Monthly Archives: September 2014

Emotional Training

“I’m just worried,” said my friend, “because you seem really sad.”

She sat cross-legged, facing me with the same easy intimacy we had always had, even though I hadn’t seen her in a few years.

“I’m just figuring things out,” I said, at a loss for words to express what was happening in my life, but desperately wanting to convey something, anything, that would articulate that I was good, but in the midst of a deeply personal transformation. “Everything’s good. I’m not sad. Not really. I’m just – I guess I’m just processing a lot, I’m sort of straightening it all out.”

“Okay,” she said, “I believe you. I know you’re in the middle of it right now – I can’t wait to see what it’s like when you get to the other side of this.”

“I’m doing a lot of feelings,” I said. “I pretty much always figured there were about four: happy, sad, sleepy, hungry. Those are my go-to.”

“I have a friend who teaches first grade,” she said. “She has a wheel with a lot of emotions on it, and she has the kids point to the feeling they’re having. Maybe you should get one.”

“It’s really not a bad idea,” I said.

*     *     *

oxford-skyline_1010001cFor the first twenty-eight years of my life, I was all about school. (Much like I am all about that bass.) I was a highly dedicated student, I pursued undergraduate and postgraduate education and a career in academia, and I was trained at some of the best universities in the world. My mental training was extremely rigorous. Sometimes it sucked and sometimes it was awesome, but it left me with the ability to walk into pretty much any setting, anywhere in the world, and be cool with whatever was happening. I was good to go, whether I was in a third-grade classroom, a gender studies conference, a snarky dinner party with currently fashionable literati, or a summit on nuclear policy. Not to say that I was equally expert in every single subject, but I knew how to learn, I knew how to research, and I had amazing credentials that would get me through pretty much any door until I could figure out what was happening.

When I became a professional dancer, I yes-you-can-do-pull-ups-for-major-reps-heres-how_aswitched gears completely and pursued physical training with the same zealous single-mindedness. (Some would say “bloodless fanatacism”.) I was strict in my attention to nutrition, to strength and endurance and high-intensity training, to flexibility and stamina, to dance technique both within my own discipline and in other traditional disciplines. I was a disciple of the Kale Method, my own personal approach to transforming my body into what I believed it needed to be. Sometimes it sucked and sometimes it was awesome, and in the process I discovered how much control and agency I had in my own body – a realization that fundamentally changed the way I walked through the world. Naturally it met with a lot of congratulation from the body-conscious world around me, which left me feeling deeply ambivalent. I enjoyed the validation, but suspected that there was something pretty fundamentally screwed up about it.

And now? Well, for the last year and a half, I’ve switched gears again. I’m deep into my emotional training – I’ve found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I’m exploring what it means to be a partner in every sense of the word. That’s no joke, my friends! It’s a training just as demanding as graduate school or trying to get oversplits or run a marathon, except that there’s often very little outward evidence of what you’re doing. Nobody hands you a degree at the end, and you don’t get to go buy cute hot-pink lycra clothes for it (although, obviously, you totally CAN and in retrospect that would have been a pretty solid idea.) Sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s awesome, but let me tell you – the hardest thing? Is that there’s no framework.

It literally took me until last week to realize that this was what I was doing. I wish I’d been able to tell my friend what I was doing when I saw her, but I hadn’t figured it out yet. And she was right – there was a lot of sadness, and a lot of other emotions too, feelings that I’d pretty much just locked down during Training Phases 1 and 2, and that were only now getting recognized and reconciled. I am grateful to be thinking about my life this way, because I no longer feel like I’m losing ground all the time. Like I’m a big slacker who isn’t Actually Doing Anything.

Am I currently up and ready to go on my Latin? Could I drop right into the archives and pick up my historical research where I left off and finally publish that book I’ve been fooling around with for years? No. But given a week or two to get back in the groove, I absolutely could.

Am I as devoted to the Kale Method as I was? Am I hitting the gym six days a week? Am I training to the point of physical exhaustion and seeing huge improvements? No. But given a week or two to get back into the groove, I absolutely could.

Instead, what I’m actually doing is being mindful of my emotional responses to people, to situations, to stimuli. I’m striving to be as open as I can to new experiences and different ways of living, with way less judgement and way more appreciation. I’m finally accepting some deep pain and loss that I’ve avoided for a long time because, hello, it’s incredibly painful. But I no longer feel at the mercy of my feelings, as if my emotions were weather that I had no option but to endure until it passed. I’m facing a lot of fears and actually talking about what I feel instead of locking it down so that I can get back to business. Because right now? This IS my business.

So watch out! Because I’m still working towards being able to pound out a bunch of unassisted pull ups, to (finally) learn some Greek, to being able to run a 5K without wanting to die a horrible death, to re-engaging with the world of academic thought that I left for awhile. I know that the successes and accomplishments I gained in my mental and physical training are still there, waiting for me to roll back into the library or the gym, and that soon I’ll be able to integrate all of them together and make choices about which particular part of myself to improve on any given day, but for now, there’s some emotional work that is way overdue.

[Ed. Note: Two dudes next to me in the coffee shop are chatting their heads off about bench presses. I feel you, bros. Talk about being on topic!]

 

 

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Why the comfort zone is and isn’t your friend

comfort zoneWe’ve all seen this picture, right? “Life begins outside your comfort zone,” etc. And man, that’s totally true. But I want to present another side of things today – not staying in your comfort zone, but instead…

The intense benefit of making yourself physically comfortable during challenging situations.

So this idea that we need to push ourselves, to step outside our comfort zones and try new scary things, is absolutely correct. And that process is probably going to be, by default, exciting and intense. It might produce some anxiety, or a wash of other emotions. (Feelings soup.)

But it doesn’t have to suck.

We have this messed up idea that “leaving our comfort zones” means that we have to be miserable the whole time it’s happening, as if suffering lends virtue to the learning process. Untrue!

A few years ago, I was working at a dance studio and having a very challenging conversation with my boss. She and I were not on the same page at all, and we were both genuinely trying to make things better, but it wasn’t going very well.

After about forty minutes of frustration, we agreed to take a break and re-convene. I walked into another part of the studio, blowing into my cupped hands and searching for a sweater, because the room we had been using for our meeting was the temperature of a walk-in meat locker. I was freezing!

I ran into my partner, and he said, “How’s it going?”

“Kind of like crap,” I said. “Plus I’m a ice cube. That room sucks.”

“Why don’t you take a space heater with you when you go back in?” he asked. “I bet [your boss] is cold, too. You guys will probably get further if you’re comfy.”

So I dragged a little electric space heater in, set it up, and within about ten minutes, we were able to resolve matters and move forward with energy that was about twenty degrees warmer (in temperature and in spirit).

Thus I learned my first and most important lesson about comfort zones: Push yourself, be better, all the time. But get comfy in your own body.

How often do we run into this when we are learning something new in dance? I know that learning new movement can be hard, can feel weird, can be a little funky. But how different would that learning process be if I breathed deeply and continuously, if I relaxed my neck and shoulders, if I released the tension I was holding, and the fear about looking stupid or doing things wrong?

Answer: um, a bunch, actually. I have been working on it. It’s crazy how much of a difference the comfiness of your actual physical body makes. That sounds stupid and obvious until you realize how often during an average day we disconnect from our bodies and forget to feel good and move harmoniously and easily. Having a tough conversation? Learning something new? Doing something that causes you anxiety? Deliberately choose to relax. Put your body into a position, a configuration, that’s actually physically comfortable. Change your environment, if you can, to make yourself more comfy. Keep breathing (the good big deep breaths, not just “I am continuing human respiration on a technicality” breaths). It’s hard  – ha! so step outside your comfort zone! zing. – but worth it.

Pushing outside of your comfort zone and growing as a human is awesome, but it’s tough sometimes. So don’t make it harder than it has to be – get comfy and see how much further you get!

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