Winter Solstice: Reflections on Conscious Goal-setting

Friday is the winter solstice, when the light begins to grow out of the darkness, and the Sun passes out of Sagittarius and into Capricorn (around 10PM UK time) as the New Year nears its dawn.

For those whose custom it is to set intentions and goals for the coming year, I wanted to share some thoughts about how we can use the Sun in Capricorn to forge a clear, substantial path through our Sagittarian dreamscape.

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Capricorn exhorts us to carry on when the shadows are long and the path is narrow….

Sagittarius, the archer with visionary capaciousness, is great metaphor for the initial, motivational stages of goal-setting. What is the aim, the grand purpose, the area of wisdom and experience I am eager to explore?

After the Sagittarian vision comes Capricorn’s need to test the pragmatics: how water-tight is this goal? Is the impetus worth the work it will take to get there?

Sagittarius as goal-setting / Capricorn as follow-through

Sagittarius reminds us of the virtues of expanding vision to shoot the arrow of intention to THAT PLACE where you want to end up. This is the exciting part.

Then, one needs to cultivate the endurance (reflected in the following sign of Capricorn) to recover the thing you shot with the arrow, and hope no one else has come upon it in the meantime. There is a bit of a scarcity complex in Capricorn that reacts against Sagittarius’ insistence that there is ‘something for everyone’. Capricorn asks, ‘Oh yeah? What’s your evidence for that?’. That journey as the arrow flies might seem straightforward, but the topography of the landscape may contain numerous mountains and valleys, and trolls under bridges. The Sagittarian optimism and wanderlust calls us to adventure, motivates us to travel, discover new vistas of opportunities, new cultures, new parts of ourselves, but the arduous trek of Capricorn, of manifesting the stages of that journey, still lies ahead.

This year more than any other I have noticed a shift from wanting to know about the world at large toward wanting to take the journey inwards, to know myself. And thanks to a regular yoga practice and life’s various permutations I find myself revisiting questions about the value of self-inquiry, questions I first encountered in 2009-2010, when I started reading Byron Katie, Joel Goldsmith, Eckhart Tolle, and other writers alongside the ancient Stoics, whose ideas about mental equanimity and other positive results of self-examination I found alarmingly applicable to my own life.

This instinctive desire to look within continues to be the backdrop for many of the choices I make on a daily basis, and the goals I am setting for the coming months. This is not escapism, not is it a desire to be wilfully ignorant. Rather, it is the interest in discovering within myself the best things I can offer the world.

From my own experience, I have come to understand that the former (rather Sagittarian) desire to turn my attention outside myself, to learn about different worlds, to learn from people with different life experiences, to learn by traveling, to expand my capacity for movement intellectually and socially, ultimately led me back to this place of treasured introspection.

A personal example from the Ivory Tower

When I left my hometown in California and went to Oxford for graduate school in 2011, I embraced wholeheartedly the new and peculiar world I had entered and all of the lessons it had to bear. I enthusiastically took on all the roles I hadn’t had a chance to assume before. I could be a gregarious, nimble navigator of social settings crowded with members of the intellectual and social ‘elite’; I could be blessed by the head of the Anglican Church at my College’s chapel; I could compete in College rowing; I could go to formal hall any night of the week except Saturday and pay £3.80 for a three-course meal with white-gloved service, looking splendiferous in my academic gown; I could go to High Table with the Fellows of the College on guest night and meet a Mankiewicz; I could throw some good parties.

As would be expected, the Master’s program was tough, not only because the material we were learning was difficult, but also because we often had to be our own teachers (as compared to American pedagogical norms). We had to compile our own reading lists and make a weekly schedule for essay submissions to our supervisors, some of whom were more hands-on than others. We had to have the discipline to adhere to said essay schedules even though these essays did not count toward our final grades. I could have worked harder, but I struggled to balance the academic material with the other types of experiential learning I was doing just by virtue of living in a new place, learning that yielded great, though not necessarily quantifiable, value (a Sagittarius-Capricorn tension of sorts).

For instance, I made dear and lasting friendships with people from all over the world, and came to appreciate the diversity of life experiences, hardships, passions, and happy accidents that had brought us all together to this special place that none of us took for granted.

Time Ceremony photo
Mortar board (part of Oxford’s academic dress) and a bottle of port: this photo, taken during my Master’s course, makes for a good visual digest of the discussion above. 

But all this learning had its downsides, for in some fundamental ways I had strayed from true self-love and self-acceptance. Rather, I had constructed a new, ostensibly self-assured, intellectually vigorous, socially adept image of ‘success’, an idea of myself to which I would grow increasingly attached over the months. I learned just how attached I had become when I channelled my fear of losing this into a rather fitful decision to apply for a PhD at Oxford without having all my Capricorn ducks in a row.

When ultimately I could not proceed with the Oxford PhD, I felt absolutely devastated. I could have been more accepting of the circumstances. I could have used the (very applicable) principles I had picked up from the Stoic texts I had read for my Master’s dissertation to relax and embrace reality, to assure myself that this was for my best good, that this closed door would lead me to find a more appropriate open one. But at that time and for some time afterwards, all I could perceive was tremendous LOSS of the potential to manifest the ideal vision of myself flourishing within Oxford’s academic and social community.

Undoubtedly this was one of the best things that has ever happened to me, for it resulted in my finding in London a rigorous PhD program, expert supervisors in my chosen subfield, and an immensely supportive departmental community. I found a topic that allowed my love of interdisciplinary methods to flourish, and that let fly (like a Sagittarian arrow) my curiosity about how modern cultures interpret ancient ones. I got to do some really fascinating archival research. I found my voice as a researcher and a writer and cared deeply about the work I was doing, often more than I cared that I was the one doing it. I had a goal that was worth the painstaking effort. And it brings me much joy to remember this.

Some questions for goal-setting

So how does this all relate to the understanding of the Sagittarian-Capricorn impulses and tensions within us?

I like to read the above anecdote as the difference between conscious and semi-conscious decision-making. I had signed up for a PhD project at Oxford that was intellectually stimulating in terms of the overall idea, but realistically would not have been very much fun to do. I did not really know the supervisor I would be working with. The idea, founded in Sagittarian optimism and expansiveness, was not fully baked, and the universe luckily conspired to steer me away from what would have been a very unpleasant collision with the rocky outcroppings of the Capricornian challenges I was not actually prepared to undergo.

And in finding a PhD project for which I was willing to go the distance, remain accountable, work hard for the sake of the project and not only for the peripheral benefits it offered, I was able to find a greater level of self-respect.

And amidst the academic rigors of this PhD project, my research and conference presentations brought me the Sagittarian opportunity to share my work around the world, from Los Angeles to Ghent to Tel Aviv. And I met a whole new cohort of beautiful souls and dear friends with whom I could share the journey.

This was an excellent series of lessons to have learned at 24, and now, some years later, I can truly appreciate their lasting relevance.

With all that said, my intention for this month (and beyond!) is to sustain a healthy level of introspection, particularly in evaluating the decisions and goals I am making for the New Year:

  • Am I deciding consciously? What set of factors/rules/’truths’ am I using to make my decision?
  • Am I acting on the basis of fear and attachment, or on the intrinsic motivations of curiosity, passionate inquiry, and self-love?
  • Are these directions taking me closer to or further away from my instinctive needs/values?
  • If my plans do not work out, how will I feel (i.e. how attached am I to this)?
  • Will I regret NOT pursuing this goal?
  • Am I making this decision in order to avoid something or to gain something?
  • What kinds of terrain will I have to cross in order to pursue this vision? What are the stakes? Do I have what I need, and if not, where can I find it?
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Be realistic: what lies between you and the towers (or other soul-delights) in the distance? What resources and time will you need to make the journey?

There is a wonderful moment from the film version of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), when the dwarf Gimli complains to the de facto leader Aragorn about the perils of the remaining path to Mordor: ‘Oh, yes?! It’s just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil? An impassable labyrinth of razor sharp rocks! And after that, it gets even better! Festering, stinking marshlands, far as the eye can see!’

Aragorn replies, ‘That is our road. I suggest you take some rest and recover your strength, Master Dwarf.’

I’ve always found this a helpful inner dialogue, to give myself some Aragorn-style, straightforward, get-on-with-it motivation when I linger too long in self-doubt, or the mental paralysis that can set in upon prolonged meditation of ‘WOW, that’s a long way I have to travel…I don’t know if I can/should do this anymore’.

I suppose contingency planning (part of the Capricorn toolkit) ought to be mentioned here as well, given that the Fellowship breaks down shortly after this scene and the journey changes drastically…

A mythological allegory

Way back when, at my sixth-grade graduation, our myth teacher told us the story of the Judgement of Paris. Paris, the Trojan shepherd-turned-prince had in his hands a golden apple inscribed with the words ‘for the most beautiful’, and was tasked with the decision of offering it to one of these goddesses: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. Hera promised wealth and kingship in return; Athena promised military victory and wisdom; Aphrodite promised Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world (‘she’s married to the brother of the most powerful man in Greece, but we’ll work out the kinks later’). Paris chose Aphrodite, and the Trojan War ensued after Paris abducted Helen from her husband Menelaus (with or without her consent? The jury is still out).

Our teacher used this story to demonstrate the importance of conscious decision-making (closely related to goal-setting in my book). He urged us to make choices knowing to the best of our ability all of the options available, and the rewards and consequences of each. He encouraged us to understand what we were giving up in one direction by choosing the other, and what impact our decisions would make on those around us and the environment.

Euripides (Helen, 36-41) among others tells us that the Trojan War was engineered by Zeus for population control. So, regardless of whomever Paris awarded with the apple, there would have been a war. Gods and goddesses are vengeful – the other two would have been keen to rile up enemies against Paris because he had refused them. If Zeus wanted fewer humans on the planet, war was inevitable. That is at least how I’m tempted to anticipate the outcome, should Paris have chosen Hera or Athena.

So, Paris may have acted more consciously than many give him credit for. Perhaps he was thinking, ‘Hey, if the world has to burn, I may as well get what I want’.

Not to suggest that Paris is the model decision-maker. For there may have been other options available to him (see below).

In conclusion?

If you have been feeling that Sagittarian goad – the optimism, the expansive vision, the impassioned enthusiasm, perhaps a bit of foolhardiness – about something, send forth your arrow to the place you feel called AND the place you are willing to make the journey with its peaks and valleys. But BE CONSCIOUS in knowing what you are signing up for, what you might be losing, and what the stakes are. And there will be stakes; these are unavoidable. Stakes are what makes a good story.

Ask yourself the above questions, if they help.

And try as best you can to come from a place of self-love, and love for your fellow humans, for your planet: several leaps further in altruism than Paris was willing to go.

By the way, Paris could have swallowed the apple. Gold is malleable and probably chewable. Just saying.

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My old College has the above representation of a Sag with attitude (and quite the maniacal grin!)

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