Framing more broad open-ended intentions (instead of specific goals, affirmations, visualizations) as a way of honoring that we may not yet know what's really right for the who-we-are-becoming.
Letting Go of Goals
When you "set goals" rather than framing more open-ended
intentions, the you-that-you-are-becoming may be constrained by the
limited understanding and vision of the you-that-you-are-at-this-moment.
You are always expanding and deepening. What looks like a detour
to the goal-setter-in-you might well be a rich and enlivening direction
for the you-that-is-emerging!
When I was 16 and a half, I went off to Bennington College as a drama major intending to train for acting and directing in legitimate theater. In Vermont, Bennington was then a very small (360 students) avant-garde women's school with an excellent reputation in the arts as well as academics. A substantial scholarship made it possible for me, from a working-class background, to afford this very expensive school.
By mid-way into my second year I'd become disenchanted with the Drama Department: weird students I couldn't relate to, flaky faculty and nutty, claustrophobic sexual politics. After a fraught confrontation with both my academic counselor and the department chair, I made a choice that we all agreed would require my resigning from the Theater Arts Division.
At the time, the only other course I was taking that interested me was a lively abnormal psychology class. In what was an arbitrary and expedient decision, I switched my major to Psychology/Social Science. As far as I knew then, I was simply shelving my plans for acting training until I'd finished my BA and could enroll at one of the professional drama schools in New York City or London.
Semester by semester, as I progressed through abnormal psychology into experimental psychology coursework and research seminars, I discovered that I was enjoying my rather accidental major. The faculty and my classmates were interesting and inspiring; the material, often fascinating. The sexual politics that had been such an irritating part of most of the Arts Divisions were either invisible or absent in the Social Science Division. By junior year I was passionately involved in the research project for my senior thesis.
During our yearly winter non-resident terms and our summers, we generally tried to find temporary work in fields related to our majors. The professor who was both my academic counselor and major advisor found me a placement with one of his colleagues for the summer after my junior year. I worked as research assistant to a well-known, highly respected researcher in the same field as the one in which I was writing my thesis. For ten weeks this dedicated, kind man – also the Chair of the Graduate Program in Psychology at his university – was a mentor to me.
I returned to the job during the winter non-resident term of my senior year. Then, I stayed on working with him throughout the spring as I completed my last semester for Bennington in-absentia by taking a couple of graduate classes at the New School for Social Research. My plans were still to try studying at a professional acting school as soon as I'd completed my degree from Bennington.
Late that spring, my boss and mentor invited me to meet with him and two other faculty members from the graduate program. They praised my resourcefulness and creativity as both thinker and researcher and offered me a guaranteed place in their incoming class if I would consider it.
I was surprised and disoriented. I had never considered going to graduate school, much less graduate school in psychology. While working at the lab, I had been gathering and comparing information about drama schools. Psychology had been just what I was doing till I could get on with my real life in the theater. But, oddly enough, their offer and their respect for my talents in the field set me to wondering.
I started thinking about whether the people or the process in professional drama schools would be any different from what I'd found in Bennington's Theater Arts Division. I suspected it could easily be the same and maybe even more so. I thought about how much I'd been enjoying my work and my colleagues in this graduate psychology department. Being invited in by faculty that I already knew and that already knew me – not having to go through the usual rigmarole of applications and interviews – would mean that I could come into the program without any pressure to prove my self. I would be free, if I chose it, to explore the possibilities of this path for a while with nothing at stake. I decided I would approach it as a one-year experiment; if it didn't feel right I would drop out and go on with my theater training plans.
So, I began life as a graduate student in the doctoral program in psychology at Yeshiva University/Albert Einstein Medical School. Faculty recommendations helped garner substantial fellowship support for my schooling. The first year was a mixture of fascination with the material and frustration with the arrogant snobbery of the great-name professors who, as distinguished visiting lecturers, came to teach us. There was space to engage in frank dialogue with my mentor about this frustration. That he acknowledged the validity of my perceptions and promised me intermediate and advanced seminars with more inspiring professors made it possible for me to consider staying and continuing to explore.
I started out in the experimental psychology program, a logical progression from my absorption with research process. But, as one year led into the next, I drifted into taking all the clinical psychology coursework as well. Without ever having it as a goal and in a year-by-year curious-to-see-what-happens-next fashion, I went all the way to getting my Ph.D. Although my doctoral dissertation was in experimental psychology, I came to the end of the joint program certain that I wanted to work as a clinical psychologist doing psychotherapy not research. Professional acting school no longer held any interest for me.
Although I loved the whole process of doing psychotherapy, it was often difficult in my early days to keep from feeling exhausted by the intensity of being witness to other people's struggles. Doing psychotherapy has continued to become even more fulfilling as, during these past almost 48 years, it's kept being informed and transformed both by what I learn from my own ongoing inner healing and what I learn from just the doing of the work itself. I've found ways to navigate and balance the intensity so that it no longer exhausts me. Not only do I love what I do, I believe that it's exactly what I was meant to do this time around on the planet. That I got to this place in such serendipitous and seemingly accidental ways has been a powerful lesson/teaching for me about goals.
My early commitment to becoming an actor/director was born of the life experiences and yearnings I had as a young adult. I started out at college certain that I was on the right path for me. Yet, in a series of random steps, life kept moving me away from that track. Had I, out of single-minded dedication to my original goal, resisted this nudging, I wouldn't have found my way to this work that so richly feeds my soul.
There is strong pressure from our culture to have and strive toward actualizing particular goals in every aspect of our lives. From early on we are pushed to choose a major, to channel our energies toward particular careers, to define our direction, to articulate 5-year and 10-year-from-now pictures of where we want to see our selves. The implication is that these defined goals determine the shape of our futures.
For those on a spiritual journey there is a different cast to this pressure. The New Age prescriptions/directives for manifesting: the process by which we are meant to create and move dreams/visions of our selves and our lives into reality. The counsel: to precisely articulate the images of what we want to draw into our lives. Then, to repeatedly write our affirmations – or repeatedly re-energize our visualizations – of those sought-after outcomes as if they were already existing in reality.
Committing to these affirmations, visualizations or goal-settings assumes that the person we are in this moment can choose fittingly for the person we will be in the future. This supposes that who we'll be down the road is pretty much the same as who we are in this moment, as if the experiences we'll have between now and then might not change us, as if the goals this self sets might not later be experienced as outdated, too limiting or even completely irrelevant by the who-we-are-becoming.
Along with this (to me ridiculous) idea that our vision of our selves at any moment will be valid and appropriate for all time to come, there is implicit a vision of our beings that seems undermining of our true nature: the assumption in both the dominant and spiritual cultures that only by our mind focusing in this very structured, narrow way will we ever move forward in our lives/journeys.
None of this feels so to me. I trust that we are changing and growing in every moment, even (and perhaps especially) during the times when on the face of it we appear to be doing nothing of any redeeming value. I believe that change/evolution continues to unfold in us whether or not we consciously effort to make it happen: it is part of our very nature as beings. Sometimes it seems to me that consciously efforting actually interferes with the natural, organic flow of our evolving selves.
I do believe there is value in having open-ended intentions of a broad sort. Here intentions like "I am ready and available for my next step to reveal itself to me" or "I am needing this process to slow down for a while so that I can better assimilate/incorporate all the changing" seem like good examples. These consciously but loosely articulated requests/prayers to Spirit/our deepest selves have a way of framing the essence of what we feel we need.
When we get very specific and detailed about what it is we want that next step to look like or to be, we run the risk of being too narrowly focused on the appearance of only that specific thing or outcome. This restricting vision can leave us blind to the arrival of something that answers the essence of our request if not the concrete detail of it. Focused on and invested in rehearsing the menu (as it were) we may fail to notice that a perfectly delectable dinner is arriving at our table.
As I continue my journey, I am taught almost daily and in the most minute ways to give up any thinking that might be goal-like. I learn that having a plan or agenda usually means having to work to disengage from this menu so that I can show up for what is arriving unbidden as a gift from Spirit/my inmost self. I learn to open my self to what comes into my life from that place: to trust where the energy pulls or leads me, rather than where my mind might have me go. This allows me to live in the center of what is right for the me I am in each moment.
The more I help my mind not to argue or interfere with where I'm being led by the energy/Spirit/my inmost self, the more my faith in this authentic, organic process grows. Then, my mind is a valuable resource I call upon to support my belly-led unfolding.
Consider exploring how life feels and unfolds when you frame broad open-ended intentions instead of investing in detailed goals, highly specific affirmations and very carefully articulated visualizations.