Life is a journey, not a destination. And it comes with ups and downs as we climb our metaphorical mountains in search of our purpose: to find meaning in our lives and to create meaning in the lives of others.
‘The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.’ Fydor Dostoevsky
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what I might regret on my death bed. Perhaps it is the mid-century birthday creeping up on me that’s doing it. Or perhaps it is because of the fresh loss of a friend, and other recent experiences, which have reminded me (with a slap) that life is fragile and precious.
Regardless as to why, thinking about potential regrets on my death bed has been the motivator to clock off work on time to get home to my family. It has reminded me to pause and be grateful for the people in my life, and to sit back and enjoy the moment. Projecting myself forward to face my future ‘death bed self’ has helped my ‘self of today’ think more carefully about what is important in life.
In 2009, palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware, recorded the regrets voiced by those she was caring for during their last weeks. Honouring their requests she shared their wisdom. It should come as no surprise, that the number one regret of people dying was about being brave enough to live an authentic life, honouring their true self and their dreams.
‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ Top regret of the dying, Bronnie Ware
Having something to live for, something true to the core of who we are, not only helps us stay alive, it helps us feel alive - and improves the quality of our lives. A 2017 study published in Jama Psychiatry reported that having a purpose in life reduces the decline of physical health. The participants in the study who had goals, or a sense of meaning, had stronger grip strength and faster walking speeds than those without a goal. Important, given a weak grip strength and slow walking speeds are signs of declining physical health and an increased risk of disability in older adults. Another study, from the same year, published in BMC’s Sleep Science and Practice Journal, reported that better sleep quality is related to having a ‘higher level of meaning and purpose in life’. The link between surviving life and having a purpose is found in the Forward of Victor Stretcher’s beautiful graphic novel ‘On Purpose’, where medical physician, researcher and author Dean Ornish MD, reminds us of Viktor Frankl observations in his classic book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Frankl speaks of inmates in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany and how he found ‘those inmates able to find meaning even in this dire situation were much more likely to survive.’ A truth echoed in the amazing interview on Super Soul Sunday I listened to recently. A podcast where Dr Edith Eva Eger - holocaust survivor, psychologist and author - shares her incredible story, and how having meaning and purpose in life was critical to her survival.
No point in arguing with the great philosophers and psychologists of our time, research studies, medical doctors and people like Dr Eger. To have purpose is to have life.
It was with a shock that I realised I had become lost earlier this year, and in a state without purpose. I couldn’t understand it. I have family, a loving husband and beautiful children. Surely they are my purpose. I have extended family, my dear mum, my dad who lives in spirit now, my brother and sister, my in-laws and more. I feel loved. I have dear friends, who care for me deeply and are a joy to hang out with. I have all the material things I need. I have security. I have a job I love. A book project. And yet, despite all this and more, life had lost its meaning for me. Despite all that was in my life, I could not shake the feeling I was not living my true life, as my authentic self. ‘Midlife crisis’ I hear you yell? Perhaps. Painful, nonetheless. I felt like I was wandering aimlessly, day to day, in the wilderness of life. Without an anchor point. Drifting. ‘Life doing me’, bumping me this way and that, instead of ‘me doing life’ and choosing my path, my direction.
Enter stage left: Bob Proctor and Sandy Gallagher’s Thinking into Results. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was lucky enough to be invited to this course, facilitated by Georgia Ellis from BlueChip Minds. This course is a culmination of decades of research and reading by Bob Proctor, alongside insights and learnings from his conversations with change agents, philosophers and people shaking up the world in some way. All cleverly designed to take you on a journey of self discovery. And that is exactly what I did (once I got past my preconceived ideas - which rose quickly to the surface, that this was some ‘get rich quick’ philosophy where the definition of success is all about money - and opened myself fully to the experience).
The ABC of Goals
In our first lesson we learnt about the importance of having a goal, about the different types of goals and we were asked to come up with a personal and/or professional goal. A key learning for me from this lesson, and from this course, was the difference between an A-type, B-type and C-type goal.
An A-type goal is something we know we can do. It is something we already know how to do. It is often something we are already doing. Unfortunately, in professional development discussions in our workplaces, we often settle for A-type goals. There is no satisfaction to be gained in doing this, as there is no growth associated with A-type goals. A-type goals are often about doing ‘more of the same’. At work it is often the A-type goals driving us. I am going to deliver this project, or that project. Which, of course I am, it is what I know how to do, what is expected of me, why I am hired to do , where I use my expertise (with my eyes closed). Doing something you know how to do, and know you can do, does not give purpose and meaning. A-type goals can also be ‘I want to do more of this or more of that’, but doing more of something we know how to do doesn’t give us purpose and meaning either. All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have A-type goals, but we should not have them, alone. An A-type goal for me is to go with the family to Peru for my 50th birthday. I know I can do it, I know how to do it. I just now need to save for it and organise it. A nice goal, but not one that anchors you to life, if you get my meaning.
B-type goals are those we think we can do, but we don’t know how to do. Like learning a language. My B-type goal is learning Spanish. I am lucky enough to have had an introductory course at work, and have recently joined Duolingo and I am really enjoying learning a language. Especially Spanish, as it is something I have wanted to do since I was in my early twenties. Learning a language is really satisfying, but isn’t necessarily something giving purpose to my life. Yep, a B-type goal for sure.
C-type goals is where it is at, according to Bob Proctor. These are the big ones, where you dream big and ask yourself the big question ‘what do I want…what do I really want?’ It is a fantasy, taking you out of reality and it is meant to scare the hell out of you. Yep, you know you have chosen a C-type goal when it gives you a sick feeling in your stomach. When you palms start to sweat. When the fear of failure immediately is upon you. To find your C-type goal, you sit down, relax, close your eyes and let your imagination lead. You let it run wild and see what comes up, see where you land. You don’t think about how you are going to achieve it, or if you can, you just put all your attention into working out what it is that you want. And it hits you. My C-type goal: to find a cure for mental illness. ‘Are you crazy?’ I hear you say. ‘That’s damn impossible.’ I hear you shout. Affirmations. It really is a C-type goal.
And so I woke up with my C-type goal and to begin with, although it felt completely right, I was a little scared to tell people. I imagined them saying exactly what I was thinking. ‘Who the hell do you think you are? You don’t have a medical degree. You don’t have any expertise in this area (other than some life experience of your own, and of those around you). You can’t do this.’
Despite my doubts. I let the goal sit with me. I began to share it with others in the course. I began to share it with those closest to me. The fear of being judged by this goal disappeared when I focused on the fact that some of the biggest discoveries and breakthroughs in life could not have happened unless someone had a crazy idea they just would not let go off. Why can’t we have a world free of mental illness? Why give up on this before we even start? Why not just hold it as the thing I desire most and see what comes of it. See what finds me.
And this was the beginning of my unfolding. A gentle but beautiful awakening and an opening of my mind of what could be.
Holding this goal in my heart, led me to start the Attention Gym. A little side project I have started, where I am on a journey of discovery. A journey exploring how exercising your muscle of attention can impact your wellbeing. This has led me to podcasts, books, websites, blogs, research, a meditation course, ideas, aromatherapy and working towards a meditation teaching qualification. This has also led me back to myself. Back to my love of philosophy, of Jung, his mandalas, the collective unconscious. Back to my love for Ayurvedic medicine, which has fascinated and intrigued me since I was a teenager. Back to my creative self. Playing with an Instagram blog and building the idea of social media being about community. Developing a website to share my journey, my learnings. Experimenting with animations. This led me back to my writing. Back to giving back to others.
My second mountain
Holding this goal in my heart has led me to my second mountain. New York Times columnist, David Brooks puts forward this concept in his book aptly called ‘The Second Mountain - the quest for a moral life.’ In his book he explains how in life we trek up our first mountain - to a career, marriage, family, a life we planned - only to reach the summit and feel unfulfilled, lost, without vision (it is cloudy up there). With this realisation we fall, roll down the mountain into the valley of our self and our suffering. A place where he encourages us to take firm footing and learn, discover and grow.
‘The right thing to do when you are in moments of suffering is to stand erect in the suffering. Wait. See what it has to teach you. Understand that your suffering is a task that, handled correctly, with the help of others, will lead to enlargement, not diminishment.
The valley is where we shed our old self so the new self can emerge. There is no short cuts. There’s just the same eternal three-step process that the poets have described from time eternal: from suffering to wisdom to service.’ p38, The Second Mountain, David Brooks.
So I stood in my suffering. As erect as I could stand in that valley of murkiness, darkness and messiness. And I found the path to my second mountain. And I am now making the trek.
‘Not till we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.’ Henry David Thoreau
My suffering taught me that my purpose in life is to be a student of life. That I was made for learning. That I am here to share my learnings. That I should prepare myself for the long journey up the second mountain. Make sure I have the supplies I need. Those around me, a team of like-minded people. Those that believe in me. And to make sure in my back pack of life, is a good supply of self belief and generosity of spirit.
The joy is in the journey up the mountain. The discoveries I make along the way. Which I will share, as a writer. The first mountain was for me. The second mountain is for me and my community. For our collective mental health.