key.
My husband and I began our shift away from being answer-dependent relatively early on in our parenting “careers” and I need to give the credit for this to him. In what was a vestige of his law school education, my husband’s knee-jerk response to questions from our children – “Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?”, “How do you get this Barbie shirt on?”, “What should I be for Halloween?” – was “What do you think?” This response led to interesting, often hilarious, discussions with our children that we never would have had if he’d simply answered their questions. It was easy for me to follow suit.
As the kids grew up, and their questions got harder and the answers less clear, we felt fortunate to have established our pattern of trusting that questions were a reliable and effective parenting tool. Even when their math homework was totally unintelligible to me, I found that my questions drew them to the answers as they taught me. When we were literally scratching our heads to come up with a consequence to an infraction that left us speechless, we found that asking the child for his or her suggestions yielded some powerful ideas. And when there simply were no answers – whether because of a broken heart or shattered feelings – questions were still an effective bridge to healing conversations.
While it’s pretty easy to confess that the only thing I have to offer is questions with regards to math homework, bigger, hotter, more critical parenting moments can still send me spinning off in search of answers or easy fixes as I did when my babies were actually babies. When I catch myself flailing around for answers that truly only my child can find, I need to draw myself back into a trusting relationship with questions. Doing so can be profoundly difficult.
In these moments, I am grateful to more than my husband for teaching me the gifts of parenting by the Socratic method. In these moments, I am deeply grateful for my time on my yoga mat where I have practiced the art of living with questions for countless hours. “Why could I do that yesterday, but not today?” “How does that work?” “Why can he do that but she can’t?” “Will I ever be able to do that?” “Can I be happy not being able to do that for now?” “Will I be injured forever?” “What did I do to heal myself the last time?” And a million others.
Over the years, I have learned that when I approach my practice with questions, my time on my mat is more rewarding and more centering. I have learned in my practice that having questions keeps me curious, whereas thinking I have the answers keeps me fairly closed off. Having questions keeps me open to the possibility of learning new things, to growth and to change. On the other hand, thinking I know all the answers shuts down these same possibilities.
In much the same way, I believe my role as a parent is serving as practice for being comfortable with questions for the rest of my life. I trust that, just as the questions I have navigated while raising three children were a mixed bag, millions of small questions and a handful of “doozies” still lie ahead of me. I also trust that I will continue to work to be comfortable with these questions. For it is within the questions that growth and change and possibility lie.
Keep on asking …
As we make the graduation party circuit celebrating with long-time friends, I’ve noticed that my mood (and that of the graduates) can go in either of two directions. Sometimes, I feel like I’m part of a group high five for an amazing job done in high school, for bright futures and for exciting new adventures just over the horizon. At other times, I feel tender and wistful as I look back at sweet friendships that will no longer be a day to day constant for my daughter and her imminent departure from the safe and (mostly) happy haven of her high school. Whew! These parties can throw you off balance.
So can graduation itself. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, these young men and women are truly experiencing the truth in the maxim that every ending is also a new beginning. This ending is enormous (monumental even) and this new beginning is just as significant. It’s important that both are fully experienced. These kids need to both celebrate and mourn. It’s critical that they leap for joy in anticipation of their chosen paths beyond high school and also that they hold each other close in this tender time before they part ways.
In short, they must perform the balancing act that life asks of us all. None of us get to experience only happy times. In fact, a little extra time on the planet has proved that sad times make the happy ones that much sweeter. We don’t get to only say “hello.” Good-byes are a fact of life. Life is a delicate balance, but not an impossible one. And 18 seems like a great age to begin practicing. At 18 you have just enough self-awareness to reflect on your mixed feelings and mountains of resiliency to regain your footing when you lose your balance and sink into gloominess or sail off into euphoria.
Note I said that 18 is a good age to begin practicing. There are two super important words in there – begin and practice. The balancing act that life asks of us never goes away, though our balance can ebb and flow dramatically at times. Once we begin, we continue practicing forever. The good news is that there is no need to aim for perfection. Even in mid-life, I’ve been known to drop off into gloominess or sail away into euphoria. I’ve had enough of these “slip ups” to know that they are simply chances to try again to regain my peaceful, centered place.
A yoga practice provides loads of experience with balancing acts. Each posture is a balance of rooting down and lifting up. Each posture asks you to work hard and also to surrender. Each posture requires a balance of strength and suppleness. In a single hour on your mat, you will experience confidence and cowardice. You will experience success and failure. You will experience the familiar and the new. Best yet, you will lose your balance. Over and over again you will teeter in postures and be asked to regain your balance. Once in a blue moon, you will actually fall over and be asked to pick yourself up and try again.
More important than all of this, however, is that you get to witness your emotional and intellectual responses to all of this. You develop a better understanding of your emotional habits. You begin to see patterns of thought. You get to know yourself intimately. In a fascinating twist, it is all of this self-understanding that allows you to begin the lifelong process of growth and change. The fact that you get to practice all of this in the safe haven of your yoga mat is a gift. Because of your practice, when (not if) you lose your balance in life, you will automatically rely on the skills and techniques you have developed in your yoga practice as you try to regain your balance.
Whether you’re embarking on an exciting new beginning or mourning the close of one of life’s chapters, remember, you’ve got this. Whether you’re teetering or feeling as steady and solid as can be, remember, you know how to do this. Even if you’ve fallen smack on your rear end, remember, it’s OK. It’s only practice. There is no need to be perfect. You know how to take a deep breath, smile at yourself and get back up. Life is a delicate balance, but not an impossible one.
You’ve got this.