When we’re talking about performance, letting go of goals seems like the exact opposite thing we should be doing to excel. But what if letting go of the goal enabled the attainment of objectives beyond the original scope?
“Ambition aspires to descend” – Pierre Corneille
Location: Descending into the big blue deep, Anavyssos, Greece
Letting Go of Goals?
Repeatedly I am taught that the mind is a powerful tool and not to be underestimated. No matter the setting, letting go of goals has provided the mechanism to go even further. To clarify, letting go of goals is not about detaching from them or dropping responsibility for performance into some other bucket, it’s about prioritising awareness of what we’re doing in the present to step towards the goal rather than focusing on the future state (the goal).
Location: Alexander Beach, Anavyssos, Greece
Aspiring to Descend
To illustrate the success of such an approach, I’m going to present a sport or rather discipline that to most will go against natural tendencies. Over many summers I’ve enjoyed entering various marine sanctuaries with a snorkel and mask, freely diving beneath the surface to three or four metres depth. Soon the desire to go even deeper and hold my breath for longer was a goal I was unable to shake. On the couch I could reach two minutes and come out of it in a sweating panic and swimming underwater for 30 seconds felt like an eternity.
Freediving is a simple concept in theory but there are many factors working against achieving the aim of competent breathhold diving. There’s the physiological aspects of holding your breath and the repercussions if you hold for too long, the skills in diving deeply efficiently and with proper equalisation, being settled and calm in the marine environment and the obscure notion that one merely takes a breath and goes under without air tanks.
For a full insight into the perils of freediving, here’s a documentary on the dangers…just 40 seconds in and you’ll get enough of an impression to understand the risks.
Learning to Let Go with Mindfulness
For my immersion into this murky subject (bad pun, I know), Stavros Kastrinakis, Greek Freediving National Record holder (151m, no limits) and Owner of Freediving Club Greece would be my instructor. In the months leading up to the intensive AIDA2 Freediving course with Stavros, I’d commenced practicing mindfulness techniques with Neuralign as a way of practicing and honing the ability to remain aware and focused no matter the environmental or physiological state (see previous blog entry here “Mindfulness: Hocus Pocus or Renewed Focus“).
As an eager student my goal was to become proficient at breathhold and freediving to go deeper for longer. It wasn’t long before I discovered my desire to reach the goal would start getting in the way of advancement.
After a day of rigorous instruction in theory and practice in the swimming pool, the first open water dive was upon me. In actuality the dive would take me towards a small boat on the sea floor 13 metres down. I had fixed in mind that target, I thought “I must reach the boat”. It was after all far deeper than I’d been before. And with that fixation on the goal, the boat continued to elude me on each successive dive. Stress ran through my veins, discomfort engulfed me and each time I couldn’t reach that boat I became more and more anxious to get there. It was a tense day in the water.
Video: Freediving 13m depth attempt, Anavyssos, Greece
On reflection that evening, armed with video footage, it was obvious that an improved state of mind would benefit me greatly. I let go of the boat and any further depth goals for the rest of the training course. It was a defining change.
Location: That Boat! Anavyssos, Greece
Finding New Depth and Performance
During the course Stavros delivered a range of instruction, theoretical, practical, pool-based and in open-water. On the second day under Stavros’ guidance, with a new approach and mindset, I was able to achieve a static breathhold of almost four minutes, that’s twice the duration compared to my previous best on the couch and it was underwater. Letting go of goals put me in the right place.
Out in the open water that second day, it became easier to defer to the process, to rely on the small steps of improvement, to be in the present moment and enjoy each and every dive for what it provided. Some went well, others poorly, but with each a growth step was achieved.
By the fourth and final day, having let the spirit of the experience wash over me and let go of the ambition that first brought me to Greece, aka The Big Blue, to learn how to go deeper into myself and the ocean than ever before, I’d found the most beautiful of sports that I could never have imagined. Later I would learn that I’d reached depths of 26 metres, about 20 metres more than on the first day.
Video: Freediving 24m depth, Anavyssos, Greece
Letting Go of Different Goals
That freediving course taught a lesson that has not gone away. Letting go of goals has aided me in even the most menial of tasks, such as packing an entire home and moving all the contents elsewhere within five consecutive days, without stress and all done piece-by-piece. Or for an exciting wheel-based challenge, it’s not different to the state that lifts you up the Col du Tourmalet, one of cycling’s toughest hors category climbs, 19km and over 2000m in altitude. Pedal stroke by pedal stroke the peak gets closer. In business and in projects, the approach is the same, beginning with the objective in mind at the start and enabling the flow to take you to the project peak.
Mindfulness in the Mainstream
From my observations, mindfulness practice appears to be really gathering pace and volume in the on and off-line community, it’s certainly becoming more and more accessible to those curious enough to enquire. For a bite-sized ingestible chunk of ten guiding principles for cultivating mind and body balance, you may refer to Dr Natalie Masson’s useful summary here.
Ed Halliwell describes mindfulness practice:
“It nurtures a process of unfolding, of allowing things to settle, so that that well-being might emerge from coming into flow with how things are, even when that isn’t how we’d like them to be.”
And that is just what it is!
Having an experienced, skilful and patient guide such as Stavros truly made this a long-lasting education and one that really continues to serve each day.
Location: Alexander Beach, Anavyssos, Greece
Enjoy the flow and peak performance of letting go of goals.
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