Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

I made three resolutions for this year’s summer trip:

· be extra patient with my partner
· don’t drink wine every day
· meditate

By the end of week one however, wine bottles were chinking in campsite recycling bins, I’d shouted GET ON WITH IT several times and had only meditated once, on the first morning.

Something about good resolutions makes me do the exact opposite. I want to be a better person. But it’s as if my definition of ‘better’ doesn’t always win the rubber stamp of approval from some mysterious internal committee. And this committee has a habit of voting with its feet.

Earlier this year, for example, I booked onto a two-week meditation retreat where the norm would be to meditate 6-8 hours a day. I usually meditate for half an hour daily, so I decided in the weeks leading up to the retreat to ‘build up’ my practice a bit. In came the goal-setting: I would add an evening sit and extend the morning one to forty minutes.

I didn’t even do it once. In fact, in the run up to the retreat, I stopped meditating altogether.

Once on the retreat, I planned to eat mindfully. A golden opportunity. Others might be doing something similar and if they weren’t, no one would be able to say anything because we were all in silence!

The plan lasted until day three. Surrounded incessantly by mindful eaters, the deliberate way they cut up their food drove me mad. And the way they chewed! The way they put their knife and fork down between mouthfuls. GET ON WITH IT I wanted to shout. I had to go and sit next to some big blokes who shovelled their food down any old how.

My aims often fail in this way. Perhaps I don’t have enough self-discipline. Perhaps I should cultivate aims that are less off-the-peg. Perhaps my motivation is wrong – too self-focussed. Or maybe my goals are too ambitious and I need to break them down into small, achievable outcomes. All of that sounds plausible.

And yet, I don’t know. Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’ comes to mind, in which the poet talks to his neighbour about mending their dividing wall. ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him/But it’s not elves exactly.’

Well, something there is that doesn’t love a goal either, I reckon. That wants it to fail. I could say ‘resistance’. But it’s not resistance exactly.

It’s probably closer to elves, and I’m interested in elves. I can’t shake off the feeling that they have friends on my internal committee and that those friends might be trying to tell me something.

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18 Comments. Leave new

  • And here for all these years I thought I was alone in having an enemy committee inside me defeating my attempts to become “better”. I smiled in deep recognition of your experience. Thanks for writing it down so well and sharing it!

  • Thanks for saying that, Michael – it’s much appreciated. And good to know I’m not the only one with a mysterious internal committee, too!

  • hi Mandy, i identified with your writing straight away … so true for me too. when i saw your photo i realised i’d been on a retreat at Dhanakosa with you – don’t know which one though! hope you are well .. Di

    • Hi Di

      Really good to hear from you: thanks so much for commenting. Nice to know we were on retreat together, too. My guess is last year or early this. All the best to you.

  • Hi Mands
    perhaps it could be a case of rebelliousness (healthy) against goals which might not really be your own but what you feel you ‘ought’ (dreadful word) to be doing.
    loved the way you wrote about the summer trip goals going askew, especially the chinking
    I rather suspect that Mr MS epitaph will be get on with it in bold and caps

    • Hi Janie

      Thanks v much for your thoughts on this. Yes, there’s something about too much dutifulness that can be stultifying. I’m sure rebellion is healthy in those circs!

      Hope you’re well.

  • A lovely piece Mandy, and such a familiar experience – in fact sometimes several times a day in my case! I can find it all the more disorientating as I used to have a reputation for being well organised and efficient, and now I am far from either of those.

    My suspicion is that the naughty elves somehow trick the helpful elves. In this way the few good reasons for *not* doing something that is beneficial are hijacked by the *bad* reasons for not doing it – and the two combined overwhelm all our good intentions. I’m not sure if this theory helps me in any way though!

    • That’s a brilliant theory, Jnanagarbha, and I’m sure you’re right. I love the idea of the different sorts of elves. And yes, I’m sure the ‘bad’ ones know exactly how to manipulate the ‘helpful’ ones! They just would, wouldn’t they?

  • I guess it’s pretty much the same thing as them talking about devas and maras in the Pali texts for things that we would see in terms of psychological states or sub-personalities.


  • Did you try out that “elf-improvement” technique I suggested, Mandy? I’m hoping to write a blog post about it soon.

  • Your problem Bodhipaksa, is that you’re too elf-centred *groan*

  • It’s elf and safety gone mad! Sorry, that was a propos of nothing, I just had to say it!

    I have tried out the questioning technique, thanks, Bodhipaksa, and very much like its gentle steering effect. It feels a bit like parenting a recalcitrant bit of myself. A rebellious voice still shouts ‘no!’ but then often ends up saying ‘oh alright then.’ It’d be great to see a post on the subject.

    Jnanagarbha, that seems a vivid way to imagine and investigate bits of the self. How much more colourful a deva sounds than a ‘sub-personality’!

  • I’ve had a couple of ideas why talking about our internal experience in terms of devas, maras and elves can be helpful. They both relate to the fact that we can easily end up taking our internal experience far too seriously, and because we tend to think of ourselves as fixed and sort of solid – as though there’s just one solid ME that has all this experience, even though some of it completely contradicts other parts of it.

    By talking about elves, devas and maras we both break up our experience into separate chunks, which we can address individually, and we take it all a bit less seriously. I often point out that Mara, the Buddhist embodiment of negativity, is much more like the inept and comical Dick Dastardly than he is like the charming and powerful Satan. In Pali texts he is often overcome simply by being spotted and named, and in the Tibetan tradition demons are transformed and release their energy when they are pinned down and named.

  • That’s all really interesting. I couldn’t agree more.

    People often use the phrase ‘self-sabotage’ and while I’m sure it’s useful sometimes, it can also seem harsh and perhaps a little solipsistic/claustraphobic, whereas the idea of outside entities strikes a more open, freeing note.

    As you say, we’re made up of so many disparate bits and bobs. And we live within history, not outside it, so I’m not sure we’re as conscious/responsible about what influences us as we like to think!

    I read an interesting article once by a psychotherapist who questioned the prevailing wisdom of the day i.e. that we should work to integrate the different parts of ourselves. He thought there was value and richness in being dis-integrated too.

  • There seems to be an assumption in Western Culture that our purpose in life is to Achieve. It doesn’t matter what our goal is, as long as we achieve it. We are told we need goals to make our lives purposeful (and by implication better and therefore an object of praise and self-praise). I ask: is the conscious pursuit of a goal a distraction from other possibilities? Why would we seek to reduce possibility and potential in such a self-conscious way?

  • That’s an interesting point Richard.

    I’d point out that the Buddha’s last words were “Impermanent are all conditioned things: strive with diligence.” It seems clear that he was encouraging people to be goal-directed, but of course he didn’t believe that it doesn’t matter what our goal is and was very clear that the most worthwhile goal — the only ultimately worthwhile goal was enlightenment. So appropriate goals are important.

    I’d agree with you entirely that the conscious pursuit of an inappropriate goal is a distraction from other possibilities. This is what’s called in Buddhism “false refuges” as opposed to the true refuge of Awakening. We do this out of delusion; we think certain things will give us happiness, when in fact they won’t. Not realizing this we keep committing ourselves to inappropriate goals.

  • Thanks Bodhi – you’ve helped my thinking there. So much ‘goal-seeking’ today seems to me to be artificial – a ‘false refuge’ as you say. And to quote Noel Gallagher – ‘I can’t live my life if my heart’s not in it.’ I think knowing our heart’s desire is the essence of striving with diligence. But we need to be mindful that setting and pursuing goals does not lead to inattentional blindness, that we miss the richness in the blurred space beyond our attention.

  • Hi both

    An interesting discussion. Recently I have been wondering if the way one pursues a goal is important too. I remember a saying ‘go for what you want but hold it with a loose hand’ (including even those goals that feel very important). Wise words, I think.


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