I’ve started to think that perhaps the most important measure of a life well lived is the amount of time spent in wholehearted living. I don’t mean time spent feeling happy, since life will always entail ups and downs, but a genuine sense of connection to ourselves, what we care about and the whole ecology of which we are a part. A feeling of being in fully in the world, not lost in our thoughts, plans or ego-driven ambitions. This feels radical in our era of overwhelm and in a world in which an infinite amount of stimuli competes for our finite time and attention. As a reformed (OK, reforming!) multi-tasker addicted to being busy, here is what I am learning so far:
There is no race to the finish line
Life really is all just moments. Each one is complete in and of itself. But so often I have behaved as if the “now” is just a means towards a greater end. We act as if there will be some huge pay off for all our striving but this reward is always on the horizon. In doing so, we overlook the inherent wholeness of what is unfolding right now. But as Jeff Foster writes, “you’ll never reach a point in your life where everything is solved, all neatly tied up in a bow….there’s no final scene, only the ongoing adventure”. Instead, he invites us to be “gloriously unresolved”. Learning to embrace this feeling has been a radical wake up for me.
It’s the subtle energy drains that get you in the end
Achieving goals is great, don’t get me wrong. Especially if they are goals that have come from our heart and are aligned to what we deeply care about; An expression of who we are and what we have to express rather than a vanity project. But, even if those goals are authentic, if the path towards achieving them leaves us drained, burned out and exhausted, is it worth it? I have been paying close attention to what drains my energy and have noticed that it isn’t so much the more obvious peaks of exertion but the more subtle, chronic stressors that deplete my inner-battery. Often these are ever-present mindsets — like a constant fight between ‘what is’ and what I think ‘should be’. Another one is being stuck in a problem solving, fix-it mode and telling myself that I can enjoy the moment only when I am finally on top of the domestic chaos that having a new-born baby brings (of course, that moment never comes!). I then try and speed up and multi-task but the faster I go, the less energy I have to enjoy anything anyway and the day has slipped by in a frantic haze. I have accepted I will never reach the bottom of my to-do-list and therefore loving my journey can’t depend on an empty inbox or laundry basket.
Accepting our humanity
Another huge energy-drain that diminishes our capacity to enjoy the journey is self-criticism and shame. Given our hard-wired negativity bias, it would be easy to turn not being able to switch off and slow down as some sort of personal moral failing. Or beat ourselves up because we have got stuck in a cycle of being busy instead of enjoying a great book or the company of loved ones. Or reacted badly and impulsively because we are running on empty. But these are shared, human challenges. Traps we all fall into. A missing ingredient for me so far in my life has been self-compassion. Its one thing to notice the unhelpful tendencies that stop us from enjoying our journey (tricky in itself) but another to embrace them with loving acceptance. As Carl Rogers said, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”.
Cultivating playful curiosity
As part of integral coaching I am having from a wise and dear friend, I have been taking daily mindful walks outdoors. I noticed I was approaching the task as a good little student — ensuring that I didn’t fail on my “homework” and that I had useful insights to report back. Insights like how I needed to walk really slowly to benefit from the exercise — otherwise my mind would still race ahead and use the time to plan or fixate. Useful though insights like these were, the real wake-up came when I noticed the constant subtle pressure I was giving myself to get mindful walking “right”. And of course, this applies more generally to getting life “right”. In doing so, the joy is lost. It felt a huge relief to lighten up and realise life needn’t be so serious. It isn’t a test to pass or fail. Instead, I am now approaching my walks with a sense of “playful curiosity” and rather than looking for insights, I am just enjoying the feeling of the fresh air and whatever I encounter. Or just relishing in the fact of being alive right here, right now. A miracle we often neglect to appreciate.
Building new “inner muscles” takes practice
I love theories, concepts and words. A great quote can excite me as much as a new pair of shoes might excite someone else. Sad I know! The irony is, that in reading a lot about inner work and personal growth, I can treat the actual practice aspect as less important. But of course, if I wanted to develop a body-builder’s physique, I wouldn’t expect reading about weight training or making only sporadic, half-hearted attempts at the gym to lead to results. So, I am learning to stick with a consistent practice so that I can get out of my busy, problem-solving, future-focused mind and live more wholeheartedly on my journey. I personally think it probably doesn’t matter too much what your personal practice is as long as you devote yourself sincerely to it and practice regularly. For myself, I am using HeartMath self-regulation techniques as they can be used in the moment to rebalance, recharge and shift emotional states. More on this in a future article. But for now, I hope anyone reading this will give themselves a bit of a break today, dare to leave the to-do-list undone, remain gloriously unresolved, go outside and see what the moment has in store.