Unclenching

It was a yoga teacher who first pointed out to me that, even in a strenuous pose, there was no need to furrow my brow and clench my jaw. This is because, as it turns out, neither my jaw nor my forehead is connected to my thighs, hips, back, or hamstrings.

Of course this applies, like all things, beyond the yoga mat. Take running, which has returned as a major part of my life thanks to social distancing. I’ve logged my two longest runs ever in the last two weeks (just under 9 miles) since…what else is there to do?!

Mostly, I enjoy it, but I’m also having to unlearn the always-struggle, always-push mindset that I employed when I last ran regularly, in my teens and 20s.

I’m trying to remember to relax my face while I run. I’ve noticed that my forehead, the space between my eyebrows and my jaw are perpetually clenched when I run. This helps with absolutely nothing.

Clenching is a natural reaction to stress, but it doesn’t make sense. It provides no protection or safety. It wards off nothing.

Needless to say, stress is everywhere these days. We can trick ourselves into believing that clenching, both physical (in our jaw and forehead) and psychological (in our minds as we scroll through screen after screen of frustrating, worrying news) equates to “doing something.” We can pretend that worrying about what’s going on helps in some way.

The fact is, adding strain and suffering to something that is already strenuous is completely optional. There’s enough that’s hard already, why should we be adding more?

Here’s how to practice unclenching.

Find a spot in your body where you hold tension. For me, this is the left side of my jaw, which I often clench when awake and asleep.

Consciously unclench it. Breathe. Breathe again.

Now pay attention to other things that are clenched.

Let them relax too. Breathe. Breathe again.

Repeat as necessary.

The end of the line

One day in the not-so-distant future, you’ll get there.  The end of the line.  The top of your organization.  The top of your field.  Nowhere else to go, because you’ll have arrived.

Most likely, that day won’t be within striking distance of the end of your career.  Far from it.  So there you will be, at the top of your game and the top of the ladder you spent all that time and energy climbing.

And then you’ll have no choice but to make a shift.  They’ll be no sense any more (was there ever?) in the obvious milestones of advancement: title, promotion, compensation.  In all the important ways, those things will be behind you.  At which point your yardstick will cease to be how high you can climb and become, instead, the actual impact you are having on the world, the change you are creating for others.

Imagine not waiting until that future date to let go of striving for the obvious markers of success and progress.  Imagine how letting go now, not five or 10 or 15 years from now, would free up all the energy you’re putting into the climb.  Imagine your confidence and sense of relief in recognizing that someday soon you will get there, which is why there’s no need to (and not much result in) continuing to push the rope.  Imagine your ability to focus on the stuff that really matters: the really important, hard-for-the-right-reasons elements of making a difference.

Isn’t this, in the end, what it means to live a life of service?

Isn’t this why anyone who gets to the “top” discovers that it’s really just a starting line?