Another Mistake – Another Brilliant Opportunity

I got it wrong. I woke in the night and remembered. That’s not exactly what happened. That wasn’t what he said on that occasion.

I’m referring to the story I told last week about my lovely Tai Chi Master. After I’d put both the blog and myself to bed and slept for a few hours, I suddenly found myself awake and thinking clearly. Strange how writing something down can do that to you.

Not that it matters. (Please take note – this is a big step forward for me. At one time, I would’ve suffered the effects of humiliation, devastation and personal annihilation for days, even weeks, after the event.)The essence of the story was spot on, and ‘Sustainable Lifestyle’ was definitely a concept I learned from the man – just not on this particular occasion.

What he actually said, at the time, was ‘Soft Limit’. Which is, of course, even more enigmatic and subtly meaningful.

And like I said, not that it matters. That is – it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake, because the beauty of making a mistake is that it opens up a whole new opportunity. (This is something I have learned from spinning. My wheel seems to be particularly good at helping me access these magical moments!)

The opportunity presented here? A timely reminder of the concept of ‘Soft Limit’, a concept which goes strongly against the grain of our current culture (I’m talking about the UK here; I now have international readers. Welcome!) and which is utterly essential to living a ‘Sustainable Lifestyle’. Hence, I suspect my memory conflation …

Both ‘limit’ and ‘soft’ are not well-respected words in the present climate of harsh ideals, harsh treatment of others and harsh expectations of ourselves. Too many of us have grown up believing we have to work ourselves into the ground to be of value, and end up compensating ourselves with over-indulgence in other parts of our lives, such as eating, drinking, spending, acquiring, acting out, …

The principle of treating oneself gently – with honour and respect – is quite alien to many of us, despite the popular phrase ‘because you’re worth it’ (which has nothing to do with any kind of worth besides financial). The belief that one can only achieve if one is willing to overwork (hence the ridiculous idea of 110% effort!) is now deeply entrenched in our lives, and the fact that this actually results in less production and a poorer quality of life for everyone involved, somehow seems to pass most people by.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been challenged by the concept of ‘Soft Limit’ at an early stage of my life, and then later to have stumbled across the simple technique of using 15 minutes at a time. I found this on a website called FlyLady – ostensibly about doing housework! (Read the testimonials – the stories of life-changing habits are inspirational and very moving.)

When I first met this notion, I was extremely resistant. The thought of attempting to complete any task in short, disconnected steps was absolute anathema to me. In my head, you had to start something and keep going until you finished it. Hence, I rarely finished anything. In fact, I often didn’t start because the whole of the task would feel overwhelming.

Guess what – procrastination turns out to be the other side of addiction. Once I’d realised this, I decided to give it a go, and gradually watched my life open up in front of me. By applying this ‘soft limit’, there was nothing I could not achieve if I chose. Even writing a novel!

Some days, I don’t get to write much. There are, maybe, other priorities I have to attend to. But as long as I write some, then I stay connected and the project gets completed. And that ‘some’ can be as little as fifteen minutes – and it still works.

Because it’s sustainable, because it’s respectful, because it’s real.


The Missing Blog – A Question Of Balance

My regular followers will have noticed I skipped a week last week. No blog appeared on Tuesday. This wasn’t planned but it was, when it came to it, a conscious choice. A choice which gave me the chance to explore a number of issues relating to writing practice.

The immediate reason for choosing not to write a blog at the time, was overload of activity. A glorious cacophony of exciting and colourful enterprises – not the least of which was a weekend workshop on design techniques and spinning – had left me exhausted and in need of prioritising. Too little available energy, too many necessary tasks. At least in the short term.

Something had to give, and this time, I chose the blog.

I really enjoy writing the blog. It’s not generally something I just ‘toss’ off, although it doesn’t usually require the amount of work I would expect to put into one of my novels. (Yes, there are currently three in the pipeline, at various stages of development.)

I love the opportunity it gives me to take a moment to reflect on where I am and what’s happening for me in respect of my writing journey. So it was with some reluctance that I put it to one side last week. But it was precisely because of such reflection that I realised the importance of doing so.

The theme – the energy – for this month, according to the shamanic website I dip into, is Balance. And balance is very much a principle I believe in adhering to – or, more accurately for me, aspiring to. It’s been an on-going process over the years but I can honestly say my life is much more balanced now than it has ever been before. I believe this to be an essential ingredient of good health.

Years ago, I studied Tai Chi with a beautiful and wise Tai Chi Master. One of the many life-transforming concepts he imparted was the principle of ‘Sustainable Lifestyle’. This simple idea is a lovely way to check in regularly whether your life is in balance, and is one I have used now for a long time, bringing me gradually closer to a better way of living.

But when he first used the term, I had no idea what he was talking about. A pair of us had turned up at a church hall for the second session of a year-long course to learn the Short Form. We arrived early. Someone had been in the hall prior to our class and had left all the chairs out. Eager to prove our worth, we began stacking, and then shifting, huge towers of the things to clear to the space.

Into the midst of our bravado, instead of the expected praise and appreciation, a quiet and gentle comment was dropped: “Sustainable Lifestyle”.

That was all he said – in that annoying and wonderful way of being inscrutable that all the best Masters have. I didn’t understand. I wasn’t even sure if the words were directed at us. And since he didn’t follow up his comment with any kind of explanation, I decided it probably wasn’t important.

Of course, over the year that I spent with him, I came not only to understand the term but to embrace it as a life-principle. That is not to say I don’t get knocked off balance anymore, but the beauty of the concept is that it can be used both as a criterion for checking if your life is in balance, and as a way to put it back into balance.

Last week, after such an exhilarating enterprise at the weekend – something I’d been dreaming of doing for a long time – it was obvious to me that I needed to take some time out to get re-balanced, and I’d planned Monday as a day off. But then the car broke down, on the way home from the workshop, so Monday got caught up in trips to and from the garage, re-arranging enterprises for the next few days that might involve the car … You know how it goes.

I still might have stayed in balance, riding the waves, as it were, if a stupid little voice in my head hadn’t started up. “Call yourself a writer? How can you be a writer if you don’t stick to a discipline? Proper writers write for eight hours a day …” And so on.

What?! Where did that come from?

Fortunately, these days, I’m able to recognise when I’m on the brink of craziness – and it was the reflections I pursued around writing the blog, that allowed me to see that not writing it last week was a healthy choice – and writing about not writing it this week, emerged as a possibility.

There you are – Sustainable Lifestyle.


“It Cannot Be All The Time Perfect”

I feel an urge to write something about failure this week. That vastly over-rated and little-understood experience of human life.

I, like most people, have let what I consider to be failure, derail me on more than one occasion. These days, I find myself wondering why. Why do I let that happen? The answers are always deep and personal, I know, but there are certainly general and cultural observations to be made, as well. Observations which often intrigue me as they frequently reveal a crassness and a serious lack of perception about how our society views failure.

We are a society which appears to worship success. However, we mostly define it  by using financial and economic criteria. A very limited perspective on life, I feel. Since we also can’t wait for the news that successful people (as defined above) have failed, or as common parlance puts it – ‘lost everything’, I sense that, underneath the envy frequently expressed, we recognise the thinness of the veneer.

I once said to a door-to-door politician (it was election time), “I bet if you asked people, would they rather be rich or happy, they’d pick happy”. He was doubtful. Now isn’t that interesting?

There is another kind of success which many of us worship, and that’s within the sporting world. The drive for achievement, to win gold, to beat the others. This competitive attitude is, of course, one which spills over, inappropriately, into all sorts of other aspects of our culture. I’ve now given up on reading supposedly supportive articles about writing and publishing, for example, because there are too many authors out there who seem to think that in order to be successful, one has to ‘beat the competition’. Nothing about authenticity or integrity in that.

As a long-time fan of a number of sports, I know that the desire to win, whilst being a huge component of the necessary passion to compete, cannot possibly be the only motivation for a participant. Neither can any sportsperson realistically measure their success solely in terms of winning.

Consider, for instance, the average tennis tournament – and I’m not even talking Grand Slams here. Hundreds enter; only one can win. No matter how good you are, unless you are exceptional, you are going to experience failure much more often than you experience winning. And even if you are exceptional, the odds are still massively stacked against you.

No, there has to be more to it, I think. In order to be a successful sportsperson, you actually have to be okay with failure. More than that, you have to be good at failing. You have to be willing to enter competitions week after week, month after month, knowing that you can’t win every time. That you will ‘fail’ more than you will succeed. How fascinating.

I recently gained a small insight into the frame of mind one requires to be able to ride this astonishing wave when something travelling the internet airwaves came my way. A fabulous story told by a woman about her childhood. Her father, apparently, would enquire of each of his children, as they sat around the dinner table in the evening, what they had failed at that day.

Contrary to many people’s experience, his purpose was not to humiliate or berate them, or even to urge them to do better. Rather, his belief was that if you hadn’t failed at something new each day, you’d missed an opportunity. Failure, in that family, was a cause for celebration, and all of the children grew up without that paralysing fear of failure which so many of us experience.

Having recently failed spectacularly by writing a piece that was ‘out there’ for one of the groups I belong to, and which was roundly criticised, I wish to congratulate myself for having tried it out. I might even do it again!

I’m practising, you see. Making a bold attempt to emulate a very special nineteen-year-old, who will, in all likelihood become a multiple F1 champion one day – or not. His words, spoken with equanimity, are my title this week, and because English is not his first language, his ‘failure’ to order the words as we would expect, lends them extra meaning.