Patience is a virtue I have never possessed. From the second I entered the world I was a manic, anxious ball of energy – labelled “bossy” as a child and a “control freak” in my early teens. The unknown, living with the unknown and accepting the unknown were all worst-case scenarios – outcomes that I could simply avoid by carefully planning every aspect of my life. For me, there has never been a hell quite like waiting. Why sit on your hands and let things happen to you, when you could simply control them yourself?
Since January 2018, I’ve turned this mentality into an annual month-long challenge in self-control. During that month, I don’t drink alcohol or eat takeaways and I do a yoga video on YouTube every single day. This 31-day period has, over the past three years, become a boot camp-style test of my own capabilities for self-regulation.
Of these three rules, yoga has always come easiest: a perfect match for my high energy levels and desire for control. For 30 minutes, yoga forces you to focus on something strenuous, active and constant, and that concentration means you can’t think about anything else. Here, I could control my body and my thoughts all at once.
But when you do yoga for 30 days running, not every session will be a completely active, distracting workout. In fact, on the viral internet video series “30 Days of Yoga Challenge” from YouTuber Adriene Mishler (the one that I’ve followed each year), there’s also a generous dose of guided reflection. Every few videos, Mishler will ask that you stop and take stock: ie sit in near-silence, meditating for up to ten minutes.
These videos were by far the most difficult. Sitting down for ten minutes is not something that I would usually consider difficult; ten minutes spent working, watching TV, reading, or checking Instagram will pass without my noticing. Yet these ten minutes of enforced “peace” would drive me up the wall. My back would suddenly ache, every fibre of my clothing would rub my skin and I could feel myself getting worked up, desperately thinking, “When will this finally end?” When it was time to get into a forward fold, I’d jump to the front of my mat, relieved to regain some control over what I was doing. I never listened to Mishler when she told us that these moments of meditation were our best opportunity for growth. How could you grow when you were doing nothing?
But this year, my January was rocked by my partner having a serious health scare. For nearly a month we had no choice but to sit and wait to see if anything was wrong – which I refused to accept was all that I could do.
For weeks, I begged him to let me phone his doctors and nurses and attempt using my “let me speak to the manager” American personality to speed things along. I tried to go with him to his appointments, as though I could force someone to make this time go faster through sheer force of will.
I couldn’t believe how angry I felt at being so powerless. We were having simply to carry on with our lives until somebody else decided we were finally allowed to know the full situation.
When I was a child, my mother pummelled me with books by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, presumably in the hope that I’d learn the value of embracing the unknown. Of course, I considered these theories to be ridiculous – leaving Chödrön’s books on my shelf only to make my mum happy when she came to visit from the US.
These past few weeks, however, have made me realise that sometimes there’s nothing you can do but accept that you can’t know everything, at least not immediately. The hell isn’t always the waiting – but forgetting that your life is still going on.
Maybe I’d be thinking differently if we hadn’t got the all-clear this week. Maybe then I’d be even angrier, knowing that while we were sat waiting, things were getting worse. But what I’ve learned from this health scare, my forced meditation and my own flawed world-view is that waiting doesn’t have to be a punishment. There’s sanity to be gained when accepting that, sometimes, things will just be.
Next week: Tracey Thorn
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose