“Remember, whatever you focus upon, increases...When you focus on the things you need, you'll find those needs increasing. If you concentrate your thoughts on what you don't have, you will soon be concentrating on other things that you had forgotten you don't have-and feel worse! If you set your mind on loss, you are more likely to lose...But a grateful perspective brings happiness and abundance into a person's life.”
― Andy Andrews, The Noticer: Sometimes, All a Person Needs Is a Little Perspective.
There I was, lying on the Pilates equipment, springs and loops and other dangling contraptions hanging from the iron bars over my head, not unlike a medieval torture instrument. The goal was simple: to lift my torso and head up just a few inches towards my bent knees, not even 1/4 of a regular sit-up. And every time I tried, there was my instructor's commanding voice: "Jane, stop engaging your back! Focus on your core-- it has to come from your core muscles. You're engaging your back, stop it! Think only about your core muscles, picture them, only focus on the ones you want to use. Stop thinking about your back and whether it's going to hurt. Only the core!"
I committed to practicing Pilates this year because I had ongoing pain from an old injury to my back, and I finally got tired enough of it to do something. Little did I know that this physical activity would require that I engage my mind so much. The sweat coming down my forehead in that moment came from the difficulty of mental focus rather than physical strain, and I immediately saw the parallel to other areas of life.
In therapy sessions, I frequently talk to people about redirecting their thoughts. Here's why: often we assume that just because we're thinking something, it must be true. But usually our automatic negative thoughts, those self-contemptuous phrases & ideas that play in the background like a recorded tape, are only there because we've played them so frequently that they happen involuntarily. In the same way that someone with an old injury can automatically engage the wrong muscles to compensate, and build the wrong habit over years, we can engage negative thoughts and ideas about ourselves repeatedly until they become second nature, and feel true.
We all have old injuries, physical or emotional. Sometimes we choose ways of coping and compensating that eventually cause more pain and trouble than they solve. The process of undoing the old coping habits (ex. hateful thoughts about ourselves) and replacing them with healthy ways of functioning (building our proverbial Core), means "unlearning" certain habits, and takes effort to redirect and refocus thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, about others, and sometimes about God. I takes effort and concentration sometimes.
I wept with frustration, in front of everyone in the Pilates studio. -Not only because I kept doing it wrong despite my efforts, but because I had years of pain & exasperation built up behind this moment. The more I was focusing on my core, the more I was unraveling my old coping mechanism of overusing my back-- and it was scary to release an old way of doing things, even if the old way brought chronic hurt. My instructor was unphased by my tears. "Trust me. You're going to be ok. I've seen this before, and you can handle this. You have to let go. Focus on your core. TRUST ME! YOU CAN DO THIS!" As I was silently cursing her, gritting my teeth, and trying once more to refocus my thoughts, I felt a slight flutter of a forgotten core muscle I didn't even know I had. It was just a little pulse, just enough to say "I'm here!", but I knew I'd be able to find it again. And that little flutter of a muscle is getting stronger and easier to engage now-- it's almost becoming second nature.
We are not defined or restrained by our old injuries, no matter how recent or long ago they've happened. Sometimes it just takes getting tired of the pain, refocusing our thoughts (sometimes hundreds of times), grieving the losses, and trusting until that core gets a little stronger and we don't have to lean on our old coping mechanisms. It's never too late to learn a new way of thinking, no matter what your old injury is. "Trust me. You can do this."
(reposted from August 2013)