Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…
Shakespeare nailed a facet of the human condition in this speech in Macbeth. So much of our lives are taken up with thoughts and worries and actions that don’t matter, and don’t make a difference.
Is this too bleak? I think not. There is much comfort and relief to be gained by just saying how things are. We are caught in a world of striving and misplaced aspiration. What are we actually doing? Why? And does it matter?
Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once noted that we spend years and years climbing the ladder, only to find out it’s been up against the wrong wall. Maybe you are reading this and can recognise this is true for you. You might be asking yourself – what happened?
Let’s look at how we might have veered off course, and how we might start to find our way back on the path of our own choosing.
So the ugh bit first – how did that ladder get put against the wrong wall? And why did I climb it?
1. Following false ambitions: Not being conscious about who we want to be, and how we want to live. We get caught up in societal expectation, inner ‘not enoughness,’ and a cultural conditioning that tells us more is better.
No-one willingly sets out to follow false ambitions. We get seduced by them, and we stop trusting our own true yearning and desire that may point in a different direction, one that might be unfashionable and less popular. We trade what is most precious to us (time, energy, joy) for things that don’t sustain us, and yet we believe this is what we want.
2. Not choosing where we focus our attention: We have never been busier, and it seems completely impossible to fit anything else in. Yet if we look at our actions we find that most of them are re-actions. We react rather than choose what will get our attention, and the more we are in this cycle, the more entrenched distractions and drama become.
3. Overly concerned with how others view us: When we spend time thinking about how others see us, we lose track of who we are and what we want. It’s human to want to look good in front of people, and we have a lot of shame and embarrassment about appearing foolish. Yet this can mean we lead lives of quiet desperation, never truly living in a way that brings us joy because we are wondering what other people think.
The irony of course is that no-one’s thinking about you at all because we’re all too busy worrying about how we are looking to others!
Suggestions to find our way back.
1. Practice focus. Focus is a skill we were not hardwired with, but it is something we can learn. It is absolutely the skill we now need to succeed in our lives at things that matter. Mindfulness meditation is a brilliant way to do this. Regular practice increases the part of our brain linked to executive control and being able to choose. Spending 10 minutes a day on mindfulness actually frees up time because we get better at choosing what we spend our time on.
2. Unhook from criticism and praise. This is a great distinction from Tara Mohr in her book Playing Big. We know how disempowering it is when we are too tuned into what other people think, and what their criticisms are. It can make our world smaller as we try to fit in with what will not be judged too harshly. We play safe. Surprisingly, there is a similar freedom in unhooking from praise. Praise is very seductive, and if we are too attached to it we find ourselves doing things to get agreement and acceptance from others. Unhooking from criticism and praise allows us to dance and live to the beat of our own drum.
3. Stop and realise you have choices. Mary Oliver asked in her poem A Summers Day: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? /Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” So have a think, what do you want to do that would matter to you? You don’t have to give up your job or change your life. But is there one thing that if you did it would begin to open up some space and joy? It might be listening to music. Having a bath. Taking a class in something ‘frivolous’. Go camping. Have a party where everyone has to stand outside on the grass and not wear shoes!