“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us…we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either…we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are [repeatedly] sucked away into the future…incapable of actually living one minute of life.” –Thich Nhat Hanh (1926 – ) from The Miracle of Mindfulness
For so many of us, the life we want is just barely out of reach. We can see it. It’s just a couple “if only’s” away. We tell ourselves, “If only _____, then I’d be happy. I could relax.” And so we pursue what we feel is missing – confident in the knowledge that while we’re not happy right now, we will be soon. But then we achieve what we’re after and yet something still feels missing. New “if only’s” pop up to replace the old ones. We’re caught in a race with a moving finish line. Contentment is more elusive than we had originally thought. Eventually, if we want to be happy, we must come to grips with an important fact. That we’ve been fooling ourselves. Contentment, it turns out, is not a destination. Rather, it’s a manner of traveling. And if we can’t feel it today, we won’t find it tomorrow.
When discussing this topic with clients, one of the most common questions I hear is, “How do I maintain a strong desire to progress/grow/achieve while also being happy where I am? They seem mutually exclusive.” I point out that while this seems true on the surface, it’s actually an illusion and never-ending circle. What most people fail to realize is that if their happiness is dependent upon acheiving something, when they acheive it they still won’t be happy because they’ll be consumed with trying to hold on to it. It comes down to the difference between commitment and attachment. If we’re committed to a goal, our happiness is independent from its fulfillment. If we’re attached to a goal, our happiness is dependent on its fulfillment. And we unwittingly end up a slave to the very thing we think will free us.
1. Take 10 minutes to jot down as many of your “if only’s” you can think of. Finish the sentence, “If only _____, then I’d be happy.”
2. Consider how you’ve made your happiness dependent upon the items on the list.
3. Don’t judge yourself or the list. Realize that these are deeply embedded patterns that are not likely to go away quickly (the purpose of the exercise is merely to let you know what dealing with).
4. Let the list work on you over time.
5. Recognize when one of your “if only’s” is robbing you of the present moment and bring yourself back to enjoying your immediate experience.
6. Repeat daily.
Doug Sundheim • Executive Coach, New York City • email@example.com