Goals, effects and results.
When we wish for something to change, it is common to turn the intention into a goal. Goals, we have been told, need to be concrete, small and achievable. You need a plan, it will help you to be motivated. To push through hard times, resistance, doubt and failure. To sustain a long term change, you will want to celebrate small victories and make use of incremental advantages. This may be true, but in this approach to goals there is a risk of blindness.
We imagine that ‘the gains’ we notice are caused by activities that we perform, that we do because of our plan, that we planned because of our goals, that we intend because of our wish. There is a journey from wish to results, through goals, plans and activities. We focus, we go on, push through. When this road we are on is imagined to be a straight line, we make it into a tunnel, and this tunnel can be blinding.
Although tunnels are great to path under a mountain, they are not so great for participation in life when there in fact is a whole word circling around you. Much more is happening.
It takes only a short moment to realize that even though actions have consequences, not all consequences of goal related actions are goal related consequences (which, for the sake of clarity we can call ‘results’). The effects are always much broader. Some are damaging, some are surprise benefits.
Just because you want to become stronger, and you do strength training, does that mean you actually become stronger? Or are there more days in the week that you are weak, and you spend more time injured? Hungry, grumpy, stiff, occupied. Maybe you get sick more easily and more often. Perhaps your skin looks better, maybe you sleep better. Maybe you are less frustrated and angry. Maybe you change the way you treat resistance in your life that is not physical. Those may have been effects completely unrelated to strength training per se, it may be something you like, or not like.* When people are aware of some of the damage they might call it ‘the price of progress’ or whatever. That still leaves the whole field of negative consequences you did NOT see to roam free and wreak havoc on your dreams, whilst not celebrating the positive effects you missed too.
This need not be the case if we imagine the things we are doing for our goal as surrounded by (and part of) a field of all the things we do. In the same way we can imagine the changes we like as an element of all the changes that are happening. We can then become aware of connections between what we want, what we are doing and what we are feeling. No longer just looking for the effects of our strictly goal related actions.
The key here is to be able to shift between focus and awareness. Narrow, undistracted attention to the task, and a quick and easy return to focus after distractions, and broad awareness of whatever was distracting you, what else is happening around you. Then you can start to sort out the effect your deliberate actions, your habits and spontaneous actions** have on your wellbeing and over time navigate to where you want to be.
A simple exercise to experience the case in point:
Turn your hand so the palm faces you. Curl your little finger until it touches the skin of the palm, then extend it until the tip is pointing to the ceiling. As you repeat this action, notice the effect this has your other fingers. Do they move? If so which ones? Which moves most, which moves first? Perhaps moving more slowly will give a clearer picture.
Now aim to keep the other fingers still, or move as little as possible, and isolate only the curl and extension of your little finger.
As you try this, it is likely that you will focus intently on your hand. Now switch between letting the other fingers move along, or resist their movement. Become aware of what happens to your elbow, shoulder and breathing. Are you frowning? What do you feel in your hand?
This is just a small example of how a goal (move my little finger) has an effect I may not want (other fingers moving) and avoiding the unwanted effect (keeping the fingers still) has whole chain of consequences that radiate throughout my body that I can ignore until the pain or tension that it produces distracts me from the task so much I might abandon it altogether. It is not that moving the little finger is ‘hard’, just like going to the gym or eating healthy isn’t hard, but everything else that gets tied up in that activity that makes it difficult. This is one of the core insights of Feldenkrais, and yes it is notoriously hard to get rid of habits that interfere with potent action, but it can be done. Awareness is key here, and movement is one of best ways to understand this, because the structure of actions and reactions is seen directly and there is no story you can weave in between to hide the important things from view.
*We can go technical here and divide the effects of some goals related activity into four quadrants: related good, related bad, unrelated good, unrelated bad. Related good is the result you aim for, related bad is the ‘price of progress’, unrelated good are collateral benefits and unrelated bad is the collateral damage we are blinded too because its tallied up as ‘bad luck’ or coincidental.
**More on this can be found in “The Potent Self” by Moshe Feldenkrais.