The new yoga teacher looked dangerous. Compact and lithe, she marched to the front of the class, got on her mat with her back to us and began barking poses. It was my first yoga class in a long time. All around me, younger, more flexible people twisted, stretched, and grabbed their ankles behind their backs. I sweated and creaked. Felt like I was hiking a long hard climb up a dark, washed-out path.
Coming home, I noticed a flicker of something in the front yard. Tired and stiff, I got out of the car to find my front yard flooded. A xeriscaped yard should not flood. We have drip irrigation so flooding shouldn’t happen. Yet, there, in the light of the full moon, my front yard shimmered with water. Something was very wrong, and had been wrong since morning. Since the yard guy had come to change the watering pattern for the summer. He’d forgotten to turn it back to automatic. Twelve hours my water had been running. The back yard was floating. Water pressed against the foundation. Cacti standing in two feet of water. Water lapping out of plant beds and edging toward the pool.
I found the end of my rope really quickly. It was fuzzy and wet and fueled my anger and exhaustion. It took me another half hour to figure out where the shut- off valves were and turn them in the right direction.
After all that work on compassion and forgiveness, I still had wanted to dismember the yard guy. After all the conscious choosing to see the better side of life, I did not live it.
And then I had another realization: we distrust improving ourselves because we are afraid we can’t keep it up. Not forever. And we can’t. We will slide back. We will do that thing we hate about ourselves. That’s why I love the Buddhist saying, “Before enlightenment–chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment–chop wood, carry water.”
There is no final goal to self-improvement. We don’t recognize a shortcoming and then cure it. We don’t admit to a flaw and then have it surgically removed. We don’t pull out our bad characteristics and never have to deal with them again.
Even the enlightened get angry, feel despair, make mistakes. None of that goes away with awareness. It doesn’t vanish because we admit to weakness.
No, we have to keep working on it. For years. That’s the strength in change. It requires upkeep. It’s the lie most self-help books tell—take this quiz, work these steps and then you will be perfect. Glowing. Complete.
It’s not true. We have to keep working at our lives. Every day. We do not undergo a transformation and then spend the rest of our lives resting and comfortable. Nope. Transformation is a step, not the goal. The real goal is to become self-aware. We see the shortcomings, the flaws, the mistakes and love ourselves anyway. Then we look at where we ran off the rails, fix the break, load the train (and our life) back on the track and move on. Chop wood, carry water.
—Quinn McDonald is finally ready to go to bed. In the moonlight, the standing water still shimmers, but it’s not rising.