My Word of the Year (Again)

I’m thinking a lot about how to make things happen.  I’m reading The Happiness Paradigm by Richard Eyre.  He contrasts the Western way of pursuing focused goals with the Easter philosophies of being present and aware in the now.  I’m very Western, but I’m drifting East.

Richard talks a lot about Serendipity:  “that quality of mind which, through sagacity and good fortune, allows one to frequently discover something good while seeking something else.”  It’s this last part that really gets me:  “discover something good while seeking something else.”

I’ve always thought it’s important to visualize a goal and get increasingly clear so I can achieve it.  But what if my focus blinds me to something even better?  The trick is to discern between something truly better and a mere distraction.  Richard spends a good bit of time exploring these nuances.  But for the sake of this post, let me keep it simple:  what if, in pursuit of something good, I come across something better?  I often try to force things to happen.  I double down.  I keep my nose to the grind stone.  I stay disciplined.  I think these are all virtues and have their place, until they’re not.

Light in the Wilderness by M. Catherine Thomas beautifully explores this topic. I don’t have the book with me here, so I’ll paraphrase.  ‘What if the best way to improve ourselves is to relax into an awareness of things as they are, rather than trying to force things into what we wish they would be?’ The idea is replacing pushing with peace; release rather than force.  We can still move toward progress and change, but in a way that is serene rather than stressful.

This stump was cluttering our campsite, until it became Lily’s coloring table.

This stump was cluttering our campsite, until it became Lily’s coloring table.

When I rock climb, if I am tight, worried, fretful and tense, I climb terribly.  I may get up the route, but when I do I am exhausted, spent and usually mentally agitated.  This is the inevitable beginner state.  I don’t trust the rope, I don’t trust the holds, maybe I don’t trust my belayer and I certainly don’t trust myself.  I live in a state of worry and anxiety and therefore everything around me is a threat and an obstacle.  But when I am calm, relaxed, trusting and limber, I move more freely. The same tasks and problems present their solutions naturally. I simply observe them and move through and up. When I am tense and rigid, I feel stuck, blockaded and frustrated.  Answers do not present themselves and I end up overlooking the elegant solution and pave over it with something clunky and ugly.  When I start from a place of peace, the same problems are solved—still requiring energy and awareness—but they are solved smoothly and calmly.

Perhaps that example is murky.  Most people don’t rock climb.  Maybe we should talk about money.  Everyone deals with money.  Recently Emily and I tested out the idea of offering a financial class; sharing how we manage our money.  In a preliminary questionnaire, we asked people how much money they wanted.  They all wanted the same amount.  Each person wanted enough so that they didn’t have to worry.  Everyone wants to not worry.  

I’ve worried about money plenty.  I’ve lost lots of sleep and, if I was lucky enough to sleep, I ground my teeth in my sleep (just ask Emily) and I’ve worn new creases between my eyebrows.  What I know for a fact is that I did this all with varying amounts of money in the bank.  Each bank balance brought with it a different kind of worry.  What I’ve come to realize is that we’re not after a dollar amount.  We’re after what we think that dollar amount will buy.  We think it will buy an emotional state.  We think a certain amount of money will buy us peace of mind. The bad news is that will never happen. The good news is what we all really want costs literally nothing.  We can choose to worry or not.

Please don’t confuse eliminating worry with solving a problem.  The problem may not go away, but how we approach it can change everything.  

If I approach a financial problem and I’m tense, rigid, fretful and worried—which I do often, my thoughts will be stilted.  I will be distracted and jumpy.  My movements will be jerky, exhausting and—in this case—probably expensive. However, if I can gain the presence of mind to accept the situation as it stands, gather facts, face them directly, detach from all the catastrophe my mind is trying to forecast, my movements will become smooth.  My efforts will become efficient.  Solutions will present themselves, and they will usually be better than my own initial thoughts and ideas.  Which brings me back to serendipity.  In the pursuit of something good, we may discover something better.

I won’t recap it here, but the time I forgot the van keys and missed my flight was one of the prime experiences that taught me the power of serendipity.

Again, there’s a lot to say on this topic and how to open oneself up to it, but let me say this for now:  I believe serendipity is a reality and I believe it is an experience that can be cultivated.  And here’s why: because it has nothing to do with forcing or changing external circumstances.  It has entirely to do with altering my inner state, by humbly adjusting how I perceive the world around me, and allowing myself to open up to the full spectrum of truth and possibilities.  Easier said than done.  

I still struggle with worry, frustration, and anxiety.  In fact I didn’t sleep well last night because I had a dream some border guard was wrongfully trying to steal my ID, which would mean I could no longer fly.  I’m sure there’s some kind of subconscious message in there, but I’ll save that for another therapy session.  The point being, I often look outside myself to solve my problems.  If only I had __________ dollars in the bank.  If only so-and-so treated me differently.  If only my neighbor, the government or the weather behaved differently.  In the words of the band OKGO, “There’s nothing that’s dumber than pinning your hopes on changing another.”

I’ve picked a new word for 2019 (and it’s not serendipity).  I’ll keep that word to myself for now.  But for 2018 my word was: “Limber” and I rather liked how my year turned out.  I’m grateful to Richard Eyre for articulating this concept of serendipity.  I still have a lot to learn.  I believe it’s important to pursue our goals (as we Westerners love to do) and yet I believe we have much to learn from the East about not letting the goal of arriving distract us from all the possibilities and treasures of the present.