[Originally published as “The Power of Tiny Repeatable Actions” on February 9, 2017 in Moving Into Mindfulness.]
Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day, saying "I will try again tomorrow." -- Mary Anne Radmacher
I've had a quietly courageous week. I learned how to use mindfulness practice when suffering from the Puking Flu. (Hint: nausea comes in waves, like the breath. Try not to struggle.) I discovered more about what simplicity means; it is amazing what the most basic things like a warm bed, soft pillow, peppermint tea, and a loving cat can do for you when you're feeling like death warmed over. I was able to recognize my luxurious existence, at least compared to some others. I wondered what it would be like to be so indisposed and ill without a reliable place to call home, or someone to come and murmur sympathetically from time to time, without the ability to maintain a little dignity and privacy. I was relieved to discover an ability to respond to an unpleasant situation with some gratitude (when I wasn't feeling terribly sorry for myself) and interdependent understanding.
More and more, I'm seeing that stepping back and searching for the big picture in any situation is often all that's needed. Taking the long view is called for right now, don't you think? I'm hearing some discouragement around questions of whether one's individual efforts can make a real difference. Whether in relation to socio-political chaos or about daily mindfulness practice and changing movement habits, folks are expressing doubts about the power of tiny repeatable actions. Is calling your senator effective? Can one big splashy march truly change hearts and minds? Is moving my computer monitor higher or lower really going to stop my neck pain? Is it really so bad to skip a day or two of meditation?
Yes and no. No, because just one person does not make a movement. Nor will occasional, sporadic attempts at meditating establish steady concentration leading to wisdom. (Really, it will not. I speak from experience.) Also yes, because each person in a group is just as vital and necessary as any other. And each time you sit meditation, you are recalibrating your inner and outer fields. That affects the wider field of everyone you come in contact with. Each time you notice an inefficient or tension-producing habit, and you stop the activity and apply some Alexander thinking, you are bypassing the old automatic neural pathways and carving out new ones.
I've written about my experience of incremental change and "progress" before. I have told the stories of my many failed attempts and what I've gained by them. But I must need more lessons in this, because the Puking Flu was the culmination of some days of deep internal darkness, a feeling of severe tension in all parts of my body, and a lot of what Stuart Smalley calls "stinkin' thinkin'." Whatever virus got into me, my body responded by forcing me to focus on the most basic aspects of my existence, with little or no time to indulge in despair about humankind. I did best when I accepted tiny victories like being able to digest saltines, and small comforts like nurturing music and blessed sleep.
I don't have any deep wisdom about the power of the individual and the power of the collective; I look to other teachers for that. I am learning about this daily, as I get curious about what we mean by power anyway. I now know, however, that when I feel overwhelmed with despair, I can get simple. I can step back and look for the big picture. I can break it down and take small bites. In this way, it seems, the possibility of opening the body-heart-mind to compassion and healing grows, incrementally.