When I was doing my PhD I developed a stomach ulcer as a result of all the pressure I was putting on myself to succeed. Going to the university medical centre, the primary care physician/general practitioner there told me that the solution was to be less stressed. Very helpful advice, no? You would have thought that being a university health centre, providing information on stress management would have been a fairly high priority, competing with reducing the number of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and UDIs (unidentified drinking injuries). However, sadly the staff there seemed far more interested in being patronising, getting home early and (in the case of one doctor) feeling up their patients. That is, however, another story.
If someone is feeling stressed, possibly the least helpful thing you can say to them is ‘relax’. Similarly to my doctor telling me to be less stressed, this is focussing on the end result rather than the method needed to get there. Suggesting a few deep breaths and feeling the ground beneath their feet is likely to be much more effective and actually achieve the result of relaxation.
In the early stages of my illness I found it very hard to cope with all of the changes in my body and a friend of mine suggested that I made a list of the things that I could control and the things I couldn’t and encouraged me to concentrate my energies on the things that were in my control. These included, what I ate, how much activity I did, the health professionals I worked with and (to some degree) the attitude I adopted. Getting well (the desired end result) was something that I could not directly affect but only through the methods I adopted.
I guess this is another take on the general theme of enjoying the journey rather than the destination, but a rather more practical one which I find very helpful in my own life. Concentrating more on doing the methods well rather than getting fixated with the end result has the paradoxical effect of actually making the outcome more likely. In my own life I try and apply this to parenting – I cannot make my children behave well, and being attached to that brings untold amounts of stress, but I can choose when to correct their inevitable misdeeds and undesirable actions. Current advice from schools is similarly to praise children for the effort they put in rather than their test scores. This can be hard as a parent but is definitely something worth considering.
In the spiritual arena, sitting down to meditation with a desire to concentrate on my breath and become calm generally leads to constantly checking how well I am doing with that, and frustration if I am not achieving it. When I sit with the intention of bringing my focus back to my breathing whenever I am distracted, this usually results in a far more concentrated session.
The human life is, for most people, a long journey, and we all want to be happy. Achieving that, though, depends on the methods we employ and a multitude of decisions which we make along the way, both large and small. Even when I was 18 I understood this to some degree and realised that if I made the best decision for me an each moment, then the outcome was likely to be positive. Thus, faced with the decision of going to University to study either mathematics with physics or environmental science, I opted for the latter course of action on the basis that this felt like the right decision for me to make at that point in time. Conventional advice was completely against me, since mathematics and physics were my best subjects at school, were highly regarded by most universities and employers and, thus, highly likely to lead to a well paid job after graduation. Environmental science, in contrast, was a much more unknown option, but one that turned out incredibly well for me. I think I would also have enjoyed studying theoretical physics, but the lack of contact with the natural world would have ultimately been frustrating.
Another point of view to emerge from this experience was that choosing to focus on my immediate action rather than the eventual outcome resulted in consequences that I could not have imagined at the time of making the decision. To focus on just one result limits what can happen, just like an artist working towards an already completed image in their mind. To leave the end result open, is, to my mind, a far more creative way of living life.
In Buddhism, enlightenment is said to be the main goal of practice, but to focus on this would, in all likelihood, lead to madness as the progress from flawed human being to Buddha can seem interminably slow (although many would say we are Buddhas already and have just yet to notice). We can, however, implement the teachings of the Buddha, and other spiritual teachers, in our daily life to good effect, without worrying too much about how we are progressing overall. His Holiness Dalai Lama gives the following advice:
“I myself feel, and also tell other Buddhists that the question of Nirvana will come later. There is not much hurry. If in day to day life you lead a good life, honestly, with love, with compassion, with less selfishness, then automatically it will lead to Nirvana.”
If you replace the word ‘Nirvana’ with ‘happiness’, I don’t think that there is much that we can argue with in his words. In any case, the advice for spiritual and mundane matters is much the same on this topic – we cannot control the outcome of our actions but only the actions themselves. Good actions do not always lead to a good outcome but are more likely to. If we focus on the method and allow our self to open to whatever result occurs, then the chances are we will lead much more fulfilling, creative and happy lives than if we get hung up on one particular desired outcome. This, I imagine, is what most of us are aiming for.