How do we find balance between gratitude and striving for a better life?
On the whole I’m not good at doing nothing. I’ve always had a lot of energy (nervous or otherwise) and relaxing often feels like wasted time. It’s one of the reasons yoga, meditation and mindfulness are such essential parts of my life. There’s a pang of guilt every time I watch TV, read a magazine or play on my phone: “I could be writing a novel right now. I could be learning a language!” It always feels like time is ebbing away and I still haven’t done the things I need to do to make my life successful or worthwhile – worthwhile in a completely arbitrary way I’ve invented.
I’m pretty fixated with accomplishing huge achievements and ticking all conceivable boxes before I can acknowledge my life has meaning. I’ve taken ambition and goal-setting to the unpleasant extreme – if I’m not a published author, concert violinist, and bi-lingual academic who can do a one-armed handstand by the time I’m 30, what have I even been doing with my life? And while having a clear idea of what you want to achieve and where your passions lie can be very positive, it is never a good idea to treat existence like a video game, just completed levels and milestones of success. Because in a video game completion usually means you’ve won, but in life completion means, well, you’re dead.
That might sound terribly morbid and dramatic, but it’s worth remembering. You don’t ‘win’ life, you don’t keep powering up and completing the next challenge until your last day on earth when finally, confetti rains down and you’ve ‘made it’. Every day is as important as the next, or the last. We invent our own notions of success and then use them to beat ourselves up. Who is to say that a Buddhist monk’s life is more or less accomplished than Mick Jagger’s, or a single mum’s? There is no book that categorises achievements into ‘significant and insignificant’. We just make it up as we go along.
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, "Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced." He believed that mindfulness was the key to a fulfilled and happy life, but the problem is, how do you find a balance between living in the present and striving for a better future? Surely if someone is in a job they hate, or a relationship that’s making them miserable, or just doesn’t have enough money to feed their family, then simply being mindful and present might not be the entire answer.
There have been times in my life when I didn’t feel challenged or motivated; I had no idea what I wanted to do professionally, I didn’t have enough creative outlets, and I wasn’t spending time with people who were good for me. It was really important that I found something to care about, something to strive for. It was important that I put my energy into change. Even though obsessing over the future is destructive, not thinking about it at all isn’t great either. It seems that I am a person of extremes, because now I have so many ambitions that I can’t pick up a book without wondering if there is something more productive I could be doing.
So what’s the answer? Ha, you thought I had it. Truly the closest thing I can find to a solution is balance. I know that word gets sprinkled on everything but in almost all cases, it really is the key. I absolutely want to be mindful and present; I want to be grateful for what I have every day and stop conceptualising happiness and success as something I am perpetually on my way towards, but not experiencing right now. But I also want to have the passion for life that drives me towards new experiences, new knowledge, and sometimes new achievements, however they manifest. I don’t want to look back on my life and wish I’d just enjoyed each moment instead of willing it away. Equally I don’t want to look back on my life and think of dozens of things I wish I’d tried, or risks I wish I’d taken.
As I mentioned at the very beginning of this post, yoga, meditation and mindfulness are invaluable, helping me to acknowledge and appreciate the present. Tapping into a part of you that isn’t your thoughts, or your accomplishments, or even your physical body, helps to take some of the pressure off the expectations we set ourselves each day. It also helps you feel grounded, connected to the world and the people in it, which means you feel grateful for more than just the big landmark triumphs we often live for. But, call it nihilistic, I still believe we get one life and I want to cram as much into it as I can. So I’ll continue to strive towards the grand and improbable, I’ll just try not to skip my yoga practice every morning.