A Question of Motivation

I was having dinner with my parents not long ago when my dad spoke up, an uncharacteristic formality in his tone. “Do you mind if I ask you about your, uhm, philosophy? I don’t want you to take it the wrong way…” It sounded like the start of an intervention. “You talk a lot about letting go of things, about not caring about goals. But what’s wrong with goals? What’s wrong with working hard and trying to be great at something?” He went on at some length, explaining his view on the matter and arguing for the value of dedication to a craft, of the embrace of goals and striving, of the beauty in taking one’s art form to the highest levels.

By most standards, you could say my dad is an accomplished person. He’s an artist who’s been showing his work since before I was born; he received a Visual Artists Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 90s, before the government stopped issuing such things; he taught as a professor at various respectable universities around the country; he’s co-authored and co-edited multiple books; he even has an Instagram account. He’s also an intellectually engaged fellow and, along with my mom, introduced me to the Eastern philosophies that today undergird much of the explorations you find in this blog.

Therefore, when my pop expressed concern at some of my perspectives, I was compelled to give the matter some more thought.

I think I see what he was getting at. I’ve written repeatedly about an issue I’ve noted in people around me: the achievement-obsessed behavior that leads usually to frustration, momentarily to satisfaction, and always to more goals in a never-ending cycle. From what I can tell, this cycle is the source of much needless human suffering. In last week’s post, I wrote that to be happy you should “loosen your iron grip on things as they are now and on things as you want them to be.” In November I wrote, “I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction.” In July, “Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.”

My dad isn’t the first one to take issue with these sorts of sentiment. One commenter recently suggested, “If we truly accept, we wouldn’t climb at all.” A while back, a friend felt the need to log on and set me straight, saying “The proper motivation to climb that next-level route, to ski that rad line, to get that dream job shouldn’t be out of fear, but out of love! Out of love for living a more actualized life and in sharing that joy. Out of the personal satisfaction that comes with achievement and the intrinsic satisfaction of the accomplished vision.” Which I almost completely agree with, if not for a few pesky words (“more actualized” and “personal satisfaction that comes with achievement” in particular.)

What my dad and others were concerned by, I think, is the seemingly slippery slope that leads from acceptance to apathy, from non-attachment to detachment. But I’m not an apathetic person. On the contrary I’d say I’m very engaged with and moved by the world. So perhaps my words just aren’t matching up with my deeds? I’m hoping a quick trip down memory lane will help clear things up…

When I was younger, I took naturally to rock climbing, but I tended to weigh the experience with unnecessary baggage. I wanted to be the strongest guy at the crag. I wanted recognition for my abilities on the rock. I wanted to burn the other guys off the wall. For years I’d train until my knuckles flared and my rotator cuffs grew ragged and frayed (still paying for that!). On days when my climbing wasn’t going well, I’d feel little more than frustration, my mind focused on my own standards of excellence rather than the reality of what I was doing that day (which should have been having fun climbing with my friends). It was backwards motivation, chasing after an image of what I wanted to be like, for shallow reasons like impressing others or satisfying some urge in myself.

Over time, as I grew older, I learned naturally to give less of a shit. Meanwhile I read books that echoed things I noticed while observing my inner state. I learned, very gradually, to release much of the grip I had on desires and to climb ever more for the simple pleasure of it. I learned to work less towards the goal of sending a harder grade and more towards the perfection of movement, of breath, of the infinite subtitles of balance. I could get lost in these subtleties and find something of lasting meaning there. Sometimes this approach meant I’d climb a harder grade, but often it did not. In the past, I would have been frustrated by my lack of steady “improvement,” but in recent years, it’s become increasingly unimportant, a distraction from what I view as the actual experience.

But does that mean I have no attachments, or propose that you should have none? Definitely not. I’m a realist, not an absolutist. But I do feel there’s a fine line between valuing things and clinging to them. To work assiduously and in earnest, but not be overly concerned with results—here’s the thing that I couldn’t quite express to my dad over dinner. I guess you could say my personal philosophy is more about the means than the ends. It’s not unlike the school of climbing that places style above all else. If you cut corners or do something in bad style, if you focus on just getting to the top or getting there faster and ignore the how of it, you’ll end up missing the whole damn point. An attachment to outcome that’s too strong can pull us out of alignment with the most meaningful things in life.

Wanting this blog post to be great will not make it great. Worrying that it is not great will not help me to write something better. On the contrary, it will likely lead to something less honest, less natural, more forced. Whether it is great or not is arguably an arbitrary distinction, too. So I would posit that the opposite of attachment is not apathy, but clarity and even freedom.

Pesky language! Even this lengthy ramble around the topic is not quite what I mean to say. But I’m OK with that.

The Next Project

On the way down, we're already considering the next project. © The Stone Mind.

“You know you’re trying your hardest when your ‘climbing’ becomes a series of falls punctuated by a few glorious moments of holding on,” a friend once said to me.

You might call this the ragged edge of climbing, where we feel no flow, only frustration. The impossibility of the task whelms up and over us, an impenetrable wall, and we wonder why we’re even wasting our time.

This is a job for someone else, an inner voice opines. Better to give up now and find something more… attainable.

But some other part of us sees the faintest glint of possibility—or not even sees, but intuits it, stretches out towards an irrational belief, bolstered only by the knowledge that there’s nothing to lose for trying.

And so we fight on. Against the forces of doubt and inertia, towards a hope barely visible.

And still we fall.  Each time the boulder rolls back down the hill. Each time we endeavor to roll it back up, like that old Greek story.

Maybe the story gets it wrong, though. Maybe Sisyphus wasn’t just compelled by the gods to roll his boulder up the hill. Maybe he chose to roll it because he believed one day he might grow strong enough to push it all the way up, past the limits of his vision to some distant crest.

With every fall and every failure, some lesson is learned, however subtle. Sometimes it’s as simple as “rest longer between attempts.” Other times it’s as minor as “crimp the hold rather than open-hand it,” or “turn the hip a few degrees more to the left.” Often we must remind ourselves of the most automatic of things, like “breathe.”

Just to breathe. Just to focus on the task at hand without the weight of context on our backs. This is all we have to do, but it can be a lot to ask, because our monkey minds are busy: Will I get hurt if I fall from here? Will I have energy to try again if I don’t do it this time? Who will see me fail? Will I disappoint myself? The monkey mind is strong and cunning…

Sooner or maybe later, we see the possibility of success grow brighter. Unbroken sequences of movement grow longer. We find solutions to moves that once seemed inscrutable. Piece by piece, the impenetrable wall yields.

Now, instead of small islands of success in a sea of failure, an archipelago arcs gracefully into the water, broken only here and there by cruxes.

Finally, we enter the state of flow and a complete bridge appears. “Here” is connected to “there.” But even as we near the top, there’s uncertainly. A final anxiety grips us so firmly, we’re apt to falter on some easy move that we’ve climbed many times before.

Sisyphus’ boulder nears the top of the hill. The end of his struggle is at hand. The impossible has become possible, and yet…

The boulder hasn’t changed. The hill still holds the same incline, the same length. From the top, he looks out and sees no grand answer or tangible reward, only another hill, and behind that more hills without end. The thing that’s changed is his perspective. The only answer is he’s gained is to the question: “Is it possible?” but the affirmation fulfills only momentarily.

What does he do then? He sets his gaze on the tallest peak in eyeshot and plots a course, to see if that one is possible, too.

How is this any different than the climber who, at the end of her project, is already thinking of the next project even as her belayer lowers her back to earth?

Two questions come to mind: Is this all there is? and If so, is there anything wrong with that?

Critical Mind and Playful Mind

A climber laughing and concentrating

“My thinking about the case, man, it had become uptight.”
— The Dude

If you’ve spent much time rock climbing, you’ve probably come across a person who wants the send a little too much: he kicks and screams when he falls; while resting, he sits with brow furrowed in stern concentration; he makes excuses for his unsatisfactory performance to strangers with no reason to care; he appears almost upset to be out climbing rocks for fun. It’s always weird to see when somebody seems to be missing the point so completely.

At the same time, most of us want to improve, to succeed on the climbs we try. Why wouldn’t we? It feels good to push out against and expand what we once thought of as our limits. It is a true pleasure of life to overcome a challenge that once felt insurmountable. But to do this, we have to set goals and make plans to achieve them. We have to care, or we wouldn’t bother to try at all. And we have to be critical of our approach in order to improve, refine, find the best path to proceed.

I find what’s needed to really climb well and enjoy it is an alternation between the Playful Mind and the Critical Mind—very much a complimentary pair, a yin and yang of mindsets.

I alternate between these mindsets with work, too. When I work from home, often I descend into uninterrupted Critical Mind for long periods of time. Then my wife comes home and finds me sunk into my chair, typing away with a scowl on my face. She starts to tell me about how her day went and I say, “Uh huh,” “Oh really?” only having half heard what she’s telling me. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I’ve been in my head all day, mercilessly criticizing my own ideas to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and it can be hard to make the transition into a more relaxed and open mindset.

I enter my Critical Mind (which I also call Editor’s Mind) because it’s important to me that I do good work, but it’s not good to be so critical when you’re spending time with your spouse or family or friends. It’s a tight mindset, one that creates tension between the keeper of the Critical Mind and anyone else who isn’t in the same mental space. It also creates tunnel vision, which can move us farther from the very goals on which we’re focused.

“To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things,” says Mark Beeman, a professor in the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. “Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”

Counterintuitively, a more leisurely, undirected, non-goal-oriented approach might actually move us closer to what we desire. The harder we grasp, in other words, the more things tend to slip away. Look at a faint star in the night sky directly, and it disappears into the darkness. Loosen your focus, let it exist in the periphery of your sight, and it will begin to reappear. It is in this state that we can start to see the larger patterns, the constellations as a whole.

So on a new climb or a new task at work or in school, we should come with our Playful Mind first. Explore the options, consider the big picture, the entire constellation of possibilities. Experiment, exert energy in many directions and note the results without judgement. Then, perhaps, it makes sense to apply Critical Mind: decide what works and what doesn’t, analyze the why and the how of things, decide on a game plan and attempt to execute. If your plan doesn’t work, it might be time to return to the playful mind again, in search of other options.

To use only one mind or the other is a mistake. The left and the right, the light and the dark, the active and the passive, the playful and the critical… . It’s by the alternating of one foot in front of the other that we progress. But in either case—in any case—we must not hold too tightly to the ultimate result. As it says in the Tao Te Ching:

[The master] lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old.”