Always in Training
The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination. - Carl Rogers
I was practicing body work last week with a friend who also prefers the Eudaimonia (good life) path (See the post “Eudaimonia: The Aim of Therapy” to read more about the meaning of the word). He said to me, “We are always in training. The healing journey of the soul never ends. I won’t ever ‘arrive.’ This is so beautiful and so frustrating. I guess I have to figure out how to surrender to that.” I sat there and nodded, looking into the space in front of me. A slide show of memories paraded through my mind of the many moments I've been invited to surrender to the training-with-no-end. Many times I have also thought I would “arrive” and that I would finally do the thing that would allow me to fully relax and coast through the remainder of my days on this pale blue dot.
At last, all I would have is peace and fun. Toil, fear, and shame would be banished from my being forever, and I would never have to deal with a difficult person ever again! I’ve also had to realize that no such end exists, that what I should be seeking is something entirely different, and that I needed to suss it out pronto if I am going to have my Eudaimonia. Oh! The grief I have felt letting go of that dream! Part of me chuckles that I mourn such waywardness. But hey, that other part of me who believes in the once-and-for-all really thinks she has “it:” the answer to all of life's problems. That is no small loss.
What I am gaining now is not necessarily better than what I wanted life to be, but it is realistic and follows the rules of our reality here on this earth in these human bodies. So, in that sense, it is better. It's better because it works in this reality. It allows for what is instead of demanding what is not. I was trying to create an impossible fantasy.
So what is it that I am gaining? A process and a direction. It's a shift from seeking a permanent state of contentment (control, gripping, getting high, walling-up, invulnerability, atrophy, fear, suspicion, distrust, hardness, shoulds) due to having gained the perfect material situation (money, beauty, fame, respect, being the best, etc.) to embracing the dynamism (allowing, letting go, groundedness, flexibility, vulnerability, resilience/anti-fragility, trust, love, suppleness, what is) that lets me know I’m alive. I now seek balanced aliveness. It's a special flavor of seeking that feels like constant calibration. I always want to seek the center (that is not to say I don't often fail, but I do try).
Seeking: A Necessity and a Problem
The drive to seek and progress is natural and innate. You can practice non-seeking, but even that is a kind of seeking. You are hardwired to seek. It's a fundamental part of being human. For any science nerds out there, Jaak Panksepp described the mesolimbic dopaminergic (ML DA) system responsible for all appetitive behavior and mental activity. You can’t get rid of it. It is so helpful and necessary, but it also causes so many problems. The ML DA is responsible for pursuing wants and needs, but it is also responsible for addiction. It is the foundation for our pervasive sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction.
Seeking is central to our ability to survive. If, as a cave human, you gathered all the nuts and berries you need for today, sat down, and ate them all without getting more, tomorrow you would be hungry. If goals were deeply satisfying the way we want them to be, we would have never survived as a species. The problem is, now we have as many nuts and berries as we want, especially if you're in the majority of the developed world. If you are reading this, that is most likely you.
While you are pursuing your goal, you feel good while you make progress. When you arrive at your goal, you feel rewarded and then immediately sad and depressed. Progressing towards a goal always feels better than completing a goal.
This is why addiction is so compelling but feels so bad. With addiction, you artificially create an environment in your neurochemistry that makes you feel like you've arrived at the end of big goals over and over without having had to do the long-form work that big goals take. Another way to say this (for those of you who like neuroscience) is you are messing with the dopamine/serotonin/endorphin/oxytocin system. When you take the drug or do the behavior, you flood yourself with dopamine, which makes you feel like you're accomplishing something. Then you experience the effects of some or all of serotonin/endorphins/oxytocin, giving you a sense of completion, safety, connection, and/or a job well done. But it is artificial, so it does not hold up to the pressures of life. The addiction cycle becomes shorter and more frequent, eventually crowding out everything that actually holds water in your life.
Completing a goal has a special feeling to it. It packs a big punch. But it is always followed by disappointment and sadness. This is why people make harder goals as they arrive at their original goal. You arrive at your goal and don’t feel the feeling you were expecting to feel, so you assume that there is something wrong with your goal and change the goal. But there is nothing wrong with the goal. The problem is your relationship to and understanding of what a goal actually is. Alan Watts has this to say about the “goal” of life:
“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.”
A goal is that at which you aim. Eudaimonia, a sense of well-being, comes from feeling progress toward a goal and also the spirit with which you walk towards it. Therefore, you need goals that you can never complete but are good to aim for. Goals like becoming wise, finding balance, understanding yourself and reality, and being honest in a tactful way. Then, you make these goals acts of play. You can never be done pursuing these goals because you can’t complete them. The music does not end until you draw your final breath. And then…who knows? It’s okay to have additional goals like making money, athletic achievements, career success, and traveling to new places. But since you can complete these goals, they should be small side quests or addendums to your endless goals. Side quests are best enjoyed in a state of play. Otherwise, you will persist as a being leading a life “of quiet desperation,” having it all except for a sense of satisfaction.
I grew up around and have worked with many powerful people as a somatic bodyworker. There are people who are rich, famous, and fulfilled, and rich, famous, and broken. The difference has everything to do with the pursuit of endless goals versus the short-lived ones. On the other side of the coin, I have clocked many hours among the houseless and those of meager earnings. The same notion applies.
I befriended a man of real fulfillment who lived in a tent on the cold side of the mountain in Santa Fe named Doc. He was beloved by whom he called the “residentially challenged,” as well as tourists, locals, and artists. I broke bread with my neighbor Herman, a former physics professor in Austin who took a vow of austerity in his later years. He had few possessions and prided himself on his ability to walk for hours around town. He provided personal aphorisms to me as little asides that moved mountainous earth in my young life, shaping the course I continue to take today. These two had little to show in terms of wealth or status (Doc was a little famous) at the end of their lives, but they were dripping with love and wisdom. Their abundance radiated from their beings and delighted those who could see it. People who are only focus on material goals miss the glory of these souls entirely because their being is not calibrated to behold the light of a full life well lived.
That is not to say that Herman lived a better life than Bernie Madoff (the financier behind the largest Ponzi scheme in history). All things have their place in the world because the world “just is” it's not good or bad. But Herman was clearly fulfilled by his life though modest of means, and Bernie lost all he sought to attain because he built a faulty tower. He put all of the meaning in life into material things and died in prison with none of it. So, it's a matter of what choice you want to make. Do you want to build your life more on the stable ground of goals-with-no-end and playfulness, or do you want to tip the scales towards risking it all in the game of absolute materialism? Neither is wrong; it's a matter of preference and a spectrum at that. You can die in prison with nothing and still feel fulfilled as long as you had a few intangible goals in your your back pocket. You can be exceeding wealthy and famous and have Eudaimonia but it will not be due to the accumulation of wealth and fame.
Lessons Along the Path
The Eudaimonia path is always available whenever you want to walk it. In an instant, you can step onto it for the first time or rejoin your long relationship with it. The Eudaimonia path loves you and will never leave your side. That is why it is so easy to connect and reconnect to it, at least as far as Eudaimonia is concerned. And during the time before you join it or when you stray from it, it will consistently reach out to you, sending you little messages and beckoning you to return. The Noseo (ill-being) path wants you too, by the way, and has its own seductive nature. Your Eudaimonia will not be ruined if you choose to indulge in Noseo from time to time. In fact, a little Noseo enhances Eudaimonia. It's a matter of balance.
So whether you are on the Eudaimonia path or are adjacent to it, as you seek and progress through life, you encounter the lessons of the path. These lessons are the reward of the Eudaimonia path. When you understand the lesson, you feel rewarded. Sometimes, when your connection to the path is not strong, you may not feel rewarded. You might feel shamed by the lesson like life is making fun of you or putting you in your place. Eventually, you feel that life loves you, is telling your stories, and teaching your soul. Or, maybe you don't understand the lesson. In that case, life loves you so much that it will increase the volume with which it teaches. In the words of a mentor of mine, “First life knocks on the door, then it kicks it open, then if that doesn't work, it will burn your house down, and it will continue to escalate until you understand the message and start loving yourself again.” This is the training protocol. The more competent you become walking the path, the more you will hear the knocks and avoid the escalations.
The purpose of these life lessons is to get you focused on the “right” things. Now, before you take that as proselytizing, what I mean is the “right” things for you at that exact time in your life. Something that is right for one person is not right for the other. Something that is right for you right now is not right for you later. It is an extraordinarily subjective process.
Practical Application of the Process
The process of Eudaimonia is an art form. You are looking for a balance between setting and pursuing goals while letting go of attaining the goals in a particular way. You also want to set attainable and relevant goals to your overall picture of well-being. An example of such a goal is running a mile without stopping as a new runner who eventually wants to run a marathon or learning to understand your parts (as in parts work) in the short term so that you can build a mature self in the long term.
Dream as big as you can. This works for goals-without-end as well as side quest goals. Perhaps your dream is to become enlightened or to have a big, successful business. Let go of the outcome of ever attaining the goal, but work towards it anyway. Your big dream is the symbol of the path you are on. The point is not to get to the end of the path. The point is being on the path. Once you're on the path, you’re “there.” Being there is not enough, though; you must also progress along the path to feel a sense of satisfaction and delight. You will receive many gifts as you walk the path. Appreciate the gifts along the way, but never let go of your dream, no matter if you get there or not. Have a clear intention and light attachment. An intention is a guess where your efforts will take you. When you get information that conflicts with your intention, change your intention, but never let go of your big dream unless you want to change it to a different big dream. Make sure you have multiple big dreams so you don't get super fixated on one of them. If you start to get fixated, change focus.
Prioritize Your Goals
When you want to add new habits to your life that you aren't already doing, you have to put a special mental effort toward this change. If you want to run a mile and are not a runner, you don't have a part of you that craves running that will automatically remind you to get out there and train. Instead, running will easily get pushed down the to-do list if other tasks emerge during the day. So, you have to implement strategies to get yourself to prioritize practicing the new goal. Then, even if you successfully prioritize the new goal, you might find that when it is time to go on the run, you experience a lot of mental resistance. The resistance is normal and, unexpectedly, is the key to developing Eudaimonia, the good life.
Eudaimonia is directly born out of the challenges and discomforts that you choose and prioritize in life. Noseo, ill-being, comes from the challenges and discomforts that happen to you. When I worked in the fitness world, I would say, “You can either feel sore from your workout or sore from having a weak back. You choose.”
Take on Mini-Goals within Your Big Goals
You want to avoid overwhelming yourself with your goals. Trying to do too big of a goal all at once will set you up to get discouraged and fail. If you have small enough goals, you will enjoy yourself. Completing these small goals will make you want to achieve the next small goal. You can have in your mind that you do want to run a marathon someday. It's okay to have lofty goals. You might plan to run a marathon next year and have a series of mini-goals that lead up to it. If you are consistent in your training but do not meet your mini goals despite your best efforts, it is better to change your goal schedule rather than try to force yourself to meet your arbitrary deadlines or to get rid of your goal altogether.
Herein lies another aspect of the art and balance of the process of Eudaimonia. It is optional that you run the marathon or complete the lofty goal. It is important that you are consistently making that mental resistance in your system and choosing to practice consistently anyway. Even if you never run a marathon (maybe it's not right for your body for some reason), you have now developed a running habit that brings health to the body and mind (if running is the right form of movement for you). You do not have to be a fast runner or have incredible endurance to get these health benefits.
Know When to Stop Working for the Day
Quit while you're ahead, as they say. Keep a spark of spaciousness in your energy levels. You are playing the long game. Working really hard all at once because you are trying to get to the end of the big goal or mini goal as quickly as possible is the Noseo (ill-being) path. Paraphrasing Alan Watts: if the point of music were to get to the end, the best conductors would play the symphonies the fastest. We would go to concerts just to hear the big final notes, applaud, and walk out. Work done correctly is play. Children play until they want to rest, and then they do so, and so should we if our aim is Eudaimonia. Of course, your mileage may vary. Some people have constitutions that like to play hard for a really long time, and others only some. More is needed than a formula. You must know yourself.
Set and Pursue Goals with Others
If you are trying to do something particularly challenging for you or you want to maximize your work output, setting goals with others is the way to go. Trying to hold yourself accountable is lonely. Plus, you can turn your goal into a game. When you add other people, you create a sense of camaraderie; we’re all in it together. I don't want to let my buddy down. For some, a little competition is motivating.
Crowd Out the Harmful with the Helpful
Avoid things that erode your mental and physical health. This is often easier said than done, especially if you have trauma material to work through. Tasking yourself with eliminating bad habits completely is counterproductive. Harm reduction is often a better option. This is especially true of high relapse behaviors like addiction to substances, an eating disorder, and the like. If you've ever tried to kick a strong habit like addiction or an ED or know someone who has gone through this, you know that “Just Quit” is a silly directive. Rather, slowly working towards reducing the behavior over time, or at least performing the habit more safely, yields better results and allows the person to explore positive behaviors while still being able to do what has always worked for them. I've noticed that if you focus on adding positive things rather than taking away the negative things, the positive things begin to crowd out the negative things over time. If the person keeps adding positive things over time, sometimes the habit is completely eliminated. This can take years or even decades, but the elimination of the habit is more permanent than trying to quit cold turkey.
To get your creative juices flowing, here is an incomplete list of things in no particular order to include and avoid if you want to build Eudaimonia: