Living in the Gray Areas
“Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find?”
– Ridley Scott
So often, when working with people to help them develop a new lifestyle practice, I notice that setting up rigid expectations can get in the way of their success. You know what it is like when you are trying to change your exercise or eating habits? In your attempts to make these changes, you tell yourself that you will get to the gym four times every week, or that you will eliminate the sugars from your diet. These intentions may be taken on with your best interest in mind; however, it can be difficult to live up to the agenda that you set for yourself. You may only get to the gym once or twice during the week and you feel as if you have failed, so next week you aren’t motivated to go at all. Or you may have dessert while eating out with friends, so you abandon your attempts to change the way you are eating.
Similarly, after asking students to practice a new stress-reduction exercise each day for 30 minutes, I find a common obstacle when I check in with them the following week: all or nothing thinking. More specifically, the common response is, “I didn’t practice every day because I couldn’t find the 30 minutes I needed to do so.” The barrier to their practice becomes the timeframe I suggested: If they aren’t able to practice for 30 minutes, they don’t practice at all. By getting stuck in all or nothing thinking, the students sabotage their intention to practice each day and, ultimately, lose the benefits of the changes they want to make.
To overcome this obstacle, when you get caught here, the key is to allow yourself to live in the gray area, or middle ground: Consider what subset you can do rather than how you can’t meet your entire expectation all at once. For example, Insight Meditation Society co-founder Joseph Goldstein makes the following suggestion to meditation students to encourage their practice:
“Try making a commitment to getting into the meditation posture at least once a day. You don’t have to sit for any particular length of time, just get on the cushion. A lot of times, the hardest part is getting there. Once you’re sitting down, you think, ‘I might as well sit for a few minutes,’ and more often than not, you’re getting full sessions in.”1
This same suggestion can be applied to other intentions we have for ourselves. Taking small steps toward the direction of change you are seeking can be less overwhelming and, ultimately, more effective than trying to do it all at once.
The imperative: Identify a lifestyle change you want to make and break it up into manageable steps. Commit to taking one step at a time and build up to the goal you are intending to meet. Let go of the black and white limitations; instead, allow yourself to explore the gray areas.
If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?’
— John Wayne
1. Tricycle, Fall 2007: http://www.tricycle.com/feature/meditators-toolbox