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Achievement and Non-Achievement: the Middle Way to Better Health

One of the high street banks has an advert all over the place at the moment claiming its goal is to help us with our goals. This might strike one as unlikely, but at least it reminds us that this is the time of year when we might want to be thinking about our goals for the future year (and years), about what we want to achieve in our life.

Some people are of course more goal-orientated than others, but I think everyone has goals – even if they have widely differing ways of relating to those goals. Sometimes, perhaps, our goals are not very conscious, and it may serve us well to see if we can make them a bit more conscious. What are we trying to achieve? What really motivates us? Where do we want to be in a year’s time, ten years’ time…? Some people even approach this question by thinking about what they would like said about them at their funeral. Sometimes as we mature we need to clarify what we want to achieve, as opposed, perhaps, to what we may think other people expect us to achieve.

On the other hand, maybe sometimes we can become over-focused on some of our goals. I remember in my early twenties walking the Pennine Way long distance footpath. I had two weeks to cover about 250 miles, and it turned out to be two weeks of heat wave (older readers may remember those). So I walked through some of the most beautiful countryside in England (and a bit of Scotland, where it rained.) but I was so focused on getting to the next camp-site, not getting lost on the way, not getting dehydrated etc., that maybe I did not appreciate the countryside so much. Such an experience becomes a metaphor for how I sometimes live life (if I am not careful), and as a metaphor maybe it applies to a lot of people in our society.

If we live in such a driven, goal-orientated way, not only do we miss some of the most rewarding bits of being human, we can in the end make ourselves ill. For one thing we can start to over-reach ourselves energetically, using up inner resources that we do not replenish sufficiently, perhaps working long hours, not always eating well or giving ourselves time to eat (and digest) well, doing without sleep and so on. Sooner or later this will have consequences for our health. If we are young and have a strong constitution we can get away with such a lifestyle for a while, but as we get a bit older, or if we are not blessed with such a strong constitution, we will burn ourselves out, whether this results in migraine headaches, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue syndrome or something else. Of course we may tell ourselves that we don’t have time to be ill, pop a pill to take away the symptoms, and keep going, or we may rush back into the fray after illness without giving ourselves time to recover properly; but we only store up trouble for ourselves for later- eventually we will have time to get ill, whether we like it or not.

We might want to ask ourselves just why we are pushing ourselves so hard. It might of course be something as simple as plain greed – maybe we want to make a lot of money – but it might also be coming from some hidden guilt or even self-hatred – we feel we are not good enough as we are; we continually need to prove ourselves. Or maybe it is insecurity – we don’t want to be left out or left behind. Sometimes these motivations are mixed up or confused with our responsibilities and desire to help others. In Traditional Chinese Medicine emotions like guilt and fear can themselves be a cause of ill-health, and allowing ourselves to be driven by them only feeds them and strengthens their grip on us.

There is a difference between this kind of driven life, which at root involves repeated acts of unkindness to ourselves, a sort of inner tyranny, and a life of a person who achieves a lot out of the sheer exuberance of loving what they are doing. Being driven is not the same as being inspired; it’s the former that can do us harm; although even the inspired person may need to make sure they look after themselves in terms of diet, sleep, rest and relaxation etc.

On the other hand, the opposite of the driven life is the life lacking in goals and achievement – the aimless. As mentioned above, everyone has goals, because everyone at root wants to be happy. But what happens when, maybe, we become discouraged by our failures, when our fear of failure leads us to abandon our goals before we have really tried to achieve them. Sometimes we may be setting ourselves impossibly difficult goals, so that we are set up to fail. Or if our goals are necessarily difficult of attainment, we need interim or short term goals which we can achieve. For instance, if we want to be a millionaire, we may need a shorter term goal of making our first £10,000. If our goal is to run a marathon, we might need first of all to be able to run a mile! As the Chinese say, ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ This is important because self-confidence and self-esteem may in part depend on our ability to achieve our goals. When we do run that mile or make that £10,000, we need to be able to feel satisfied and encouraged, not dispirited in the face of the more distant goal.

Apathy and feeling dispirited can also can lead to illness. In Traditional Chinese Medicine one of the common causes of health problems lies in ‘stagnation’, when what the Chinese refer to as ‘Qi’ stops flowing as freely as it should. This can happen if we as it were deny our goals. In classical Chinese thought every person has a ‘destiny’ – not indeed something that we are fated to experience, but rather a direction in which our life naturally unfolds. Someone living their destiny is someone who is, as we say in English, ‘coming into their own’, someone who is as it were becoming more fully who they really are. If for some reason we are avoiding moving in this direction, which is to say trying to realise our real goals, we will feel stuck, we will stagnate, and eventually this will manifest physically in a wide range of symptoms, and unless we get back to trying to actualise our destiny these symptoms will gradually get worse until in the end we may become seriously ill.

Of course the driven person no less than the apathetic person may be avoiding their destiny. Buddhists speak of two kinds of laziness – the laziness of laziness (plain laziness!) and the laziness of busy-ness, when we avoid the important thing by keeping busy, even by becoming highly successful in something that does not in the end matter all that much.

So, if that bank I mentioned really wants to help us achieve our goals in 2013, what it needs to do is to help us to become clear about what they are, help us to make sure that if our ultimate goals are distant that we also have more short term goals which we can realistically reach, stepping stones along the way so to speak. It also needs to help us not to become too fixated and obsessed by our goals, so that if we achieve them we achieve them at the expense of other things which really are more important. We need to be striving to achieve things in our life, but that striving needs to have a certain lightness to it, even some playfulness perhaps. We may or may not reach the end of the metaphorical long distance footpath, but we need to appreciate the scenery en route, not to mention the company of our fellow travellers.

Written by Vimalaprabha

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