The paradox of having goals in the moment
There’s a lot of confusion about whether goals have a place in Buddhist practice. Buddhism’s about “being in the moment.” right? And if you’re in the moment you shouldn’t be thinking about the future. And goals are a form of clinging, and we’re not supposed to cling, and so therefore goals have no place in spiritual practice. Right? Well, not so fast.
Sure, there can be problems with goals.
Goals can be something we cling to inappropriately, and so we end up giving ourselves a hard time when we don’t meet them.
Here’s something I’ve experienced, and that I’ve seen happen with many other people:
Early on, when I’d not long learned to meditate, I had a great sit, full of contentment, even bliss. I was effortlessly focused, filled with energy, and feeling like I was radiating compassion. It was wonderful; my first real experience that meditation could bring about powerful change.
So the next time I sat down to meditate I wanted that again. Why not? I’d cracked it! I had this meditation thing sorted out. I was probably on the verge of enlightenment. And of course, what happened? Distraction, despair, and doubt! I plunged into an emotional freefall, desperately wanting to recreate that experience, and failing miserably. And as I failed, I became despondent. And the more despondent I became, the more I failed. A classic vicious cycle.
What went on here? First, the “good sit” arose because I had a non-grasping mind. The mind had let go of grasping after pleasant experiences and of trying to push away unpleasant experiences, and simply relaxed into a state of calmness, contentment, and concentration. In the second sit, there was an attitude of grasping after a particular experience. And when that experience didn’t arise (and it couldn’t, because an experience of non-grasping can’t be achieved through grasping) states such as aversion, doubt, and self-criticism arose. Grasping after the experience of a good sit stops a good sit from happening.
So that’s one problem with goals; they can be something we grasp after, and when we grasp after them they cause us to suffer.
What’s the solution to grasping after achieving goals? We don’t hold our goals as expectations, and therefore don’t beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve them. We hold our goals lightly, so that they represent the direction in which we want to move rather than something we must achieve. So we can have the goal of reproducing the “good sit,” but we’re not obsessed with the degree of progress we’re making. We accept that change is messy and unpredictable. And mostly importantly we accept that we have to start from where we are right now. We accept the present moment, because anything good that happens in our practice comes from acceptance.
Don’t assume that your happiness is going to arise automatically or magically just because you’ve set goals. Don’t beat yourself up when things don’t work out exactly as you planned. Life is unpredictable.
Apart from clinging to our goals, the worst mistake we can have is to lack goals altogether. If we don’t have any sense of direction in our spiritual practice, how are we going to find our way to enlightenment?
At its broadest, we should have the goal of becoming awakened. That’s what Buddhist practice is all about. The goal of enlightenment needs to be lightly held (see above). We shouldn’t think that just because we want to get enlightened it’s going to happen right now. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But we shouldn’t expect it.
Practically speaking, though, we’ll probably have more specific things we’re working on. We might have a goal of becoming less cranky, or of becoming more patient, or more compassionate, for example.
In my own life I have any number of goals that are directly connected with my spiritual practice. I want to be more empathetic, particularly toward my wife. I want to be more patient with my children, especially when we’re in a hurry and they do what kids often do, which is get distracted. In my meditation practice I’m working on realizing non-duality more clearly, by letting go of the unconscious habit of regarding some sensations as “self” and others as “other.” I also have the goal of setting aside more time for meditation, because with my own work, two young kids, and a wife who works irregular hours, my meditation time can get squeezed to almost zero.
Sometimes we can have the wrong goals. I’m not talking about specifically spiritual goals here, but about goals that a spiritually-oriented person might have that aren’t helpful. For example, goals can be very materialistic. That’s not a problem in itself, but frankly materialism doesn’t work very well. There’s plenty of research showing that after an initial bost in happiness when we gain material wealth, we drift back down to a “hedonic set point.” The lesson to take from this is that happiness fundamentally comes from within — from our attitudes.
But say you make a goal to change your attitudes. Say you make a goal of appreciating every day the people you love. Or appreciating yourself every day. Of expressing gratitude every day. Of spending some time each day in meditation. Of serving others at least once a week. Those activities can change your hedonic set point (which isn’t set in stone — it’s just the end result of the habits you have). If you have those kinds of goals, and make meaningful effort to achieve them, then you’ll be a happier person.
Happiness may be implicit in the thinking behind materialist goals. Explicit is “I will earn $200,000 dollars a year.” Implicit is “and doing so will make me happy.” Of course the question that arises is, will it? Probably not.
If you’re earning 10 times as must as you did when you were a grad student, or 100 times more than that summer you volunteered to work with disabled kids, are you now 10 or 100 times happier than you were then? I’m guessing not. So why do you assume that what didn’t work in the past is going to somehow start working in the future? It almost certainly won’t. In fact, you were probably really happy working with those disabled kids because you grew as a person and realized how incredibly lucky you were. So if that worked in the past, why not set it as a goal for the future? That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go back and do that precise thing, but instead reconnect with the appreciation and giving that contributed to your wellbeing. Why not set a goal of recreating those elements in your life?
And if you haven’t made happiness your explicit goal, will you even remember it once you’re in the throes of trying to make your goals happen? Again, probably not. It’s hard enough to bear goals in mind when they’re fully conscious. When they’re assumed, they’ll tend to be forgotten.
But what about the idea that if you’re “in the moment” you shouldn’t be thinking about the future? Sadly, this is a common misunderstanding of what it means to be in the present moment. Talk of “being in the present moment” is a metaphor. Given that we can’t actually be anywhere else than the present moment, how could it be otherwise? What is the metaphor referring to, if it’s not to be taken literally? Well, much of the time when we’re distracted — when we’ve lost our mindfulness — we’re thinking about the past or future. We’re worrying, regretting, feeling angry, longing after things we think will make us happy. And crucially, we’re not aware that this is what we’re doing. What’s going on in the present moment is that we’re absorbed in unhelpful forms of thinking, and we’re not aware of that present-moment activity. Saying that we’re not in the present moment means just that we’re not aware of what we’re doing in the present moment.
It is perfectly possible to think of the past or future mindfully — that is, we’re aware we’re thinking about past events or events that might become. We’re not captive to those thoughts, and if they start to give rise to grasping or aversion we can notice this and take corrective action. That’s something we aren’t able to do when we’re distracted.
The Buddha often encouraged people to think mindfully about the past or future. He asked us to reflect on old age, sickness, and other forms of suffering the future will bring, for example, in order that we can motivate ourselves to practice now.
He also asks us over and over to note how experiences have passed away, so that we can appreciate impermanence and learn to let go of our grasping. There is no way to learn without contemplating the past.
The Buddha didn’t teach anything that opposed, in principle, having goals as part of our spiritual path. In fact the Buddha talked over and over about the goals of the spiritual path, and points out that we even have to have enthusiasm for attaining our goals.
We just need to make sure that we have appropriate goals, and that we don’t cling to them. Without goals, there is no spiritual growth.