Monday 15 January 2018

The year of learning

2017 has been a landmark year for the husband and me. The year that a lot of things that we had been pondering on or seeking solutions for, just began to come together in a sort of masterplan for life, seemingly disparate pieces all joining up, not making complete sense at the moment, but somehow giving one a bizarre and perhaps misplaced confidence that someday soon the complete picture may be revealed : ) I often feel this when I am baking. I tend to be a fairly haphazard baker, with the vaguest understanding of the chemical principles involved. I happily substitute milk and yogurt for eggs, and forego the yeast even when the recipe pleads for it, with the happy optimism that a mixture of flour, vanilla essence, sugar and egg/curd can rarely go wrong (at the very least you can eat the batter which is always yummy!). Baking also made me realise that I am the sort of person who enjoys the process of doing something more than the achievement of actually accomplishing the task. This realisation has been incredibly liberating over the last year as both the husband and I have embarked on our learning journeys, sometimes together (as in our quest for “hacking happiness - read here or in the pursuit of mindfulness), or separately (as in our pursuit of learning to play musical instruments, which has so far achieved dramatically different results!)

As the husband and I grow older and more importantly see parents ageing, we have had a natural curiosity insights around how to age “well” (specifically how to become a super-ager), and an interest in reading a lot of literature on the subject including how to remain healthy and mentally alert into old age. The research all says that in order to stay mentally healthy into old age, we need to rewire our brains and make it stronger and more agile through regular sessions of vigorous effort, whether physical or mental. Pleasantly puzzling activities like Sudoku or the crossword don’t help, nor does a leisurely daily amble through the park. The effort of the mental or physical activity must take one beyond the comfort zone and must be intense enough to be slightly, or more than slightly, unpleasant. In other words, “do it until it hurts”.

At the beginning of the year, I started going to a Zumba class in our community, for no reason other than the fact that I like my fitness routine to have a mix of many different things and Zumba seemed like an interesting addition to the walking/yoga/biking routine I already had. A year later, I have become stronger and fitter than I have ever been in my life. What really worked was being consistent (show up for the class every single day - no excuses other than early meetings or being sick) and being pushed out of my comfort zone (with weights, functional training, and far more cardio than I was used to). For example- my bugbear, the plank pose. We only do a plank for 30-60 seconds at a stretch, so nothing very extreme. Those are truly the longest 30 seconds of my life. I can hold poses that are harder than a plank, but for some reason the latter defeats me every single time. After 15 seconds, the mind takes over and says - You can't do this. Sink down! And I want to! But I have to keep going, because I know my body can. Every breath and sinew is focused on keeping the back straight, the arms steady, and the breathing even. Pushing past the discomfort of the moment is something I am still learning to do. There is also one functional training class in the week that causes simultaneous panic and exultation because it is so hard. 20 minutes in, I am looking at the clock, wondering when the class will end. But the high at the end of the every class is what keeps me coming back every week. This year of fitness has been an exercise (pun intended) in discipline, determination and mindfulness. 

I also started learning how to play the guitar during the school summer holidays. I can say with supreme confidence that it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn. One of the things that no one ever tells you about playing a musical instrument is how physically taxing it can be. For the first few months, my entire left arm would be on fire with the unaccustomed posture. My fingers would hurt as I twisted them into unnatural shapes. My guitar teacher unhelpfully suggested that I might have early arthritis! I realised I have very low agility in my fingers. I bemoaned the fact that I had not learnt an instrument when my extremities were supple and nimble like my daughter’s.

It takes me forever to learn to play a song. Scratch that, it takes me forever to string together a few chords so that they actually sound like a melody, or fairly close. My brain is slow and my fingers are slower. I do not remember the last time I broke down a task into so many sub-tasks. I literally speak to my brain silently telling my fingers what to do. Ok- when this finger goes to the third string, put that finger THERE….ok? More than three fingers, I am hopelessly confused. Playing a song properly in this lifetime seems unimaginable. At this point, I am gunning for recognisable melodies in the distant future. Competence and expertise is not even on the horizon.

The husband, on the other hand, has taken to his flute like a fish to water. And that’s a far more difficult instrument to play! Can I blamed for feeling resentful towards his superior abilities when he had started learning a couple of months after me? But I have made my peace with it. Like I said earlier, the process is really what keeps it interesting for me and in a strange way, I thrive on the difficulty of it all. Frustration aside, I know I improve with every class and practice session. I still find it miraculous that simply by doing something over and over you get better at it. Of course that’s obvious, but I’d forgotten. Most of the complicated physical tasks I perform—rolling out chapathi dough, writing, or folding a saree —I’ve performed for so many years I forgot what it’s like to acquire a motor skill. It’s frustrating, but it’s a joy when you finally get it. Is this how a toddler feels when, after months of trying, she finally starts to walk?!!

It is incredible when from one practice session to the next, the chords sound smoother and smoother and my finger movements become less and less conscious. Playing is also one of the few times in the day when I am at my most mindful. The beneficial effect of doing something hard is that I am unable to think of nothing else other than just getting the fingers in place and the sound right. Feeling incompetent for a chunk of time every day is also good - it builds patience in other areas and a new-found appreciation of what motor skills I already have :)

I also learnt something else. The more you do, the more you can do. Being more mindful has allowed me to focus on things I really care about, and drop things that are superfluous. House-proud me has started ignoring the untidy chaos that often prevails at home, although my family believes I could be far more relaxed about a lot of things! Even while it seemed like I didn’t have the time to add more activities to my schedule, counter -intuitively I was able to pack in more. Paradoxically this was also the first time in years I felt that I was doing a good job as a parent. By that, I don’t mean the “hygiene“ stuff that I always managed well. I meant the other important stuff - like discussing books and movies, having honest deep conversations, often just cuddling and talking about their day. Maybe they’ve just grown up, or all this mindfulness jazz is actually working!   

It’s been a good year.


  1. It is so good to hear from you after ling time Aparna, keep it coming!

    1. Thank you - its been a long time indeed!

  2. Appu..this is so you...felt like i was next to you and we were giggling and laughing when you were explaining your struggle with the have a way with words that makes situations come alive..


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