Recall life ten years ago—the emergence of smartphones, sharing birthday photos on Facebook, watching cat videos on YouTube, and posting your breakfast on Twitter as you emptied your email account.

Life no longer feels like that. No matter our generation, we’ve become normalized to a frequency of change and increase in complexity that accumulates unresolved items.

Over the holidays we may reflect on this turbulent year and feel unsettled, a pang of guilt, or perhaps a sense of resignation as a result of such drastic changes. We may feel incomplete.

What Does It Mean to Be Complete?

Consider the proposition that a large portion of our lives are spent doing what we are incomplete about. In other words, until we are complete, we do the same things over and over again in an attempt to get somewhere—to be satisfied, whole, and at peace.

This blog discusses the distinction of being complete and the incomplete/complete dynamic as it impacts our freedom and aliveness.

Normally, we think that being complete means being finished or at the end of something. However, being complete is a state of mind. It is always available in your life. You are not complete with anything you can’t allow to be just the way it is.

For this exploration, being complete is not some normative concern about being perfect and thus undermining our work and learning. We are concerned with unresolved items remaining on our mind and identifying the dynamic that creates that experience.

Fundamentally, the dynamic of being complete is core to the experience of “freedom,” which is at the heart of being human. Ironically, the practice of being complete rely on our awareness of and relationship with “incompletions” or (being incomplete).

What Does It Mean to Be Incomplete?

To be incomplete about a person, situation or experience means that it remains a concern or “pull on your mind.” Examples might include the love of your life who left you suddenly and couldn’t hear your love or sadness, the dent in your car you’ve wanted to fix, or the college degree you stopped short of getting.

These are examples of things you may be incomplete about. Only you—not society, family, beliefs, or laws—can determine whether you are incomplete. Here’s the tell: The experience of being incomplete will surface as a mood or sensations in your body, particularly when reminded of it, such as seeing that dent start to rust a little.

Consider incompletions as if they are holes in the water glass of life. Until we fill those holes (complete), there will never be enough water to keep the glass full.

Another analogy is the background hum of an air conditioner. When the machine kicks in, you hear it, but after a few moments, you no longer “hear” it, though the noise does affect you.

Noise tires people. It is said you arrive more refreshed if you don’t play the radio on a long road trip. The radio may entertain or “keep you going,” but it is a drain that requires more rest to recover from. If you have this time to recover, the radio is a great thing. If you don’t, it’ll cost you.

Having many incompletions is like having ten air conditioners running, along with six radios on full blast on six different stations.

Why Do We Allow Ourselves to Become Incomplete?

A more pernicious point about incompletions is that we create new ones just to drown out the old ones. This might involve a reflexive busyness as we try to avoid the awareness or experience.

But first, let’s increase our awareness of becoming complete and stop racking up the incompletions. While we all tend to become incomplete from time to time, with practice, we will see that:

  • Incompletions rarely occur unnoticed; that is, we are now present to them as they occur.
  • We can handle incompletions fully, either in the moment or later.

Now, here are some reasons that incompletions occur:

  • Our needs are not being met.
  • We keep adding tasks, unquestioned, and skate through life without fully being present in life.
  • We cover up other incompletions that are too painful to acknowledge.
  • We do not understand or appreciate the completion distinction in our lives or the impact of the incomplete/complete dynamic.
  • We are addicted or attached to a substance or behavior that maintains the incomplete dynamic, which may require the assistance of a coach or therapist.

Incompletions drain energy and can foreclose possibility. This results in a loss of dignity and can cause soul-crushing repercussions and realizations. To interrupt the incomplete dynamic requires our awareness of the blind spots that maintain it.

The Blind Spots That Produce Incompletions

We become incomplete via the following blind spots:

  1. Perpetration. An action you took that ran against what was right at the time, even if you fully justified it and no one caught you. Examples include taking something that is not yours, misrepresenting a situation, or mischaracterizing a conversation or individual.
  2. Withholding. Not telling the person against whom you perpetrated what you did and then making it right.
  3. Step-Overs. Letting someone or a situation step over (intrude upon) your acceptable boundaries to cause you pain. Examples include frequent upsets from a spouse, a domineering co-worker, or a friend who drains you.
  4. Inaction. Not taking action when you felt you should or could have and thus missing out on an opportunity to fulfill a concern or leave a difficult situation. Many declare it’s time to move on to avoid “dwelling on the past.” But inaction on an incomplete past will creep into and pollute an emerging future.
  5. Broken Agreements. Not acknowledging broken agreements. Examples include missed deadlines, missed delivery of services, or revoking a promise or agreement when you know you cannot keep it. In every instance, we fail to communicate and either make an excuse or just ignore it.

These blind spots maintain our diet and consumption of incompletions. As such, we reinforce the incompletion dynamic, creating more unresolved items. Becoming aware of these blind spots will surface “incompletes” and, with practice, guide us toward becoming complete.

Practice to Completion

Breaking the habit reinforced by our blind posts requires the following set of practices:

  1. Pausing. Create a pausing practice to space out thoughts, words, and actions. In this space, the choice to complete or schedule an item to handle will interrupt your automatic dynamic that generates incompletes.
  2. Complete items. Create a list of items you consider incomplete. Your “toleration” of these items reveals a pang of guilt or drain. Be honest and self-compassionate, and view your list without judgment: an overdue dentist appointment or medical check-up, upgrading software, balancing your financial accounts, fixing that broken shelf, spending time with your child, resolving an argument with your spouse.

Schedule time over the next 30 to 60 days to complete the items on your list. The fastest way to improve your energy level is to complete something, which can offer the experience of a load lifted, a peak, enhanced workability, or a sense of freedom.

  1. Complete each day. Do not let a day go by without completing your day. See this blog for a daily practice. This practice allows us to acknowledge items daily to remove the concerns from our minds. You can either finish items, schedule them to be handled later, or declare the items good enough (and mean it). Either way, the items are resolved.
  2. Consumption of incompletes. Undistinguished or unrecognized, we continue to consume, tolerate, and normalize incompletions. Creating these practices will interrupt the perpetrations, step-overs, and withholds that can cause inaction and broken agreements. In time, we will stop consuming habits, conversations, and relationships that enable incompletion.

Benefits of Being Complete

We are concerned with “incomplete” items because, left unresolved, they weigh on us and begin to constitute our being. As we approach middle age, just getting through the day can seem like an accomplishment.

The impact can be profound: With incomplete concerns on our mind, we can never have enough attention to be fully present. A lack of presence can find us missing out and needing more.

Moreover, when we are incomplete with items, we begin to tolerate being incomplete for ourselves and from others. We also settle for less—including, most damagingly, from ourselves.

Focusing on the completion dynamic supports our ability to be fully present in each moment and enhances our dignity.

In a time of volatile change and increased complexity, our aliveness depends on our dignity and presence. Bring the distinction of being complete to life to cultivate that aliveness.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.