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Getting Comfortable With Messes

Do you, like me, prefer things done rather than undone?

I don’t like messes – physical or the less tangible kinds. I prefer order in my environment – bookshelves organized, laundry put away, gardens weeded, to do lists filled with more checked off tasks than not. In short, messes make me uncomfortable, antsy, and agitated.

It should, then, come as no surprise that I have a strong preference for beginnings and endings over liminal (in-between) stages. The development of a project, the unwinding of a disagreement, the unfolding of a new stage, the pondering of a decision I know I need to make, and such are all hard for me. If I’m not careful, I often find myself chomping at the bit to fix, finish, and finalize.

Maybe you, like me, when faced with chaos or disorder, have a built-in instinct to find or create order? The more people I work with, the more certain I am that the need for order may be human. After all, it is a need for which spiritual wise-people – priests, sages, yogis, and philosophers – have been offering antidotes for millennia.

Sometimes doing nothing is more helpful than doing anything

The more I practice yoga and meditation, the more comfortable I am becoming with a very uncomfortable truth – my need or instinct to impose order often causes more suffering than the disorder I am trying to “fix.”

Rodney Yee, in his book, Moving Toward Balance, writes:

Often when we encounter a problem, we tend to think that all we have to do is try harder. Instead, when you come up against a barrier, it is important to back up to observe, breathe, and assess. It is vital to allow yourself to sit with difficulty and confusion until some understanding comes to mind.

We are hardwired with an impulse to try harder

This wisdom is tucked into a section about learning twisting yoga postures but is true for all postures. On our yoga mat we learn from experience that trying hard (overworking, over-doing) to achieve something we’re not ready to do can create rigidity and inflexibility. It’s when we surrender to where we are in the process of learning a posture (when we pause, relax, and accept) that things begin to open up and move.

The impulse to try harder, to get it (whatever it is) done is even more compelling off the mat. Whatever “moment” you are navigating – raising a child, caring for an aging parent, walking with a friend through an illness or a loss, or lost somewhere within your own diagnosis, you know the desperation of wanting to know how it will all work out. You know how frantic you can feel to leap-frog to “the end.”

We can practice overriding this reaction with a more mindful response

To borrow Yee’s words, it is vital that we allow ourselves to sit with difficulty and confusion. To entertain the notion that perhaps the most helpful thing we can do is take a breath and observe what is happening. To consider the (for me, incredibly) uncomfortable idea that, for now, what we most need to do is allow the situation to unfold without our help.

I am learning that these breaths give me space. They help me soften – rigid muscles, rigid plans, rigid beliefs. It is while I (often through the force of sheer willpower) pause and breathe that I find the space to accept reality and, perhaps, even to forgive reality for not being what I wanted it to be.

I am learning that sometimes a mess requires my help to instill order. When this is the case, if I am patient, a moment will come when what I need to do makes itself clear. I am learning that, more often than makes me comfortable, my help is not needed. What is needed from me instead is my steady presence, listening ear, and open heart.

Whether or not my help is needed, 100% of the time it is true that I need to choose a different response than the very human reaction to fix messes and impose order on disorder and chaos. I am learning that life’s messes, though uncomfortable and sometimes quite painful, can be the fertile soil of growth and change – but only if I resist the urge to clean them up.

If you’re interested in exploring the connections between yoga philosophy and everyday life, take a look at my recorded class Demystifying the Yoga Sutras and stay tuned for a new class (in-person and via Zoom) beginning this fall.