2.18.2009

Don’t Put Happiness on Layaway: Let Go of the Outcome.

For too many of us, life revolves around the achievement of some defined “outcome.” We hold tight to the belief that we can’t be happy until we obtain/complete/accomplish some particular object or objective. We put our well-being on layaway, as though we must make a series of payments before we can have what we want!

I can’t blame anyone for buying in to the conviction that happiness always lies just out of reach. After all, our society’s values promote ambition, consumption, and measurable results. We’re expected to have the right car, clothes, job, degree, and friends. And if you don’t have these things, you’d better get them; otherwise, you’re nothing. By these standards, worrying and caring less about outcomes might seem counterintuitive. Irresponsible. Or just naïve.

I’m not suggesting that we relinquish all worldly possessions or act without any concern for the future. It’s just that while goals and direction are valuable, too much emphasis on the outcome diminishes mindfulness and creates unnecessary stress. In particular, excessive focus on outcomes breeds two unwanted conditions: (1) fixation on the future and (2) energy wasted on trying to control things that are beyond our control.

First, obsession with outcome (or what will happen) keeps us locked in the future, blind to the wonders of the present moment. You may have noticed that this blog is called “Life Is Now,” not “Life is Then” or “Life Will Begin Sometime Next Week.” If we place happiness on hold while we endeavor to improve ourselves or our situations, it might just stay on hold forever. It’s great to have goals, dreams, and a vision of your ideal life. But it’s equally important to appreciate who we already are, what we already have, and the process of change and personal evolution.

Second, obsession with an intended outcome supports the illusion that we can control how things turn out. That unrealistic expectation results in massive disappointment, frustration, anxiety, and anger when things vary from our plans and expectations.

Sometimes this is evident in situations, such as when people grumble, pout, and rage at things that don’t go their way. Examples you might recognize include being irritated by a long grocery checkout line or feeling resentful when someone slips into the parking space you had your eye on. Other times, the illusion of control contaminates relationships in the form of conditional love, so that we reward someone with love and affection only when they behave according to our ideals and preferences. This includes all the “shoulds” we impose on ourselves and people in our lives (more on this in a future post).

Letting go of the outcome remains a challenge for me. In fact, I’d say most of my stress arises from reluctance to let go of control and resistance to “what is.” As I work on this, I’m starting to understand how arrogant my attempts to control life are; my belief that things must be a certain way presupposes that I know what’s best! Alternatively, when I relinquish my need to control circumstances and outcomes, I am free to let the universe (or God, Tao, or some other higher power) figure it out.

I rely on a couple of simple techniques to help me let go of outcomes. One is to breathe deeply for three or four breaths. This is often enough to return my focus to the moment—and it calms me down when I’m uptight. The other strategy is to redirect my thinking from what I don’t like about the situation to something positive. For example, I think of five things I’m grateful for; or, I mentally repeat a phrase like “I am peaceful and serene.”

I get the best results when I combine these strategies so they function as a mini-meditation break. If you want to try an actual guided meditation about letting go, one of my favorites is this podcast at Meditation Oasis (which you can also download for free on iTunes).

This discussion of letting go of the outcome concludes my series of blogs about the “rules” that guide my journey toward mindfulness and authenticity:

1. Show Up
2. Pay Attention (part 1 and part 2)
3. Speak Your Truth
4. Let Go of the Outcome

Clearly, there aren’t any rules, only options. I can attest that I like myself better when I show up and speak my truth; I feel more connected when I pay attention to my body and my environment; and I grow increasingly peaceful when I let go of the outcome and appreciate life as it unfolds. These four principles add richness and meaning to my life; perhaps they can add to yours, too.

I appreciate your feedback. Please continue to share your thoughts and opinions via email and/or by commenting below so others may benefit from your perspective. And as always, thanks to Pat Korb and the Gestalt Center of Gainesville for inspiring this blog series.

1 comment:

Sharon and Mike Williams said...

Once again you hit me in the nose with something I was barely aware was my philosophy. I have had goals but they've never been so all-consuming that I was not able to get a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction out of the dailyness of living. In just a little over a month, however, we will finally be realizing a long-held goal/dream -- traveling to Alaska in our own home on wheels.