The space between the trees

I had a phone conversation with my father a couple of weeks ago, which ranged over a myriad of subjects, as usual. For some reason we ended up talking about happiness, especially (Buddhism-influenced) view that you can only be happy when you stop seeking happiness. He had been unable to find the source of this idea, and I have not been able to improve on his research. (If anyone knows, tell me and I will pass it on.)

Even if we can’t find the ultimate source of this view, what is the reasoning behind it? It goes a little like this:

  • We can’t help but define our happiness by reference to the things that make us unhappy.
  • If we concentrate on being happy, we are in fact concentrating on not being unhappy.
  • Thinking about our happiness will inevitably make us unhappy.

It is a bit like being told not to think about apples. In order to remember not to think about apples, you have to think of apples. However, without realising it, you probably spend hours every day not thinking about apples. (Until you just read that sentence, of course.)

The analogy that I find most useful, though, is one that a former colleague once used. Apparently, skiing through trees is extremely dangerous, but very exciting. Every year people are killed and seriously injured when they ski at speed into trees. This colleague was an avid skier (which I am not): he said that the only safe way to ski through trees was to relax and concentrate on the space between the trees. As soon as you think about the trees, you become tense and increase the risk that you start to steer towards them. I use a similar principle when driving — it is better to think about the gap between cars than to worry about hitting their door mirrors.

Something similar happens when we concentrate on excellent service. Many businesses use a range of metrics to judge how well they are doing. Some of these are admirably suited to the job — especially if they involve feedback from customers or clients. However, even when approval figures are really high, there is usually more to be done. A good performance this year is not a dependable predictor of excellence next year. How can you motivate people who are clearly doing well (the figures prove it)?

The answer, I think, is that concentrating on the figures is like trying to be happy. The figures tells us that we are clearly doing a good job, but there is still a feeling of discontent. Feelings cannot be measured. The figures tell us what great looks like, but they can’t help us say what excellence feels like. That feeling is like the one you get when you emerge from the snowy forest, having avoided all the trees because the only thing on your mind was the space between them. It is the feeling you get when you realise that you have achieved something (happiness perhaps) without focusing on it to the exclusion of almost everything else.

I am sure the Buddhists have a name for it

3 thoughts on “The space between the trees”

  1. You touched on the meaning of happiness in the last paragraph. Discontentment is unhappiness. It’s the craving for things to be different that causing suffering. The Buddha said in the Second Noble Truth that craving is the source of suffering.

    Of course, in business you always need to improve, but there can be contentment that you have a good understanding of the situation and you are taking the right action. Right Understanding (or Right View) and Right Action are two elements of the Noble Eightfold Path.

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