I've never admired those who have more than me my lip curls with contempt at the American obsession with wealth and power and fame I don't want to watch documentaries about the painfully overprivileged few and how they rationalize their "success" I'll stick to reading Charles Dickens and doting on David Copperfield Nothing is more inspiring than learning to celebrate what you have especially when it may not seem like much my sentimental heart aspires toward Beth March in Little Women Even in imagination wanting nothing but the pleasant company of loving family and just enough to keep from struggling too much just enough money to eat and enjoy one another the softest pleasures that dollar bills can never buy Excessive good fortune can be a distraction my old soul has always seen through the illusion that big business and the finer things are prerequisites to a fully satisfying and worthwhile existence I have no desire for sparkling falsity I know the diamond of my happiness cannot be obtained it is within me, buried behind solid, black rock my tedious task, to lovingly uncover it's brilliance bit by bit to teach my longing heart that we've always had enough to settle into the glistening pools of gratitude already open to me Within all the small pleasures that I take for granted are housed the beauty and boundless joy of life I have no interest in material fortune and wealth what I am seeking is much more complicated, ambiguous, and tricky to obtain Mansions, cars, and golden rings hold no value to me I'm not impressed by yachts and private islands instead, I bow before the gentle, simple, silent things my spirit has always been a flightless bird that cannot help but to sing when its feathers are ruffled by the strong breeze
Imitation is an artform I can never quite master studying the smiling faces of beings filled with laughter How easy it seems for some to fill themselves up with whatever is available in that very moment the carefree craft of cultivating pleasure Ashamed of all the effort needed to experience moments of gratitude I want spontaneous heart opening materializing all that matters to you An actor well-versed in playing the victim awkward and unsure in any other role celebration starts to seem phony it's so tiring trying to feel full
Self-help books, new age rituals, skill building, knowledge gathering, psychoanalysis, deep introspection. These things have stood as guiding pillars in my life. I ended up majoring in psychology, not because I had any idea of how to turn that into a career, but because it utterly fascinated me. I couldn’t get enough of the things I was learning in my classes. I never had to study. My brain naturally absorbed and integrated every scrap of knowledge I was given in those four years of riveting education.
The pursuit of knowledge never needed to have a higher purpose for me. It was an end in and of itself. I LOVE learning, especially about the mind, my own mind more specifically. I am truly blessed with this passion for academia. Learning is a hobby that can never get old. There are a limitless amount of things to study. Learning something new never fails to light me up inside and send me into that blissful flow state. The rest of the world falls away as I become engrossed in new knowledge and sharing that knowledge with anyone and everyone who will listen.
Society has a way of twisting my intentions though. I get bogged down with the motivations of humanity as a collective, or at least what the media portrays as our motivations. Everything we do as a species seems to be directed at some ultimate end goal, whether that be a physical reward like wealth or simply becoming “better” in one way or another. We lose the moment in our fixation on the ending. Sometimes I have to stop myself and ask, “Wait, why am I doing this again?” Any answer besides “I enjoy doing it” fills me with a dreaded sense of obligation, yet just doing something for pleasure can overwhelm me with existential doubt. “What’s the point then?” As if any point besides pleasure and happiness could make an activity matter more.
When I get too caught up in focusing on outcomes or “bettering myself” through my personal pursuits, I eventually get burnt out and want to give up on everything. It really wears you down mentally to spend every day trying to reach some self-growth goal, implying who and where you are right now isn’t good enough. I never seem to reach whatever goal I’m aiming at, not that I’d be any happier if I did, because what then? No, the real purpose is found in the experiences themselves, in the very act of growing.
For example, when I began my daily practice of drawing during the pandemic, my intention was clear. I like to draw. It makes me happy. It helps me connect with my inner child and reminds me of those carefree days of doodling in my school notebooks or sketching manga with my best friend. That was it. Pure and simple. And it did bring me so much joy. Without trying to, I saw myself getting better and better. I didn’t care how my art stood up against the art of others, or what I was going to “do” with all these images. I found innocent satisfaction in the miracle of the mind and body’s ability to improve at anything that you choose to practice.
After such a long time doing this, however, I began to forget what the purpose was. Instead of wanting to draw everyday, instead of it being a time of rest and relaxation, it became a duty, just another chore, something I had to do. I started getting stressed about not somehow making money off of my work. I got jealous and disheartened rather than inspired by the work of others. I was distraught and frustrated at my lack of progress. I felt stagnant and full of self-criticism and self-doubt.
I am writing all of this down as a reminder of the remedy, if and when this cycle should unravel again. The first thing I need to allow myself to do is TAKE A BREAK. Not drawing for a few days, a few weeks, even a few months, does not mean I will never draw again. It just means I need a break to give myself the space to want to draw again. Forcing myself to do it under some assumption I have to keep practicing to get better makes no sense when the point isn’t to get better, it’s to have fun. Getting better is just part of that fun, but is meaningless on its own.
The second step after a reasonable break, is to try something new. I cannot express the joy I have rediscovered through this step. Trying something new is a great way to shake myself out of stagnation in anything, but especially art. Not only do I have to focus more, it breaks me free from my strict expectations. Whatever I create doesn’t have to be the best thing I’ve done. It doesn’t have to top yesterday. I feel mentally accepting of the fact that I won’t be incredible at what I’m doing. It’s the first time I’ve even tried! When I do something new or in a different way than usual, I escape the fear of failure, while also opening up the possibility of surprising myself with success.
I think most of us end up running our lives entirely on autopilot. Then we wonder why we are so unhappy. I’ve come to realize, without changing anything externally, I can completely shift my experience of daily life by just shifting and/or re-centering myself on my intention. Sure, I enjoy doing things that largely fall under the umbrella of “self-improvement,” but that doesn’t mean I do them because I’m not good enough, or because happiness lies at some personal perfection finish line. I like getting better, not because I’m “better” at the end, but because it’s fun to play with that edge of your own ability. It’s exciting to see what I’m able to do whether that be mentally or physically.
So, future Rachel, if you’re reading this, don’t forget! Whether in art or anything else you choose to do, happiness and purpose are not to be found in results. The joy and the meaning are inside the very moments of creation, of learning. You don’t have to know the ending. All you have to do is follow the feeling. The feeling of curiosity, of playfulness, or even the feeling of laziness when you need a rest from it all. No final product matters if you have to be consistently miserable to get there.
I have the habit of turning yesterday's gift into tomorrow's obligation believing perfection can be repeated if only I can find the right formula trying to turn moments of softness into a repeated daily schedule attempting to compress the essence of my best moments and always have them on hand nice little bottles lined up in my medicine cabinet one sip for surrender two sips for satisfaction three sips for the sublime but magic becomes stagnant inside sterile, air tight containers the tragic irony of trying to set aside time for spontaneity so it no longer feels unsafe the rippling joyous energy of life's unexpected moments cannot be captured and handed out in regular, measured doses surprise is an essential part of the recipe facing the unknown with an open heart is a signal, an invitation to be inspired delight and disappointment are two sides of a single coin, they cannot be separated embrace both or have neither
releasing control is a chance to rest to consciously accept whatever comes anguish adds up quickly when you try to achieve perfection leaving no room for error is a dance with dissatisfaction its funny how quickly I lose sight of the intention behind my machinations was I looking for precision or peace? the latter is always mine when I choose it there is nothing to fear when you're open to everything closing ourselves off is the cause of all distress a flower that only opens to the sun under pristine conditions, perfect circumstances will surely wither and die from stubbornness if nothing else the plucky dandelion that sprouts up through the crack in the crumbling cement will still find the light there waiting to offer warmth and life what we need, we can always find if we decide to lower the strict barriers blocking and restricting our sight an open palm to receive what a clenched fist cannot how absurd to sacrifice happiness in our pursuit of it to give up our inner peace to exert power over our surroundings the true trick is to learn how to soften when we are scared to remember that sometimes surrender will be what saves us
The wicked humor of humanity is distraction sold as a delicacy the art of always having too much power and opulence taking the place of happiness rising above the supposed stupidity of our ancestry, of all lesser beings perpetual progress opined by those who have forgotten intention productivity over purpose mistaking momentum for meaning drugged and disconnected digging deeper holes into delusion dancing frantically towards our own destruction the legacy of becoming lost
I recently read that one of the most important tips given to new race car drivers is, “whatever you do, don’t look at the wall.” When I heard this, it immediately reminded me of one of my very first practice driving sessions with my mom when I was a teenager. As I was driving 25mph down a street in my dinky little home town, my sister yells out from the back seat for us to look at a house to our right. Without thinking, I turn my head to look. In just that one split second, turning my attention away from the road and just to the side, I had swerved the car and nearly driven up onto the sidewalk. Whether you realize it or not, where you place your focus is the direction you are heading.
We say something similar when teaching arm balances in yoga. In teacher training when we practiced cues for bakasana (crow pose) we were told to always make sure to emphasize the importance of our gaze. If you look straight down between your hands as you try to lower your body’s weight forward onto the backs of the arms, you’re inevitably going to tumble forward and possibly hit your head on the floor. The trick is to look a few inches ahead of you. Looking forward, but not down. Our gaze is a reflection of our focus and intention and a reminder of how important these things are.
I think these physical examples are an excellent demonstration of how this same principle applies in more abstract matters. If you look at the wall, you’ll hit the wall. If you look at the floor below you, that’s where you’re going. If you focus on the potential problems or possible ways you might fail, that is where you’re going to find yourself in the future. It seems so obvious when I think about it in this context.
My anxiety is always directing me to the worse possible outcome. It would be great if I were able to print out a pie graph of my mental energy expenditure from day to day. I’d be willing to bet that 90% of my thoughts are about what I’m afraid of or what could go wrong. Even when things usually go pretty well for me, I always immediately find the next fear to latch onto as soon as one disappears. Somehow my brain convinces itself that it is doing this to keep me safe. And to a certain extent, it is smart to contemplate obstacles that may come up and how we can deal with them in the event that they do. However, this is not really what my anxiety is doing. It’s not coming up with calm, rational contingency plans. It’s telling me that the experience will be inherently stressful and traumatizing and trying to find a way to avoid it all together.
It’s really helpful for me to remember the real life examples of the way our focus determines our experience and even has an influence on future outcomes. Yoga gives us ample opportunities to practice these principles before putting them into action in other areas of our lives. Getting into an arm balance is scary. You’re quite likely to fall down the first few times you try. But if we focus on that fear or how it feels to fall and hurt ourselves, we’re never going to master bakasana! Focus on what’s in front of you. Focus on where you want to be or what you want to see happen. If you focus on falling you’re going to fall or perhaps never let yourself try in the first place.
Realizing and reminding myself that my focus on fear is not helping me to avoid it, but instead propelling me toward it, is exactly where I need to begin. Normally when I contemplate shifting my thoughts to the positives and letting go of my anxiety about any given situation, I become afraid that by not looking at the scary bits, they’ll sneak up on me or something. It’s like trying to keep your eyes on a spider at the corner of your room so that it won’t suddenly appear on your arm. But what if staring at that spider was an invitation for it to come over to you? You’d probably keep yourself busy with whatever you’re doing and leave it alone.
It’s time for me to start giving my energy to the good things in life that I want to create, not the parts that I want to avoid. If I focus on the good, I’ll naturally move past or through the obstacles in due time. When I let myself focus on only the scary parts of life, that is all I’m going to experience, whether my fears come to fruition or not. I’ll have already lived the worst of them out in my mind anyway. It’s okay to let myself think about the good things that might happen too or the things I hope will happen. It’s safe to let myself be happy. It’s safe to imagine a future full of positivity and light. In fact, that’s the first step towards manifesting that future.
My sorrow comes in cycles waxing and waning with the moon regular intervals of lapping tides frigid dark waters against a jagged shore long desolate seasons of solitude convince me that joy was never mine the cosmos close in around me a heavy weight upon my sunken chest when the sun finally emerges on the other side of that cruel and endless winter wasteland happiness breaks over my heart like a revelation my sleeping soul cracks open shivering with delight in the warm heavy air finally freed from its cramped cocoon to absorb the majesty of the world reborn open and unafraid, buoyantly held above the stark reality of the season past the second side of my dual nature shaking off the bizarre burden I've been carrying why was I so sad before? what was it that I'd been pained by? now suffering seems so far away was it ever here at all? I don't recognize myself as I look back through the snow and the aching, bony trees caught in the swift, sharp wind the summer beckons me forward into a bright mirage of green where nothing can cause me harm where this time the cycle has surely stopped each moment maintains its own eternity forever paralyzed in each part of the pattern immovable sadness giving way to boundless joy always and again
Only now am I making the connection between my childhood and the way I celebrate myself. It’s interesting to think about. When I was a child, I was exceptional. I didn’t realize it at the time, having no perspective on the matter. But now that I work with children every day I understand why so many adults in my life (my teachers, colleagues of my parents, etc.) seemed so amazed and excited about me as a person. I was always able to outperform my peers in nearly every way. I was incredibly intelligent and curious. I was creative and quite talented in my artistic endeavors. I even got straight As all throughout school, even in college.
Despite the showers of praise I got from so many people, my parents and family members never seemed too impressed. Because of this, I assumed the other people were just being polite or kind, and didn’t take their compliments to heart. My parents always treated me like I was a normal, average child. While other kids in my class got money for a report card with Bs and Cs, I never got anything at all for returning home with perfect marks. I was barely even patted on the back. While this was frustrating, I still believed it must just be because that was expected of me and I wasn’t doing anything special or impressive.
I’ve come to find out that, despite my parent’s apathetic reactions to my childhood accomplishments, they were very proud of me and knew I was gifted. In their minds, they didn’t want to make me arrogant or conceited with constant positive reinforcement. While they meant well, this approach definitely had other unintended consequences. Namely, as an adult, I find myself unable to give myself credit for my accomplishments or feel proud of anything that I do.
I never learned how to celebrate and enjoy personal success. Instead when I succeed I merely think that’s what I’m supposed to do, so it’s nothing to be especially pleased about. I find myself looking at other people’s lives and thinking I would be so happy and confident if I were them, but in reality I don’t think I would be. After all, I have a lot of amazing qualities and achievements myself. I just don’t acknowledge them. In fact, I even feel rather guilty when I try to tap into a sense of pride for who I am and how far I’ve come in my personal journey. I guess my parent’s fear of me developing an inflated ego has seamlessly transferred into my own mind.
Today, no matter how uncomfortable it might make me at first, I want to take the time to consciously note all of the incredible things I’ve done and continue to do on a daily basis. With the perspective of an outsider looking in, I’d like to try to adopt an objective perspective of my personal growth over the years. Maybe then I won’t feel so guilty about “doing nothing” or being “lazy” all the time. So here is a list of some things I think I should feel proud of.
- Bachelors Degree in Psychology, Minor in Writing: I’ve learned a hell of a lot about the human mind and my own internal biases and blind spots through my education. Sometimes I forget that the general public is not privy to a lot of the information I now use to guide my everyday life and decisions. While society doesn’t seem to value my degree very much, I’m still glad that I chose the major I did. I’m also proud that I graduated at the very top of my class, Summa Cum Laude.
- Certified Yoga Instructor: It sounds weird, but I feel so unworthy of this title that I often forget to even think of myself as a yoga teacher. I still remember idolizing my teacher in college and having a pipe dream that maybe I could teach yoga one day. Well I did it! I’m that incredible, beautiful, spiritual person that I once looked up too. And damn it, I deserve to give myself all the credit in the world for accomplishing something I hardly thought would ever be possible.
- Healthy Habits: In my late teens/early twenties, I really aspired to form healthy lifestyle habits. I would watch YouTube videos and follow Instagram accounts of people that I saw living the life that I so wanted to emulate. I really put people that could wake up early, exercise, and eat healthy on a pedestal. Yet, now that I’ve been waking up at 5AM and working out before work everyday and doing yoga and meditating religiously for years, I feel like it’s no big deal. It’s helpful for me to imagine how elated my younger self would be with the life I’ve cultivated for myself.
- Veganism: Being vegan is another goal that I had for a very long time, but never thought I would be good enough to manage it. Now that I’ve been vegan for just under ten years, it is just second nature. Even though it’s ridiculously easy now, I have to remember that this is an impressive feat to a lot of people, my former self included.
- Creativity: Despite not feeling very creative or talented most of the time, it’s still impressive that I manage to find time to dedicate to my creativity and imagination every single day. Even people that loved to write or paint in this youth often have given up these endeavors entirely once they transition into adulthood. My own sister, who is a phenomenal artist, no longer paints because she can’t find the time. I might not be a great artist or ever make anything that will have an impact on the world, but I think it’s beautiful that I make an effort to foster that artistic nature that we all have within.
While these things are not the only things that I’ve accomplished or think are deserving of my pride, they are a few of the most important to me. When I start feeling down on myself, like I’ve never done anything worthwhile with my life, I plan to look back on this list, add to it, and remember that I’m still an extraordinary individual.
Desire is what propels us forward. Without desire, without longing, there is no kindling for motivation and pleasurable productivity. There is no direction in life. I don’t know why life necessarily needs a direction, but it just feels better when there is one. The child I once was, had no lack of passionate desire. In fact, there were so many things I desired that it was impossible to focus on just one or to be without direction at any given moment.
Perhaps its not that I lack desire now, but that my desires have become inverted. I no longer feel inspired to reach for things I want. Instead my only motivation is to avoid and shrink away from things I don’t want. Ten years ago, if you asked me what my greatest desire was, I’m sure I would have said to find a loving partner to share my life with. That was really the only long term, significant goal I ever had in life. It meant everything to me, and it did a lot to nudge me forward each day with hope and determination even in my darkest hours. If asked the same question today, I would have no answer.
I honestly don’t know when that fervent wish fell away from my mind. One day I just stopped wanting it so much. At first it seemed like a gift. I was finally free. I truly believed for the first time that I didn’t need to find this one perfect, romantic relationship in life to be happy. I accepted that happiness would be available to me even in the event I lived the rest of my life alone. After awhile, the relief of not needing what I had always wanted gave way to despondency and apathy. Okay, I might not need love to be happy, but that doesn’t mean I am happy without it either.
Strangely enough, I think to a certain extent, that yearning, that striving for something is what brings happiness and meaning to life. Obtaining our desire or reaching our goal isn’t really what gives us the satisfaction. It’s working towards something, it’s that flutter in our chest that appears when we fix our gaze on some distant horizon and imagine getting there that gives life meaning. Without desire, life seems empty, motionless, and rather scary.
The most frustrating part of it all is not knowing how or if it’s possible to generate desire where there is none. We may think it’s unbearable to want something we may never get, but it’s even more unbearable to wake up every morning and not know what you want. It isn’t exactly that I want nothing. I want to be happy. I want to feel that hunger and excitement that I’ve lost. I want to be free from my mental suffering. These desires are far too abstract to act on though.
When I ask myself what would make me happy, what would spark that inner flame, what would ease my suffering, I genuinely have no idea. I don’t have the foggiest inkling where to begin to find these answers either. While setting myself of a rough, uncertain path toward an ideal love was never easy, it was still easier than wandering aimlessly. A mountain is hard to climb, but the vision of the peak is enough to keep our spirits up. Now I find myself is the vast, flat expanse of a massive desert. It’s not hard to keep walking physically, but mentally it’s much harder, with no end in sight, no reason to trudge on.