The Wisdom In Golf Balls

How to Become More Mindful of What Really Matters
Author: Elisha Goldstein, PhD

A professor stood before a philosophy class holding an empty jar. As the students took their seats, she began filling the jar with golf balls. When they reached the top, she asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then took a bag of pebbles and poured them into the jar, and they made their way into the spaces between the golf balls.

Again she asked the students if the jar was full, and they agreed that it was.

But the professor had another trick up her sleeve. She brought out a bag of sand and proceeded to pour the grains into the jar, filling up more of the remaining space. Again the question came: “It’s full now, correct?” The answer was a resounding “Yes.”

The professor then took a sip of her coffee and dumped the rest into the jar, filling up spaces that no one thought were there.

“So what does it mean?” the professor asked.

A witty student raised his own coffee mug and asked, “There’s always room for coffee?”

The professor, along with the rest of the class, had a good laugh. Then she said, “Imagine that this jar represents the space in your life. The golf balls represent what’s most important — family, children, health, friends, things that you’re passionate about — the things that at the end of your life you would be glad you paid attention to.

“The pebbles are essential but less important, such as your house, your car, maybe your job.

“The sand is all of the small stuff in life that we’re trying not to sweat.

“The coffee, well, you already answered that one.”

The professor continued, “There is room for all of this only if you put the golf balls in first. If you put the sand or pebbles in first, there won’t be room for the golf balls. The way we pay attention to our lives works the same way. If you spend your attention or mental space sweating the small stuff in life, you won’t have the capacity to pay attention to what is most important to you.”

This is a classic story that speaks to us becoming more mindful of what really matters. I do the same exercise with my clients and students. Why? Thoughts of what is most valuable fly in and out of our minds all the time, and we don’t see the space between our awareness and these thoughts. This exercise provides a physical representation of thinking about what really matters and simultaneously makes us aware of the space in which we have the opportunity to choose a response. The practice of intentionally paying attention to what matters primes the mind to become more aware of what is meaningful.

The biggest question at this stage of the process is, what in life really matters to you? Is it your relationship to your partner, paying attention to your children, taking care of your body, sharpening your mind, being kind to yourself or others, making room for play, or living with greater ease?

The practice of intentionally paying attention to what matters primes the mind to become more aware of what is meaningful.

Paying attention to the things that you value in life is fundamental to your happiness. We know that our minds have an inclination to follow the path of least resistance, so we need a compass to help us intentionally come back to our priorities.

Now Moment

Creating a way to be aware of our values can help us break out of autopilot and guide us back to what really matters.

  1. Sit in a space to take care of the golf balls first — the things that really matter. What are your priorities in life? Let’s bring some awareness to them, because at the end of the day, the rest is just sand. Make a list in your mind or write down what truly matters.
  2. Sitting exercise: Take a few moments to relax, close your eyes, and practice “breathing in, I am aware of what truly matters, breathing out, I let go of living on automatic.”
  3. Go find a jar and a box of golf balls or some nice stones. Label each golf ball or stone with something that really matters in your life. If you don’t have a physical jar, you can draw a picture of a jar on a piece of paper along with golf balls or stones or perhaps just picture them in your mind. Actions speak louder than words, so check to see where in your life you’re bringing action to your values. Maybe you’re taking your partner out to dinner, responding to people and yourself with greater kindness and compassion, being less judgmental, playing games with your kids, getting back into exercise or yoga, making space for that round of eighteen holes, or spending time in meditation.
  4. Put the jar in a prominent place somewhere in your house or office where you can’t miss looking at it. Every time you intentionally look at the jar, your mind is more likely to incline toward what truly matters. As you do this, you prime your mind to respond to those values during the spaces of your daily life.

Paying attention to the things that you value in life is fundamental to your happiness.

The preceding is excerpted from the new book The Now Effect by Elisha Goldstein and is reprinted with permission of Atria Books. © 2012 Elisha Goldstein, PhD

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., has a private practice in West Los Angeles and is co-founder of the Mindfulness Center for Psychotherapy and Psychiatry and coauthor of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. He lives in Santa Monica, California.

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