Friday, February 19, 2010


Today my Cowgirl will be receiving her next belt from her Martial Arts school. She has been attending a little dragons program for a year and a half and belt ceremonies are held 4 times a year. It is a bit of a running joke with the other parents that belt testing must be coming up soon, as it has been awhile since we wrote our quarterly check for the graduation fee. Cowgirl will be moving from a purple to a red belt, her 7th belt. While this may seem a bit excessive to the point of diluting any real meaning from the notion of "graduating", I have to pause and recognized the enormous achievement this ceremony represents.

At 5 and some change, Cowgirl has been committed to an activity for 18 months. Twice a week we attend class and not only does she still want to go, she continues to be excited and enthusiastic about class. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she will repeatedly ask me "Is it time for class?" She has woken up from naps, still in a trance state and when I have suggested it might be best to skip class, she will hop up and insist she wants to go.

There was only one period, about 9 months into her first year when she resisted attending class. An issue had been her focusing and not goofing off in class. She struggled with this; she is an active child and being still is not her nature. Her first real obstacle, she wanted to quit. She would whine she didn't want to go to class and then when in class, she would be reminded again and again to focus. One time, unable to handle her obvious lack of discipline or any real effort, I swooped in, scooped her up and announced we would be leaving. Her reaction was immediate and loud. A few classes later, she would look over at me and then act out in such a transparent, obvious way, I knew she was baiting me. (Mind you, her actions to others did not appear so egregious, but given our repeated discussions on what was expected of her, I knew she was being lazy.) I did nothing.

Later, as I suspected, I asked her if she was thinking I would come in and take her out of class. Of course she was! I then explained to her that as long as she showed she could not be focused and follow instructions, we would continue to come to class. Once she realized I was committing her to this practice, she yielded and as they say, she shaped up. Now she is proud of her achievement and I have seen the discipline of sticking to a task seeping into other areas of her life.

This is the lesson I believe is imperative she learn: that when things get hard or challenging, we do not give up. That what matters is not the end result, but the process. A faculty member at my college lent me a book called Mindset by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. The thesis of the book is very simple, yet powerful. We either hold a Growth mindset or a Fixed mindset. In a Fixed mindset, we had a static notion of our abilities, our talents, and ourselves. When one encounters an obstacle, the perception is a reaffirmation of our set skill levels (i.e., I'm just not good at math; I'm just not creative or talented, etc.) The tendency then is to give up. Someone with a Growth mindset believes the possibility of growth, of learning and developing. Challenges are then perceived as opportunities to learn and through that process expand upon one's talents and skills.

In this model, praise is not to be issued so much for the final product ("Wow, you are really talented") but for the effort put in, for the process and for how the child felt by working hard and overcoming obstacles. When Cowgirl shows me a painting she has made, I will say to her "Wow, you really worked hard on that ... I could see you concentrating on your painting ... you seem to really enjoy making art." We also talk about how she felt making the painting and what she enjoyed.

I have to admit, this is a huge wound for me. Crazy as this will sound, but as a child I was repeatedly told I was creative, talented and smart. Horrible things for a parent to say to their child, right? Well, for my twisted sense of self, yes. As a child I understood talented as meaning things came easily, effortlessly and that certainly was not the case for me. I had to work hard and when my efforts were breezily noted by "of course you did well, you are so smart" I felt like a fraud. I came to believe I wasn't talented, was not all that smart because my work was, well, work. And I had to intensify my efforts lest I be discovered as a fake, a fraud. My academic life was spent running just one step ahead of being unmasked, uncovered and in my mind eventually tossed out as unworthy.

It has taken me a long time to dismantle this crippling notion of myself. I still struggle with a need for acceptance and praise in my work to assuage the voices of doubt and ridicule that thankfully are growing fainter and fainter. But it is work. I hope to cultivate in my daughter a sense of herself as a fluid being, a work in progress and progress being an enjoyable, rewarding process in and of itself. I am reminded that the main advice given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras for the practionner is this simple, but profound statement: Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness. (I:14)It is through practice that we come to understand how to return to our center when all of life is attempting to distract us and blow us off course. Practice is how we gain mastery over the never ending fluctuations and come to experience and understand our true essence and being.

My daughter has witnessed this process in my life. When she was very young, she would wake up early in the morning, come downstairs and find me sitting in front of my "portable" altar meditating. Well, trying to! She would sit on my lap and I would focus upon our breaths coming into sync with each other. I would feel our body heat merging into a single flame of energy and I felt a peace I have rarely known. She has also witnessed me slacking off, sleeping in and abandoning my practice. And then she sees me returning again, and we talk about the hard discipline of starting over and the need to repeatedly recommit myself to practice. Today she joined me again in my yoga room, pulling out her mat and watching me practice and waiting, she told me, until I was finished at which time she would show me her poses.

It is the "in all earnestness" that I try to emphasize for her. And it is the sense of accomplishment and pride in succeeding because it required so much effort and work on my part that I hope she comes to understand. Yes, others may praise us for our work, but I hope she understands success is not so much a matter of what others think, but about her own experience and how she views herself. Through commitment, effort and yes, struggle, we encounter growth. We then recognize within ourselves a vast field of unlimited potential that we can draw upon and develop. In the process, we come to embrace a notion of ourselves as capable, creative and wildly inventive. An experience definitely worth the effort.


  1. Oh, Lis - This is dynomite! I commend you for recognizing the difference between growth and fixed mindset and concentrating on tending and encouraging the growth in Cowgirl. Part of my grieving over my mother's alzheimer's now is seeing her 'fixed' mindset, which has been pretty much lifelong and never served her well, is essentially now insurmountable.

  2. Lis, thank you for the reminder of how important the journey is and how vital it is to keep reconnecting, persevering.Once again my youth experiences are very similar to your own; it was accepted that all I achieved was a full gone conclusion, nobody seemed to see the hard work I put into the journey itself. I always thought I was just a step ahead also.

  3. Hi, I found you through the Art Journal Love Letters Lovlies and this post is amazing.
    what a beautiful child you have, what a wonderful sense of motherhood and the sheer question of trying to live an authentic life. My own yoga practice waxes and wanes, but is always there in the background, and I have found that trying to be creative in some form every day is my meditation.
    I read back some of your other posts and the poetry is amazing too. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Oh, the Patanjali quote is so grounding for me... " Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness." and fits for my work as a writer and my work WITH writers as well.

    My children have learned to sit at the kitchen table with me while I am doing my writing practice. It is the one time they wait quietly. How I love that they have learned this from my gentle insistence that sometimes, words, letters, writing... something other than them... needed my attention, too.

    THANK YOU, Lis, for a beautiful reminder.