the bane of joy

Photo by Alice Zheng

Words and photos by Alice Zheng, Columnist
(650 words)

My body demanded a walk today, after a long day at work. I felt as if I hadn't moved for weeks. The sun beckoned. So I left the house and started off towards the lake. My usual walk winds through neighborhood stairs and backstreets, down the slopes of a small urban forest, finally emerging by the lake. From there I would walk another half mile to a small shopping area and turn back.

It was a clear evening and I was on autopilot, mind filled with the usual work thoughts. Sails dotted the blue waters of Lake Washington, and Mt. Rainier was in full view off to the south. I was making my way along the lake when something snagged my attention. A dock that juts out into the water. Four people sitting on the dock with fishing poles, looking idyllic. One of them was taking a picture of the mountain. I had already passed them, but something about the scene called to me. I hesitated for a moment, half of me still headed toward another direction. But then I turned back.

I walked out onto the deck and sat down on the metal planks. In front of me, Mt Rainier rose like a dream out of low hanging clouds. I closed my eyes and felt the dock slightly sway with the push and pull of the water. I thought, This is perfect. Why did I ever think I was going somewhere else? It wasn't even a destination. It was just my usual turn-back point, something that I was accustomed to. Why do I set these arbitrary goals for myself, then become so focused on achieving them that I lose sight of the journey?

What other moments of beauty had I missed in my obsession to reach a target?


I was in Chicago in early June. I had known the city only by fame. I had two free days to explore. The first day was completely unplanned. I slept until noon because I was doggone tired. For the afternoon and evening, I loafed and somehow managed to see all the landmarks: the Bean, blues in Millennium Park, the Art Institute with its Rodins and Seurats, the view from the SkyDeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower, and even a comedy show. My brain cells buzzed with excitement and inspiration. Pictures and thoughts flew off of my thumb and onto the interwebs.

The next day, I had a plan. I squeezed in two amazing architecture tours and a musical. Gorgeous art deco skyscrapers and architectural wonders. A musical so revolutionary that it received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations. Yet the day left me exhausted and my mind dry.

The day of loafing with only the vaguest notion of a destination. The day where all decisions were made in the spur of the moment and not a single thing was decided beforehand. That was the day that fed me and enlivened my creativity.

The day with a plan - a great plan, no less - was the day when I was a machine. I dutifully followed the blueprint. But the clockwork of a schedule froze creativity and inspiration in their tracks. I stopped responding to the moment, I was the plan. I was not there.

Planning is the bane of joy.

I am reminded of this again and again. So why do I do it all the time? Why do I give myself a goal even on my days off? Why is it so scary to leave things up to chance and whims of the moment?

Thus I meditated on the dock. When I opened my eyes, a large bird flew across the lake right in front of me. It swooped in and landed on the dock about 10 feet away. A great blue heron! It stood there patiently, not making a sound, but watched the fisherman intently. The others noticed him after a while. Quiet photos were taken. Nobody shouted. We admired its long beard. It watched the fishing poles. It was a perfect evening.

Alice Zheng is an author, photographer, meditation practitioner, and senior research science manager at a large e-commerce and cloud computing company in Seattle. She is a recovering perfectionist and over-achiever. Her life's mission is to be a bridge: between science and spirituality, between technology and business, between the inner and outer worlds. Alice shares glimpses of her quest for more beauty and ease as a regular contributing columnist for Lucia.