This essay first appeared on Huffington Post on March 5, 2015
My patient, Anne, lowered her voice down to a conspiratorial whisper: “You know, Dr. Vasa, sometimes I even allow myself to go down to the coffee shop and… read a book!” She looked at me expectantly, wondering what I might say next.
Anne was an attractive, 50-something married female with two grown daughters. She had been a stay-at-home mom for most of her life, active in her children’s lives and in her church. Now, with her children independent and out of the home, she finally had time to focus on herself.
Anne always wondered, with a touch of shame, whether she had done “enough.” Could she have somehow worked harder, perhaps cultivated a career or a side business along the way?
But life hadn’t panned out that way, and in fact, she felt fortunate that she had been able to be at home, raising her kids. Now, she led church groups in her home, took drawing classes, and walked regularly with friends. But she continued to feel like she should somehow be doing more with her life. Setting more goals, achieving more, working harder. Going to a coffee shop and reading a book seemed like a guilty indulgence, a frivolous waste of time.
“Fantastic,” I told her. “Good for you. I am glad you are creating time for yourself.”
I thought of Anne frequently throughout the day. We live in a goal-oriented, driven society. We value accomplishment and achievement. Especially for me, growing up in a South Asian family, it was important that we continued to drive towards success, progressively aspiring to ever higher goals.
Whether it was getting into an ivy league college, attaining medical school admission, becoming chief resident, or developing a thriving practice, the next goal was magnetic. Rooted in a community that thrived on being the best, and a mindset that wouldn’t allow failure or stillness, my eyes were continuously focused on what I needed to do next.
In fact, my eyes were so focused on the future, that I couldn’t see the present. Was there even a pause to celebrate the accomplishment of what I had just worked so hard for? No. I was already moving on to the next big thing. I was already scanning the periphery to see who was catching up. I was afraid that if I waited too long, I would fall behind.
As I immersed myself in the study of psychiatry and the self, I started to learn more about mindfulness. Being focused on our internal and external experiences in a non-judgmental manner. Letting go of the past and the future in order to maximize our ability to be present. The ability to live in this moment, the only moment that truly matters.
I started to experiment with mindfulness in small ways. I tried eating in a slow, conscious manner. I started noticing my breath. I saw the value of mindfulness skills for my patients, who struggled with depression, anxiety, stress, pain, and addiction.
But where did pursuing my goals fit in with mindfulness?
Nowhere, it turns out.
For me, I have been unable to strike a balance between staying mindful and working frantically towards future desires. My mind stays stuck in a state of wanting more, wanting different, wanting better. The journey is lost when the destination is all that matters. The scope for self acceptance and acceptance of the present moment, just as it is, rapidly wanes.
So, for the first time in my life… no more goals. I am releasing the notion that my happiness or sense of self worth is in any way dependent on a number on the scale, a diploma on the wall, or a balance in the bank account.
My freedom rests in my ability to accept that I, and all of my circumstances, are enough, just as they exist right now.
Instead of goals, I am setting intentions. I intend to honor my body with healthy nutrition and movement. I intend to manifest my potential to help others through the practice of psychiatry and writing. I intend to spread positive energy and compassion to those whose paths I cross.
Intentions feel more gentle, more allowing. They allow me a broader framework to continue my evolution and development in a way that feels natural. Unlike goals, intentions allow me the permission to take my time. Intentions allow me to fail and try again. Intentions allow me to be less critical of myself, and less critical of others.
The idea of giving up goals for myself is scary. I worry that I won’t progress in ways that still feel important sometimes, or that I will somehow become lazy or self indulgent. But at this stage in my life, a mindful path towards change feels better than the all consuming drive towards the next shiny desire.
I can learn from patients like Anne, just as she can learn from me. I reassure her, and myself, that slowing down is important. That honoring her needs and wants is necessary. That she is, and has always been, enough. And that enjoying her coffee and a book is just perfect.
What is your intention today? Share with me in the comments below.