In the Yoga Tradition, the word nyaya refers to a teaching axiom, a teaching aphorism. There are many in the nondual Tantric tradition that I study and practice. And they inspired me to speak to the process of learning to crawl. Liam, who is now 7 months old, is in the process of figuring out how to maneuver himself around his playmat and the room. He started by learning to roll. It was thrilling for him, and also for all of us (particular his daddy and myself) who have been cheerleading his learning process on.
Recently, his movements started to get more particular in their focus. We could tell he was acting on a primal urge to crawl. At first, his time on the belly became more frequent than time on his back. This was new. On his back, he was more of a passive receiver to whatever face, toy, or other object was placed in front of his vision. On his belly, he was learning that he could participate in what he wanted to interact with. He could roll, scootch, and reach toward and for things around him. His chest lift became very strong. His arms straightened all the way, like an upward-facing dog pose. Then he started to add some actions in his legs and feet. It took a while for him to figure out how to lift his bum off the floor, but now he's a pro at hands and knees pose. He seemed to understand that the legs were somehow key to moving, but it hasn't been clear how that is supposed to help him. He has been rocking back and forth to get some momentum, only to giggle from the activity or collapse onto his belly after the effort. At one point, he started to push off with his feet and was doing some mean plank poses on the tips of his feet and his hands. So much learning, but there was a lot of struggle as well.
Because he was trying these new movements out, he was using a lot more energy than he did before, so he got tired more easily. He seemed to know what he wanted to do, but couldn't quite figure out how to make it happen. In the beginning of this learning curve, he would regularly cry with frustration after just a few minutes of effort. If he could talk, I had a sense he would be saying, "Why, why, why? I'll never get this!" He would just put his head down on his hands and cry angry tears that his body wasn't cooperating with his desire. It was clear to me observing him, that if he just rolled on his back and rested for a while, then perhaps the challenge would be less tiring. But when I "helped" him onto his back, he became even more frustrated and only rolled onto his belly to begin his Sisyphean-like effort all over again.
But he kept on. It was as if I were watching the deepest part of the human experience- the desire to act, to move. In Sanskrit, it's called iccha shakti. It feels awe-inspiring watching this primordial human desire play out in his need to move.
The next stage of his movement is the killer- instead of moving forward, he ends up moving backwards. It's been going on for a couple of weeks now. At first it looked like it was soul-achingly frustrating. Then it shifted to being a challenge that ended up with him figuring out how to get something in front of him with a combination of crawl and turn and roll. Then he used his reverse gear to move all over the room, exploring new places like under the table and under the chairs.
And yet with all these apparent blocks, I still have no doubt about his ability to crawl someday soon. I sense it as a deep inevitability. And then he will pull himself up on things and then figure out how to walk. But throughout this process, I am reminded of spiritual practice, even our regular life, and how the stages of development often seem like the exact opposite of what we're trying to cultivate.
How often have we had a sense of what we wanted, what we expected, what we desired, and it felt like no matter how dedicated our efforts, how committed to our practice, the end result seemed so illusory and unattainable that we wonder if we should continue? How many times have we started an endeavor and wanted to just quit, crying into our hands like little Liam when he was trying so hard to go and just couldn't quite figure it out. I have seen in class the frustration and self-doubt and the shame people feel when they can't do what they think they should be doing or what their neighbor on the mat next to them is doing. I have seen folks give up rather than work through the initial struggle. I have seen many blame it on the teacher, the class, the sequence, the pose, the pacing, the level of the class, their body, their injuries, and more. I, myself, have done the same. And yet, aren't we running right into the challenge of learning to crawl... and walk...and run... and dance.
And of course, we recognize with the infant that the first and the many following attempts are all strengthening his body to be strong enough to do the work of propelling himself forward. The effort itself is helping connect the iccha shakti to the brain's communication via the nervous system into the body. The continued repetitive act of attempting to crawl refines and strengthens the communication pathways, the body gets stronger, and the system figures it out.
And yet, as older beings, we often stop the process at the point of initial frustration. Or perhaps we persevere; we can see slow but steady progress. But when things start to look like we're going in reverse, then not only do we give up, but the rage or despair or self-criticism is so strong that we often are angry or disgusted that we put so much time/effort/emotion/energy into it. And yet, to crawl, one of the main steps is the reverse gear. I can see his arms are stronger and more awake now than his legs. But it's only a matter of time before it shifts. It's often the outside observer that can see the bigger progression. When we're in it, we can get despondent, frustrated, fearful. That's why I've valued my teachers along the path. My teachers, my peers, my friends and family. Particularly those who helped remind me of my indomitable iccha shakti and the path of my own heart's truth. Particularly those who encouraged me to discern whether I was way off track, or simply in reverse on my way to crawling forward.