‘My illusions didn’t have anything to do with being a fine actress, I knew how third rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve!’
About three years before the birth of our first child we travelled to Mysore in the south of India. At the time we had been together seven years and were desperately in need of adventure. Life in the city had become a series of pleasant routines – work, walk, coffee, shop – and we were bored with our lives and each other.
One day we’re sitting in yet another non-descript café avoiding the fact that there was nothing else we had to do and Rebecca put a magazine under my nose. ’Read this article. It sounds great. I’d love to do this.’
It was good to see a sparkle in her eyes. It had been a while.
It was article about a man who had travelled to Mysore in Southern India and studied yoga with a revered old teacher called Pattabhi Jois. It was full of life and dilemma and humor and I was riveted. He seemed to be experiencing everything we weren’t.
That afternoon we found a local yoga class and ten weeks later we were on a plane.
There is no avoiding anything in India. It is a challenge from start to finish but my biggest problem was me. Before I left home I knew that I wasn’t gifted, that yoga didn’t seem to come easy. However when I started to practice with serious students under the guidance of a master teacher I realized that I had no talent whatsoever.
I was surrounded by teachers and advanced students. I couldn’t touch my toes. I remember being at a social event where I was the only one who couldn’t put his foot behind his head.
In the shala I would sit on the stairs and press my face to the grill as the human noodles contorted their bodies into wild positions, sweated furiously, chanted ancient mantras and looked fabulous at the same time. I struggled to maintain a shred of human dignity as I embarrassed myself and misrepresented the practice. I look like a pink leopard when I get hot and my mumbling was not spiritual. I was a contender for the worst yoga student of all time.
Progress was almost non-existent. On the final day of our six month visit I tried to get into Lotus. The grandson of the guru did everything he could but there was no way that my foot was going any further. He wobbled his head in that non-committal way the Indians have and that was that.
Doing yoga in India was a perfect storm of ineptitude for me. There was not one element that came easily. I went straight to the bottom of the class and stayed there. Even the kind old teacher looked at me with a bemused look. What was to be done with the class dunce?
I am awful at relationships. I don’t have an intuitive understanding or a natural feel. Perhaps the main reason is that I am most comfortable by myself. I have a low need for the company of others so I never invested in relationships. I didn’t pay much attention.
I remember as a ten year old not knowing how the other kids hooked up to go to the movies and in my twenties I had to observe how to give a social hug. Any knowledge I have gained has been through hard work.
It’s possible to learn about relationships even if you find them confusing and mysterious. Like any subject, there are rules and insights that if consistently applied yield results. It’s always nice when things come easily; however, improving the way you relate to others does not require talent.
The yoga in India doesn’t sound like a good experience but there were definitely some diamonds in the rough. It was the first time I had ever been in a situation for a reasonable amount of time where I was not in the least bit competent. No matter how hard I tried I just didn’t get it. Putting in that much effort and still bringing up the rear is unpleasant.
I was lucky because I went through this as an adult so I had some perspective. What I hadn’t noticed was that I was just as inept at being married and I needed to use strategies that did not rely on talent or intuitive insight.
‘Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.’
If I look back at my life, mostly I’ve been attracted to things that came without too much effort. I played the sports I thought I was good at, and avoided those that were more difficult. I studied subjects where I gained good marks and dropped those where the results weren’t as high. This approach is obviously the best for many endeavors; you should probably follow a career in an area that you’ll excel at. The problem is that in life we will get involved in some things that we don’t have a natural feel for, yet we still need to put our best foot forward.
Yoga and relationships are two areas I have to work hard at to make even ordinary progress. Neither comes naturally, so what to do?
It is much easier if you know yourself and are truthful about your limitations. I was inept at yoga and I decided not to be concerned about it. I turned up every day and tried my best. While others in the room twisted hypnotically I got better at touching my toes. Improvement did come I just had to look very carefully to see it.
Our teacher was a revered scholar who had spent his working life as a professor of Sanskrit and had taught yoga for over 60 years. Each afternoon he would have a forum where you could ask questions, discuss the day’s news or maybe he’d just read the paper. Students from all over the world would gather in his home and wait for the first question.
Every day you could divide the gathering into two groups; those who would ask questions that they didn’t know the answer to and those who would ask questions so that everyone else would know that they knew the answer. One group came to learn and the other wanted a pat on the head.
Being the class dunce had one very serious advantage. It was no problem for me to admit that I knew very little. I sat at the back and listened. I recommend admitting that you know almost nothing and be willing to learn. Choose your teacher carefully then follow their instructions precisely in that area.
The no talent zone is ripe for character building. Humility may be forced upon you. There’s an advantage in this lack of ease; straight away you’re confronted with your limits. Some of the yoga stars practiced for years before there was a posture that was truly difficult. When they hit that limit it was a shock for them and I saw a few who didn’t cope well. They didn’t know how to move forward in difficult circumstances.
There will be golden days and others that feel like a hike through a blizzard. Don’t get caught up in it, just keep moving.
If you have no talent, embrace the basics; leave the fancy stuff to the stars. You can travel a long way by mastering the fundamentals.
Being a marital moron is a bit annoying really. Having no talent or insight is inconvenient but it doesn’t change the fact that if I want to improve my marriage I have to find a way to make progress anyway.
Amazon.com/OneShoeOverThe Fenceby Stephen Simes
web site: http://www.stephensimes.com/