Freeing Ourselves from “I Can’t…”

Recently a teacher wrote a frustrated blog post about their students not training enough to really improve, not participating in seminars with visiting instructors, and not supporting the dojo community.

The context was Aikido, but it could have been music, horsemanship, or anything else. I see the same thing happen all over. 

We mostly live in the same world. We have jobs, families, and other things going on in our lives. But if we want to get good at something, anything, we have to put in the hours. And if we want our teachers, schools, and arts to be around for us, and for others, they need our active participation and support. 

What does that look like to me? Join, and pay your dues, even during times you can’t train for a while. Pitch in and help with projects and events. Invite your friends. Promote your art publicly. When teachers are generous enough with their time to write books or produce videos, buy them. Show up and train, and support each other.

Something I’ve noticed about people’s participation (or the relative lack thereof), is a common way of thinking and speaking about priorities. “I can’t…” “I would, but…” “I have to…” It’s disempowering. It robs us of the opportunity to engage fully (at whatever level is appropriate). When we’re honest with ourselves about where we are, and what’s true for us, we have some power in the situation. When we whine about our circumstances we become victims to the choices we’ve made, and powerless to change.

One response to the above teacher’s post struck me as a perfect example of this kind of speaking. I don’t know their actual situation, and don’t mean to pick on them, it’s just that they provided a perfect example to discuss. The commentor said something to the effect of “I wish I could train more, but I just can’t. I have to be home to have dinner on the table every night.” Really? You have to? Either this person is enslaved or imprisoned (unlikely), or is making the choice to be home with their family rather than head to the dojo after work. That’s a perfectly fine choice, but don’t whine about it.

When we speak the truth, which is likely something closer to “I love the idea of training daily, but it’s more important to me to provide a good dinner for my family every night” then we not only honor our real priorities, but we can actually see them clearly. When we see them clearly, we can choose freely whether to change them or not. When we speak as though we have no choice, we actually cannot see that we do have a choice. Our unspoken (and often unexamined) real priorities control us, instead of the other way ‘round.

So as an exercise, I invite you to look for these things in your own speaking (even/especially if it’s only in your own head):

  • “I cant, because…”
  • “I wish I could / I would / I’d love too, but…”
  • “I’m too busy / broke / etc…”

Carefully examine the real situation, and reword them. Notice if you feel either happier with your current situation, or if you feel more able to change it. 

Some examples:

  • “I can’t. I don’t have time.” vs. “It’s more important to me to relax, away from people, in the evenings.”
  • “I wish I could, but I have to work.” vs. “I would rather save my vacation time for something else,” or “I chose to work in a field/job without any flexibility in the schedule,” or “I’m afraid to ask my boss for time off.”
  • “I’m too old.” vs. “I’m afraid it will be too physically challenging,” or “I’d be self-conscious being the only one there over 20.”

There are cases where you really, truly, factually can’t. I can’t join the Navy. I’m too old. Fine. But mostly our limitations are lies we tell ourselves, to give ourselves a comfortable way out. Once we realize the truth is “I’d be self conscious…”, and not really “I can’t…” we can chose either to let being self-conscious stop us, or to give it a go anyway. “I’m too busy” keeps us from seeing how we really choose to spend our time. Even if the reality is “I don’t know how to,” then at least we can explore how to, and not be stuck up against “it’s not possible.”

When we shift from "I can’t. I have to be home to have dinner on the table every night,“ to "I don’t train every night because it’s important to me to provide a good dinner for my family,” we open up some freedom to explore options. Maybe making big dinners on Mondays and Wednesdays could mean great meals from leftovers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe, if the real issue is spending time with family members, breakfast together could be the solution. Maybe finding a dojo with morning classes is the answer. Or maybe the truth is “Training at that level really isn’t important to me.” That’s fine. But we can’t explore these things as long as we’re stuck in “I can’t… I have to…”

Some issues I’ve dealt with, or am working on:

  • “I can only train one night a week, because I’m busy every other night.” I gave up other commitments, changed my work hours, and now I train 4 nights a week.
  • “I wish I could ride my horse more.” I realized that was a familiar story I was telling myself, but wasn’t true for me anymore. Now my horse is off with a potential new person, and I can stop feeling bad about not getting around to riding.
  • “I can’t ever be an uchi-deshi because I don’t have that kind of freedom, and besides, I’m too old.” I’ve changed my speaking on that to “I’d love to train at the level of focus and intensity one would find as an uchi-deshi. I don’t how see to do that right now, because I have a job, a home, and a husband, and I don’t know if I’d be physically up to it, but it’s a possibility I’m open to exploring.”

I love to hear about places where you’ve shifted from “I can’t…” to something more powerful. Even if it’s only “I want to, but I don’t see how yet.”

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