This year, I grew taller by about an inch. It happened as a result of a new posture, a new pace and new priorities. And less fear.
I have some incredibly wild dreams and awesome plans for the future, but some big changes were necessary before I could begin to realize, or even fully pursue these goals. As a result of this year, I have learned more about creativity, patience and strength than ever before. I have discovered more of my own potential. I have released self-limiting beliefs. I have more love for myself and for others.
I owe most of this journey to the development of more self-compassion than ever before, as well as two tools that most helped with this process: an accordion and a motorcycle.
For me, self compassion begins with recognizing that we are all the same. Our worth as human beings is universal and our struggles are worth something too because although we experience life differently, we are ultimately not all that different in terms of what we struggle with and why. That being said… I have a confession to make.
I’ve been in six car accidents since I was eighteen. Two of which happened last year. I always disliked telling people this part of my story. I didn’t want to be “car accident girl” anymore, but there it is. What I hadn’t yet realized is that in disliking this part of my story, I had come to dislike a part of myself.
The truth will never “unhappen” and also includes the fact that I have had more difficulty recovering from last year than after any previous incidents or injuries. For a super-determined, hyper-aware person… this has been an agonizingly long journey from not being able to walk to endeavouring to lift and play an accordion and manoeuvre and ride a motorcycle. Considering what my body and I have encountered during my lifetime, I’d say we’re doing pretty well by even attempting to do these things! Doing them successfully, however, is another story.
When I couldn’t walk, my pace was slow because it had to be slow. It was slow or nothing. But I did not enjoy slow and when it came to returning to “normal life”, I rushed every aspect from exercise to driving to playing music. In fact, I now realize I that have been a compulsive rusher for some time. (My name is Lindsey and I’m a rushaholic. I am incredibly serious about this – it is a daily compulsion to be addressed.) In the past I perhaps did this in effort to please others in some way, bending over backwards when it was inconvenient, attempting to be in more places in a single day than humanly possible. But it was more than that. It is reasonably easy for me to liken it to addiction because of the lie, which is that “life is better when more full” and that it must be lived to maximize moments in quantity over quality. Don’t ask me where it came from, but there it is in all it’s sideways glory.
I thought I had discarded that strange belief a long time ago. But after so many years, it became habitual in a way I did not understand. Even when I became aware of this tendency in my behaviour; adding yoga, meditation and other such activities to my daily life while subtracting others, the rushing part of it did not ever completely change.
Over time, my body became hypermobile (meaning that my joints stretch and move much further than normal). I began to experience constant dislocation of weakly stabilized joints and extreme muscle fatigue in the areas where they would compensate for the weak ligaments supporting those joints. What this means is, I was in pain a lot of the time. And stretching a LOT to compensate. I told myself I was strong and made the development of physical strength a priority. But with my rushing tendencies, much of this resulted in a “ferris wheel” effect of making some gains and then losing some stability and having to start all over again. It was tough. And so frustrating. I felt over-worked all the time. My music-making posture was (in the words of one of my therapists) “horrible” and the structure of my spine and joints were constantly in flux. The activity that was most difficult, the one that put the most pressure on these unstable joints and repeatedly caused my body the most pain, misalignment and need for recovery was playing the accordion.
Although I started playing this instrument with my German family as a child, it was only a couple of years ago that I started performing professionally (at a German restaurant) and it became an integral component of my music career. I since discovered that I can play just about anything on the accordion by ear – from AC/DC to ZZ Top, Beyonce to Taylor Swift, music from Game of Thrones and movie soundtracks. Making people happy with this work also involves German, Irish, French and Italian music, but I wasn’t coming home happy anymore. It was taking increasingly longer to recover from these performances and the pain was beginning to interfere with all my other jobs. (Which is especially tough because of how much I truly love making music for a living.)
I switched to a 10 pound instrument from a 20 pound one. I used arm braces and back braces and new straps. Every new set up position, every method I could think of to create stability and each weekend I performed were met with frustration and pain. So I did what habitual blamers do when there is really no one to blame: I blamed myself. Why couldn’t I find a solution to this problem? Why couldn’t I just not let this hurt me anymore? At one point I felt that I was “forgiving” myself after every weekend of gigging, trying to convince myself that I wasn’t at fault. And this made me feel a bit crazy. But then the pain (and therefore need for someone to blame) didn’t go away. And I lost patience with myself in a major way.
High expectations didn’t help. I employed every effort to keep my focus on what I loved and desired in my life, but pain is an awfully effective way to break vision apart. I had worthy goals without a worthy, stable core. And at the end of several months of this cycle, I concluded that I was tired of hurting and forgiving myself and had to stop even if it meant giving up playing accordion for a while, or permanently.
My massage therapist told me: “maybe you’re just not meant to be an accordion player.”
My sensei tole me: “I think you should do this job as long as you are able.“
My physiotherapist told me: “One cannot underestimate the contribution your sub-conscious brings to this. If the brain percieves that playing the accordion is a threat to your well-being, it will do what it can to dissuade you from playing, pain being one of the most common triggers.”
Wikipedia told me: “Hypermobility causes physical trauma (in the form of joint dislocations, joint subluxations, joint instability, sprains, etc.). These conditions often, in turn, cause physical and/or emotional trauma.”
I must have skipped over that last part because I was shocked to learn that I was indeed emotionally traumatized. Over the course of a year and a half, I had taught my brain to associate playing the accordion with pain. I had learned to be afraid of it, of the dislocation of my joints, as well as the resulting pain and I equated this behaviour with self preservation.
The mind-body connection is difficult to understand. Where does one end and the other begin? My mind was not ill, but over-functioning; it was not hard to see that major change was both desirable and necessary. I just didn’t know where to begin.
When I took the 21 hour motorcycle training course this summer, I was asked to do a variety of difficult things while instructors made them more difficult. They went about doing this by moving pylons, yelling, waving, blowing whistles and generally simulating a hazard-filled road environment. As much as I understood the necessity for this additional stress, I still resisted it’s interference with my desirably peaceful, relaxed learning curve. I was also frustrated by the physical demands of having to “muscle around” a bike while I did not yet know how to make it work for me. Mostly, I was frustrated at my inability to learn this skill without significant physical struggle.
When I later transitioned from the protective parking lot environment to riding on the open road, it was with a much larger, heavier, more awkward bike filled with numerous little glitches that kept me even more “on my toes”. (Both figuratively AND literally – I actually can’t keep both feet flat on the ground while riding such a big bike.) Going from riding 250 cc motorcycles in a parking lot to a 900 cc Honda that is as old as I am on the ROAD may be the most difficult way to learn and certainly not one I’d recommend. And the people in my life who knew about “car accident girl” probably thought I had completely lost my mind. But I was assured over and over again by mechanics, instructors and other bikers, “once you learn to ride this beast and do it well… riding everything else will be so easy!”
It took me all season to practice enough to become even remotely comfortable. I “dumped” (tipped over) the bike a few times at first. I learned not to try to pick it up by myself. I stalled & ran out of gas in the middle of the road. I killed the battery and stranded myself at a gas station. I couldn’t start it a few times. Third gear was missing. One side view mirror was held together by a screw that constantly needed tightening. And a weak charging system meant that the battery needed to be charged before every ride to ensure how much “juice” would be available. It couldn’t have been a more frustrating or patience-producing way to learn. And it was worth every moment of crazy, unpredictable practice. Not only because the bike belonged to my Dad and driving it had been on my bucket list since his death. Not only because it had been sitting for five years and needed to be moved in order to function better. Not only because I now understand more about the machine than ever before… but because I now understand more about myself and how I move.
I have developed an unbelievable awareness while motorcycle riding because I my very life depends on that awareness. (Much more so than while driving a car.) Every vehicle, sound, sign, traffic light, hazard and every little hiccup with the Honda were reasons to pay more attention than ever. And to slow down, especially while under pressure! But remaining relaxed and aware at the same time is not a skill I had yet mastered, despite all my previous zen-seeking strategies. (Relaxed, aware and controlled movements with intentional speed have since become my new life strategy.)
This was also the beginning of my understanding more about self-compassion. It is not a proficiency to be developed, but a practice. My practice involves taking the pressure off by first identifying and acknowledging what it is and where it comes from.
I overcame the frustration of being a beginning motorcyclist by slowing down as much as possible and by simply allowing myself to suck. I had to learn patience with the bike, but mostly with myself, by encountering frustrating situations and allowing it to be difficult and uncomfortable without blame. I reminded myself that the machine is just a tool and that once I became more skilled at operating it, I would be able to operate any other more easily. I reminded myself that the machine was not at fault and my body was not at fault; that the two were learning how to operate together in a new way in order to create new experiences. I reminded myself that I was a student in this practice and that hyper-awareness was as good for me as simultaneous relaxation. This lesson could not have come at a better time or related more to my journey toward health.
I recently completed a wellness program unlike any other that involved Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, Athletic Therapy / Kinesiology and Psychology. In the beginning, I called it my “rockstar retraining” because I liked how the term related to my being a musical athlete and it made me feel strong. But really, when it comes down to my reasons for being there and how I spent my time, it was rehab. I was in a six week physical rehabilitation program that equated to the musical term “woodshedding” in that it was hard work, it was extremely demanding and it meant a great deal of repeated small tasks in order to add up to big gains.
The goal was to create so much physical stability and strength with healthy posture, that some (or most) of the problems resulting from weakness in my ultra mobile joints would be lessened or eliminated. And to start slow. From the beginning.
Compassion starts at square one. (The real one.)
The first day, I realized my “mental square one” when I was asked to play accordion for three sets of one minute and then play for one minute the next day. My response was automatic and fear-based, “I don’t know about that, I usually can’t play the next day without being in pain.” (Realizing the strange self-limiting nature of this response, I nearly covered my mouth with my hand and apologized… but remembered that however abnormal this was for me, it was entirely to be expected by my team who dealt with people like me on a daily basis.) The therapist’s response was a calm, rational… “ok, well, if you want, you can try”. Never was I forced to do anything and I was always in charge of how I accomplished my own program.
I was asked to do a number of difficult things in effort to increase my musical athletic ability. And it meant knocking me down a few pegs to what was easy and reasonable, instead of the 90 minute accordion performances I had been battling through that were resulting in, well… the opposite of success. So I had to give myself permission to work with a much easier square one. And still, it was not easy.
The second day in rehab, I realized my “physical square one” when those one minute sets were followed by other exercises that caused shooting neck-ache pain that was all too familiar and my frustration surfaced in full force and with tears. Until that day, I had no idea how angry I had become with my body for not being able to do what I wanted; for not responding to my efforts to force it to do what other musicians could do. For being in pain. I had to let myself be a beginner student again. I had to let my body decide my starting point and learn to work with it more than against it.
I had to practice remaining relaxed and aware in the process.
Compassion increases slowly without force or rushing.
The second week, I realized some level of acceptance. My team had given me a variety of activities I was capable of doing and I applied them in three components: work simulation (including accordion playing), gym exercises and pool exercises. Work, gym, pool. Repeat. Woodshedding. Like playing nothing but the A major scale for a week, but trying to make it as interesting and stimulating as possible while improving, without forcing anything or speeding up. The challenge here is to learn to love the process and focus more on love than on boredom or errors. Other rehab patients began requesting songs for me to try on accordion and I quickly realized this would be a welcome distraction that brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. One patient cried with me on her last day, sharing how much listening to my practicing had meant to her. Others just smiled. Their weekly requests eventually taught me that I could play Motown music, which brought even more delight to everyone – even me.
Compassion releases pressure, without adding weight.
With new music programs beginning during week three, as well as increased activity within the program (up to 4 minute sets of accordion and heavier weights) I felt a “ramping up” effect steadily growing. I employed every effort to remain relaxed, positive and keep going but I was exhausted from three weeks of intensity. My body protested and anxiety began to surface. I was losing a lot of my weekday hours and keeping the music business rolling along became increasingly challenging. I had to say no to a lot of people, a lot of times. I learned how to become more eloquent. I learned how to do it with a smile on my face. I slowed down, but kept going; with more positive, purposeful movements and less pain-driven, recovery based moments. More patience and less control.
Compassion keeps moving and letting go. (Repeat.)
The more I moved in the fourth week, the more frustrations rose to the surface. Moving forward while tired became increasingly challenging and “why can’t I just play without pain?” was a difficult question to avoid. I was hoping to achieve what I referred to as “the Arrested Development effect” – based on a popular show. One brother motivates another to accomplish something, punches him at the end and says “now when you do this without getting punched, you’ll have more fun”. But I was still feeling punched at 6 minutes of accordion playing. Every opening of the bellows put enormous pressure on the opposite side of my body and even with athletic tape holding my shoulder where it “should be”, my neck and other joints were still moving out of place. We weren’t finished the program yet, but I began to panic at the thought that the end result might not be optimal. A thought began circling like a vulture: what if I can’t? What if I failed. Until then, I wasn’t aware that I had such an option or such intense fear of it. It felt like I held on and let go of the idea with every opening and closing of the accordion bellows.
Compassion is acceptance that what comes out IS what was within. Letting it be felt and letting it out IS letting it go.
Week five. 8 minutes of punching-like accordion sets. This is where it all came out. The fear, anger, self doubt and total time scarcity. The latter of which presented itself disguised as frustration with my program. It was designed in such a way that I always had more tasks to accomplish than could possibly be completed in the time allotted. This drove me crazy for the same reason that rushing is addictive – the payoff of accomplishment. Productivity. Worth derived from doing more. With so many boxes left unchecked, one day I broke down in tears at the idea that I wouldn’t be able to fit in several activities, including two accordion sets. (We ended up addressing this problem with *ing the most important activities so that I could be sure to prioritize what would build the most strength… but that’s beside the point. The breakdown was very necessary.)
Here I was, in a beautiful facility with a team of therapists committed to working with me and using every support and resource I could ask for… but what it all came down to was self oppression by fear. My biggest fears were that, either there would not be enough time to achieve what we were hoping to achieve, or maybe I, myself, was just not “enough”.
There it is. Fear of failure. The thing that I have seen hundreds of young artists struggle with. That feeling we have all encountered at one time or another. I had been telling myself that there are an unbelievable amount of accordion players out there and there’s no reason why I can’t play too. But I was feeling and believing and fearing that, maybe I can’t. And at the same time preparing to release an album called “Renegade”, thematically about coming to terms with and facing life’s challenges with authenticity and courage. Feeling like a bit of a chicken. Like a failure, and maybe even a fraud. But the story doesn’t end there.
I eventually told my Psychologist that my biggest physical fear was that I would literally collapse. That my physical structure would simply not be able to withstand the pressure I was applying and that it would cave under the weight at specific points where I felt the most pain. For me, this was intimately symbolic of my life being too full to be healthy; adding too much pressure for it to withstand, to the point where it might fold where it hurt the most. The Doc and I had some great conversations about suffering and sacrifice; about learning to see this experiment as a transition toward greater experiences, without fully understanding what they might be. He reminded me of my capability of creating new opportunities for myself, regardless of what situation I landed in. He reminded me that I was learning to be a musical athlete and he helped me think more logically and emotionally but with less fear. I told him that I would begin to visualize the experience as a gift both to myself and others, because it had already proven to be.
With it all out in the open, I finally had an opportunity to release this heavy anxiety and let it go for good. And I realized that I would never in a million years consider someone else in my shoes to be a failure. I would consider them brave for trying – for getting up every day, looking difficulty in the eye and facing it as gracefully as possible. For endeavouring to woodshed through pain. Just as the young musicians who cross my path consider their peers and other artists to have incredible courage for performing or sharing their hearts through music; it’s always harder to see our own vulnerability as courageously as we view that of our fellow Renegades.
What if, in the end, my body was different from other musicians. What if my RMT was right and regular accordion playing was simply not good for me? At first that seemed like a huge failure to even consider admitting but with these negative beliefs released, I later decided that if that happened, I would accept the worst and bravely make decisions that were right for me. I would risk disappointing the business owner who hired me to play accordion for 30 minute sets, the insurance company (that was paying for my program, with the intention of getting me back to doing so) and I would let go of the possibility of disappointing myself.
I decided that it would take more courage to admit than to ignore. At the suggestion of my team, I decided to continue the experiment of playing every day until I felt certain I could make a rational decision without anxiety. I decided that if I did this, I could not fail. And at the very least I wouldn’t be afraid of an instrument anymore. Giving myself permission to be brave enough to fail was of enormous importance.
Compassion is relaxing, accepting & expecting… with mild apathy of end result. Then, valuing the valuable and enjoying.
I had a game-changing weekend before the last week in rehab. Not only because I moved the heaviest of my gear (piano: 45 lbs & amplifier: 70 lbs) at a gig without hurting myself, but I also found a new brace that held my shoulders in place very well for certain activities. Then, a new pair of ergonomic accordion straps I had ordered six months ago finally arrived and made a huge difference in my playing capabilities! And my business partner allowed me to fill in my shortened accordion sets with guitar playing to make up the difference. It’s as if, after I let out all that fear and frustration… suddenly I could keep my calm, relaxed state of allowing and BAM. Things started working out to help me out. And I could focus more on what I love again! With new exercise and relaxation tools, more stable joints and much stronger ligaments, the pain lessened to an extent where, playing without it entirely became a goal I could abandon in favour of a new one: practicing with correct posture and deep breathing. For ten… and then twelve minutes.
I began to think less emotionally. Without the need to be self-critical, without the need to blame, I could see each one of my hundreds of music students in my own story and just love where I was at in the journey. I could think of my Dad, learning to ride “Betty” and maybe discovering some of the same kinks and difficulties I had been encountering, perhaps developing his own compassionate practices in the process.
(Dad & I on “Betty”)
Driving fast on a motorcycle is easy. One of my instructors said “even a chicken could do it on the highway”. It’s not hard to keep your balance and (unless you’re driving an older bike with glitches) it’s not hard to shift gears. The most difficult part of motorcycle riding is controlled, slow speed with balance. This is also the most difficult part of my life.
Like the motorcycle, this accordion has just been a highly effective tool or prop to show me a new way of learning and viewing myself. Of practicing relaxed awareness while moving slower and remaining more balanced. And much like the bike, since endeavouring to play accordion with ideal posture and pace, doing so with every other instrument has seemed easy!
The truth is that I was always ‘enough’, but did not have enough stability or awareness to keep my posture and pace where they needed to be in order to feel like it.
And new questions have since emerged.
What if I’m not at some kind of imaginary “there” level or result, but I’m “here” and here is awesome because it is better than where I used to be? What if I could have confidence in the things that are increasing (stability, strength, potential) and not care about whether they are at anyone’s level of “good enough”, including my own?
What if I could redefine success?
Tests confirmed that I am stronger and more stable but I also know that I am more patient and self loving at the end of my rockstar rehab. I’m less afraid to be “set back” in life and I have better prioritization and time management skills too. If accordion playing hadn’t been so difficult, I’m not sure I would have had another forum in which to release such self-limiting beliefs and develop these skills, strength and stability.
It has been two and a half months since I began the program. I continue to work hard, both physically and emotionally but I no longer feel over-worked. I feel worked out! And the most difficult lessons are usually the most important. I’ve learned I can be compassionate toward myself with relaxed awareness. That I can be patient and loving toward any other person in struggle… AND that I am as deserving, as worthy and as loveable as any of them. If Pema Chödrön is right and compassion is a relationship between equals, I suppose this means that I needed to begin viewing myself as having equal right and worth and deservingness of understanding as all the young people with whom I work, musically… and every other human being on the planet for that matter.
(I also learned… )
I am happier and healthier to be generous with my time and talents from a place of grateful, present, overflowing joy. It is more stable to do so, to be sure. But it requires daily practice. It requires that I face my rushing addiction head on and also meet it with constant re-evaluation of daily exercises (Have you tried Tai Chi? I love it!), greater tools for intentional relaxation and reminders of my identity as a student of life. It requires that I do this with total clarity of my goals, but with no pressure to be, have or do anything by a certain time or on anyone’s schedule. (And that also requires that I continue becoming more skilled at the art of saying “no”.)
Owning this part of my story has been so powerful. I’m no longer as embarrassed to be “car accident girl” and accordion playing doesn’t result in anxiety. I have become more aware and capable, but the best part is that I get to write the end of the story. I get to decide what happens next!
I once wrote: “This is what it means to be a Renegade. It is the careful assessment of the tools within our own hands; deciding to make something of our choosing with them, in a world that would rather we make something else.”
Finally I feel more ready, more capable than ever of embodying this message and transporting it all over the Country and (eventually) around the world.
The bike is now put away for the season. And I’m still performing accordion with a ton of careful focus; giving myself permission to alter or discontinue the experiment at any time. But the rest of these practices can continue to develop for as long as I’m willing to implement them into my other big plans and dreams. Now that I am capable of doing so every day, why wouldn’t I?
A stronger posture, slower pace and more intentional priorities add up to a new me! And she is someone I can enjoy supporting, loving and getting to know better and better every day. She is just like you. And that is why I can be compassionate with her.