Flexible Goal Setting: Be Like Water

I’ve always liked Drunken Boxing.  Something about the way the fighter stumbles into his opponent, flowing around his opponent’s attacks, filling in whatever gap is left open, has always appealed to me.  A good drunken boxer just refuses to be denied.  It’s like throwing a bucket of water at an enemy.  Sure, the enemy could stop a handful or two of water from getting to him, but that won’t stop him from getting soaked.


Taiji Zen founder unleashing his drunken boxing skills

Tai Chi operates on the same principle.  In fact, in Tai Chi it’s actually called “attacking like water.”  The idea is simple.  Rather than picking an individual attack to use on an opponent, a practitioner picks a direction.  So instead of thinking, “I want to punch this guy in the nose, because that will make his eyes water up, and then I can use a headlock to a hip-throw which will achieve my ultimate purpose of getting him on the ground,” I would just say, “I want to gain greater control over this situation.”  I then look for any opportunity to do that.  Now that might still be a punch to the nose, but maybe it’s just asking the guy to stop, or maybe it’s letting him punch me so that he overextends and I can use a knock down.  It just depends on which opportunity presents itself.  I never commit to the individual attack, I only commit to the direction I want to move in.

That way if I do throw the punch and he blocks my fist, I can turn the attack into an elbow, and if he blocks that, I can step in and use my shoulder.  Though the shape of the attack may change, the direction of the momentum is preserved.  I let the situation determine what I follow up each attack with, rather than planning it out in advance.  That way I remain effective without giving away my moves before I make them.

This is one of the main reasons to stay relaxed in Tai Chi — the more relaxed a person is the more quickly they can adapt to new situations (both physically and mentally).  Plus, it prevents the opponent from using my arm as a lever to control my center and force me off-balance, thus halting my momentum or drastically changing my direction.  This principle applies to more than Tai Chi Chuan, though — it applies to life in general.

For me, the most obvious of these applications has to do with goal setting.  For years and years goal setting was business canon.  You could not be a manager without knowing what S.M.A.R.T. goals were.  Recently, however, goal setting has come under fire.  There was a particularly influential study that showed goal setting only positively impacted performance when the people setting the goals could be held accountable for them (i.e. when they put it in writing, or stated it publicly).  So in other words, it’s not the act of setting a goals itself that increases performance, but the act of making a commitment.

Yet this study had a major flaw:  the tasks that the participants were given were so simple that no prioritization was needed.  In the real world, things are never that simple.  When I was a CEO, there were always 100 things that should have been done every week, and only time to ever do 50 of them.  More importantly, the 100 things might have been in 10 areas, and so I could do 50 individual things but not actually reach any major milestone; I’d just have 10 half finished projects.  Goal setting gave me a standard against which I could make decisions when it came to allotting my time and resources.

flexible goals

Even this has come under fire recently, though.  In the past five years, a team of leading researchers from Harvard, U Penn, University of Arizona and Northwestern’s business schools have all pointed out that this can be taken too far.  Goals can be useful for bringing focus, but people have a tendency to become too focused when working with specific goals, blinding them to other important factors at play, and crippling their ability to adapt to changing situations.  If one becomes overly focused on their steps while walking, it’s easy to get lost.  Of course if one is too focused on finding a turn, it’s easy to stumble…  Finding the balance between these two is where the Tai Chi model can be helpful.

By bringing the mindset cultivated by Tai Chi Chuan practice into our everyday lives, we can learn to focus on positive directions rather than being tied to overly specific outcomes.  It helps us keep perspective, making it easier to give up small concessions for a greater purpose (such as yielding in order to advance).  It also reminds us to take stock of our options at each juncture, and to listen to the changing situation, so we are making decisions based on how things are, not how things were when the plan was created.  Lastly, it helps us deal with failure, which is an essential part of any process, by reminding us that just because the thing we were trying didn’t work doesn’t mean we should stop trying.  As my Tai Chi teacher David Block used to say, “The difference between an advanced student and a master is that the advanced student is very good at not falling.  The master is very good at falling.”

Just like an opponent in a fight, life can conspire to foil our best efforts sometimes.  If we’re fixated on achieving things in a specific way, it can stress us out, lead to frustration, and eventually cause us to surrender.  If instead we are open to it, roll with it, adapt, and simply keep moving in the right general direction, sooner or later we’ll find ourselves where we wanted to be, even though we never had imagined walking the road that got us there.

Dax is a Taiji Zen guest blogger.  Want to contribute your posts to the Taiji Zen Blog?  Find the details here!

Four Ways of Letting Go

How often do you think “Why is time going so fast? I still have so much to do!”?

Most of the time this is because we are not really living our life as it happens; instead we are either lingering in the past or worrying about the future, forgetting the most important thing – the here and now.

A few months ago I stumbled across a Buddhist talk given by Ajahn Brahm, the abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia. I was so inspired by his talk and the way he presented Buddhist philosophy in a practical and relatable way that I started to listen to his talks daily from that point on.

In today’s post I will share his view on living in the moment by letting go.

The Four Ways of Letting Go*

1.      Throw things away

Things are only heavy when you hold onto them. Is holding a stick heavy? Only when you hold it; if you can just let it go it weights nothing at all. So grab a stick or a rock and write something that you hold onto and throw it away. In your journey of life, travel lightly…don’t go traveling with a backpack full of rocks. Throw these rocks away (the future, the past, complaints etc.) Have the conviction that it can be done, and it is good to do. Only keep one thing, the present moment…what is happening now.

2.      Learning what freedom truly is

Any place you don’t want to be is your prison. There are many prisons in life. If you are reading this and you want it to end, then this is your prison. If you are in a relationship which you don’t like, your relationship is your prison. If you are in a job that is not giving you satisfaction…another prison for you. But you don’t need to change your husband or wife, you don’t even need to change your job, all you need to do is change your attitude and want to be here. When you want to be here, you are free. It doesn’t matter how painful or uncomfortable it is, as long as you want to be here…then you are free. That’s called contentment. Want to be here, wherever here happens to be.

zen monkey prison

3.      Giving

This is not ordinary giving, but giving while expecting nothing in return. Too often we expect things back in return, and that causes a huge amount of suffering in life. And our expectations never get realized. If you go into a relationship, giving and expecting nothing in return you will get a huge amount of fulfillment. The same counts for meditation, if you do it to get enlightened or to get peaceful, if you do it to expect something, there will never be any peace for you. You meditate not to get something, not to attain something, you meditate to let go. Give to life, give all your energy to this moment, expecting nothing back.  When you have no expectations life becomes so interesting. You are not demanding anything, but life gives you so much.

4.      Don’t allow things to stick to you

If you have a beautiful moment, enjoy it now and know it is going to go so you can be free for the next moment to come, not allowing the last moment to influence this one. Do not allow the past to stop you from enjoying this moment. This also counts for your prior knowledge — let it go. This way you can see things as they are, rather than see things as you are told that they are.

*Source: Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera, Buddhist Society WA, 9 April 2010 – Four Ways of Letting Go

Watch the whole talk here:

Letting go in Taijiquan

After practicing many years of Shaolin Kung Fu I built up a lot of tension in my body**. My Taijiquan teacher always told me to relax more and once asked me “Do you know what letting go is?” I don’t remember with what kind of answer I came up back then, but I’ll never forget what he said: “Letting go of something is simply to stop holding onto it”. So simple, but very profound.

In the Taiji classics it is said that “When you move you need to be light and limber”.  To do this you need to let go of any physical but also mental tension. If you are thinking about what happened the other day or what you need to do afterwards your mind is not relaxed and your body will not be able to relax either. Instead, feel what you are doing right now, experience the moment. It is not the starting point or destination that counts, but the journey.

**Note: The Key Principles in the Online Academy will help you structurally release tension build up in the body.  Register today if you haven’t already!