I watched an episode of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo last night and it was… fine. I like these kinds of shows, and I get emotionally entwined with the people who are having themselves/their homes made over. I wept through both seasons of the new Queer Eye (which, by the way, really impacted my understanding of post-Industrial Revolution broken masculinity, and is a subject I’ve been taking notes on for the past year). I like watching all home makeover shows. I like the little dramas, and I like feeling inspired to take action in my own life.
But watching this show I suddenly realized something I had missed before, and it was the subtle way that shows like this reinforce really bad messaging about change, and how it works. It’s the exact kind of messaging that leads to people getting discouraged and dropping their New Year’s Resolutions, by the way.
At the end of the episode, after a few days of decluttering and tidying, this gay couple in WeHo sat down to discuss how this experience changed them. They both said they were dramatically altered, that their approach to life and emotions had been forever rejiggered, and that they cherished their now-tidy home. And I was suddenly struck with the thought “This is bullshit.”
Their feelings aren’t bullshit. They probably do feel changed (although they’re probably also just saying stuff for the cameras. Having been on camera I can tell you that there’s this pull towards just saying what you think the nebulous audience wants to hear, not what’s true). But they aren’t changed. The reality is that you don’t get changed after 8 days of tidying. Those 8 days of tidying are the beginning of the change.
Last year I did a silent meditation retreat, and when I left the retreat center I felt utterly and totally transformed. I had had breakthroughs and I had seen the world in new ways. My consciousness had been expanded. I hadn’t even driven ten miles towards home before all of that began blowing away, like a fart in a windstorm. I hit some major traffic and the next thing I knew I was irritated and living in the future (“When will I get home?!?”) and otherwise being a normal human being again, my sainthood having slipped away.
Over the time since I have continued my meditation and I work towards getting something approximating that initial ‘changed’ state in my daily life, but it’s slow going. It’s so slow that I don’t even see it happening; if we’re going to use Eastern style beautiful metaphors it’s like drops of water, slowly eroding a rock. You cannot see it, but every drop makes a difference.
But this isn’t a beautiful Eastern style blog, so let’s use this metaphor: it’s like getting fat. You know that feeling when you go to put on a pair of pants and they’re tight and you say, “Son of a bitch, these fit last week!”? That’s what real change is like.
It sneaks up on you. Real change impacts the way you see the world, and as a result you don’t even know you’re changing. It isn’t until you try to put on those old pants – or hang out with those old friends, or engage in that old activity, or remember your old thought processes* – that you see the change.
Sudden change, a lightning bolt from the sky, doesn’t really happen. What happens is that the lightning bolt changes your perspective and gives you new goals; when an alcoholic hits bottom he isn’t struck sober, he’s struck with the idea that he must get sober. He has to work at being sober every day, and then one day that sobriety kind of… clicks.
(And even then he must keep at it. I’ve heard many stories of people with decades of sobriety having relapses.)
I will bet that the WeHo couple had an untidy house in six weeks. And that’s okay. The real change comes when they look at the untidy situation and remember what they were taught and do the tidying. And eventually the time between ‘making a mess’ and ‘tidying the mess’ gets smaller and smaller, until finally they are just tidy. And then they are changed.
But when we think that change is sudden and complete and total, we get really discouraged when that doesn’t happen. In my case I spent a solid year yelling at myself for still having negative and unkind thoughts when all I wanted was to be positive and kind. But eventually I realized that I was having fewer and fewer of those thoughts, and that the negative thoughts I was having weren’t even that negative, AND that I was catching the negativity quicker and quicker. That was me changing.
I’m just glad that I didn’t give up, because that’s what happens too often. It happens to me a lot. I say “Well, I guess I can’t do this thing/can’t change this way” and then I just stop trying. But the trying is where the change happens. It’s the repetition of the effort.
When you meditate your mind wanders. It just does. The practice is returning your attention to the object of your meditation; in my case it’s the breath. The practice of meditation is the practice of failing, of not focusing and then catching yourself and refocusing. That’s the training. And over time you get better and better at it. That’s the change.
So it’s nice to watch these makeover shows and see people be ‘changed’ and be happy for them and even inspired, but know that they’re probably not ‘changed.’ They’re changing. They’ve made a great first step, and they have a path they can walk. I wish the shows would spend time with these people as they struggle to implement the things they’ve learned, since that’s where the change really occurs. Also, I think it would be very dramatically satisfying! It feels like good TV, but I understand that Queer Eye only has the budget to come in and do three days with any one makeover.
But look, here’s the thing – you’ll fail at whatever you’re trying to change. That’s okay. You take it one day at a time. Can you be tidy today? If not, can you be tidy tomorrow? Dan Harris of the Ten Percent Happier podcast talks about making meditation a ‘daily-ish’ habit. It’s okay to miss days. Don’t use this as an excuse, but also don’t quit meditating just because you didn’t become the fucking Dalai Lama on January 2.
We don’t change overnight. We have setbacks. The progress is slow… sometimes maddeningly so. But if you stick with it, even if you stumble and backtrack and fuck up and lose the way and take three steps back for every two forward, you’ll eventually see the results. Or rather, you won’t see them – one day you’ll just realize there are results. Just like when you put on those pants and struggle to button them.
*I was looking at old texts last night and I was stunned at what a different dude the guy who sent these 2016 texts were from the dude I am today. I didn’t see the change as it happened, but when I looked at my old statements I saw the distance traveled.