“I’ll finally be happy when….” Feel free to fill in your next big goal.
Ever feel like no matter how much you achieve or how many items you check off your to-do list there’s always more? Perhaps you find that even as you solve a problem or complete a project, peace and happiness still seem to be distant. Maybe you’re constantly stretching yourself, hoping that the next goal will finally do it. Yet even when that moment comes, you still get a sense that no matter how much you do, it’s never enough.
Our culture glorifies going after the next “bigger and better thing” – the next promotion, the next accomplishment, the better house or car, the next big adventure. This is often at the expense of enjoying the full wonder of life as it is here and now. The pressure we put on ourselves to achieve the next goal may put us in a state of always striving. This takes a toll on our well-being as we experience increased stress and anxiety.
Yet there is a peace that is accessible to us even when we have big hopes and dreams for ourselves. We may feel as if taking time to just be in the moment is seen as laziness, weakness, or even a waste of time. But without noticing the fullness of life while we’re working towards the next thing, we often miss out on something much deeper.
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon
Think back to how excited you were when you finally completed your last big goal. Or perhaps when you experienced that wonderful adventure you only dreamed of before then. How long did it take before you set another new goal or added more items to your bucket list? It may have only been days...or even hours.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the drive to get things done. It’s how we grow. This drive is what creates cures for disease, new inventions, works of art, writes books, or grows businesses that provide life-changing services to the world. It’s what puts a roof over our heads and food on the table.
But what if there’s something else? Something we’re missing in this constant quest? Something that is right in front of us that holds a key piece of this puzzle of where we’re “going” and “why” we’re here? What is the destination that we are trying to reach at such a high speed that we burn out our joy for life?
We may not realize that as we’re constantly reaching for a better moment, we are only hurtling toward the end of this physical life experience. In the meantime, life is here. We have simply forgotten how to be content in the present moment.
You may have heard of lottery winners who spend all their winnings within a couple of years. Even when their outer circumstances improve, their feelings of happiness have been shown to fade. It doesn’t take long before they return to their baseline level of happiness. This is called hedonic adaptation – and it is something we are all subject to.
As any new environment becomes familiar, we start getting used to it. If we don’t pay attention to our mental chatter, our mind often takes us right back to the state of being we practice most. If we are always seeking for the next source of pleasure, our brains get used to this constant search for more. We train our minds to never be happy, regardless of how wonderful things may be.
When we strive for the present moment to be different, we give our brain the signal that something needs to be done. The fight-or-flight response is triggered. Our body prepares for action. When this response is activated on a consistent basis, we end up experiencing chronic stress and anxiety. In addition, we may feel overwhelm, despair, or depression.
There is a point where too much striving even leads to decreased performance. We sacrifice the quality of life for the quantity of things, experiences, or achievements that we believe we must complete. The good news is that we have the power to break free from this hedonic treadmill.
When we strive to change our outside circumstances, we forget about the person who will always be there regardless of what life presents – ourselves. Through practicing mindfulness, we can learn how to increase our inner sense of peace and calm. To retrain our minds to be at peace, we start by noticing the peace that is already present.
With mindfulness we bring more “being” to our “doing.” We open up to a fuller and richer experience of life even as we’re creating the next big thing. We can see the bigger picture of life and glimpse a greater understanding of reality.
When we learn to pay more attention to the present moment, we can reduce our stress levels and notice more new insights and opportunities. Science has shown that when we become present and experience the positive feelings that often come with this state, we experience improved well-being across all levels. Our emotional stability increases, cognitive performance rises, and the communication between our heart, brain, and nervous system is enhanced.
In meditation we have no goal other than to just be. This makes it the perfect tool to practice the art of being present without striving. Meditation gives you the opportunity to notice – without judgement or clinging - the mental chatter that arises as you go over your to-do list for the tenth time. Each time you notice that your mind wants to be elsewhere, you strengthen your mental muscle of present moment awareness.
If there is one element of striving that I do encourage my students to maintain, it is to strive to do your “practice” every day.
If you’re learning to meditate and/or practice mindful movement, that means devoting a set amount of time daily during which you ensure that you are genuinely alone, undisturbed, and wholeheartedly engaging in the practice. (10 minutes per day can change your life!) Yes that includes the days you don’t feel like it. Just remember that it will ultimately benefit you in the long-run. As one of my teachers says about regular mindfulness practice:
“You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
Even as you are reading these words, recognize that your body is keeping you alive without you having to do anything. You don’t have to strive to breathe or to circulate blood throughout your veins.
Your heart is beating. A new fresh breath is coming into your lungs while old air is naturally pushed out at the same time. Your brain is interpreting these words. Is the body striving to do any of this? No. And yet hereyou are.
See if you can bring that element of trusting your body’s intelligence into your daily life as you learn to trust yourself.
As you’re working to complete a task such as cleaning the bathroom, for example, notice the little steps that are involved in between. Be present with each step. Even as you’re filling up the bucket, notice the wetness and temperature of the water on your skin.
Recognize how every step is relatively simple. It is only your mind that often creates the narrative that makes any bigger task feel unpleasant. If you shift the narrative, you may even be able to see that you’re only doing the task because you want to. In this case, you clean the bathroom because you place a value on having a clean house.
“Don’t do any task in order to get it over with. Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention. Enjoy and be one with your work.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Children never try to grow and yet they can’t help but do so. Every single day they learn a little more than the day before. And so it is with us. Yet unlike children, we judge ourselves for not growing faster and thus forget the joy of getting all muddy while running through the puddle after a heavy rain.
Look at how children effortlessly embrace their own unfolding and see if you can compassionately see yourself in the same light.
Cultivating mindfulness can help you enjoy the process of growing and becoming even as you work on your next big goal. If you are ready to integrate a mindfulness practice into your life so you can feel more peace and less stress and overwhelm, you can learn more about my online mindfulness course “Mindfulness for Stress Relief” here.
Or if you would like a quick overview of what mindfulness is, along with three simple practices to help you reduce stress today, you can access my free webinar here.
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