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