Stuart Valentine, who’s participating in the 100 Day Challenge, wrote about how fear of other’s judgements can stop us from getting started:
Being a born pessimist, one of the first things that occurred to me about the 100 Day Challenge was that if I did it, I would have to do it PERFECTLY. And this was clearly impossible, so there was no point trying.
‘Scoring’ just 99 out of 100 would be a disaster. I would feel irritated with myself, embarrassed, would have let myself and others down… and many other negative emotions I projected on to this ‘awful’ event.
If I ended on 90 out of 100, or heavens forbid 89 out of 100, then my life as I know it would be over, surely. Dharma ridicule would follow me the rest of my days. I could see it all in glorious detail.
If I missed a sitting early enough into the 100 days, I might even have to give up straight away! Why continue, now that perfection is out of reach?
Clearly, I concluded, the best option was to not start in the first place.
Despite knowing intellectually that this was a very shoddy way of thinking, I couldn’t shake the emotional conviction of it. So I took to the cushion to thrash it out. One order of mindfulness of body please.
Clearly there was a huge amount of negativity in all this, and unskillful thinking, But I also realised this sort of ‘all or nothing’ mentality is something I’ve been guilty of more times than I can count, almost always to negative or even disastrous effect.
Meditating revealed to me the aversion to making a ‘mistake’, the egotistical craving for the ‘glory’ of having done 100 out of 100 sittings, and the fierce aversion to the pictures I painted in my mind’s eye about how other people would look down on me for missing even a single sitting. I could feel it not just in the intensity and unpleasant nature of the thoughts which kept obsessively cycling round and round, but more importantly in the unpleasant bodily sensations that came with those emotions.
Mindfulness of those body sensations gradually took the sting out of them as equanimity slowly won the battle, and the emotions slowly subsided. Sanity was slowly restored.
I could now see the sense in just trying every day, and not being too attached to success or failure to sit that day – just like when doing mindfulness one should keep persistently trying to be mindful, but should try not to be frustrated or demotivated when our mind wanders. The analogy struck me powerfully.
What came through most clearly was that my biggest fear by far was what others would think. I was telling myself all sorts of crazy stories about how ‘everyone’ would think less of me if I missed even one sitting. These stories had a life of their own, and I had so much aversion to them that my constant reactivity kept feeding them, much like a hurricane gets stronger and stronger as it crosses rough warm seas.
I decided to take the plunge, and to face it head on, with as much equanimity as I could manage. Don’t run, don’t suppress, don’t ignore, don’t fight – accept it. Accept the maelstrom, the sensations, the negativity. Accept, let go, equanimity, don’t give up, don’t give up…… deep breath, don’t give up!
It wasn’t fun, but it slowly worked, over the course of several sittings. The calm after the storm is always beautiful. For now at least, I can face the prospect of missing a sitting with something like a genuinely balanced mind.
No doubt the aversion to making a mistake will return. Old habits die hard. But next time it does, I’ll be better prepared.
And I have a quiet confidence that next time it will be that little bit weaker, too. Progress… however small, I’ll take it! Maybe the ratchet away from suffering just got moved another notch.
If nothing else, working through all this has gotten me to 10 sits out of 100! And the reduction in tension and stress from weakening these negative ways of looking at the situation means that I am now less likely to miss a sitting.
But if I do miss one, or WHEN I do, I think i’ll be able to take it my stride, and not let it stop me completing as many of the rest as I can.
Thank you for sharing your wise advice, Stuart!