I’m preparing an upcoming training in Portland in June, focusing on performance and feedback. As many of my readers know, topics I’m keen on, especially when and how goals help, and when they hinder the learning process. I was looking through some material I had written for another article, and came across this story from my early days in Zurich, about learning and goals, and the challenge of grappling with seemingly incommensurate goals.
I was living in Zurich, Switzerland in my early twenties, studying full time at the University of Zurich, while working 20+ hours a week, teaching English as a foreign language, editing manuscripts, tutoring, scooping ice cream, cleaning houses (poorly), working in a bank, and whatever other odd-jobs I could to support myself. And having to do it all in a foreign language. Actually two: High German at the Uni and Swiss German everywhere else. And most importantly, I was also studying with Jungian analyst Arnold Mindell who was just beginning to develop his own new approach within Jungian psychology (soon to become Process Work). But all that outer activity was nothing compared to the inner sturm and drang. My own self-development was keeping me most busy: trying to work on my dreams as part of my Jungian training, sorting through the angst and turmoil of my twenties, figuring out who I was, what I wanted to do, where I was going… tough even under the easiest of circumstances.
So yes, I was a busy, stressed girl. And sometime in the midst of this I dreamt about a young girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, chubby and uncoordinated, whose parents kept pushing her to climb up a steep and muddy hill. She kept tripping and stumbling, unable to make much progress at all. She desperately wanted to sit under a tree and take a rest. But whenever she sat down, her parents yelled at her to keep climbing. (Sort of like a Ferdinand the Bull story!)
I told this dream to Mindell and he said, well, I guess you have to sit down and relax, even while you are working so hard. That completely exasperated me. How could he side with the little girl? Impossible, I said to him. How can I relax, I asked, while working 80 hours a week? It’s not about being possible, he said. It may not be possible, in fact. But your dream shows two parts, he said, and one part is not getting enough support.
I pondered that for a while, still unhappy with his contradictory recommendation. I returned next week with a theory. If dreams always compensate consciousness, I said, showing us what we neglect in our conscious mind, (arrogantly explaining Jungian dream theory to him) then someone in their twenties, struggling to build a life, career, education, relationship and family, shouldn’t work on their dreams. Because all the dreams will tell do is tell them to stop working, which of course they can’t. It’s cruel and contradictory, I said, somewhat dramatically, to insist someone reconcile two opposing tendencies when life demands we fulfill one.
I really thought I had the argument won, so convinced I was by the soundness of my theory. But Mindell wasn’t easily convinced. The outcome doesn’t matter, he said. What matters is that you grapple with these tendencies, staying open to the different directions within you. They both are you. It’s not about doing one or the other, or being one or the other, but having inner diversity. Better do this now, he said, then just ignore one, only to have it emerge more inflamed and intransigent in your 50s.
That lesson stays with me today because it’s such a good example of the zigzag nature of learning and development. And a lesson about goals. While there are some goals we must achieve, the process of working towards goals is where learning happens. It’s a cliché perhaps, but that doesn’t make it any less true: it’s the journey not the destination.
The very fact that we set goals means that some part of us doesn’t want them. Because if we were really one with our direction, we wouldn’t need to set goals, to use will power to get where we want to get. It’s because we have so much inner diversity, and so many mutually exclusive tendencies that we need goals. And the point is not to do away with the diversity, not to get to the goals in spite of the inner diversity, but with it. If people were songs, we’d understand more immediately how our different tendencies go together. But we normally don’t think of ourselves as songs, and thus, when we have different melodies, rhythms or parts, we feel split, not harmonious
This is what makes being human so perplexing and paradoxical, but also, ultimately so creative. These two dream figures from my 20s are still with me, still duking it out for supremacy. The little girl is my meditative and reflective part. She loves nature, and yearns to be outside. Always. She is also the part of me that can handle stress well, because she is essentially laid back. And the pushy parents, well, they are right here, writing this post, pushing me to keep going when it gets hard, setting my alarm at 4 am to get some writing in before I have to work. When I doubt myself, or feel frustrated, they insist it’s worth fighting for.
I forget this lesson on a regular basis, and it’s so relieving to remember: yes, it’s good to get where I want to go, but don’t forget all the rich learning that happens en route.