It’s tempting to see life as one big project, because what is life full of? Projects.
Making dinner is a project. Finding love is a project. Getting a job is a project. Retiring is a project.
And what’s inside any project? Smaller projects.
To make dinner you have to pick a recipe. Small project. Go food shopping. Small project. Chop the ingredients. Small project.
Improving our situation in any way, big or small, requires finishing a project.
If we’re hungry and want to enjoy that nice dinner we’ve started cooking, we’ve got to finish the project of cooking it. If we’re not happy with our home or our job, we’ve got to finish the project of finding a new one. Want to go on vacation? Planning it is a project and that project has to get done.
Life trains us to expect that happiness, relief, success, lies at the other end of a project because so often that’s true. In part.
No matter what our values and goals happen to be, no matter what kind of projects we choose to undertake, we’re still looking for gratification at the other end of a project, and sometimes we find it. In part.
One person’s current project might be selecting and acquiring a luxury wristwatch that they don’t urgently need because they have ten others. Another person’s project might be learning to play a beautiful passage on an old guitar that they had salvaged from a junkyard and painstakingly restored. To judge these two projects, one might seem like a greed-driven consumerist project, and the other might seem like a wholesome effort involving the cultivation of skill through dedicated practice, but there’s something the same about them: in both cases, gratification, contentment, satisfaction is imagined at the other end. I’ll be happy when I get that watch. I’ll be happy when I can play that beautiful passage.
To finish projects and acquire the rewards we seek, we have to stay focused on the goal. We have to maintain our pace in moving towards completion. We have to be an effective taskmaster.
Putting all this together, it’s easy to think that our current situation in life is synonymous with the state of our to-do list.
Our to-do list might have entries relating to each of the active projects in our life at the moment. That list represents everything we want to do, everything we have to do, everything we care about, everything we hate – it’s a picture of how we’re going to be spending our time in the coming days, weeks, and months. If life is indeed a project, then our to-do list is a reading of our life circumstance – it’s an indicator of how the project of our life is going right now.
And if that list is overwhelming and chaotic we might think that our life itself is in chaos, or somehow “off track.”
Naturally, the way to get our life back on track would be to get a grip on that to-do list, put the items in order and start checking them off faster.
When I see a burdensome task on my list, I sometimes think “I’ll feel better when I get this done.” And that has always seemed like a helpful thought, the kind of thought I’d want to cultivate, since it might motivate me to finish.
Similar to the project-oriented view of life is a game-oriented view. We might see life as a game where our current status depends on how many good things versus how many bad things have happened lately, how many points we’ve gained and lost from recent occurrences. A person might get up in the morning and think, “How am I doing?” The answer is, in effect: “The weather’s gloomy and that’s dragging me down: negative ten points. I got out of bed too late: negative fifteen points. The stuff I was working on yesterday didn’t get done: negative twenty points. I’ve got a bunch of annoying chores ahead of me: negative thirty points. But I get to have my coffee now: positive forty points.”
The coffee helps, but we’re still in a point deficit. “How am I doing today? How am I feeling? I’m feeling like negative thirty-five points.”
Meditation can disrupt this view of life, especially if we do it in the morning. When we meditate, we allow thoughts to enter and leave our mind, but instead of pursuing them as we normally would, we aim to treat them with detachment. So we might still have the thought “The weather’s gloomy and that’s dragging me down,” but it no longer means “negative ten points.” If the same thought returns, perhaps it returns as “The weather’s gloomy,” without the conclusion that this is dragging us down. If it returns again, perhaps it comes as “The sky is cloudy.” This neutral framing opens up the possibility of other interpretations. Clouds mean that rain might come, and rain is good for farms, gardens, green things that grow. The neutral framing also opens the possibility of inner silence. “The sky is cloudy,” requires no followup, no further engagement. It is sufficiently inert that it can be acknowledged and allowed to fade from our consciousness altogether.
Such a process of detachment can be carried out with any thought at all, including the thought of the most pressing item on our task list. There might be an important meeting we have to attend in the late afternoon, but while we’re meditating in the early morning we can still find increasing detachment from the idea of that meeting until, perhaps, the idea doesn’t come into mind at all in the remaining time of our meditation session. Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re free from having to prepare for the meeting, arrive there, get through it and follow up – it just means that for a moment, on the very same day when that meeting is to occur, we can achieve a few moments when our mind is clear and free from any thought of that pending task.
If we do this routinely enough, we can find a kind of calm that’s always there, available beneath the crust of our thoughts, available regardless of what happens to be on our to-do list, what’s gotten delayed, what’s not working, what issues have just popped up, and what disasters we’re trying to prevent on any given day. It’s not always easy to achieve this calm, but once you’ve done it just once, you know it’s possible. And fundamentally it’s simple – it’s just about getting good at a mental technique of tuning everything out for a moment – everything but your breath.
And this brings the realization that maybe it’s been a mistake to pin “how we feel” on “how our projects are going.” Maybe it’s been a mistake to connect our mood, even our happiness to the state of our to-do list. Maybe it’s been a mistake to let things that happen to us give us points, and take those points away, as if calm were a reward or “game level” that could be unlocked by acquiring enough credit.
What happens when we find detachment from the thought that “I’ll feel better after this project is done?”
We can see that this thought is like an advertisement. We’re advertising to ourselves that happiness awaits, if only we do what we’re trying to get ourselves to do.
The question is: why can’t I feel better right now, before the project is done? Why does happiness have to wait? Of course, the fear is that if I allowed myself to feel good now, I wouldn’t have the motivation to complete the project – there’d be nothing to get from it – I’d just slack off, feeling good and doing nothing at all. To be an effective taskmaster, we think we’ve got to constantly make such deals, withholding happiness now so we can promise it to ourself in the future.
But is that true? Maybe if I felt good now I’d do better work because I would approach the project with less anxiety and dependency? I’d approach the project from a standpoint of strength and confidence rather than from the idea that my happiness is the project’s hostage.
Last year I experienced two devastating losses in my immediate family. And one of the things I had to do after my loved ones passed away was to sort through boxes of their paperwork. And that meant boxes of to-do lists. Schedules. Calendars. Doctors reports with followup tests and appointments listed. Printouts of emails about things to be done, dates to be remembered, items to complete.
These tasks were the stuff of life – they were important and meaningful – and they needed to be done.
But going through them drove home the lesson – what’s at the other end of your to-do list?
That’s what’s at the other end of the long, long to-do list of life, conceived as a project.
But if you accept that life is not a project, it follows that getting through your to-do list is not what’s going to make you happy. Any time you say “I’ll be so much happier when this is done,” think again. Allow yourself happiness now. Then look for another reason to do it, besides the promise of happiness deferred.
Life trains us to think in terms of projects and outcomes because we need to finish projects and achieve specific outcomes to survive, to improve, to prosper, to realize our potential.
But it’s up to us to balance this project-based “training” with a habit, a practice of accepting contentment, allowing for contentment, manifesting contentment wherever possible.
We can try to flip the “game” of life around in such a way that we give ourselves points for allowing contentment.
“How am I doing?” The answer might be, “The weather’s gloomy and that’s dragging me down: That would normally be negative ten points. But I can be content in any case, so I get positive ten for that. I got out of bed too late. That would be negative fifteen points. But I realize I’m still alright, so positive fifteen. The stuff I was working on yesterday didn’t get done: that would be negative twenty points. But I’m practicing contentment and I’m not going to postpone a peaceful state of mind because of all that stuff. So that’s positive twenty.”
We can certainly see life as a project with a beginning and an end, consisting of many smaller projects with their own beginnings and ends.
But we can also see life as a process of connecting and reconnecting to a source of peace and happiness that lies within us and remains within us through shifting circumstances, always available if we know where to look. For some people this might mean connecting with God, or a universal consciousness, and for others it might simply mean connecting with a silence, a quiet space inside the self.
None of this is to say that we don’t need projects, that we don’t need to start and finish them, that we don’t need to take them seriously all the while. It just means that we can find calm, we can accept calm as those projects are going on, even before they’re finished, even regardless of whether those projects succeed, even no matter whether our goals and dreams, our desired outcomes are achieved. Is that so radical?