I’m beginning to think that lessons are never really learned, or as we say in the field, mastered, but rather that our lessons are practiced.
I’m picturing a small child sitting at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C major scale. Over and over she plays, usually faltering at one particularly tough spot where the thumb has to cross under two fingers in order to hit all eight notes in the octave. Sure, sure, after hours upon hours of practice, the scale becomes easier, the rhythm more consistent and measured, but let that pianist take a month away from the keys, and almost assuredly, the falter will return.
The learning is only safe within the practice.
I’ve been blogging at this space for almost three years and I continually come back to the same lessons — the ones that my fingers need to rehearse over and over and over. Perhaps the one that needs the most practice, the one for which my Instructor has utilized multi-modal approaches, is this idea that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.
One problem I encounter in learning this lesson is the fact that I had been practicing a different way for decades. The old way was a rushing, plate-spinning frenzy of activity that involved checking items off lists, accomplishing tasks, and powering through no matter what was thrown at me. I’ve often described this practice of mine as soldiering — task-driven, focused doing with minimal regard for relationship or self-care. As a soldier I didn’t reflect or take time to decompress; I went on to the next mission as though my life depended on it. And, if you know me or have read my blog, you know that I was ultimately given a medical discharge — diagnosis? chronic battle-fatigue.
So, per orders, I’ve been undergoing job retraining for almost three solid years. It’s been cyclical. I rest and recover, then, feeling restless, I get busy. I try for moderation, but since my historical practice has been frenetic, I usually devolve to that pre-set. I end up sick, of course, so I back off and review the lesson — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.
The layers of instruction involved in my practice of this lesson are many. I am sure I am not even aware of all of them. First, and most obvious, is the actual physical slowing of my body. I feel as though my major joints of propulsion — my hips, shoulders, feet — have somehow been coated in a rigid rubber-like compound that limits movement. The compound has, it seems, been grafted into my bones in such a fashion that if I do find a way to make the rubber pliable enough to allow movement that is too fast, too insistent, or too prolonged, the grafting sights become irritated and inflamed like a newly healing surgical site. The pain then slows me and reminds me that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.
The second layer of instruction is delivered through my practice of yoga. So much about yoga reinforces the lesson I am trying to learn. For seventy-five minutes I stay within the confines of a very small space — 24″ x 68″ — thinking about my breathing, being very intentional about every move I make. Rushing is not allowed. Multi-tasking is impossible. It takes all of my attention to hold warrior two with my right knee at a forty-five degree angle, my right heel in line with the arch of my left foot, my arms extended as though drawing an arrow across a bow, my gaze looking across the middle finger of my extended hand. Once there, I breathe; I rest; I am still. This practice, which was absolutely foreign to me in my former life, makes me feel stronger than any butt-kicking and name-taking ever could. Yet, in this strength, I am not calling the shots; I am trusting the voice of the instructor and moving only where she tells me to move. She assures me that I can do this — I can live this way even when I step off the mat.
A third — and certainly it cannot be the last — layer is my reading list. The reading in my pile comes from a variety of sources: from a member of the breakfast club Bible study I attend, from my child as a Mother’s Day gift, from a summer reading list for some of my students, and from my YouVersion daily Bible reading plan. Despite the varied sources, the message is resoundingly the same — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.
Last week I saw my new rheumatologist who is offering a trial of the medication Cosentyx. As I wait for the prior authorization to come through, I find myself wondering if this drug will break up the rubberized coating, free my joints, increase my energy, and allow me to do a little more.
Seriously. I am actually hoping for that. Sigh.
So, I was sitting with the breakfast club the other day, sharing this news about the potential drug trial, when one of my friends asked, “Kristin, how would you like us to pray?” Surprising frustration rose in me; I think because I realized that what I was hoping for is in direct opposition to what I have been trying to learn. I snarled, “I don’t even know, because if this drug works, I know that I will go right back to doing too much. I’m practically doing too much already, and I’m in the middle of a flare!” My poor friend, she hasn’t known me too long and probably isn’t accustomed to my surliness. She said, “Do you guys need the money that badly?” I reflexively burst out, “Not at all! I mean, sure, we could use more money, but that is not how we live our lives. We don’t make decisions based solely on money.” I was stunned at my clarity and embarrassed by my tone.
I am the most reluctant of learners — the little girl who needs to be nudged back to the piano bench, a finger poking her between the shoulder blades. Why do I have to practice, I whine. I understand all the notes in the scale; I know where my fingers belong! However, if I ever want to get past these darn scales and on to playing some real music — enjoying the freedom and bliss of playing outside of the practice — then I have got to stick to the practice. I have got to keep rehearsing the truth that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.
Why? Because I can trust the voice of my Instructor. I can stay in a limited space, listen to His voice, and believe what He believes about me — that I can do this; I can live this much richer connected way. I want to learn this lesson so well, that even if this medication works, even if I am free of pain, and even if I regain my energy, I won’t go back to my soldiering life, but I will live in the freedom that I have been given to breathe, to slow down, to rest, and to be still.
Be still, and know that I am God…