A few weeks ago, I facilitated a group Dharma discussion after an evening of sitting and walking meditation with Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center. What follows is the topic I wrote up in advance of the discussion:
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my path in life: where I’ve been and how I want to move forward. I usually assume that my future happiness depends on setting the right goal, determining the best way to work towards that, and checking off each step as I go. I’ve even got a note taped to my computer monitor that reads “What can I do today that will positively change what I will be doing in two years?”
So I was intrigued to read an interview in Daily Good with Gina Sharpe, who has been a corporate lawyer and Vipassana meditation teacher, among other professions. The article’s author, Tracy Cochran, explains that she approached the interview much as I’ve been approaching my life, expecting Sharpe to present a tidy timeline when asked to described the choices that had led her to this moment. And yet instead Sharpe replied:
I don’t think of life as a sum of choices. I think of outcomes as a result of each choice. I’m not sure that so called ‘choices’ would have been as wise as what actually happened. We fool ourselves to think that we are making big choices that are going to direct our lives. What’s actually happening is that in every moment small, intimate choices present themselves, depending on conditions that previously arose. And appropriate responses can happen if we’re present. Those appropriate responses come together to be part of a kaleidoscopic pattern that can later on appear to be a huge choice that we made. Actually, the pattern is always changing, and if we look at it with spaciousness, it’s beautiful.
Reading this made me consider that trying to plan my life on a grand scale is the wrong approach. Perhaps in agonizing over making the right big decisions, I’m completely missing the importance of the small decisions. What is beautiful, wise, and valuable–those determinations must be made here and now. Conditions only exist in the present moment and can be met best with what Sharpe calls a beautiful mind: one that is authentically present to everything that arises, that integrates every experience yet carefully chooses which qualities to cultivate, that makes small decisions wisely and with equanimity in the face of impermanence.
Sharpe is careful to say that this equanimity is not the same as passivity, a distinction I sometimes struggle with. Accepting how things are or that things change does not mean being resigned to what is or surrendering responsibility for my actions. A beautiful life becomes possible when small decisions are made wisely by one who is grounded in the present and ready to adapt as the situation changes.
“People in our culture like to plan,” Sharpe says. “But in reality, you do step one and the universe responds by offering up new conditions, and then you respond to the new conditions that arise—which have nothing to do with what you knew about when you planned your steps—and then the universe responds again.”
To me, this sounds like an interpretative dance–completely alive to the present moment, gracefully moving to ever-changing music. To be honest, I love dance yet feel very self-conscious when dancing. Perhaps this same self-consciousness is why I obsessively try to plan my life. How can I learn to trust that there will be beauty in the unfolding kaleidoscopic pattern of my life if I approach each moment whole-heartedly?
During the wonderful discussion that resulted from this topic, I came to feel that my original overview lacked nuance. I continue to value planning and goal-setting in my life when those qualities enable me to make the most of the present moment by establishing necessary groundwork that helps to set my intention and reduce uncertainty. Problems mostly arise when planning and goal-setting become ends unto themselves, directing my mind constantly into the future and causing a constant state of dissatisfaction with where I am now. As with so many things, there is a fine balance to achieve.
All of these ruminations were underscored thanks to another Daily Good article, this one called “Stop Trying To Be Creative”. The thesis was that while goals are useful when you’re trying to do something predictable, novel creative output is most likely to result from trial and error based on an initial “hazy intuition or vision”. Periods of flailing about in utter frustration can actually result in unexpected insights because all obvious options have failed and only the creative and novel remains to be discovered. Another reason to make small decisions wisely based on what’s really in front of us and allow space for beauty to unfold.
Expect nothing. Live frugally
Become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.
Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star;
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul.
Discover the reason why
So tiny a human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
– Alice Walker, from Anything We Love Can Be Saved