I call it “striving.” I’ve heard others call it hustling, hard work, the grind, “just the way things are.”
It’s my mind’s default mode, the part of my personality that almost always jumps in the driver’s seat and takes the wheel.
On good days, it shows up as an exact and tidy to-do list, with just enough time to knock out each task one by one.
I wake up to my first alarm, roll out of bed, stretch, meditate, scramble eggs that look like they’re on a Michelin-starred chef’s Instagram, and get to writing. I finish work just before dinner and spend the evening relaxing with a book or enjoying time with my girlfriend.
Most days it gives me a gnawing sense of incompleteness, a lack of something, as if I’ve got unfinished business. It feels like I’m running from one thing to the next, like I’m leaning out of the present moment and into the future — like I need to strive to catch up.
Who or what am I trying to catch? I have no idea.
I’m Sisyphus, the ancient Greek king punished by being forced to roll a rock up a hill over and over again for eternity. I’m exhausted and don’t want to work anymore.
But , working more is the only way I’ll feel whole, accomplished, complete, says the striving part of me.
So, I start pushing the rock again, only to soon lose interest and get distracted. I pour another cup of coffee, pick up my phone and scroll through Instagram, turn on Netflix — anything to escape feeling the incompleteness.
(If striving isn’t resonating with you, think about what part of your personality takes the lead when you’re by yourself for a long period of time. Or ask yourself, what story do I most often tell myself when I feel anxiety?)
There are many reasons for my tendency to strive.
As a kid, I was young for my grade level, which often made me feel behind.
My parents are solidly middle class, having achieved a decent standard of living by working rather than hiring others to work for them.
I’ve been marinating in capitalist ideology my entire life, which manufactures a sense of scarcity and encourages individual rather than collective ways of achieving abundance. Capitalism is all I know — I’ve been cut off from the wisdom of tens of thousands of years of human experience with other sorts of relationships to each other and nature.
But let’s set the reasons why to the side for now.
What has helped me have more of those good days recently is that I’m changing the way I relate to my striving.
I’ve started noticing when I’m telling myself a story about being behind and needing to catch up. That’s what mindfulness is: “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” as scientist Jon Kabat Zinn describes it. (I’ll explain “non-judgmentally” in a moment. It’s the most important part of that definition.)
Mindfulness is the first step to changing any habit or pattern.
You must first notice the story you’re telling yourself in the moment. Then — as meditation teaches — you let go of the story and bring your attention to the sensations of your breath, how your body feels, and the sounds around you. You come back to what’s happening right here, right now.
It’s not about ignoring the stories by shooing them away. It’s about seeing if you can stay with the bodily sensations that the stories bring with them. Can you simply feel the burning in your chest or clench in your stomach without following the story?
If you stay put, usually, the storm will pass.
Sometimes it doesn’t pass. This is where non-judgment, sometimes called “self-compassion,” is crucial. You’re bound to be swept away by the story most of the time. You’ve spent years habitually following your mind’s every whim.
Sometimes it doesn’t pass. This is where non-judgment is crucial. You might’ve heard it described as “self-compassion.”
You’re bound to be swept away by the story most of the time. You’ve spent years habitually following your mind’s every whim. The stories are seductive — you created them, likely at an early age, in an effort to protect yourself. They also are reinforced by a violent, individualistic society. You’re not going to learn how to relate to them differently overnight.
So, be easy on yourself as you begin to explore the stories that hang around in the background of your life. Start by practicing the first step: simply noticing when they appear.
The good news: just a small tweak to how you relate to the part of yourself that believes a particular story can go a long way in changing your life.
As I’ve started to notice when I’m believing the striving story, I’ve started to let myself fully relax for the first time. In the past, it took the presence of someone else or alcohol or drugs or a great book or movie. The conditions had to be just right, which made it rare.
Now, if I’m particularly mindful, I can let go of the story like when I let go of thoughts during meditation. Sometimes, this little bit of space allows me to take my foot off the gas and not feel the need to be somewhere else doing my “unfinished business.”
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Photo credit: Ichiban Yada