Four crucial things to consider if you have goals in your spiritual practice


man silhouetted in the fog

I see a lot of confusion about whether it’s OK to have goals in spiritual practice, and in meditation in particular. A lot of people think it’s wrong to have goals, and think of being goal-oriented as a peculiarly western phenomenon. I disagree on both counts.

The Buddha was supremely goal-oriented, and he encouraged us to be likewise. His last words were “Strive conscientiously.”

He opens one sutta with the words, “And how, monks, does a monk cultivate the heart’s release by loving-kindness? What is its goal, its excellence, its fruit and its outcome?” In a conversation with a monk he says “It’s good that you understand that I have taught the Dhamma with total liberation [parinibbana] through lack of clinging as its goal [attha], for I have taught the Dhamma with total liberation through lack of clinging as its goal.”

There’s a lot more like that! The Buddha taught us to have goals and to pursue them, so I don’t think this is a western phenomenon by any means.

The question is whether or not there are attitudes of grasping, aversion, or delusion involved in our desire to pursue goals.

With grasping we want to be there now!

With aversion we can’t stand being where we are now, or we’re angry with ourselves or our practice because we’re not where we want to be.

With delusion we think that we can achieve peace and calm by using means that destroy peace and calm—for example if we just try hard enough to change, or give ourselves a hard enough time, or just want to change enough—then it’ll happen. Or our goals may be unrealistic—setting a goal of having zero distractions in meditation is just not going to work. It’s like setting the goal of churning water in order to produce butter.

Approaching our practice through craving, aversion, or delusion make us unhappy. But we don’t have to relate to our practice in this way.

Here are four crucial things to consider if we want to relate healthily to goals:

  1. Are we able to accept where we currently are as we work toward our goals?
  2. Are we able to move toward our goals in a spirit of patience, kindness, and even playfulness?
  3. Are we able to have a goal without being disappointed that we’re not there yet?
  4. Are our goals realistic?

So if you’re cultivating lovingkindness, then (obviously, I think) you have a goal of becoming kinder. If you’re practicing mindfulness of breathing, then you have the goal of being mindful of the breathing, or you may even have very specific goals, such as staying with the experience of the breathing for ten full breaths. These things are fine, as long as we’re approaching them in the right way.

Of course it’s not possible for us to instantly banish craving, aversion, and delusion from our lives! This means that we’ll inevitably find that we do bring these things into the pursuit of our goals. And that’s something we just need to accept. That’s just where we are. That’s just where we’re starting from. Accepting that, we can let go of just a little of our grasping, a little of our aversion, a little of our delusion—and in this way make progress.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • These words you say Bodhipaksa are very important and easy on the ears – I mean just reading them is calming and gives a new perspective and way in to practice. I don’t think that I’m that driven or hard on myself about practice, but I do struggle to be playful and creative with it – this blog is tremendously helpful, thank you! Susan

  • Originally I had the Buddha’s last words as “strive diligently,” but Jayarava pointed out that that “diligence” is not a good translation of appamada. Thanissaro has an article on appamada here. Commenting on various ways “appamada” is understood, he says:

    Sri Lankan commentaries translate appamada as “unrelaxed mindfulness”; Thais interpret it as heedfulness, vigilance, wariness, care. The Canon itself, in another context, defines appamada as carefully guarding the mind against defiling mental states, at the same time strengthening it in terms of conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment [SN 48.56]. In the light of these interpretations, the Buddha’s final message wasn’t simply to persevere. He was saying, “Don’t be complacent. Watch out for danger. Protect the mind’s good qualities. Don’t get caught with your guard down.”

    Accordingly, I’ve opted for “conscientiousness” as a translation of “appamada” and “conscientiously” for “appamadena.”

  • Was reflecting a little on this during the week. I have been using Insight Timer for my meditation and it tracks your stats. My goal for the last year or more has been to maintain a pretty much daily practice with at least one session, of 40 minutes.

    I had gotten quite fond of reviewing my stats after just about every session and at the beginning it was encouraging to see how much more I was meditating, having established a rule that I would always meditate before going into my office in the morning. As my monthly totals went up I was pleased but then of course I hit my peak month, followed by a more normal pattern of ups and downs.

    I was pretty much hip to the idea that I shouldn’t be disappointed and that I needed to set an achievable target. The funny thing is that I find myself questioning whether I should meditate when my phone is on the blink because it won’t go on “my stats”. I have also found myself thinking about the arbitrary Gladwell 10,000 hour rule and deciding I will need to live until I am 180 at the current rate of meditation and feeling rather disappointed.

    All this to say that we need to be mindful with goal setting as with anything and that it is easy for something that starts out as a positive to end up tyrannizing us.

    • Ahh, the worst type of Ego is the spiritual kind. Meditate without the aim of achieving “anything”.


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