The Perils of Success

almost aloft

More people read my post last Friday than usual. A lot more. I tell you this not to toot my own horn, but so you’ll understand that I enjoyed the success for approximately 36 hours, until Saturday afternoon, when I was gripped by the thought: “Now, what do I write about next week?

It turns out, the prospect of success is a lot more fun than the expectation of repeating it. When I was just doodling along, doing my thing, the idea that someone would someday read what I wrote kind of felt like a joke, which is always a good place from which to be creative. Then, once someone, or say a few hundred someones, read my words, the joke is suddenly up, and is replaced by the brow-furrowingly serious question: how do I keep them reading?

I immediately started trying to break it down into some kind of formula: did this mean I should make my posts more political? More personal? More passionate? As if I could just plug in a formula and reliably hit a success jackpot.

This is what Ajahn Amaro, former abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Mendocino, would refer to as “Addiction to Becoming.” When I first heard his talk on the subject, it didn’t make sense to me – ‘becoming’ is a word with we regard so positively – much like ‘progress’, and ‘growth’. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” goes the mantra. Ajahn Amaro’s point was that our addiction to becoming means we are constantly leaning into the next moment, rather than sitting with whatever is now. We get so caught up in this narrative where we are about to become whatever this next great thing is that we never meet who we already are.

This is why success is so tricky. If we buy into that storyline of becoming, then the trajectory of success must be exponential and infinite. Only here’s the thing: this just isn’t possible. Any life is going to be a complete jumble of skillfull and unskillful actions, and trying to predict which is coming next is foolish.

split second of flight! pardon our blur!

For me, it’s a lot like crow pose. Crow is an arm balance, where the legs are supported by the arms, and the whole body is supported by the hands. For some reason, crow pose came to me pretty early in my yoga practice, strangely, since arm balances generally are so not my jam. But crow pose was the first “cool” pose I could do, something I would break out for my roommates after a beer: “Hey look guys, I can do yoga now, wanna see?”

I was pretty sure I had crow pose in the bag. Then, one day, during home practice, I launched myself into crow and I face planted. I went down hard. I split my lip open. I went into mild shock. Mind you, this is something I had cavalierly informed my students really wasn’t possible in crow pose, that one really wouldn’t hurt oneself if one went down. (HA!) Luckily, I was living around the corner from Michelle Marlahan at the time, so I was able to call for assistance and have her walk me around the block while I cried.

Crow pose really hasn’t been the same since then.

Fast forward a couple years, when I was preparing to teach crow to a group of intermediate beginners. I realized I was not going to get away without a demonstration. I began attempting crow every day, every time I found a clear floor space. Slowly, I began working my way back into it – a little more muscle-y than it used to be, but I could pick up my feet for a moment and I figured I would be okay.

When the moment came for my demonstration, I put down my big old crow claws (cue the theme to “Rocky”) leaned forward…picked up one foot…picked up the other…and bit it. Again.

I went down so hard that a fellow teacher who was observing my class (for pointers! Double HA!) asked me afterwards if I did it on purpose. I wanted so bad to say “Oh yes, that was an intentional teachable moment, wasn’t it great?” but the purple egg rising on my left knee might have betrayed me.

Here’s the thing: there are a lot of poses I can’t do. The poses I can’t do could fill a coffee table book – in fact, I believe they already have. But those poses really don’t bother me. Crow bothers me because I used to have it mastered, and the fact I lost that mastery is really throwing a wrench in the monkeyworks of my desperate addiction to becoming. If my story had to be linear, then I had clearly passed some sort of summit, and was now going downhill, or – gasp! – backwards.

In yoga, in writing, in life, the rosy anticipation of immanent glory is much more fun than its split-second occurence or its wistful recollection.

I suppose the Bhagavad Gita could have told me that if I had been listening:

Self-possessed, resolute, act

without any thought of results,

open to success or failure.

This equanimity is yoga

Bhagavad Gita, 2.48

If, just for an instant, I could drop both anticipation and recollection, attachment to success and aversion to failure, what would lie beyond? What would happen, and more importantly, what would I write about?

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About madyoga

Yoga Teacher and Massage Therapist in Sacramento, CA
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12 Responses to The Perils of Success

  1. Ryan says:

    Kim read this at her class on Tuesday. Looks like you two are sharing a brain again. Both it and this post are speaking right to where I’m at today and this week. Thank you.

    Success is as dangerous as failure.
    Hope is as hollow as fear.

    What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
    Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
    you position is shaky.
    When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
    you will always keep your balance.

    What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
    Hope and fear are both phantoms
    that arise from thinking of the self.
    When we don’t see the self as self,
    what do we have to fear?

    See the world as your self.
    Have faith in the way things are.
    Love the world as your self;
    then you can care for all things.

  2. Ryan says:

    Oh yes, and that’s Lao Tzu for those needing a citation. 🙂

  3. Tami says:

    I enjoyed the success for approximately 36 hours, until Saturday afternoon, when I was gripped by the thought: “Now, what do I write about next week?” <– YES! me too.

    the joke is suddenly up, and is replaced by the brow-furrowingly serious question: how do I keep them reading? <– YES! word.

    We get so caught up in this narrative where we are about to become whatever this next great thing is that we never meet who we already are. <–YES! story of most of my life.

    the trajectory of success must be exponential and infinite. <– the most disappointing truth – ever. this is a really hard one to swallow.

    I was pretty sure I had crow pose in the bag <– YES! been that and also had my ass handed to me by this bird. over and over again.

    mads, i think this is your best post yet. it so deeply resonates with me, it's as if you've taken the eloquent part of a shared brain and written about it here.

    thank you.

  4. blogasana says:

    i’m going to add to tami’s list:

    If, just for an instant, I could drop both anticipation and recollection, attachment to success and aversion to failure, what would lie beyond?

    This is a huge question for me right now. Thank you for framing it so brilliantly.

    xoxo

  5. Heidi says:

    I am really enjoying reading your posts and today’s gives me food for thought.

    Kizzy

  6. Action without expectation…hmm…as Michelle asked, what would lie beyond?

  7. Cyndra says:

    Your post made me cry Madeleine. Thank you. I think for me it speaks to my struggle having left a “successful” life to begin anew and all the fear feels so all consuming. Thank you for the inspiration and reminder to trust each moment.

  8. I’ll add on to the already fab list of gems, too: “If my story had to be linear, then I had clearly passed some sort of summit, and was now going downhill, or – gasp! – backwards.” I’m never quite sure what to do with this, either–on the mat or off, and I appreciate you providing another opportunity for reflection.

  9. Kelly Johnson says:

    Thanks Madeleine for writing this! It is a great way to enter my day and the new week ahead.

  10. Pingback: In Case You Missed It Edition, Volume 26 « Teacher Goes Back to School

  11. Amanda says:

    Thank you, Madeleine. All so true. I’ve had a similar experience with crow. I use to be able to do it and now I can’t. I’m not sure what happened. I didn’t fall like I did in an unassisted headstand once (I’m still happy with the wall). At some point, fear entered the picture and I’ve been unable to cope with it. So…I try, but still no crow.

  12. melita says:

    chiming in a bit late here. crow is my arch nemesis lol . i am a teacher and i can’t do crow. what’s funny is that i can teach it like there is no tomorrow but as for me holding the pose… nope, not yet anyways. as far as face planting goes, my feet won’t let me. they fly out and prevent me from falling forward. it’s like some sort of ninja instinct or something. in all honesty, i wish that i could fall forward, maybe then i would learn to fly. here’s to flying one day! hugs and namaste!!

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