I’m curious about the state of being driven, and how to do it in a healthy way. Is it possible to really want something, and – crucially – find the motivation to do what’s needed to achieve it, without risking total devastation if this fails? (Or a heart attack in the process?!)
Last summer, Venus Williams was defeated in the first round of Wimbledon. Due to Sjögren’s syndrome she hadn’t been performing anywhere near her top level. I watched her tell the interviewer (I’m paraphrasing what I can remember): “I don’t really get down on myself. I feel like I’m a really great tennis player who’s dealing with some very difficult circumstances right now.”
I was really impressed by her composure, her ability to accept a failure graciously and to discuss it in a calm, realistic way immediately afterwards. As a highly successful, accomplished person, she can hardly be said to lack motivation, either. I was left wondering: how does she do that?
I’ve just finished reading “The Mindful Way Through Depression“, which gave me a couple of ideas on how this might be possible. Firstly – and this is something I’ve thought of before (and probably written of before) – it helps to realise that there are many paths to the fulfillment of our dreams or desires; our specific goals may represent just one path. Focussing too narrowly on that one path will lead to a lot of stress and a feeling of helplessness, as if your life will be ruined in the event of failure to reach those goals. Broadening the perspective helps.
I strongly believe that dreams and wants are an important part of a healthy life. We seem to be happiest when we are working towards a goal in an engaged state. One of my main concerns about meditation or Buddhism has been that it may act to reduce such wanting. But if mindful awareness is really about clarity, about our innate wisdom naturally freeing us from unhelpful mindsets once these are seen clearly enough, then it should support a broadening of perspective around our goals, not the removal of core motivations (which are probably also innate). It might even enhance the feeling of fulfillment as we stop to notice our achievements and really experience the happy feelings.
The second idea is that when fear plays a big part in driving us at any moment, we are much more stressed. Our creativity is also hindered (the book describes an experiment where this was demonstrated) – which I guess only feeds into the stress. Being in a stressed state, unpleasant enough in itself, is likely to make dealing with any setbacks even harder.
It’s not just black-and-white thinking about goals that triggers a fear of things going wrong. When what you are trying to do is just plain challenging, then there is always an uncertainty about whether you’ll make it, and it can be very uncomfortable living with that.
Being proactive and engaged with difficult tasks is something I’ve worked on cultivating in myself – it’s positive, and necessary. But it can go too far. It’s possible to get caught in endless striving to feel comfortable by doing more and more, trying to get on top of it, which just has the opposite effect after a certain point. The uncertainty and discomfort can never be fully removed, unless the task reaches an end – yet the illusion is that a bit more work will always be helpful – so we risk burning ourselves out unless we find a way to stop or slow down.
Fear of failure used to render me disengaged, with my head in the sand… I did not see that this same fear would eventually bring a hazard of being “over-engaged”!
The book describes the more healthy state in terms of “being present” and “operating in ‘being’ mode rather than ‘doing’ mode”, but these descriptions don’t quite work for me. (Mindless striving is quite different from being in ‘flow’, although they are both types of ‘doing’. They also both seem to involve being engaged with something in the present.) For me, I think it’s mostly about being engaged with primary experiences, sensations, thoughts – the whole inner landscape. Being in ‘flow’, or other experiences where creativity seems to be at one’s fingertips, like a moment of joy in peeling back the curtain to find a snow-covered world… these are characterised by an openness towards what is here rather than aversion to it.
There seem to be many routes to this state of mind. Mindfulness is just one, but seems a pretty powerful one. It breaks the compulsion to strive away from discomfort when this is not working: it invites us instead to make room for those uncomfortable feelings; to hold them in full awareness for a change – then we may recognise, all on our own, that letting them tyrannise us into chasing our tail isn’t as helpful as it seems to promise. (The emphasis in mindfulness practice on not having goals, not judging anything, not having expectations, is just to support the breaking of this compulsion, as far as I can see – just to upset the pattern for a moment; not to erase the goals.)
I’m going to give it a proper try. Meanwhile, what other tricks/habits/attitudes make it possible to be committed to pursuing our dreams and ambitions without going crazy? Please share!