This has been a week filled with setbacks for me. Nothing earth shattering, but worse than pesky annoyances that I can choose to ignore. I’ll share two with you as a teaching tool.
1) While climbing over the baby gate that keeps our puppies in the kitchen (our zone of “house-training success”) for the 800th time, I smashed my toe. It was bound to happen. I’m not the world’s most graceful gal. The gate is high enough to seem insurmountable to jumpy pups. I was in a hurry. It was dark. It’s not even an important toe that I hurt. It’s the fourth toe on my left foot. I’ve studied a lot of anatomy, and I am confident that toe does mostly nothing. But, boy howdy, does it hurt right now. Especially when I’m on my yoga mat. There are definitely postures and movements that I need to skip while it heals – a couple that I was pretty fired up to work on. But they’re going to have to wait for a little while before I can focus on them again.
2) After two and a half weeks of no accidents, one of the puppies piddled in the house. It was a very rainy day. On rainy days, my little princes prefer to stay indoors where it’s warm and dry. When encouraged (i.e. forced) to go out, they enjoy drinking the puddles on the driveway, which (in a shocking twist), makes them have to go out into the rain even more often. The morning of the accident my husband and I had been happily discussing expanding the puppies’ “zone of success.” This is a fancy dog-trainer way of saying that we were fantasizing about escaping our kitchen to enjoy rooms that we haven’t been in for 6 long weeks. When a puppy has an accident, the owner must reset the counter of accident free days to 0. We were suddenly looking at another 2-3 weeks in the kitchen.
Again, I did confess right out of the gate that these setbacks were not earth shattering. In fact, as I describe them to you, they seem about equal in terms of impact on me. My reactions to them, however, were wildly different. My stubbed toe hurts, but no more than any other ache or pain that has cropped up on my mat. I know how to modify my practice while it heals. It’s irritating, but I know it will go away and I’ll soon be back to normal. To quote my teen-aged children, it’s basically worthy of a [sigh, shrug shoulders, roll eyes] “Whatever.” The puppy’s accident, though? I actually cried.
What’s the difference?
The answer lies in the definition of setback itself. Merriam-Webster defines a setback as a problem that makes progress more difficult or success less likely. Whether you are focused on progress or success seems to be the key in understanding my divergent reactions to two setbacks that should have been relatively comparable.
If you’re simply hoping to make progress, a setback feels like a speed bump or a detour. It slows you down or forces you to head in a new direction. My stubbed toe, in other words. It is slowing down my progress in my practice, but it hasn’t stopped me from practicing. It’s taking me in some new directions. It’s even teaching me some things – as in, there are times when the fourth toe is a lot less useless than I originally thought. Over the years, yoga has taught me to leave expectations (even hopes) of success at the door. It’s all about progress on a yoga mat. Yoga has also taught me that sometimes progress comes from detours and even complete reversals in direction. In other words, a speed bump on my mat is old hat. Worthy of a whine, perhaps, but not much more than that.
If, on the other hand, you’re focused on success, a setback can feel much more debilitating. Our perspective on training our dogs had shifted dramatically away from celebrating progress to fixate fully on success. Success here was defined by escaping our long confinement to our kitchen. (By the way, our kitchen is a lovely room, but even the loveliest room gets old eventually.) In order to escape our kitchen, we need fully house trained dogs. Experts say, a fully trained dog is one who has not had an accident for 2-3 weeks. Because we had our eyes glued fully on “success,” this accident didn’t feel like a speed bump. It felt like a pronouncement that our puppies were untrainable. It felt like a derisive laugh in the face of all our hard work. Not to get dramatic, but it felt like a death sentence. (That’s probably why I cried.)
And we find ourselves face to face with one of yoga’s most powerful lessons. Our perspective means everything in how we respond to the twists and turns of our life. Even more powerful, we learn over time and with practice, that perspective is a choice we have to make. With regards to setbacks, then, yoga teaches us that we are free to focus on progress or success. The week I’ve just had has confirmed how important this choice is. While I’d prefer not to have a sore toe and to have house trained dogs right now, when I deliberately choose my perspective, I am confident that soon enough I will have both.