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The Long Game

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

“It’s time to eat your vegetables,” a friend had said when I was deciding what to do about a trip. When I asked her what she meant, she explained this was not a time to indulge. It was a time to make a smart choice for the future. And even though I often literally eat my vegetables two meals a day and metaphorically in financial planning, I’d actually forgotten that I should also be thinking about the future in love and career. I’d forgotten that I was playing the long game.

At meditation class we’ve been talking about motivation and familiarity. Within all of us is the untapped force of motivation. Motivation is “finding a different volume level” in our mind. Picture the scene in Say Anything where Lloyd turns the knob on his speaker past the red line he was told not to cross. Motivation is the next level. It’s exceeding what you’ve been told you can or what you think you can do. But, man, it is hard. This is where familiarity comes in. Sometimes we must rely on the force of familiarity to gradually make progress. We must simply log in the hours. I think to Mister Rogers, whom I’ve been thinking about a lot, and his song “You've Got To Do It.” It begins:

You can make-believe it happens, or pretend that something's true.

You can wish or hope or contemplate a thing you'd like to do,

But until you start to do it, you will never see it through

'Cause the make-believe pretending just won't do it for you.

You've got to do it.

Every little bit, you've got to do it, do it, do it, do it

And when you're through, you can know who did it

For you did it, you did it, you did it

So just do it. But often that message isn’t enough. There are four ingredients to managing ourselves when we must think beyond the familiarity of motivation. The first is aspiration, the part of your mind that observes something and takes an interest in it. Aspiration is when you consider the benefits of future positive action and the future disadvantages of the status quo. But sometimes I forget, when I’m in a lull of love and life, that I’ve had aspirations. I’ve had them when I wanted to go into teaching ESL, then teaching public school, and then into writing and marketing. I’ve wanted things and I’ve tried to get them. Aspirations are hard both when you know what you want and you can’t get it and when you don’t know what you want. The monk shared the story of when he was in his early-twenties training to be a monk. All of the other monks in training were in their 40s and 50s. He said when he had the opportunity to finally ask his Dharma teacher a question he posed, “Am I too young to be a monk?”

“Do you suffer?” the teacher asked.

“Yeah,” the monk replied.

“Why wait?” the teacher responded.

“Why wait?” So true. Why wait to end your suffering? Why wait to do the thing you want to do? Aspirations don’t go away by staying busy: by shopping, toiling away at our work, and dating. They don’t disappear by staying busy with healthy habits like reading and exercising. Hear that KJ, even reading won’t make the wants go away. Sooner or later we have to heal our mental continuum.

And so we have the power of steadfastness. Like a pot of chili on low, we must let ourselves simmer. This is a hard one because we often read about change or see it in movies as that one big leap off a cliff that changed everything. Quit your day job. Move. And, oh do we want these things. But I’ve found that the day-by-day steadfastness can be just as powerful. We exercise every day and one day we’re in decent shape. We update our resume and look for jobs and one day we have one. We date and date and date and hopefully we learn about relationships—maybe more, or just different things—than our friends who have been in one relationship for a long time. Step by step, bit by bit.

The third ingredient is the power of joy. Remember joy? Remember relationships that were so easy you couldn’t believe you could use the same word to describe them as you had before, “relationship,” “dating,” “boyfriend?” Remember when you lit up with the just-challenging-enough work? Maintaining a joyful mind in our practice is turning an obligation into something we enjoy. So remind yourself what you do get out of the relationship. Savor that short commute. But I also think some joys just inevitably go away. Infatuation fades. And if there is no permanence, then there is no permanent joy. So we must take breaks. Because sometimes knowing no joy is forever is simply too much to bear.

This is the power of relaxation, otherwise known as “rest before you need to rest.” Take a break before you need one. Recently I decided that I am going to spend 30 minutes every weekday working on my long game. I dug out a little book I’ve had forever that I’ve never used. “Oh Boy” is printed in the top corner, like “Whoa, boy! I’ve got a lot to do!” The book is squat and thick with short and narrow lined pages—too small to be a daily journal but too big to carry around for inspirational notes. Every night I reflect on the 30 minutes spent plotting my long game. “How did it feel to ask those questions and research that opportunity? How would it feel to live that life?” It’s a lot of blank pages. A long book. But it’s also a long game that I’d forgotten I want to play.

I think of Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me,” the sweet wishing and wanting with the steady bass plucking along. I always thought some man or job would move me out of this town, but that hasn’t happened and no signs point that it will. It’s exhausting to want something forever and never have it happen. But I’m also tired of talking about it, and I’m sure others are tired of hearing about it. I recently bemoaned that there are several paths I could take but I want someone to hold my hand on the path. No one is there. I have to take my own hand. “Follow Me Follow Me.” So I do my 30 minutes a day and write about it in my “Oh Boy” book. I watch Mister Rogers when I need a break. “You've got to do it. Every little bit, you've got to do it.” The only way out is through. The only way to win the long game is to play. Do you suffer? Then why wait?

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