Although my graduate research was all about the specific words we use, and what that means about us, I went to graduate school to study something entirely different — why some people survive terrible trauma and others don’t. Like most research psychologists, my research was me-search. I’d fought so very hard to change everything that was familiar, everything I’d grown up with so I wouldn’t cause the same trauma to my children, and while I believed that a lot of people fight just that hard, some make it and some don’t. The research was too close to me though, too personal, and too difficult to do with the required level of dispassion.
But I may as well have a PhD in the psychology of change, because I think it’s one of my real areas of expertise. I know a huge swath of the literature but I have also spent so much of my inner energy and strength and mind and heart on it.
I’m thinking about this as January 1 approaches, because I know so many people are thinking about their New Year’s Resolutions — most of which, I’d wager, are physical/health-related. That includes losing weight, getting in shape, quitting drinking or smoking, eating better, incorporating exercise into their lives, things like that. Weight loss and getting in shape have been on my list most years of my life, though they aren’t this year.
It’s been 183 days, now, since I started my life-change project, and I’ve been about 90-95% successful. I’m still doing yoga at least once a day, twice when it’s possible — seven days a week. (Except on vacation, when it just didn’t fit so possibly.) I’m still eating primarily a vegetarian diet. If I’m eating at someone else’s house I eat what they prepare, and gratefully; I just eat as well as I can given what they have lovingly made for me. But when it’s my choosing, it’s all vegetarian and not all that much of it. I’m still meditating every day. I’m on day 4 of a 40-day meditation project (“I am Grace of God,” Kia Miller on YogaGlo). I’m still doing one thing at a time. I still spend the bulk of my time in silence, which I find so nourishing it’s hard to describe.
I think a lot about why these changes have slipped into my life so fully — why they’re no longer “changes” but are instead just who I am and what I do. There was one big difference in the way it all started this time, so I share this with you in case it’s helpful. Instead of picking a time in the future — “Monday,” “January 1,” “the day I go back to work,” “the day my vacation begins” — I just started in the moment I decided to do it. It was late in the afternoon, but I didn’t even wait to start first thing the next morning. I think one reason this was powerful was that I didn’t sabotage myself in advance, or set it up only to find some reason it wouldn’t work. In the past, starting at some point in the future usually led me into a frenzy of doing before the date came. So I’d eat a whole lot, let’s say, because on January 1 I couldn’t do that any more.
This time, I was writing about it at ~4pm-ish and just started doing the things I wanted to do. I turned off the television and just wrote, doing that one thing. I downloaded a free yoga app to my phone and did 20 minutes of yoga (a lot for me then, left me sweaty and panting). I scrambled around in my refrigerator and pantry and made the healthiest meal I could. Was any of it perfect on that day? Oh, no. My meal was not. My yoga session was not. The silence felt weird. Was any of it perfect the next day? Oh, no. It took me a couple of weeks to find the pieces I needed, but I found them while I was doing it, while I was changing my life.
If you read the “Dear Sugar” column that Cheryl Strayed used to write in The Rumpus, maybe you read the column about a woman’s fear of changing her life mid-life “before it’s too late.” I just love these sentences Strayed wrote about change:
“Real change happens on the level of the gesture. It’s one person doing one thing differently than he or she did before. It’s the man who opts not to invite his abusive mother to his wedding; the woman who decides to spend her Saturday mornings in a drawing class instead of scrubbing the toilets at home; the writer who won’t allow himself to be devoured by his envy; the parent who takes a deep breath instead of throwing a plate. It’s you and me standing naked before our lovers, even if it makes us feel kind of squirmy in a bad way when we do. The work is there. It’s our task. Doing it will give us strength and clarity. It will bring us closer to who we hope to be.”
And that’s so right, even if the real change is just losing weight. Turning off the television. Adding exercise. Whatever it is, the change happens at the gesture.
And guess what, when you revert to the old familiar, all is not lost! Again, it’s about the gesture. So when you have a day of eating like a maniac and lying on the couch watching absolute crap on TV and also flipping through your phone or iPad and having a glass of wine before — and maybe during, and maybe after — dinner and screw it, the weather is crummy so you’re not going to go out for a walk and you just don’t feel like even doing five minutes of yoga, screw it, and there are some Christmas cookies that need to be eaten before they go stale…. you can just return. All is not lost, that was then and life is imperfect and so you brush your teeth carefully before turning in. You get out your very best lotion and put it gently on your face. Massage some into your chunky thighs, with a bit of love. You take care of yourself, not the best day maybe, not the way you want to be taking care of yourself, but now you are taking care. Now you are. So you drink a glass of water, you take some deep breaths — maybe you stretch your body, and you get a good night of sleep. You don’t have to wait for the next “Monday,” or “first of the month,” or “bathing suit season,” or anything at all. Change happens in the small gesture. Evolution, not resolution.