Shutting down

A teacher stands at the blackboard rapidly working through the material. As she finishes she turns to the class and says, “Now you do it.” Wide-eyed and baffled I don’t have the faintest idea what she’s done or how to reproduce it. Using the distributive property, multiplying integers, factoring polynomials, third grade, seventh grade, tenth grade as my classmates busily followed instructions stomach clenched and near tears I fell further and further behind. A single thought in my head: I don’t get it, I’ll never get it.

Those same feelings came rushing back last week in beginners’ tai chi. Like a math class, movement classes set to music that require me to follow and reproduce the movements of the instructor are way outside my comfort zone. I did reasonably well with the first four movements, sort of like addition and subtraction, but the next four were all long division and fractions for me. If I concentrated on the hand movements, which were key to the transitions, I lost track of the footwork. If I focused on the footwork my hands and arms were out of sync and trying to manage both at once was comical but not funny. I kept waiting for it all to fall into place.

After many repetitions I noticed my insides were tightly clenched, my breathing was shallow, and right on cue, there was the thought: I don’t get it. I’ll never get it. And I noticed something else: it’s really hard to concentrate with that thought in my head. It’s hard to distinguish important information from irrelevant information. It’s hard to do anything but fight the urge to flee. As a kid my response was to shut down emotionally and intellectually. In course after I course I would reach a point where I just gave up. As an adult I am able to be curious about my reaction.

And here’s the value of my daily, mind calming practices—almost as soon as I realized I was shutting down, I was able to move to the witness seat and breathe through those feelings rather than get caught up in them. I made the choice to acknowledge them and keep moving rather than shove them away and tell myself that this was an unimportant situation, not worth the stress and strain I was feeling. That’s a habit I don’t love. Whether the stakes are high or low, when I’m not good at something and I’m overwhelmed by self-doubt, I shut down and walk away. Change comes from moving to the witness seat in every difficult situation regardless of the stakes.

When do you notice that you shut down?

When do you feel that you don’t get it, that you’ll never get it?

What practices help you remain present to yourself?

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