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The year of learning and being

Working at it and letting it go....

If there is one thing I have learnt about myself all these years, it is that I am the sort of person who enjoys the process of doing something more than the achievement of actually accomplishing the task or goal. As I get older and move into the fifth decade of my life, I have nothing to prove to anyone, and anything I want to learn and master is for myself alone and no one else. This realisation has been incredibly liberating over the last year as I have attempted to become more mindful in my daily life, pursue happiness actively, and attempt a couple of hard projects!

As I grow older and observe my parents and other elders ageing, I have been very curious to glean insights around how to age “well” and remain healthy and alert well into old age. The research all says that in order to stay mentally healthy into old age, we need to rewire our brains and make it stronger and more agile through regular sessions of vigorous effort, whether physical or mental. Pleasantly puzzling activities like Sudoku or the crossword don’t help, nor does a leisurely daily amble through the park. The effort of the mental or physical activity must take one beyond the comfort zone and must be intense enough to be slightly, or more than slightly, unpleasant. In other words, “do it until it hurts”.

At the beginning of the year, I started going to a Zumba class in our community, as a nice addition to the yoga and cardio routine I already had. A year later, I have become stronger and fitter than I have ever been in my life. What really worked was being consistent (show up for the class every single day – no excuses other than early work meetings or being sick) and being pushed out of my comfort zone (with weights, functional training, and far more cardio than I was used to). For example- my bugbear, the plank pose. We only do a plank for 30-60 seconds at a stretch, so nothing very extreme. Those are truly the longest 30 seconds of my life. I can hold poses that are harder than a plank, but for some reason the latter defeats me every single time. After 15 seconds, the mind takes over and says “You can’t do this. Sink down!” And I want to! But I have to keep going, because I know my body can. Every breath and sinew is focused on keeping the back straight, the arms steady, and the breathing even. Pushing past the discomfort of the moment is something I am still learning to do. This year of fitness has been an exercise (pun intended) in discipline, determination and mindfulness.

I also started learning how to play the guitar around the same time and it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn. One of the things that no one ever tells you about playing a musical instrument is how physically taxing it can be. For the first few months, my entire left arm would be on fire with the unaccustomed posture. My fingers would hurt as I twisted them into unnatural shapes. My teacher unhelpfully suggested that I might have early arthritis! I realised I have very low agility in my fingers. I bemoaned the fact that I had not learnt an instrument when my extremities were supple and nimble.

It takes me forever to learn to play a song. Scratch that, it takes me forever to string together a few chords so that they actually sound like a melody, or fairly close. My brain is slow and my fingers are slower. I do not remember the last time I broke down a task into so many sub-tasks. I literally speak to my brain silently telling my fingers what to do. Ok- when this finger goes to the third string, put that finger there….ok? More than three fingers, I am hopelessly confused. Playing a song properly in this lifetime seems unimaginable. At this point, I am gunning for recognisable melodies in the distant future. Competence and expertise is not even on the horizon.

Frustration aside, I know I improve with every class and practice session. I still find it miraculous that simply by doing something over and over you get better at it. Be it holding that plank, playing a chord decently, or doing a 100 squats in an hour. Of course that’s obvious, but I’d forgotten. Most of the complicated physical tasks I perform—rolling out dough, writing, or folding a saree —I’ve performed for so many years I forgot what it’s like to acquire a motor skill. It’s frustrating, but it’s a joy when you finally get it. Is this how a toddler feels when, after months of trying, she finally starts to walk?!!

It is incredible when from one practice session to the next, the chords sound smoother and smoother and my finger movements become less and less conscious. Playing the guitar, or my yoga or Zumba class, is also one of the few times in the day when I am at my most mindful. The beneficial effect of doing something hard is that I am unable to think of nothing else other than just getting the fingers in place and the sound right, or balance on my shoulders without falling down. Feeling incompetent for a chunk of time every day is also good – it builds patience in other areas and a new-found appreciation of what motor skills I already have!

I also learnt something else. The more you do, the more you can do. Being more mindful has allowed me to focus on things I really care about, and drop things that are superfluous. I spend more time meditating, breathing, exercising and being IN the moment, with the result I am calmer, happier and focused not as much as getting more done as having less to do!

I strongly believe we could all do with a calmer, unhurried life filled with things that bring us joy and fulfilment and it doesn’t take a big effort to start building that life now. Even a few minutes of being mindful, working on something you like, or trying to master a new skill, makes a big difference. Try it!

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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