John Dewey, an education reformer and philosopher, is well-known for his understanding that learning doesn’t come from experience. It comes from reflecting on experience. Being December as I write this, there is a certain nostalgia in the air as the year comes to a close. My mind seems designed to turn inward as the mercury drops. I’ve gone along with this inclination to turn inward, thinking and wondering about the year gone by over the past few days.
I didn’t have any big goals going into 2022. I didn’t have little ones either. No vision boards. No accountability partners. No boasting about my goals before the fact (or accomplishments after the fact) on social media. I had a few loosely-held ambitions: to be healthy, be even more impactful as a coach, earn enough income to pay the bills, spend meaningful time with my family, etc. However, I’d be lying if I said I remained fixated on these desires during the year. Instead, I responded to my life as it arrived, and oh did it arrive!
So what happened?
A lot. My health improved. My coaching practice continued to evolve. My income was sufficient. Lifestyle changes (some major!) happened to support better living and working. Tough decisions were made. Unfortunate circumstances were dealt with. A few glorious moments were savored. Instead of sharing the ticker tape of what happened in the year, I prefer to share what I’ve learned and realized through the year that might serve me (and perhaps you as the reader) in the long run.
What I learned:
Responsibility creates freedom.
Mystics have taught for ages that we are already and always “free” at the core of our being but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it! At the start of the year, if someone had told me that being responsible for raising a tiny human (my son is now 3.75 years old!), keeping a house in working order, running a client-service business and caring for a too-often sick family (as well as dealing with my fair share of illness) would impinge of my freedom, I would have wholeheartedly agreed.
I also would have been dead wrong.
My mind is terrible at knowing what will make me happy. After coaching hundreds of motivated professionals in their pursuit of even higher levels of success and performance, I’m convinced that I am not alone. This is why I’ve come to understand that most goals – the way people set them in our goal-oriented culture – are actually traps, rooted in insecure thinking that has no bearing in reality or grounding in what is really desired. I can get exactly what I want and be miserable. Conversely, I can get nothing I hope for and be joyful. What gives?
Over the past year, despite life circumstances, I felt a sense of freedom that (at times) eluded me even on a lengthy work sabbatical many years ago. The entire year didn’t feel like a cakewalk, as there were times when I genuinely wondered how I would get through the next few hours, let alone the next few days and weeks. Honestly, there were plenty of situations where I imagine 99 out of 100 people around me would say – “THAT REALLY SUCKS!”.
However, my life experience was different, and I’m grateful for that. I also saw that in some of the most trying circumstances of the year, including some big decisions that were made and health challenges that were faced, I felt at peace and free most of the time. It has occurred to me that liberating oneself from responsibility – by quitting a big project, leaving a home, changing careers, ignoring someone in need, etc…does not create freedom. Feeling more connected and interconnected with life does.
So how does one get more connected with life? I’ve discovered that one really effective way to get deeply connected is to take responsibility – completely and totally – for my entire experience of life and all that occurs within it: the good, bad and ugly. There is nobody to blame for my experience. There is nothing to complain about either! Whatever my experience is, be it pleasant or miserable, comes from within me. Even an illusory experience created in the mind is coming from within me!
Instead of feeling crushed by the pressure of such “responsibility” the effect is a feeling of lightness and freedom. It’s a sense of being at home and at peace even if the world appears to be swirling around like a hurricane.
The power of effortless effort.
I managed to lose over 30 pounds since the summer of 2021. It was shocking and something I didn’t really expect. That’s the equivalent of a massive bag of rice, the kind you find at Costco! Lots of people lose weight (then gain it back quickly). My experience was unique: the weight came off in <9 months with very little willpower and no exercise. I was purposeful in not exercising much while the weight was coming off. Walking a bunch and being outdoors for fun, but that’s it. I’ve kept it off without trying in the meantime, which is a good sign.
The detailed tactics I applied are not salient for this blog post; perhaps I’ll share them later. I primarily made a few minor lifestyle changes that worked for me, and the brunt of my effort, if you could call it that, was placed on making the process feel as effortless as possible.
I love the quote from Aristotle: “give me a lever and a place to stand, and I shall move the world.” Wise words. However, beyond knowing where to “stand and lever things” it’s also essential to understand how much effort is worth applying when one does press on a metaphysical crowbar to change some aspect of life. Pushing too much can break things. More effort isn’t better. I was conscious of this and kept the process as light and easy as possible.
Strangely, the method I used to lose weight will seem draconian to some, but for me it was enthralling and motivation was never an issue. I followed some basic science and used simple, low-cost tools to support progress. I mucked about experimenting for the first 4-6 weeks and then settled into a routine that worked. I was not in a rush, ready for progress to take years if need be. It didn’t take that long.
By paying close attention to what was happening in my body and mind, and backing off and relaxing whenever I felt I was efforting too much, I stayed on a positive path to weight loss, with an inner knowing of when to stop and move into a maintenance phase of normal eating. Eventually, I also knew that it was time to reintroduce exercise.
No pain, only gain.
I started endurance training again this year after losing a bunch of weight. Unfortunately, my body has been wrecked by injuries keeping me on the sidelines for a long time, mainly (I think) due to bad training habits and misunderstandings about how my body can sustainably gain fitness. In years past, my ambition would get the best of me, and I’d go from couch to Ironman Triathlon or Ultramarathon (literally!) in a matter of months and accomplish a lot on the surface, while destroying an otherwise healthy body in the process!
This year I started running (and cycling) again, focusing on moving slowly and staying in tune with physiological signals. Instead of “no pain, no gain” my mantra has been “no pain, only gain!” Keeping training joyful and relaxed has been key. While training I breathe almost exclusively in a calm manner through my nose, even while running, knowing that the breath has a powerful effect on the body. A forced and rushed breath can pressure the body. A relaxed and fluid breath does the opposite.
After a few months of very slow jogging and cycling interspersed by breaks, I’ve built up stamina and strength with no recurrence of injuries that plagued me in years past. While my training load and speed are far less than in the past, joy and health are on the upswing.
Greatness can’t be planned.
When I look at the greatest moments of my life in 2022, they could not have been predicted with any degree of accuracy. While it’s true that some things occurred that I had hoped for and a few I did indeed plan for, the truly outstanding experiences that occurred were not on my radar. They only make sense in hindsight (and some not even in hindsight!).
A great life cannot be planned, though society – and driven professionals – ignore this fact to their peril. What’s even weirder is that some of the more unfortunate events of my year ended up creating very nice (and spectacular!) outcomes later on. It reminds me of the old parable of the Chinese Farmer, cautioning us never to label situations as “good or bad” as we never really know how things will net out in the end.
As I’ve said before, most goals are traps so long as they occur at the level of a limited and process-oriented intellect. This doesn’t mean that all planning and goals are bogus; it just means that there is a more significant source of power driving life forward than the part of the human mind that “does planning and goal setting.” Plans made with an understanding of this fact tend to work out better, even if the results are totally different from what was originally intended. The implication is that planning just gets in the way for most things we do in life.
Quick tangent, there is actually an excellent way to “do planning” that doesn’t interrupt the flow of life…but I’ll get into the details of that in a different blog post.
Boredom leads to creativity.
One of the problems with a social media-obsessed and interrupt-driven culture (including hyper-active communications-based working styles) is that it makes it that much harder to tune into wisdom and insight. In my coaching practice, a foundational element of progress and change is explored as being born from a deeper source of intelligence, sometimes referred to by mystics as “the still, small voice within.”
Social media in its current form – designed to provoke fear and outrage – is like a megaphone blasting at the mind. How will you notice and respond to a quiet inner voice if a megaphone is blasting at you? When the megaphone of the social media machine turns off, you can be left feeling bored – at least initially. This is why people have hard time even going to the bathroom without their phone in hand (you know who you are!).
I have struggled with boredom for a long time, as long as I can remember. As a chronic “thinker,” when my mind slows, some part of me wants to accelerate life as if the feeling of slowness is a bad thing. If left to its own devices, my mind will spend more time thinking instead of being present to avoid boredom.
I have realized that boredom is just an emergent feeling of calm within the mind. It is a feeling of contrast that arises from a busy mind in the process of becoming present. It’s also a precursor to creativity and insight. It’s gotten to the point that when I feel like reaching for something to distract my mind and let go of the impulse, what follows is often better than I could have hoped for. Inevitably, boredom leads to helpful thought and clarity on whatever needs to be addressed in my life. I’m getting better at trusting that process and becoming more masterful and accepting of boredom as a gateway to insight and helpful creative thought.
I will not hammer and chisel a set of rank-ordered S.M.A.R.T. goals into my sidewalk as guidance for the year ahead! Instead, I will continue to pay attention to the peace of mind and presence of mind that enables better engagement with whatever is happening at the moment. Then, as insights occur I’ll follow the small voice within (that sometimes is actually quite loud!) and see where it leads. It worked for 2022. I don’t know why it won’t continue to work in the future.
If it makes sense to set a goal for the sake of helping to organize my work or lifestyle, I have no problem with that. Until those needs arise, I’ll just keep paddling away – and drifting along – on this river I call my life.