Quite a few posts that I’ve read recently have been about goals; how to choose them, set them, organise them; how and when to review them, and how to learn from them. Dianne McKinnon recently posted a delightful update on her Wildly Improbable Goals for 2012, and it got me thinking.
I had been looking back to the early days of this blog around a year ago, and realised that although at the time I didn’t clearly see it, I did actually have some rather woolly and ill-defined goals of my own. I felt compelled to do certain things with a sense of urgency that surprised me and although I didn’t understand it, I was willing to go along for the ride and see where the journey would lead. I was also hoping that I would find myself in a safer, more comfortable and less anxious place, and that it would be the journey home.
I did have one quite clear intention however, back in December of last year – the same determined resolution that had already been with me for many months, which was to find reliable ways of coping with my recurrent attacks of anxiety, and I did have a practical Plan of Action, which went something like this:
1. Get outdoors every day and go for a walk, and take a camera. Be mindful – be open, observant, and responsive and try to relax and stay present in the moment, without thinking.
2. Find ways of connecting with other people.
3. Seek, explore, discover, expand and learn as much as possible.
Before I go any further, here’s a disclosure: I should explain that I’m wary about goals of any kind, because I have found in the past that they have often been false friends. I suffer from what here in the UK is called ME, and in the US is more often known as CF/IDS (chronic fatigue/immune dysfunction syndrome). It’s a fluctuating, variable condition that I’ve had for almost 30 years and the advice most commonly given to anyone trying to manage this condition is all about pacing. What this means, in a nutshell, is finding the right balance between what you can do and what you can’t, and sticking with it so that you don’t overdo things and crash. In other words, avoiding ‘boom and bust’ cycles.
This is all very well up to a point, but you can also get into the ‘gloom and rust’ cycle where you are careful not to take on more than you can manage, but get frustrated and find yourself stuck in a dreary place. You can easily get isolated, feel trapped, and lose confidence.
There are other schools of thought, that suggest pushing yourself harder in a more challenging way will have a better outcome, and I’ve always tried to bear both of these approaches in mind – in the end everyone has to find their own path. It’s true to say that sometimes not doing something when you really want to do it – even if you think you don’t have the strength – can be more stressful than doing it. But it has made me set goals in a rather secretive way, allowing myself to have them but at the same time not making them very concrete or specific, sometimes not even writing them down in case they either led me astray and exhausted me, or became – depressingly – like distant, unachievable dreams.
This is why I like the idea of identifying Wildly Improbable Goals so much – because apart from anything else, it all becomes a lot more fun. Of course, I have been setting goals this way, but I felt I had to keep very quiet about it, even from myself, and now I can relax and be honest about it. I did, in fact, have an underlying secret goal that was so wildly improbable I never even thought of it as a goal at all, but more like a highly impossible ideal, and that was to attain a state of mind where I was so completely filled with love that there simply was no room left for anxiety or fear to trouble either me or those around me. At least I knew what I was aiming for, even if it seemed completely out of reach and slightly ridiculous.
A year on, I find that I have travelled further than I thought I could. I’ve been out walking almost every day, with my camera, in all weathers. I’ve become much more able to spend time in the present, rather than imagining the future, and I find it easier to accept and understand that everything – including my own thoughts and feelings – changes constantly, and that what I am feeling now will not be what I feel tomorrow, or next week, or in ten minutes time. I’ve made all sorts of connections with people, in different ways and in different places. Many of these encounters have been fleeting but none the less precious because they have been sincere and meaningful, and some have gone on to become friendships. And I’ve certainly written, more than I have in years.
I’ve learnt a lot, and am learning more every day. I could list so many authors, sources, and not least other WordPress bloggers – but perhaps the single most extraordinary fact that I discovered was from Rick Hanson – who writes (amongst other things) about the science of neuroplasticity – the term that describes the way our brains constantly change their neural pathways according to how we think, so that we can literally choose to re-landscape our brains, and establish new channels of habitual thought. We’re not, after all, trapped in a cycle of repetitive behaviours that we can’t alter, even if a lifetime of unintentionally bad thinking habits has left us with a brain deeply scored with well-worn pathways that bring us into repeated attacks of anxiety or anger or fear.
I’m looking forward to the future, and (it amazes me that I am saying this) I can now see it not as a dark and fearsome forest full of potential hazards and suffering, but as an adventure and a land of discovery. Suffering is part of life, just as exhilaration, joy, and peaceful happiness are – now I can say, with only a moderate amount of trepidation – bring them all on, because I know now that they all come and go. There will be ups and there will be downs, but I’m ready to go on with the journey, sharing it whenever I can with others, and if I can, to offer encouragement or a helping hand.