The “if only” trap
Finding contentment in your life as it is
In 1996, I attended a 30-day silent Insight meditation retreats. As with many retreat centers, the cabin where we practiced was designed to provide the perfect conditions—remote location, comfortable accommodations, nourishing meals, quality teachings and quiet surroundings.
However, quiet surroundings were nowhere to be found. A cabin two lots away was under construction. From dawn until dusk we heard the constant buzz of power saws, the banging of hand tools, loud swearing and heavy metal music. The rarefied air at 8,700 feet is an exceptionally efficient carrier of sound.
Who were these people to intrude on my retreat? If only they’d stop what they’re doing, even for a while, I could make some headway in my practice. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to stop taking the construction personally.
By the middle of the first week, my responses to the cacophony ranged from humor to barely noticing. It was part of what was happening in the moment, so it became an object of mindfulness, among many others. I was able to put it into a larger frame.
When we practice mindfulness, of course it’s nice to have “hothouse conditions” to help us relax into quiet. When the conditions in our environment or in our mind aren’t what we think they should be, we can fall into the “if only” trap.
For example: If only it wasn’t so noisy, I could really meditate. If only my mind wasn’t thinking so much, I could really focus. If only my knee didn’t hurt, I could really make some progress. If only the person next to me wasn’t moving around so much/breathing so loudly, etc.
This can apply to yoga practice as well: If only I was stronger/more flexible/thinner/more relaxed/more energetic/in the right yoga class, I could really do yoga. In actuality, practicing yoga is not dependent on any of these things. Yoga practice is about meeting your body/mind where it is and practicing in a way that promotes balance and equanimity.
The “if only” trap can appear in our daily lives too. If only I was richer/more attractive/more driven/less driven/in a relationship/not in a relationship/had a better job/didn’t have to work, etc., my life would be so much happier.
At the most fundamental level, when we are stuck in the cycle of “if only,” we can never feel contented or at peace. The entire premise of “if only” is that our lives are incomplete, and only a certain condition that is currently out of our reach will make things right. Often when we get that golden thing that was supposed to lead to lasting happiness, we discover that the happiness it brings is only fleeting. We soon move on to identifying something else as the thing that will make us happy.
Of course, it’s not wrong to wish for happiness. But so often, we look for it in things, relationships, and experiences that will never provide it. Things, relationships and experiences are always fleeting. We can enjoy them while they’re here, but expecting them to bring lasting happiness will only foster frustration.
The key to lasting contentment is not in what we have or don’t have. It is in how we respond to the ever-changing conditions of our lives. The beginning point for fostering happiness is to be present right here, right now, with our situation as it is.
Setting intentions toward more ease and happiness is a healthy endeavor. It’s expectations that trip us up.
The way to peace for me on retreat 23 years ago, and the way to peace in our daily lives, is to plant a seed, water it and nourish it, and then allow it to flower in whatever way it will. Meeting the cacophony on the retreat with humor and equanimity showed me that external conditions need not determine my happiness or unhappiness. My ability to feel peaceful and contented is entirely up to me. My happiness is dependent on the attitude with which I meet the sometimes “imperfect” conditions of my life.
Practicing mindfulness is a helpful tool in identifying the “if onlys” that we encounter day to day. The practice helps us see for ourselves how we can get caught in this pattern. When we see our patterns clearly, we have greater flexibility to choose whether to continue to buy into them or to make other choices.
Notice when your mind is complaining about something in your experience—a physical pain, an annoying sound, an earworm, obsessive thinking. Notice your response to it. Is there a desire for it to be otherwise, aversion, frustration? What does this response feel like? Where does it live in your physical body? Explore the actual moment-to-moment experience of your response. Then turn your awareness to the source of the annoyance, feeling the sensations of it in your body, exploring it in the same way. Is there a difference in the quality of your mind when you’re experiencing just the sensations of whatever is bothering you versus the sensations of your response?
What are the “if onlys” in your life? Is there a way to meet your current life with ease, even as you move toward your goals? Stay open. Guide your life in the direction you desire, and welcome how it actually unfolds .
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several books including, most recently, Hip Healthy Asana, and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com