I grew up with little stimulation or structure. I didn’t learn to set goals. When I did start learning goal-setting behaviors in my twenties, it often felt awful. I remember feeling as if a dowel or a plank was projecting from my face, making my future stiff and cumbersome and making turning difficult. At other times I would hold onto goals so tightly that I couldn’t catch my breath. And I started using unhealthy ways to calm myself down. After having a couple of periods where goal-setting was making me miserable, I find myself averse to doing it. I sometimes feel I don’t know how, or doing it feels false.
Before taking Michael Ashcroft‘s course on expanding awareness, I played around with setting very small goals, to build the habit back up. This would work for a while, but I always ended up in strange feedback loops of collapsed awareness, variations on the feeling of the plank described above.
One manifestation of this would be something like Vishnu hands1, but when I did it I dropped out the means from my awareness. I imagined I was one of those arms on an assembly line. You can see them when they pause to install a part, but the in-between motion is a blur. I imagined I could leave out the intermediate movements. And I extrapolated this onto my life. Again, this is a contrast to how I grew up, which was an extreme focus on the moment-by-moment, with no end in mind.
I have been experimenting lately with something like Vishnu hands again, this time maintaining awareness throughout the motion. And I hold an intention about the motion through the entire motion. I hold a shape and a feeling, something like a conductor moving their baton. Not all the notes, but the texture. The conducting is a mental representation, an envelope holding a complex set of internal stimuli, held within a state of expanded awareness.
Michael offers the wonderful prompt of remind oneself every few seconds of expanded awareness, like a radar ping. There it is. There it is. There it is. But there is another mode, which one can enter for brief periods. Instead of a ping, it is a hum. Instead of a dot, a short line.
For example I have been doing it with handwriting.
You probably do not think about the shape of your letters as you form them, but I do. It’s a bad habit I got into, and I find it tricky to get out of sometimes. So what I’ve been trying is to instead use expanded awareness prompts and think of the formation of the word as a set of subtasks (using something like a Vishnu hands prompt) and also to think about qualities of the letter other than their shape. I think about footprint and smoothness. Footprint is the space the letters take up on the page. Smoothness is the quality of the line.
So in other words:
1. I sit and use an expanded awareness prompt.
2. Then I set the intention of writing a word. The intention is a blend of a feeling in my mind, a shadowy image of it, and a loose formulation of its sound and meaning.
3. Then I look at the page and roughly picture the place it will take up on the page.
I do not then control my hand. I wait until it’s ready.
Then comes what I have been doing differently.
4. When the action feels ready, I hold a mental representation of smoothness in mind. I let my hand form the letters however it wants, as long as the letters occupy the correct space on the page and as long as the lines are smooth.
I am leaving the means to my unconscious mind, allowing it to do the complex coordination, but my conscious mind is orchestrating it at a high level.
This is an instance of a general approach to coordinating behavior:
1. Hold a mental representation in mind.
2. Perform the behavior.
3. Assess the results.
4. Adjust and and repeat.
This is in contrast with trying to control the behavior through conscious motor control.
Everything I just described is probably extremely familiar to you. You’ve been writing this way since you were a small child. I’m just describing it. (Also, I am doing it with my non-dominant hand.)
You can try this experiment.
1. Think of the sentence “All cows eat grass.”
2. Set the intention of writing it, focusing on the shapes of the letters. You want to form all of the letters correctly. Write the sentence, holding this intention in mind.
3. Now set the intention of writing it, focusing just on the footprint of the letters and on making the lines smooth. Write the sentence, holding this intention in mind.
Which sentence looks nicer?
I find this exercise informing other parts of my life. I find that I am more thoughtful about breaking up complex tasks into sub-tasks. I am experiencing less anxiety around performing new tasks, and I am also making fewer random mistakes, probably because I am not initiating action until I have a felt sense for a sub-goal in mind. I find myself focusing less on individual motions—pushing of limbs, clicking of buttons—and more on something like conducting and inspecting, comparing my progress against the goal, staying sensitive to the stream of adjusting circumstances.
As usual, I am also using Gendlin’s Focusing to help process anxieties and other discomforts that come up as I practice.
One idea I have to remind myself of often is that anxiety and excitement are basically the same mental state with a different attitude or frame. So when the setting of a goal precedes anxiousness, I experiment with mental representations until I can see excitement.
I might write more about this. I am interested how motivation cascades from the general to the particular and the complex interaction that occurs—how the feelings toward a particular action modify our attitude towards the goal, and so on.