I bet you made resolutions for this year and I further bet that many of you have already seen some of these fall by the wayside! Let me share something with you that really works.
It is probably accurate to say that virtually everything you do is a part of your quest to be happy. You want work you enjoy and that pays you well. You want loving friends and family. You seek stimulation and diverse experiences because these are all things that make you happy. Or at least, you think they will do so.
We also believe that “more” will make us happier and we are on a relentless quest for this. More money, a bigger house, a larger or more luxurious car, more beautiful partner, more power, greater prominence, higher position and on and on and on. Some of us go beyond material stuff and venture into experience. We need to go to more exotic and far flung places on vacation, experience uncommon thrills from helicopter skiing in remote snowy wildernesses to rare liquors and liqueurs from esoteric fruits.
And we do get a rush of pleasure, but then we come back to where we were and begin the fruitless quest again.
We are goal-driven creatures, each of us, and the striving is with the notion that if we reach that goal, we will be happier.
This is the “if-then” trap of life and nobody warns us of its danger. In fact, many of those who wish us well and whom we hold dear are ignorant of the snare and actively egg us on. We are urged to “go for it” and that “we can do it” to not “stop till the goal is reached.”
The “if-then” trap gets us to lurch drunkenly from one activity to another to accomplish something or acquire something more so we can “be happy.”
This is a model of life, and it is a flawed model. It is just flat out not true. At some level we recognize this but it is an intellectual understanding and not very deep. So each time we acquire something or accomplish a cherished goal and the initial thrill wears away we set our sights on something else and begin the chase again. In other words we tinker with what we put on the “if” side of the “if-then” model but never realize that it is the model itself that is faulty and that changing what we put on one side makes no real difference.
As we go through life we quickly discover that actions are within our control but the outcome is not. Random events casually derail our carefully laid plans. We have an important meeting in a different city and go to the airport well in time to make our flight and find it canceled due to mechanical problems. We work diligently and are loyal to our boss but he is shunted aside by an ambitious rival and our career is in the doldrums.
Much of the time we do not get the outcome we want and some of the time we get an outcome diametrically opposed to our desire.
So, if we are fixated on the outcome we are setting ourselves up for angst and depression.
There is a way out and that is to invest in the process and not the outcome. John Wooden, the first person to reach the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, expressed it well.
“Many people are surprised to learn that in 27 years at UCLA, I never once talked about winning. Instead I would tell my players before the games, ‘When its over, I want your head up. And there’s only one way for your head to be up, and that’s for you to know, not me, that you gave the best effort of which you are capable. If you do that, then the score really doesn’t matter, although I have a feeling that if you do that, the score will be to your liking.’ I honestly, deeply believe that in not stressing winning as such, we won more than we would have if we had stressed outscoring opponents.”
– John Wooden
So we do exactly what we have always done and set goals. But once we have done so, we no longer obsess about it. We simply pour all our attention and energy into doing what we have determined we must to achieve that goal. We do not fret. We do not spend sleepless nights. We work diligently on doing what we must.
When we work in this manner we discover something strange and unexpected – we experience the work we do as a true blessing. Tarthang Tulku expressed this beautifully:
“Caring about our work, liking it, even loving it, seems strange when we see work only as a way to make a living. But when we see work as a way to deepen and enrich all of our experience, each one of us can find this caring within our hearts, and awaken it in those around us, using every aspect of our work to learn and grow…Every kind of work can be a pleasure. Even simple household tasks can be an opportunity to exercise and expand our caring, our effectiveness, our responsiveness. As we respond with caring and vision to all work, we develop our capacity to respond fully to all of life.
Every action generates positive energy which can be shared with others. These qualities of caring and responsiveness are the greatest gift we can offer.”– Tarthang Tulku
So when we approach what we do in this manner we find that our emotional well-being is not affected by whether or not we achieve our goal. Paradoxically, as Wooden points out, this enlightened detachment makes it far more likely that we will actually achieve the goal we are striving for.
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