Goals in the spiritual life
Are spiritual goals dangerous triggers for grasping and selfish desire? Do we need to let go of goals in order to be truly free and happy? Sunada doesn’t think so. She argues that it’s not the goals themselves that are the problem, but how we approach them.
“Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.” — Yoda
We all come to the spiritual life with some sort of goal in mind. Like wanting a calmer mind, less anxiety, a kinder heart – in short, to become a better person. Yes, spiritual practice can bring us all these things, and they’re entirely valid reasons for starting down that road.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it.
But at some point we hit a wall. What happens is that TRYING to achieve these things only gets us so far. At some point, we find ourselves with the exact opposite of what we wanted – a lot of self-doubt and frustration.
I’ve often had people ask me whether I think they should let go of their goals – that maybe it’s a sort of grasping that has no place in the spiritual life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it. So then how do we navigate this process that seems so elusive?
The wise quote I bring in here is not from the Buddha, but a different wise man — er, creature — Yoda. When I first heard Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker 30 years ago, I thought it sounded like the ultimate parody of Zen-like wisdom. I couldn’t make any sense of it. But now many years later, I’ve discovered that it’s quite profoundly true. Yoda was a pretty wise being!
This is what happened. From very early on, I kept up a regular practice of the Metta Bhavana meditation (the development of loving–kindness). Even though I had a lot of difficulty with it, I did it because I was pretty sure it would help me to open up a heart that had shut down through years of depression. Besides, I had a sort of bulldog-ish attitude that if I kept at it, something would eventually break through.
Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it feels … out of reach.
And boy, did I struggle. My teachers would talk of feeling a warmth in my heart area, recalling kind thoughts and images, and wishing people well. But I sat there feeling blank and gray. Nothing. When the gentle approach didn’t work, I tried MAKING myself feel happier by sheer force of will. Not much success there either. It was all too forced and artificial, and I’d feel thrown right back to where I started.
I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common experience with the Metta Bhavana practice, so I now know it wasn’t just me! But everyone encouraged me to keep trying, that something would happen eventually.
And something did happen. It’s not that I changed in any objective way. Instead, it was my perspective that shifted. I started seeing my “problem” in a completely different way, and then it grew to no longer be a problem.
The shift began with my decision to start every meditation session with an extensive period of a body scan (focusing on successive areas of my body to help bring my awareness to myself and the present moment). I also imagined what it feels like to come home from a long day at work and to relax — to sink into my favorite easy chair, feel proud of what I’ve accomplished today, knowing that I’ve done all I can — and now it was time to let go to the “ahhh….” feeling.
What doing this allowed me to experience, quite viscerally, was a sense of physical contentment in the here and now. In that moment, I was perfectly happy being just as I was. I didn’t need anything else to make me feel complete. It was the simple joy of being present. It didn’t mean I had gotten rid of my problems, and I was still the same imperfect person I always was. But in that moment, none of those things were weighing on me. I was content, plain and simple.
…when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching … In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly.
Once I contacted that very real, very authentic feeling of contentment, it was an easy step to move into the Metta Bhavana practice. For the first stage, I imagined myself wrapped in warm blankets of kindness, which made it easy to feel warm emotions toward myself. As long as I stayed connected with a genuine feeling of contentment and pleasure, moving toward each successive stage of the Metta practice came much more easily. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m feeling positive about myself, and in touch with my own happiness, my good mood naturally spawns kind feelings toward others. It’s pretty elementary and obvious, now that I think about it.
On days that I was not feeling so good – feeling angry or depressed, for example – this technique worked just as well. I usually couldn’t make myself feel any better, but that was OK. By starting with a foundation of relaxation and physical contentment, I found I could lift myself out of my “poor me” self-absorption. I was able to wrap myself in sympathy and acceptance of how I was, even though I couldn’t change the ugly mood. So it was this kindly self-acceptance that I touched in that moment that I used as the foundation of my metta practice.
This experience helped me to understand that metta is a quality I always have within me, and it had nothing do to with how I’m feeling at the moment. Metta is not the opposite of anger or depression. Metta is an attitude of patient acceptance toward whatever is there – good, bad, or anything in between. It’s always accessible to me, as long as I care to notice it and call it up.
As I reflect on my experience with the Metta practice, I see lots of parallels to the whole idea of personal development off the cushion as well. Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it always feels like a reach, or perhaps even out of reach. This is what I assume Yoda meant by “trying.”
If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us.
But when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching. By simply turning our kind attention to its presence, it begins to grow on its own. We don’t have to “try” anything. In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly. We don’t grasp for something distant and off in the future. We appreciate and cultivate something joyful that we already have, and can readily touch.
Now I bet there are doubters out there among you that are wondering whether you have any inkling of the qualities you wish you had. If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us. It’s only our own self-doubt that keeps us from seeing them.
So if you’ve been trying to become a better person in some way, stop trying. Instead, look for all the ways that you already have those qualities in some small, nascent form. Trust that they are there, and think of ways to encourage those qualities to blossom. For example, if we want to become kinder, it’s important that we feel good physically – that we eat well, get enough sleep and rest, and have time to laugh and enjoy ourselves. We need to be kind to ourselves in the same way that we’d want to be kind to others, so that we begin to touch an authentic experience of our own kind heart. If we set these sorts of conditions, the kinder side of us can’t help but come out and grow stronger.
So the crux of the matter is in how we view our goals. Are we grasping for something off in the future in a way that denigrates our present experience and triggers a poverty mentality of lack, need, and desire? Or are we aspiring toward a higher ideal that’s on the same path we’re already on — while at the same time loving ourselves as we are now, and encouraging ourselves to feel whole, warm, abundant and blessed? It’s that switch in our state of mind that makes all the difference. That’s what sets the tone for what kind of future we create for ourselves.
Sunada not only teaches the online meditation courses at Wildmind, she runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, through which she coaches people toward embracing their authentic strengths and living with a greater sense of purpose.