I knew what I was signing up for, or so I thought. The retreat was an opportunity to focus on what my body was telling me and how well I integrated that into my daily life and work, hence the title “Self as Instrument”. I am well aware I live too much in my head and don’t pay enough attention to my body. There was little detail about what and how we would explore over the three days, but I knew the lead facilitator and I trusted her to create a safe space for me to challenge myself.
So I was comfortable when she asked us to get up and make a few simple steps, a few moves. I’d enjoyed that on a Gestalt course, I was happy to move, on my own. Then she asked us to coordinate our steps in time with a partner, yikes, that’s like dancing, I’m terrible at it, my head said. Two left feet, my head said. Get past your head, the facilitator said, just use your feet. She was right, it wasn’t so bad.
But then she introduced us to the jo staff, a smooth wooden stave about 4 foot long, and then began to teach us a sequence of 31 steps based on a Japanese martial arts technique. My husband has experience in martial arts, his brother was a competitive karate player, but I’d never tried anything like it. I wasn’t expecting it here.
What shocked me was that each time we practised with the jo staff over the three days, I found myself swiftly thrown into an uncomfortable mix of misery and anger. The conversation in my head each time went something like this : “I don’t think this is for me; I don’t like doing this; I am getting this all wrong; everyone else is much better at it; my feet won’t do what I want them to; it looks different when the leader does it; she’s going too fast; I am being left behind; I cannot do this; I’m getting really pissed off.”
And the noise in my head of course made it harder and harder for me to learn the sequence. I got angrier and angrier with myself. The facilitator didn’t give us all the steps at once, going slowly over the first 10 and repeating them several times. “How you show up in the jo practice is how you show up in life”, she said. Really? Now I was in full denial and defensive: that is not how I show up in life. But it was how I was showing up right in that moment.
It was as if I was tapping straight into old stuff from my school days, when I was quite hopeless at any sort of sport. There was a good reason for that: I was growing at least two inches each year and like Alice in Wonderland, when she ate the cake marked “Eat me,” I had little idea where my hands ended and no idea what to do with my faraway feet. Lacrosse, tennis, no chance, netball was the only possible option.
Somehow the jo staff practice had flipped me back into teenage mode. I was scared that my emotions had hijacked me, feeling my muscles tighten, and my breath become more difficult. Others saw me struggle and tried to help, suggesting that I pause, I breathe, be less hard on myself. But nothing cut through the maze of emotions until at the end of the last and most exasperating practice, a colleague said with gentle sarcasm: “ So we’ve practised this now every day for the last three days for at least 20 minutes and you still can’t do it perfectly. I’m sorry, there’s no hope for you”.
In that moment, I realised what was actually showing up was a habit engrained in my teenage years: setting impossibly high expectations of myself. It was set running by my parents and reinforced by my teachers, but driven home again and again by me, as I pursued a tough and competitive career. I thought I’d learned by now that it is OK to make mistakes, to be vulnerable and to admit when I need help and more time to get things right. But the teenage me that resurfaced with the jo staff suggested I’m still too impatient with myself. And at times with others.
Mastering the jo staff practice is not on my list of New Year resolutions. But what is definitely on the list is spotting the physical signs that tell me I am feeling the pressure to perform. And spotting it in others too, so together we can work with compassion and kindness instead of upping the pressure.