3 min read

Struggling mindfully

A type A person's foray into embodying ease while learning a new skill

In September 2017, during a session, my therapist nonchalantly said, “Well, you’re type A, so your anxiety is palpable when you’re not good at something.” I am what now? Type A, she repeated. I had associated type A people with micromanaging, ambition, and ruthlessness. In my mind, my need to be perfect came from passion. But as my therapist rattled off traits of type A folks, I realized, oh crap, I am type A.

I famously give up things I am not good at. I hate being bad at anything, even something new. I love Kathak, a classical dance from South Asia, specifically India and Pakistan. My mom got sick before I could take classes as a child, so I joined as an adult. I was fairly good at it in India, but when I tried to do the same in Canada, somehow the teacher’s style and pace was not matching my learning needs. I could not keep up, so I tended not to practice, and that made me lag in class and soon I gave up. I wistfully look at my ghungroos each time I open the drawer at the foot of my bed.

In 2012, I woke up one day with a desire to sketch. I went and got myself all the supplies. I did it for a bit and found that it was quite hard. Even though I knew that it was a matter of developing the skill through practice, I gave up. My dalliance with sketching lasted about a month.

A few months ago, I decided to learn the ukelele. Brain health has been on my mind, and from all my work in the dementia sector, I know that learning something new can protect the brain, and even create new pathways. Sid bought me a ukelele for Diwali and my friend got me a few classes.

My teacher, also Sid (not my spouse), is in his early 20s and is from India as welll. He is studying music and teaches guitar and ukelele to support himself in Canada. Since I have never held a stringed instrument in my life, Sid has to teach me how to position the uke on my body. In the first session, I learned a few chords. I practiced them at home, and I felt good. As the classes progressed, and we moved to learning “simple” songs like Happy Birthday, in came frustration and exhaustion.

My wrist hurts. My brain cannot comprehend how to move the fingers from one chord to the next. I am so much in my head that I miss beats or my hand slips and it is chaos. The thought of quitting is there at the back of my mind, but I don’t want to. I have made the decision to keep sucking.

The difference is that this time I have my Dharma practice. I am more aware of my tendency to only want to excel. I understand this as my suffering mind. The Second Noble Truth as taught by Siddharth Gautam, the historical Buddha, says that the cause of suffering lies in our mind - when we give in to the impulses to chase preferred outcomes and avoid undesirable ones, we perpetuate patterns that multiply our suffering. For instance, I multiply the suffering of not being good at a skill by adding drama to them - I catastrophize, and I generalize it to mean that I am not good enough, that I am bad because failing is bad. I add impatience and judgment which takes the fun out of learning.

My mindfulness practice enables me to be quick at recognizing when I am spiraling into an old pattern. I recognize the tightness in my body and I simply add an intentional out-breath. Everything begins to relax.

Cognitively, I add reframes and reminders such as:

A. I am learning the uke for fun.

B. It will be hard, but I will keep going, even when I don’t want to.

C. I am choosing to learn, and I will be patient with my process.

D. I do not have to be the best at everything.

E. I want to get better and I am okay if the progress is slow.

F. I am learning for me.

G. If I continue, I will get better. If I give up, I will never know.

I have also explained all of this to my uke teacher. He is patient and kind. That helps a lot. I am unable to visualize my future with this beautiful and forgiving instrument at the moment, and I am okay with that. I choose to be present in the here and now and take it one day at a time.

I am determined to stay with it for at least a year. Adding ease to my type A personality allows me to enjoy the process and stay in the game for longer.

A few days ago, I was in a virtual meditation class when I felt compelled to pick up my sketchbook and draw the objects on my altar. That was a nice surprise.

I hope to bring this mindful struggle framework to more things in my life.

Here’s to going from type A to type E(ase).