Recently I found myself wondering about the more internal aspects of the Great Turning. We usually talk about the Great Turning as a social-political-economic-cultural phenomenon: actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings; analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives; a shift in consciousness toward realization of our interconnectedness and interdependence with all of life. (If you are not familiar with the concept of the Great Turning, check out this link: http://workthatreconnects.org/three-dimensions-of-the-great-turning). Of course all three of these collective dimensions entail individual choice and understanding, especially the third—a shift in consciousness. Beyond that, however, I have begun to explore how the Great Turning manifests within the ways I live my life day to day, my thought and behavior patterns.
The Great Turning happening within—what does that mean? How do I experience it? For one thing, I think it’s about changing from striving to holding, holding in love. It’s so subtle, it’s hard to put into words—more of a felt sense. It doesn’t matter if I strive to Do Right, to Fix things, or even strive toward enlightenment; it’s the striving itself that’s the problem. It may even be a problem with Western Civilization as a whole, of which I am a product.
Instead of striving, I sense a wholly different life stance or pattern is possible, one that observes and embraces all that is, with compassion, understanding, and equanimity, breathing and awaiting an inner prompting to act precisely and with love. Quiet patience replaces anxious attempts to make things better. At the same time, I observe and accept my own feelings in response to what is happening—because they are part of what’s happening—also with compassion, love, and understanding. I might express my feelings strongly when it’s safe to do so, but within a larger field of equanimity that remains centered and grounded.
Why do I so often strive, push myself, drive myself, even to do things I enjoy? What I want to do becomes what I should do, need to do, must do. And I see reflections of this pattern all around me. Life coaching has become quite popular, and most forms emphasize setting goals and striving toward them, even if those words are not used. Our culture seems to hold the belief that if we don’t strive, we’ll collapse into couch potatoes—and after a day of striving, that’s exactly what many of us do!
Where did we ever get the idea that we wouldn’t do anything without external or internalized drivers? Where does the fear of “laziness” come from? Health means participation, creativity, involvement. “Laziness,” like any addiction, is a symptom of something that needs to be healed, not merely overcome by strong will.
Problems with Goals
Goals are often set by the “rational” thinking mind. “Mere purposive rationality, unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream, and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and that its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.” (Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. 146, Chandler Publishing, 1972)
Bateson proposes that the conscious human mind (“mere purposive rationality”) is actually destructive of life, because it is so limited in its scope of understanding—“short arcs” of the complex “interlocking circuits of contingency” upon which life depends. We all know that there is so much more going on in the world within us and around us than we can be conscious of. Yet we continue to act as if our conscious “rational” mind was in control.
Goals are thoughts, a result of a previous thinking process that construed them as important and meaningful—and indeed, they may have been at the time. However, they are now fixed in the past and projected into the future. They are usually not related to the present moment, as in “what is calling to me right now?” They may keep our focus so narrow that we don’t notice something that needs our attention, especially if it seems unrelated to our goal. We may not even notice when our goal is contrary to what is needed in the moment. We may need to adapt or even set aside our goals in response to changing circumstances.
Goals may prevent us from receiving feedback from larger environmental and social systems of which we are parts, leading to damage to ourselves or the larger systems. The destruction of ecosystems and global climate change are “side-effects” of narrow human goals pursued without attention to the larger world.
Goals may be built on the illusion of control, which in turn may relate to our denial of death. We tend assume that we can control the circumstances of our lives sufficiently to accomplish our goals. In truth, I don’t think we ever control much of anything, but if we are skillful enough at predicting, we may come to believe that we have controlled an outcome.
Goal-setting might be recommended for a “low-achiever”; perhaps it could be a useful method for helping someone get off dead center. But goal-setting can also be a “downstream” solution that would not solve the underlying problem, and therefore ultimately fail. A healthy, self-actualizing person follows his/her heart, without the need for external motivators. So what’s really holding the low-achiever back? Old wounds and conditioning may need to be addressed so that the person’s natural motivation can emerge and move him/her into life.
What might be an alternative to goal-setting? I suggest attuning on a daily basis to the whole of our lives and environment, and to our inner calling in response to that attunement. Activist Fran Peavey used to ask herself each morning, “How can I best serve today?” When we find ourselves at the completion of a task, we can pause and ask again, “Now what am I called to?”
To be honest, I do set goals, or at least hold intentions, but they are loose, always subject to change, and of a fairly short term. I’ve written several books, which would seem to suggest that I have set goals of completing them. I just don’t think of it that way. I feel moved or called to write a particular book (or this essay, for example) because I want to explore and express some ideas or perspectives. Yes, I do have to sit myself down to write, and set aside the other ever-present demands on my time. But that doesn’t feel like setting a goal; it feels like making a choice in the moment of what I do. It’s not projected out into the future. It’s here and now.
And sometimes I have a deadline to meet, especially if my book has a publisher who expects it to be done at a certain time. Again, that does not feel like a “goal” per se. It’s just something I keep in mind as I plan out my work. And I never know for sure whether I will meet that deadline, yet somehow I nearly always do—and feel quite grateful that my life circumstances have allowed for that to happen.
The relationship between “striving” and “goals” is probably obvious—at least it is to me. And I do see both as part of our Industrial Growth Society, in which corporations and businesses set quarterly goals for their employees—usually in terms of profits or quantity of widgets produced. The Great Turning could change that dramatically. In a Life-Sustaining Society, people may come together around a perceived need for a product or service, and see what emerges as they think and work together.
Good jazz and rock groups do just that—improvise individually as they feel their way toward a beautiful synthesis. Such self-organization doesn’t happen through striving toward a goal. It happens spontaneously in experimentation—and play.