What if the goal was to let go of goals? – How facing the meaninglessness helped me get out of my own way.
Imagine three things you want to achieve or accomplish, three things that would cause you to thrive. It could be this week, this month, or this year…
At the very least, this seems like a harmless exercise… Even if it won’t help you achieve any goals, the worst possible outcome is to stay where you are, right?
Well, if you go deep enough, it can put you in a bottomless spiral of doubt, questioning everything you knew and valued, and staring directly in the eye of The Abyss.
That’s probably not the result Tony Robbins had in mind
This exercise comes from Tony Robbins’ guided meditation I learned at his amazing seminar. I came back feeling I was on the top of the world and used all the tools they provided to keep my ball rolling. And it began rolling quite pretty damn fine.
In less than a month, I would start waking up at 5:30 without an alarm, switch to a super-healthy, mostly plant-based diet, and go from “nope, I’ll never run in my life” to 5k. I lost some weight in result and was in the best shape of my life. I knew that if I manage to maintain this mindset, nothing in the whole world is going to stop me.
If that’s just one month, what can you achieve in a year or few?
As I accomplished my three initial goals, I needed some other things I could look forward to. They told us in the seminar that if you have a great enough reason to get out of bed, you’ll jump right out of it, full of energy and excited for what the day may bring.
I didn’t know what my next top 3 goals could be, but it didn’t bother me much at first. I was sure that if I stay aware and keep tossing away the things that don’t serve me, a true Meaning and Purpose will eventually reveal itself.
Isn’t that how life is supposed to work?
You stay mindful, the chatter in your head becomes less and less intense, and the clarity of Your Truest Self will inevitably shine through the fog. At least, that’s how I imagined it. I kept practicing, running, meditating, and looking for clues.
Life soon gave me a clue, a delightfully absurd one. My company asked me to staff our sponsor booth at TYPO, the biggest design conference in Europe. I’m not a designer myself, but I entertained the idea of becoming one some day, so I was surprised and excited to hear that they chose me.
I would have been even more excited if I didn’t learn later that High Existence organised their first retreat at the very same time. Still, I had a gut feeling that going to this conference will be an important step in clarifying my goals.
And then the customs office arrested our sponsor booth
We staff a lot of events, and I don’t think this had ever happened before. They held us in suspense for two days, asked for more and more documents and clarifications, and eventually decided no single piece of this package is entering the EU, period. I ended up alone in Berlin, with nothing to do, a train back home in 4 days, and a sponsor ticket to the conference. I could as well go and listen to the talks.
For 3 days I would wander aimlessly from one talk to another, speaking to random people, and learning as much as I could. Folks who were respected authorities in their disciplines would walk up the stage and share the stories of how they improvise, make up impostor solutions out of thin air, and have no idea what they’re doing for the most of the time. And then came the final talk, where they would start to question the meaning of design, and of the concept of meaning itself.
I came there with questions to be answered and left with no brains
This talk by Underware was a masterpiece of philosophy disguised as design. I had my mind blown watching it at least hundred times. They brought a guitar player on stage, and the sounds of his guitar would change the shape of a letter ‘a‘ displayed on the screen. They invited a well-known Dutch author to dissect the second, and third, and further layers of meaning in a piece of text, until it became pretty obvious it’s just turtles all the way down.
In theory, I already knew everything is arbitrary and the world is inevitably heading towards the Big Freeze. Fast forward enough billion years, and entropy is guaranteed to destroy everything that could have any meaning or value. It’s not like the human race has actually a say in that.
But it’s one thing to know something rationally. Another one is to let yourself feel it.
I could no longer meditate with Tony Robbins on my goals. There was no way I could come up with a goal that would feel meaningful enough to me.
What does it matter even if I teach children around the world, run a marathon, or complete that project at work? In a few hundred years, no one will even know I or these kids existed. In a few billion years, not even the sunlight will remain.
How can you set a goal and be serious about it if you know it has no meaning at all?
I went on a long, deep way down into the emptiness, even though everything in me screamed I should turn away. It’s not easy to confront the meaninglessness of life head on. I got sensitive, nervous, emotionally exhausted, and much less productive in turn.
Hey, I even stopped writing on my blog, for the first time since I started it some 4 years ago. Why should I bother to write something anyway? What would I even want to blog about?
My fiancé kept saying I should get out of my head
We would joke I might as well become a trophy wife, and live the virtuous life of shopping and beauty routines. I would spend a small fortune on Nike’s running clothes, only half-jokingly telling myself I’m worth it. Kim Kierkegaardashian became my beautiful companion in despair.
With nothing better to do, I started hand lettering every day. That was the first thing that came to my mind when asking myself what I enjoyed as a child. I would jokingly say I’d quit my job to advance my lettering career on Instagram. That sounded about as good as any other career I could choose.
Then I realised, it’s not the first time I’m ever seeing this abyss. It’s just the first time I choose not to turn away.
I’ve had some difficult periods in my life. I would drink a lot back then, mostly to numb myself. I would beat the crap out of the 2048 game, going all the way up to 8192 and more. Even this didn’t stop me from playing back then.
Wandering around, lettering, buying sports clothes, and doing it consciously was the single healthiest response I ever had to this shit. I was incredibly lucky I could now face my anxiety without running away into sex, drugs, or games.
But facing your anxiety is neither pleasant nor easy
After a few weeks, my shoulder suddenly went on a strike. I’ve gone from super-healthy-and-fit to “can’t raise my arm high enough to put it on my desk” in two days or less.
I knew it was my body’s way of reflecting the state of my mind, but there was nothing I could do about the state of my mind at that time. The doctor prescribed me some drugs that had “vomit with blood” listed among side effects.
On UPW they would say: if you’re going through hell, keep going
There’s never the right time to go through a fully blown existential crisis, but I wished I hadn’t just started a new project at work in that state. I felt quite insecure in the new role even without considering the meaninglessness of my life. I also knew I’m capable of rebellion and burnout when there’s too much on my plate.
Of course, this new project was as meaningless and futile as everything else, but going through both burnout and existential crisis at once would probably be too much pain to bear. I decided that’s not something I could afford at the moment, and started working much less than I’d normally expect from myself.
Luckily we had vacation planned, and it was coming soon
I was a bit anxious to take two weeks off, as we were quite understaffed. Out of the 8 people working on the project at first, we were down to 4 after a few months, and 2 of us were going offline at the very same time. If I wasn’t simultaneously staring the void in the face, I wouldn’t probably have the guts to leave it alone.
Luckily my project had as little meaning as anything under the Sun. The idea of it falling apart into pieces didn’t feel that much worse than the idea of the whole Universe marching towards maximum entropy.
I left my laptop unpacked, uninstalled Slack from my phone, downloaded Rumi, Eckhart Tolle, and Kapil Gupta on my Kindle, packed my lettering gear, and headed off to Norwegian mountains and waterfalls. Neither my body nor my mind were in their best shape, but I made a strong resolution to accept whatever comes.
Sometimes, this would mean hiking a beautiful trail to one of the most breathtaking places on Earth. Other times, it was standing in the rain in the middle of a parking lot and eating a wet sandwich, wondering why we’re even doing this to ourselves. I must admit it though that the parking lot still had some pretty great views around.
Surprisingly, the world didn’t fall apart while I was away
I work with some really smart folks who figure things out for a living. As you can guess, they did a great job figuring out what to do, and it turned out much better than if I had it all planned in advance. The project is moving forward at full speed, all the pieces of the puzzle are falling into the right spots somehow, and I’m not sure why people give me credits for that. All I actually did was getting out of the way.
Looking for some goals to strive toward, I found that all I actually needed was to let go
There’s many different things for me to let go of. The desire to control the process to make sure it doesn’t go sideways. The attachment to the results that this process will hopefully produce. The identity I might build for myself if the results turn out in my favour.
Luckily, there is great freedom in letting go of it all. If nothing really matters, I might as well do anything, even the craziest and scariest things I ever had on my mind.
What’s the worst thing that can happen? Something worse than the Sun swallowing the Earth in a few billion years? Perfect! No matter what I do, I’m not going to screw it all up much more…
I don’t feel like I finally found the Purpose in life
Quite the contrary, the burden of finding it is off my shoulders at last. I can focus on whatever is in front of my nose right now, without worrying about all the things that might or might not happen, and whether their outcome would be better or worse.
There’s so much more for me to learn, to explore, to play with, or savour. Why not play that little role of mine in this big Cosmic circus as joyfully as I can?
One thing that brings me such joy is the hand lettering I recently started. It has no purpose at all, and it’s delightful to lose myself in it. As a side effect, I can sometimes make beautiful gifts for my friends. I didn’t plan for this outcome, and it’s better than anything I could actually ask for.
Without the pressure to find meaning, I can open myself to that creative energy that moves all things. However you call it, (The Force is my preferred term of choice), this energy can take you places your mind couldn’t possibly fathom. All you have to do is to let it.
For now, it’s taking me to the second High Existence retreat that will take place in October. I have zero idea what we’ll create there yet, but I’m absolutely certain it will be out of this world.