To avoid anxiety it’s tempting to give up on ambition. After all, if we’re not aiming for something then it doesn’t much matter what path we take. Hakuna Matata! But such aimlessness takes its own toll on the human psyche. It leads to boredom, lethargy, and depression. Fortunately, there is a way to stand in the balance between aimlessness and anxiety, as this Provision makes clear.
Two weeks ago I urged you to Avoid Anxious Thinking in order to promote spiritual wellness. Last week, I wrote about a number of recent personal bests in my sport of choice: endurance running. I didn’t see the connection between the two until I went out this morning for a 23-mile training run, and it has something to do with today’s recommendation to Avoid Aimless Thinking.
Aimless thinking is, in many respects, the other side of the coin of anxious thinking. Anxious thinking comes either from our attachment to what we want to happen or from our aversion to what we don’t want to happen. We get so invested in a particular outcome, and a particular course of action, that deviations cause us to fall into the anxiety pit.
And it’s hard to climb out of that pit. Anxiety turns us into grasping fools, doing more harm than good in our desperate attempts to produce or to escape an outcome. We end up working harder rather than smarter until the anxiety gets the better of us and we suffer the consequences. To follow the analogy, we end up making the pit even deeper and more uncomfortable.
So I made some suggestions two weeks ago on how we can avoid anxious thinking. I offered up some strategies on how to modify our awareness, habits, communities, and intentions to assuage anxiety into nonexistence. I also offered up the paradoxical suggestion that everything is going to be alright, even when it’s obviously not.
In other words, I suggested that we detach ourselves from particular outcomes if we want to cultivate spiritual wellness. Deepak Chopra identifies such detachment as one of the Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. Trying to force an outcome, Chopra notes, limits the possibilities for new, and perhaps even better, outcomes to emerge.
“Relinquish your attachment to the known,” Chopra writes, “step into the unknown, and you will step into the field of all possibilities. In your willingness to step into the unknown, you will have the wisdom of uncertainty factored in. This means that in every moment of your life, you will have excitement, adventure, and mystery. You will experience the fun of life • the magic, the celebration, the exhilaration, and the exultation of your own spirit.”
This applies in every situation. Writing in the area of business management and adult learning, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey make the same point when it comes to constructive criticism. The big assumptions behind constructive criticism, they note, are that the perspective of the feedback giver is right, that there is only one correct answer, and that the feedback giver has the lion’s share of the responsibility to make things right.
No wonder giving constructive criticism provokes anxiety! When it’s on our shoulders to define the problem, to offer helpful suggestions, and to hold someone accountable, we not only become attached to a particular outcome, we become anxious (and perhaps vindictive) when our recommendations fail to produce positive results.
Kegan and Lahey suggest a different approach to feedback that sounds a lot like Chopra’s “law of detachment.” Instead of presenting “the truth,” they suggest that we share our point of view as one possible truth. “When we enter a conversation knowing that we may not be totally right or may even be wrong, we can shift from thinking about kind and clever ways to help someone see it our way to thinking about trying to understand what’s been happening and whether our criticism is warranted.”
‘We become explorers,” they conclude, “tentative with our meanings, and open to changing them when we discover new vantage points or information.” From this vantage point, criticism becomes an opportunity for learning without victimization. Everyone welcomes the opportunity to look for new possibilities and new ways of doing things.
These authors understand that to avoid anxious thinking we dare not flip all the way over to aimless thinking. “Hakuna Matata!” was no good for Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King as a philosophy and it’s not good for us either. “Well, then, forget it!” is an all-too-common response if we can’t have our own way. But to give up on aspiration altogether is to lose our inspiration for life, at least for a time. We become bored, lethargic, and depressed.
That’s what aimlessness will do to a person and, ultimately, to our world. In the absence of ambition, life leaves much to be desired. “Vision,” it has been said, “is a target that beckons.” And, again, that “without vision people perish.”
So don’t do that! Recognize that aimlessness is not the same thing as detachment from particular outcomes. It’s not good to stop caring about what happens in order to avoid anxiety. It’s better to care profoundly, albeit in a very different way. Instead of deciding that we know the best outcome and how to get there • generating the anxiety of attachment • we can decide to put our best intentions and our best selves out into the world to see what possibilities they unleash • generating the excitement of possibility.
“The law of detachment,” notes Chopra, “does not mean that you give up the intention to create your desire. You don’t give up the intention, and you don’t give up the desire. You give up your attachment to the result.”
So, too, with Kegan and Lahey. “Transformational learning,” they note, does not require that we deny our own concerns or discount our own negative evaluation of things. Rather, it requires us to hold two simultaneous realities together: we must respect our own negative evaluation and we must respect the other’s evaluation as one that might usefully inform our own.
This is the yin and the yang of anxiety and aimlessness. We give up attachment to a particular outcome but we do not give up our ambition to make things the best they can possibly be. By standing in the balance between anxiety and aimlessness, by embracing both ambition and detachment, we become artisans of possibility and denizens of hope. We give birth to a better world yet to come.
I realized all this during my 23-mile training run this morning. In the past seven days, as part of my training for the Boston Marathon, I have run about 65 miles or 105 kilometers. What makes me do this? It is not attachment to a particular outcome. How do I know? Because I feel no anxiety at all about my running.
If I was attached to a particular outcome, I would have plenty of occasion to feel anxiety. If I missed a run, if I could not keep pace with my training plan, if I had to nurse an injury, if I could not go to the Boston Marathon, if I did not finish the Boston Marathon (at all or in a particular time) • all these and more frequently haunt and drive a runner’s ego.
But it’s not about ego; it’s about our true self. Visions beckon, they don’t demand. When we are in the presence of a demanding spirit, whether internal or external, we know all about anxiety. But the flipside is equally stressful. To be in the presence of a boring spirit, whether internal or external, is to know all about aimlessness and despair.
It takes ambition to run 65 miles in a week. It does not take attachment to a particular outcome. It takes being filled with passion and wonder for the opportunities movement affords. On my run today I watched the sun rise, waved to countless motorists, talked with a goose, high-fived a runner coming from the opposite direction, listened to some great tunes, found water just when I needed it most, and marveled at how good I was feeling in the final two miles.
I had no attachment to those particular things as I went out for my run. But I did have the ambition to experience fully a good, long run. It wasn’t until I got back home that I even realized the week added up to 65 miles. The whole thing snuck up on me as a delicious surprise. And it made me realize the importance of standing in the gap between anxiety and aimlessness. Don’t let either one catch hold of you. Instead, find the freedom for life.
Coaching Inquiries: What’s your ambition in life? Is it attached to a particular outcome? Or do you have little to no ambition at all? How could you become an artisan of possibility? What freedom do you need to extend to yourself or to others? Where could you turn to get the fire burning?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
I’ve been aware of LifeTrek from way back in the beginning. I have to admit that I stopped reading your site for a while. When we first talked a few years ago LifeTrek was small and warm, like a small cafe with a few good friends. It then evolved into something huge, like a big Mall. A year after just “looking” at the weekly Provision, I dove back in. Wow! Your site is jam packed with great, applicable bits of life and coaching. You have created something that is going to leave a mark long after you’re gone. LifeTrek has taken on a new look and is getting better with each improvement. You have led by example and shown that applying your suggestions can make goals come to fruition. It is pleasure to know of you. Thanks.
I have been a reader of LifeTrek Coaching for a short time now. So far, I have been extremely pleased. I would like to mention that because of your focus on Spiritual Wellness; it prompted me to contact one of your coaches for a complimentary coaching session. The session was very helpful; I certainly sensed a sincere warmth in her voice at the same time as she remained very professional during our conversation. Thank you for the hard work you do. It is greatly appreciated more than you know.
I enjoyed your description of your last two runs and I especially appreciated the significance you drew from the two poles of experience as “Personal Bests.” It was very meaningful. I forwarded that Provision to everyone in my contact list that I thought would be even vaguely interested. Who knows, you may obtain some new subscribers and future clients. Thanks.
I love the poems on your Website, especially Passion. Click Great stuff in general here. It always makes me think. Thanks!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
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