An Alternative Approach to Accomplishment
Hello, it’s Monday again and I wish you a good one.
We’re all, every single one of us, continuously striving for and striding toward the accomplishment of one goal after the other. The perpetual pursuit of accomplishment – the small or big, the everyday or Everest-scale – is a commonality of humanity.
We can’t not be, we’re alive, and just the regulation of life itself requires the cyclical fulfilment of essential objectives. On an organismic level, our cells require energy to fuel our physiologic systems. The attainment of that energy, through oxygen and food, is an unceasing cellular goal to simply subsist.
With organismic subsistence catered for, we can focus on the basics of daily existence—achievements as grand as getting out of bed in the morning, brushing our teeth, or mopping up bin juice after the bag splits, and others, of course.
Next up from these basics, (or perhaps, rather than stacked in pyramidal Maslow-measured hierarchy, all these seams of needs run concurrent and interwoven instead, and, as it happens my dad and I spoke about exactly that the very last time we had dinner together—it sticks out in my mind because he suggested we go to a pub to eat and he ordered a goat’s cheese salad, whereas usually his suggestions went not much further than something Chinese and deeply fried) exist the traces of bigger visions, ambitions that live in the futures of our minds, towards which we struggle, hustle, duck and dive.
But from the infinitesimally tiny, cellular activity, to the biggest of dreams that exist only in our fantasies, the fulfilment of each and every goal follows the same universal equation—with which we’re all implicitly familiar: it’s an additive equation, that is to say one of addition, where input creates output. Or, put differently: I + Resources = Outcome. A straightforward adding of forces.
Consider the word accomplishment a moment. From its Latin roots it has connotations of filling or filling up, in other words fulfilment, and you fill something up by adding to it.
But because we’re all so used to this way of thinking, this particular version of cause and effect, of giving of ourselves, of contributing, of adding and producing, our familiarity with it might just also be a blind spot.
Think of the pursuit of internal, metaphysical, objectives. The attainment or realisation of states of being, such as contentment, connection, compassion, love or patience.
They don’t—can’t—result from a formula of addition. Because there’s nothing tangible, nothing substantive or malleable, to add from or into. We can’t wilfully add a natural state of being upon ourselves, and if we could we’d all be at it (but because we can’t we turn to substitutes and distraction – phones, sex, drugs or what have you).
On the internal, metaphysical, plane cause and effect persist, but perhaps the equation flips.
Perhaps here accomplishment is found through removal and subtraction.
Back to that word accomplishment again: for something to become filled it must first, necessarily, be empty.
And aren’t our internal states of being, when pure and authentic, exactly that—empty?
Empty in the sense of impurities and contaminants. Contentment, connection, compassion love and patience, for instance, can only arise from a space first vacated by thoughts and sensations that had been blocking them—prejudices, presuppositions, or defences of identity.
Strip away, subtract, the need to be right, or the need to reply, or the need to know the reasons why, or any other number of presupposed or defended states, and what we’re left with is openness and clear mindedness. Like a pristine lake, uncontaminated by detritus, nothing blocking (the full range of) authentic human state and sensation from ascending unimpeded and spontaneously to the surface.
But stripping away and subtraction isn’t what we’re used to. We’re not programmed to release, relinquish and let go. It feels counterintuitive, literally unproductive. We’re used to setting forth into action in order to solve a problem. Our habitual response is to add our input to a situation. And so the idea of doing the opposite might leave us feeling helpless.
Consider, for instance, those irritating occasions when someone tells you to “just relax” or “loosen up” or “just be yourself” as if doing so is as simple as putting on a different coloured shirt. They’re unhelpful (albeit well-meaning) commands because there’s nothing of ourselves that we can add in order to be ourselves, or to relax or loosen up.
Actually, and so often, it’s precisely, and only, the opposite that’s required. We must divest ourselves of any layers of pretence or defence in which we’d become tangled or invested. But letting go, release, can be frightening. It’s why we hold our breath and tense up when we’re frightened.
But letting go, the symbolic (and real) exhalation, acts as a release valve. We empty ourselves and make space to receive the next bit of input.
All this is the practise of meditation, isn’t it? Meditation is, when you think about it, a practise of divestment, of subtraction, of stripping back, of removing concepts from the contents of consciousness, of witnessing all of consciousness in its state of pre-concept, as Sam Harris might put it.
Admittedly that’s a decidedly difficult bit of trickery to get your head around because we’re conceptual beings. But we’re also not. We also exist in the non-dual plane where there is no concept of “me” over here and that “chair” over there. There’s simply each bit of content within the infinitely, inextricably connected conscious space.
But forgive me, I’ve wandered a little off track. Let’s take this back to the practical world, away from the metaphysical and meditation and pre-concepts and all that, back to the solid world of bin juice. Because there’s a lesson here, I’m sure.
And it’s this.
Perhaps, if we ever find ourselves at stalemate with a task or venture we wish to accomplish and succeed in, it could be worth approaching it with this flipped equation: of subtraction rather than addition.
Instead of “what can I do, oh what can I do?” Ask, “what can I remove, what can I lose?”
What is it inside of me right now – thought, belief or programmed behaviour – that’s standing in the way of my own accomplishment? What am I holding onto that’s got a hold on me?
Is it fear or prejudice or assumption of some kind, and can I subtract it?
And am I breathing, in particular am I fully exhaling, am I letting go?
Can I empty this space and ready it for fulfilment?
On another note, I’ll be joining my dad’s good friend, comedy and magic man, Danny Buckler, on his livestream this Thursday 11th June at 10pm UK time if you’d like to tune in for a conversation about a little of all this, more of all that, and, no doubt some chit-chat about my dad too. Search for thedannybucklershow on Instagram to be with us live or have a watch any time afterwards, it’d be a treat to have you with us.