I am in the midst of the busiest month I’ve had since university. Every weekend is full of markets, festivals or weddings, and every spare moment is being given over to preparing for these: making artwork, marketing, planning, strategizing, buying supplies, etc. Today I reluctantly dragged myself to my day job, feeling tired and strained. My mind is on a constant loop of worry: what about this, maybe I should do that, how is this going to happen. And suddenly, the realization hits me: This is not how I want to feel.
I don’t strive to be a full-time artist so that I can feel burned out and anxious. I do it so that I can feel fulfilled, challenged, connected and joyful. And when I’m not feeling that way, I know something is wrong.
This is because I’ve done a lot of work around figuring out how I want my life to feel, instead of just making a list of accomplishments to check off as I go. Most of the time, we’re encouraged to set goals based on outward measures of success. But when we’re not clear how we want that success to feel, it often doesn’t turn out how we thought.
Danielle Laporte has built a bit of an empire around the question, “How do you want to feel?” and she has this to say about it: “We have the procedures of achievement upside down. We set our sights on the babe, the boat, the bucks. We get them. Sometimes. They make us happy. Sometimes. We set a goal, we reach it, we feel great. Unless, of course, we feel empty or flustered or anxious that what we’re doing isn’t working to fill the hole in our soul.”
I’ve worked my way through Laporte’s Desire Map book twice and I love the process. It involves being mindful of what feels good and what feels bad on a minute, day-to-day basis so that we can clarify what we want more of and what we want less of. Eventually we settle on 3-5 words to use as a checkpoint every day and guide us throughout the year/quarter/season. Words that have resonated with me in the past include: space, unstoppable, in tune, softness, ease, delight, expansive, and rooted.
I’ve also had periods where I’ve chosen one word to summarize how I want to feel (this year it’s ‘Sparkle’), and lately I’ve been checking in daily to choose three words to describe how I want my day to go (today I chose softness, peace, and love). Last year, when I realized that I needed to run my business more from my heart than my head, I decided I wanted my business to bring me connection, recognition, and freedom.
I’ve also been experimenting with images and metaphors in my feeling explorations. When I started looking for a partner I decided I wanted it to feel like a warm blanket on a cold day. Last year I decided that I wanted my relationship with money to feel like sinking into a soft fluffy bed. I wanted my customers to feel like the sun is shining on their face after a long winter. When I work on my business I want to feel like I’m on the best first date ever.
All these things help to remind me that I do have some say in how I feel. While I’ll be the first to admit that feelings have a mind of their own and can seemingly dominate a day, a week or a lifetime, I also firmly believe that we have some choice in the matter. Even on my most anxious of days I can still find room for softness, delight, and space - if I choose to seek them out.
When we choose to focus on how we want to feel, we’re more likely to enjoy the moments when these feelings naturally occur, allowing us to put them in an emotional reserve bank until times when they’re in short supply. Thich Nhat Han, the wise Buddhist monk, calls this “planting seeds.” The more we choose to plant the seeds of joy, the more they will bear fruit.
Today, after realizing how much stress and strain I had allowed into my day, I thought about a moment of sweetness from the day before - napping on the couch in my partner’s arms after a long day of work - and I was reminded of what really matters. Yes, I want to reach my goals and make my dreams come true. But not at the expense of the feelings that I hold dear.
Someone close to me recently shared that she has achieved a lot of what she thought she wanted, only to be left feeling anxious and uncertain. The outward accomplishments didn’t bring her the feelings that she wanted.
How many times does this happen to us when we finally get that thing we wanted, and realize that we don’t feel any different? The euphoria fades and we’re left worrying about the exact same things as before. When it comes to creative pursuits, I think this understanding is especially important. We have to find what it is about writing, or painting, or building giant installations that aligns with what we think we want. What feelings do activities bring us? Is there some innate satisfaction or joy? Or are we just doing them because we think they’ll bring us some recognition, or help us check something off the list that society has written out for us?
The way I see it, if I can’t find the feelings I desire now, while I work towards what I want, I will never find them at the end a magical rainbow at some point in the future. So I am careful, as I plan my journey to the “success” that I desire, to constantly check in with whether I’m feeling the way I want. If not, something needs to change.
Today, it was a matter of remembering how much delight is to be found amidst the stress. In the future it will be deciding not to pursue every possible opportunity all at once, so that I can leave some much needed space in my days. It might mean taking a little longer to accomplish my goals in order to have the rootedness that I crave. And it might mean pushing myself to do something that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable to remind myself that I am unstoppable.
It has taken me a long time to gain clarity about how I want to feel - especially where art and business are concerned because they make such a tricky combination. And I won’t pretend that I feel certain all the time. But as I look back over my trajectory, I can see how this clarity has led me to the path I’m following now and I’m very grateful for that.