I had one of those rare “aha” moments over the holidays. Whenever I get a large collection of music, I sift through it and keep the music that I like. For a long time I used a method that helped me extract the useful characteristics of a song without actually listening to the whole song–say, I’d listen to the first 10 seconds, then 5 seconds starting one minute in, and fast-forwarded to the chorus. This would give me an idea about the song; hopefully enough of an idea for me to make a decision whether I want to keep it.
The problem with this approach is that it’s too sensitive to how I feel and what state of mind I’m in. Sometimes the song doesn’t have an interesting chorus at which point I may reject some songs that I should keep.
So that one day over the holidays, I was listening to one of the songs and suddenly, out of nowhere, the song instantaneously felt familiar. I felt at that instant that I know exactly what song it is. I felt that I knew everything about it. It was an unexpected revelation. I happened to fast-forward to some part about 30 seconds from the end of the song. There wasn’t even anything particular about those few seconds that I had listened to. But I knew instantaneously whether I like the song or not. Even better, I knew exactly in what moods I’d like it the most. I felt a deep connection with the song. My old way of understanding songs suddenly felt silly. How superficial my algorithm has been!
I realized how many things that I was doing had only a superficial connection to whatever goal I was trying to achieve. Take reading, for example. It’s easy to think that you’re reading “well” — after all, your eyes fall on every word, you comprehend the plot and maybe you can even predict what’s going to happen next. But are you really reading the book? Are you getting something meaningful out of the activity? Reading poems is probably an even more apparent example… many of us have read poems and we think we understand them. We can talk about them, about how they make us feel. We think we crossed a kind of magical threshold–we’re now in the inner circle of those who know.
The truth is that we don’t know half of it. We haven’t connected with the book, or with the poem deeply. It’s one thing to know how the poem makes you feel; it’s another to feelthe poem permeate our bodies. It’s almost as if the poem fused with us, we’re now richer by a miniscule, infinitesimal amount, but this speck is also infinitely rich.
It’s difficult to describe the kind of feeling you get if you connect with something at a true, deep level. In fact, almost by definition there is no way to grasp this moment with any kind of scientific approach; it’s pure art. And while it usually manifests itself with works of art, I realized that any goal can be internalized in such a way. In fact, this is the only way that guarantees that you truly achieve your goal. Of course, the difficulty is precisely this lack of preciseness that characterizes the feeling–there’s no prescription for how to achieve this clarity. Sometimes the feeling comes after you experience something for 5 seconds. Sometimes you can experience it in its entirety over and over again and the feeling will not come.
It should come to no surprise that we form this superficial connection with goals all the time. We do this when we work out, when we communicate with others, when we cook. It’s definitely easier to do because we’re all great imitators. Mechanistic things are what the more fundamental parts of our brain react to, and–let’s face it–those parts have been with us for much longer.
But if you realize that taking a different, imprecise, unscientific approach to achieving goals results in a much more complete and meaningful goal achievement, you will open your mind to the possibility of true enlightenment.