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Letting go of striving

After years of yearning, getting that promotion may not bring the happiness and fulfilment expected

01 April 2019, at 9:30a.m.

Shakespeare once said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” By striving for someone or something to come and make us happy, we are inevitably saying to ourselves that until that person/thing/state of mind arrives, we are going to remain unfulfilled.

Our greatest pains and disappointments arise from those things we try so hard to grasp on to and secure. We are constantly struggling to achieve and possess or to feel “things” which we don’t yet have and, ironically, those very things we want (or think we want) often don’t even exist. Or, if they do exist, they rarely satisfy according to our illusions.

We live in a world of a rampant imagination running wild and dictating our thirsty cravings. If you drop your iPhone in the toilet, you can’t replace like with like. Apple insists you have an upgrade to satisfy your ever-increasing needs, further encouraging your desires to have more apps, a better camera, faster downloads, etc.

What is striving?

Striving is not aiming to achieve a goal or a good intention. That’s commendable. Striving is an unsatiated and insatiable yearning which doesn’t leave us. When we reach the place where we can let go of striving, we are liberated from the exhausting pursuit of chasing happiness. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom.”

Before we learn to let go of striving, we will experience disappointments. Given the convoluted nature of desire, there are no experiences that are entirely free of disappointment. This is what makes disappointment such a complex and confusing feeling. Many of our desires that we pursue are unconscious, sublimated and frequently contradictory.

Paradoxically, we may even become disappointed when we get what we want. For example, in Sigmund Freud’s 1916 essay “Some character-types met with in psycho-analytic work”, he explored the paradox of people who were “wrecked by success”. Unconsciously, these people believed that their success was unjustified, so achieving it didn’t feel satisfying to them.

In the December 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice magazine, I wrote about “imposter syndrome”. First described by psychologist Suzanne Imes in the 1970s, impostor syndrome occurs amongst high achievers who are unable to internalise and accept their success. They feel that they are a fraud and about to be “found out” instead of being able to celebrate their well-earned successes, big and small. In essence, they strived, they achieved and they were left anxious and empty. In other cases, even when we do get what we want — and think we deserve it — we may discover that what we wanted so badly doesn’t bring the expected bliss and happiness we expected.

You may be striving to become head vet in a busy practice, to be head surgeon in a referral institution or to manage your own branch in a corporate, but be careful what you wish for, and try not to rely on it as your only true chance of happiness or fulfilment. You may get there. You may believe you de-serve it. Enjoy it for what it is without putting yourself under pressure to be blissfully happy and complete.

How do we "let go" of striving

Jon Kabat-Zinn relates a tale of a cruel practice in India, where there is a method of catching monkeys that involves cutting a small hole in the top of a coconut, then attaching the coconut by a wire to the base of a tree. A banana is put inside the coconut. When a monkey slides its hand in to get the banana and holds onto it, its closed fist is too big to slide back out. The monkey becomes trapped as it does not want to let go.

During mindful meditation we can decide to “let go” of our striving for the perfect life/thing/person. By accepting what we already have as good, we can be liberated from the nagging need for more and more and more.

We don’t have to stop improving ourselves or our skills. We don’t have to cancel all CPD or social engagements. It’s about accepting ourselves as we are, while enjoying the journey of self-improvement. It’s about noticing what’s good about something, someone or some feeling, without worrying about what’s not perfect about it.

Then, like a butterfly, just when you’re least expecting it, happiness and completeness may land on your shoulder.

Laura Woodward Counselling

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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