Monday, October 26, 2009

Practicing non-attachment

Many of us spend a lot of energy in our lives "anticipating the worst." We call it preparing ourselves, as if being ready makes it less hard when bad things happen. If we're waiting to hear, for example, about the results from an exam, or whether we got a promotion, we tell ourselves that we've failed the exam and our career is going to stay stalled. Because we have this idea that we'll be less disappointed, if indeed we get the unwelcome news. And we tell ourselves that we'll be extra happy, if we get the "surprise" news that we've not only passed, but gotten an A, or that our new business cards are already being printed.

What a dismal way to live life. Really. All that energy spent on avoiding disappointment saps us. For what? It doesn't even work as an approach. We're just as disappointed when we get the news. Sometimes even more so, because we've built such an elaborate structure to hide our hope from ourselves that we forgot it was there, so the hammer drops all the harder.

Anticipating the worst is not at all the same as thing as practicing non-attachment to an outcome. (Oh yes, this post is the reverberation of a meditation retreat day I went to on Saturday...could you tell?) How can we know the difference? Well, my guess is that all of us have experienced it first hand in our pursuit of sports. Yet somehow we forget it when we move into the rest of our lives.

You train for a race. Hard. You follow your coach's instructions to the letter. You listen to your body. You eat healthy and sleep lots. And so on. You set a goal for the race. I'll repeat that. You set a goal for the race. That's right. You don't do a race anticipating the worst. You don't start out saying, "if I even finish..." No. You say, "I'm going to finish in this time," or "I'm going to finish strong," or even just "I'm going to finish." Because you know that if you spend all your energy trash-talking yourself before a race (aka anticipating the worst), you'll trash-talk your race right into the garbage can. Achieving your goal requires you to be present, and, even more importantly, it requires that you believe in yourself in advance.

What a concept.

And then there's this--sometimes you don't hit your goal time, or you don't finish strong, or you don't even finish at all (I've had all those things happen to me, more than once!). Does the world end? Do you feel worse because you dared to set a goal you didn't meet, instead of having no goal at all? Do people think less of you? No. No. And no. Because we understand that the race is just one day. It doesn't define who we are forever. It barely defines us for that day. Everybody has bad days, and they are just that. One day among many. And the reason we can see it that way?---we are not attached to the outcome. We understand that we are not the outcome.

I'm not saying I wasn't disappointed by the races that didn't turn out as I'd hoped. Of course I was. The first couple of times I thought the race result was me, that who I was from then on was going to be a woman who had failed at X. I wasn't. I thought everyone else would now define me by my race result. They didn't. I learned.

In connection with the book I've spoken with several people who were at one time or another Olympic hopefuls, but when the day came for their qualifying race, the stars did not align. Their lives zoomed off on other trajectories. Who knows what their lives would have been like if they'd made the Olympic team. Better? Unlikely. Just different.

There are so many ways we can be happy. A race is a day. Our outlook is our life. How much more interesting is it to live life at full throttle, instead of squeezed tight into a pre-disappointed state?