I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.
– – – John Irving
When I was writing my first book, “Awakening the Healer Within,” I faced some problematic issues like continuity, story arcs and creating an ebb and flow of tension. These things hadn’t come into play when I was writing a story or an article. They were like doing a sprint. Penning an entire book, however, with a theme, characters, and plot lines, one chapter flowing into the next and finally ending up somewhere, was brand new. That was like doing a marathon. I had no idea how to organize such a huge undertaking. Did I have the stamina to get through it?
If anyone did, I thought it should be me because I had a lot of practice. When I was a teenager, touring across the United States with my ballet company, we piled into a bus every morning, the principal dancers sitting at the front, the soloists were next and finally the corps de ballet, my place in the hierarchy, took up the rear, bumping along over the tires. During my first tour, about three weeks in, I remember thinking, I can’t do this for one more day. But I did.
Each day, when we reached our destination – Chicago, Los Angeles, or remote places like Hayes, Kansas, and Muskogee, Oklahoma – we checked into a crummy hotel and showed up at the designated performance venue. We warmed up for an hour and we rehearsed that night’s program for musical tempos and stage placement. Then we found a nearby greasy spoon restaurant and it was back to the theater for hair and makeup.
We conked out hard at night and when the alarm went off in the morning, we hauled our suitcases to the elevator, got back on the bus, and headed for the next city. If you slept past your alarm, someone went to your room, woke you up none too gently, you grabbed all your stuff and you did the walk of shame onto the bus where forty dancers were waiting impatiently and giving you the evil eye. It went on day after day, we were all sleep deprived and injured
but we didn’t stop.
Physical activities like ballet or gymnastics require stamina if you want to be any good at them, but so do mental and emotional ones. It takes stamina to meditate. To talk out a problem with a partner. To write with regularity. To endure loss. To make it through a three day power outage in the middle of winter. But whatever it is, you have to be present in the moment, move through the resistance, encourage yourself when nobody else will and take it slow and steady. And keep on going.
When I started to write consistently, sometimes I couldn’t wait to get to the computer. At other times, I dragged myself there, feeling like a victim, resenting my lot in life, forcing myself to do something I
didn’t want to do. As if someone else was making me do it. Sometimes I wrote one paragraph for hours, determined to keep doing until I was satisfied. One day, when I was completely overwhelmed, I called a published friend who gave me
some valuable guidance. “Don’t look at the book as a whole,” she said. “Think of each chapter as a separate story or you’ll end up in bed with the covers pulled up over your head.” That was not an unfamiliar posture.
Stamina is like a muscle, something you have to keep flexing to make it strong and dependable or it will atrophy. You can’t meditate for an hour when you start or you’ll get discouraged and stop. Try doing it for ten minutes and gradually you can increase your staying power. You can’t speak a foreign language when you first enroll in a class. You take it in, word by word, phrase by phrase, until you get the hang of it.
This morning, I spent hours trying to figure out why Zoom was acting up. Something had changed in their setup, they hadn’t informed their subscribers and there was no customer service available. I need Zoom for my classes and I panicked at first. I was put on hold for a half hour and eventually I hung up. It was on me. I tried a load of
different ways to get what I needed and I became more and more frustrated. But I kept on trying and after a few hours, I figured it out. With a few exceptions, I believe we can do anything if we stick with it, have a clear goal in mind and find the strength and determination to keep on going\ until we get there.
After so many years of writing daily, I see it as my holy calling, a tile in the mosaic of my spiritual path, a practice that gets stronger the more I do it. It feels like giving myself a gift. Pema Chodron, my go to spiritual teacher and prolific author, has written several dozen books, but when she started, she says it was difficult for her “to scare up enough stamina to write a book.” Or to be human. She writes, “The goal is to develop spiritual stamina so when a problem occurs, I don’t react our of emotion but out of wisdom.”