‘If only’ as a red flag

The human mind is adept at projecting forward. The cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that is unique to humans can synthesize experiences before they happen. That is how we plan forward, foresee events and avoid disasters by taking preventive measures or cushioning them with insurance.

But planning and projecting forward has its bugs like every complex program. One of these bugs is the ‘if only’ mind. And when it occurs we find ourselves defining ‘if only’ conditions to get to a desired state.

“I would be more successful if only I had a better boss.”

“I could write my novel if only I had enough time.”

“I would be a good musician if only I had a better guitar.”

Our brains project forward as a means to an end. But the problem with the ‘if only’ tendency is that the projection can turn into the end in itself. And when this happens, we are never satisfied with our accomplishments or the gifts we receive, because by the time we do, we have already projected forward to our next ambition or craving. This is when our planning morphs into wistfulness and chronic dissatisfaction. Just like several aspects about our thinking, projecting forward is a good servant and a bad master.

Buddhist monks realized this tendency of our mind to project forward rather than to appreciate the present moment. The essence of Buddhism is to accept things that happen to us for what they are, rather than wish for them to be different. It is the dissonance between those two worlds – our reality and our expectations, that is at the root of our suffering. This philosophy is poignantly symbolized in a poem written by Donald C. Babcock, published in The New Yorker issue of October 4th, 1947.

The Little Duck

Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.
It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
No, it isn’t a gull.
A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic,
And he is part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree,
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.
He has made himself part of the boundless,
by easing himself into it just where it touches him.
I like the little duck.
He doesn’t know much.
But he has religion.

Inspiration: Tara Brach’s podcast on mindfulness meditation

One thought on “‘If only’ as a red flag

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