Better & Bolder, the Blog

perfect pushup

fierce close up


 In 2017, I was taught how to do a perfect pushup. This position put my hands a bit closer to my chest than is comfortable and recruits a lot more of my triceps. Some days I can do one or even two perfectly. Other days, I can’t do even one without a cheat. Just a little, I arch or shift.

It really kind of destroyed me to learn the perfect pushup. How could I do any other pushups once I knew what the ideal was? I could sense in my body the difference between the pushups I did and this spectacular, singular, perfect pushup. I felt weak. I felt discouraged.

A recent New York Times article, “The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions” by David DeSteno, discusses how to use compassion to help us create new habits. It’s an interesting read in part for its discussion of the marshmallow experiment. You know the one – little kids, aged 3 – 5, are given two marshmallows. They can eat them, or they can wait 15 minutes. If they wait it out, they’re given more marshmallows.

This 1960s experiment was later interpreted to mean that this could test kids’ ability to plan and be disciplined. They tested these participants years later, and, sure enough, the ones who held out on eating their marshmallows also did well in school and careers. They had self-control and willpower, two qualities that are highly valued in the US.

It turns out that this popular analysis of what was being measured may not be correct -- and was not the intention of the original experimenter, Walter Mischel. Kids who waited to eat their marshmallows were willing to do what they were told. They were happy to do what was expected – to wait – in order to make their families or the experimenter proud of them. That is, rather than looking at their individual grit, we can look at their social ties and social situation.

There were subsequent experiments, including one at the University of Rochester. When the kids had reason to doubt that the experimenter was coming back with more marshmallows, the kids didn’t bother to wait to eat the marshmallows. A kid who trusts authority has more reason to wait than the kid who doesn’t. Another analysis is that kids with the fewest resources (for instance, those living in poverty) know that it’s best to gobble up the resources; that’s the rational and smart choice.

DeSteno in his article about resolutions cites research that claims exerting self-control may have negative impacts on our health. It’s stressful. Self-control is an important part of modern life that takes us away from a more important part of our evolutionary foundation: cooperation and social ties lead to success.

A dog who hunts alone and doesn’t share won’t last long. That dog needs a pack. It’s why my dog snuggles up to me at night. She, like me, needs that bonding and sweet, sweet oxytocin. It’s why she will “leave it” even when she wants it. She wants to be part of the group more than she wants that tasty nasty decaying bosque muskrat. She’s not thinking this through. She’s behaving as part of the pack. She’s being a “good girl” (ummm, about 90% of the time).

Humans forget how important are our social ties to our emotional being and physical health. We are taught to stand out from the crowd, and we are exhorted to achieve. We want to be better - -maybe better than someone else or maybe simply better than our previous selves.

I enjoy setting goals for myself, and I like the notion of continuing to evolve into someone kinder, stronger, calmer, and more helpful. What I don’t like is how much negativity I bring to that process. I berate myself for not evolving more quickly or with fewer fails.

I am not convinced that we can keep our resolutions and meet our goals through compassion. What we need is practice and habit. Set a time and place, commit, and do it. Make it easy to follow through. If it takes a lot of effort and it’s not intrinsically satisfying, then it’s unlikely to stick.

I am convinced, however, that being needed is important to us. We like to be competent and skilled and useful. We want to help the pack. I listen to a lovely 15 minute running meditation, and among the lovely and wonderful things he says is that we take this time for ourselves because it helps us feel better so we can help others. Go ahead and do things for yourself, knowing it means you have the nourishment to help others. Yeah, like that.

I haven’t finished being distraught about my weakness and how far away I am from a set of perfect pushups. I haven’t stopped comparing myself to an ideal or feeling as if I should be a certain amount of strong.

I am, however, finished being paralyzed by those feelings. My solution was to stop doing pushups and start doing Ginsburgs. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the 84 year old Supreme Court Justice who began working with a personal trainer after her husband told her she looked like a concentration camp survivor (thanks, hon). Now Ginsburg can do two sets of pushups – on the floor, knees off the floor, the “real” kind. Not perfect, though. Just pushups.

The easiest way for me to do these is when I’m doing something else I love, which is Nia. I teach four times a week and in every class, I call out “Ginsburgs!” and we drop or we go to the wall and we do however many we feel like doing at that time. There’s usually a second set in there, though not always, and sometimes there’s a third set. It’s very loose. There isn’t a goal.

I don’t have to plan my pushups. I don’t need willpower or self-control. It’s simply a practice. I don’t have a reward for doing a certain number. I don’t feel bad if I do only a few instead of a set of 10. When I feel the effort of pushing has made me wobbly, it’s time for me to stop. I don’t feel bad that they’re not perfect because they’re not pushups; they’re Ginsburgs. I set the rules for Ginsburgs and the rules are: anything is good.

laugh close up

In Nia, we are reminded to pay kind and thoughtful attention to our bodies as we move, and that’s the ethos around Ginsburgs. Move because it feels good to move. Strengthen so we can feel good moving for many years and in many ways.

Here’s how I believe we make good on our resolutions (and evolution).

·      We create a habit, making it easy and even pleasurable.

·      We are willing to be imperfect.

·      We strengthen our social ties, perhaps using that as motivation to practice regularly whatever it is we feel is making us stronger and better.

·      We replace fear, jealousy, greed, and negative self-talk with gratitude whenever and however we can.

·      We extend compassion to ourselves – whoops, there I go, being human again – with as much frequency and grace as we extend this to others.

·      We laugh

Desire, Will, Intention 2018

big moon tree

In Nia class on New Year’s Day, we spent some time in reflection before we began our dance. Here is the text of what we did on this full moon afternoon. 

1.     Write down events that happened in 2017, trips you took, work life, whatever you think of from your life.

2.     Now write down thoughts, feelings, values, and other non-tangible words that represent 2017 for you. Write down whatever pops into your mind, including images.

3.     What was the one best part of 2017? This could be the most joyful or one from which you learned the most. Write about it.

T. Thorn Coyle: One thing 2017 taught me was this: Don’t give up on love.” You may wish to complete the sentence, “One thing 2017 taught me was….”

4.     Thank all of these – the events, the feelings, the ugly, the difficult, the beautiful. It was part of your life and left its mark. Breathe your thanks to it all.

5.     Breathe onto your words and blow them away. They do not leave you. They do not define you. They do not block you. The energy of the past is now available for you to use as you need.

6.     Go to a blank page. What do you want in 2018? List all your desires, practical or not. Focus best you can on your life and not on the others’. Write or draw about it.

8.     Bless the year to come. 

9.     Magic, Thorne writes, “is the marriage of breath, will, and desire.” To create magic, we need intention, will, and connection to energy. For us, that energy will be the dance. Throughout our dance today, let your desire fill you. You may wish your mind to wander, open and unsure, to find your strongest desire. Do not worry yet about your path. You must first know what you want and know that you are able to set your will and intention to that desire.

10.  To create the path to being who you are and creating the life you want, it helps to set up a consistent practice. What can you do, daily, to create this path and this life?

Please be kind and do not overwhelm yourself. Small shifts can yield big results and can lead to other shifts. 

You may wish to set for yourself one practice for winter, another for spring, summer, and fall. This gives you time to develop a practice until it’s integrated so much into your life that you cannot remember what life felt like without it. 

There’s also some mystery to setting our will and intention. We see where we wish to end up, and the path to get there may appear to us because our eyes are looking for it. It’s been there all along, and only now does our attention move to it. What your desire requires is to be nurtured and showered with affection.