Thursday, December 29, 2022

Making Peace with Goals

*Listen to the article here.

I have been in a multi-year long process of trying to figure out how to have a meaningful relationship to goals. I've changed the way I ask my athletes to fill out their yearly goal sheets every year and still, I'm not satisfied with the structures I've prescribed. I've been trying to get underneath 2 primary problems that I find with traditional goal setting methods:

1. That when your goals aren't aligned with who you are, what you actually want (not just what you said you want) and the realities of your life, they inevitably become unmotivating and futile. 

2. That even if we can identify a meaningful goal, the path towards attainment is not a fixed trajectory. The path has to develop through time and space, and in relationship to other people with their own goals and desires, and to unplanned events, which we have very little control over.

At the beginning of 2022, I wrote a blog post proudly declaring my goallessness for the year, but it didn't feel like pride. It felt like being lost, which I'll admit is a feeling I have a lot of familiarity with but not a lot of acceptance of. Rather than cultivating skills for following directions, reading maps, or attending to street names or landmarks that may indicate which way to go, I have relied on a skill that comes much more naturally to me: endurance. Basically how this works is I just keep running or biking for as long as I need to until I find something that looks familiar and eventually leads me back to my car.  

But if I'm trying to get somewhere I haven't been before, like a destination or a goal, I've realized I might need a new set of skills. Endurance has been a useful adaptation, but it's also a coping mechanism. It's a way of avoiding rather than looking directly at reality, which I don't fault myself for because frankly, reality is terrifying. This is why a lot of us avoid meditating for so long. We say things like "I'm just not good at it," so we can continue moving along in our safely disassociated fantasy worlds and avoid being present where everything is uncertain, constantly changing, and constantly ending. So let's at least start by acknowledging that the present moment isn't some dreamlike utopia and that we all have very understandable reasons for avoiding it.

However, the characteristic trait of living in the future is commonly known as anxiety, and depression is often the experience associated with living in the past. Even if we don't meet the DSM qualifications for depression or anxiety, we are all experiencing a wide variety and varying degrees of mental health concerns, reflective of the absence of connection we have with a sense of purpose, with each other, and with our environment. The ability to consciously navigate through these challenging times is crucial for our ability to feel fulfilled, whether we achieve the goals we set out for or not. I know that if you're still reading, you too have a feeling that there must be more than the narrow band of socially approved goals and desires we've been given to choose from. 

In order to find these buried treasures, we need tools for both acceptance and wayfinding. And because wayfinding is inherently inconsistent with fixed goals or outcomes, I have unfortunately not found a neatly structured method for goal setting in 2023. I've considered just reusing the value-based goal setting prompt I used last year, which was at least on the right track. I've considered throwing it all out completely. I've considered moving to the woods and becoming a hermit, which admittedly is more of a bi-weekly consideration than a result of this particular dilemma. I've considered requiring my athletes to present intention-based dioramas. 

While that last option is still on the table, what I've settled on for now are topics and themes for contemplation - a word that I intend in its etymological form, combining the latin templum: a space for observation, and con, meaning with. You may be wondering, "with whom or with what should we carve out space for observation?" I'm glad you asked. 

Start with this advice from Adrienne Maree Brown, "Listen to strangers, listen to random invitations, listen to criticisms, listen to your body, to elders, to dreams, to creativity, to artists who inspire you, to books you're reading. The more you pay attention, the more you can see patterns, order, clear messages, and invitations in the small or seemingly random things that happen in your life." 

This way of paying attention in the present to the world around us allows us to know things about the future. We begin to recognize the patterns and follow the clues from our outer environment that correspond to experiences in our inner environment. We begin to cultivate a way of being that is both intentional and receptive to the intentions of the more-than-human world around us. And this leads us to a rhythm more than a fixed state - a way of being in time

Perhaps some of my athletes reading this are starting to think, "Is this just another elaborate ploy to trick us into meditating more?" To which I would say no. And also, now that you mention it, yes. For anyone still convinced that they're just not good at meditating, one thing that might be helpful to know is that successfully fixing your attention on an intended target or emptying your mind isn't actually the goal of meditation. It's about recognizing that there are numerous traps and distractions that will continue to divert your attention and your job, is to cultivate the muscle to bring it back. Again and again and again. And you don't beat yourself up when you get distracted. That's a distraction too. You just come back.

I don't think this is separate from the goals we have about wanting to just run a little faster. I do think that cultivating a new way of being that is in rhythm with our lives as they are unfolding and in collaboration with our environment is crucial if we are ever going to have sustained experiences of fulfillment, purpose, and connection. 

Here are some of those topics and themes for contemplation: 

1. The psychologists and founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), define acceptance as "not passive tolerance or resignation but an intentional behavior that alters the function of inner experiences from events to be avoided to a focus of interest, curiosity, and observation." What are you curious about?  

2. We have become conditioned to create technology and systems that optimize and strive towards efficiency but at some point, we may want to ask, optimize for what? Do we have more time back in our days due to all of this efficiency? What are we doing with it? Is it fulfilling?

3. Over the course of several years, Charles Darwin performed a series of experiments where he tracked the movement of various plants for days and weeks at a time. He found a central pattern of movement that he believed is the reason that plants have evolved and adapted to almost every environment on the planet. This motion is known as circumnutation and is characterized by a gentle upward and outward spiraling, resulting from variations in the speed of growth in different parts of the plant. Apprentice yourself to nonhuman rhythms and ways of being in time.

4. If you want to know the future, tune into as many intricacies of the present moment as possible. Challenge the assumption that goals should be big and lofty. Consider how the smallest goals can be the most revolutionary goals. Take nothing for granted.

5. The other day I was running and contemplating rhythm when I came upon a creek crossing. The crossing was about 15 feet wide and there were a number of inconsistently spaced rocks that formed a crooked trajectory to the other side. There were enough rocks that if I held my focus only on the other side and not to where I was placing my feet, I would surely fall in. But if I only placed my attention on one rock at a time, I would still have a high likelihood of falling because I would be disregarding the rhythm that is often required for balance. How does the world speak to you? How can you cultivate other ways of listening than the ones you are accustomed to?

6. Toni Morrison's definition of freedom is the ability to choose one's responsibilities. It's not the absence of responsibilities, it's choosing the ones you want. Instead of starting with goals as a list of things you'd like to have, begin instead with asking yourself, "What do I want to be responsible for?" 

7. One of my favorite things about living near the ocean is the number of people that you can find, at any given time of day, stopped and staring motionless at the ocean. How do you feel when you gaze at the ocean? How do you feel near mountains, in the desert, in the woods? Be careful not to fall into the trap of needing to understand or to explain. Making sense of a feeling acts as a barrier between you and the aesthetic moment. Contemplate with your sensory organs rather than your intellect. 

8. Consider Eco-Psychologist Bill Plotkin's idea that, "We embrace deep and real change by falling in love with things - with an idea, a meadow, a melody, a person, an endangered plant - and striving to understand what each beloved thing is at its core." What do you love that is ordinary? 

9. Acknowledging limits and boundaries may seem like a step in the wrong direction towards goals, or at least not a fun one. Perhaps this brushes up against prickly beliefs that designate working hard and pushing through obstacles as always superior to resting or playing. Take 3 deep breaths and ask, "What in me is worth protecting?" 

10. Meditate on Ursula Le Guin's thoughts on meditation. She says, "To sit and be fully aware of the air going in and out of your nose... this sounds really stupid. If you haven't tried it yet, try it. It is really stupid. There's nothing your intellect can do to help you do it. This must be why so many people for so long have used it as a way towards wisdom."  

No comments:

Post a Comment

New Bio, who dis?

As I've witnessed myself shift and change, I've been experimenting with some new coaching strategies. Most of my athletes know that ...