Last weekend I taught meditation on a workshop along with another teacher who talked about the importance of goals as part of one’s spiritual path. This is something I often talked about in the past, although it hasn’t been a prominent part of my teaching recently. I think the last time I wrote about it was in my 2010 book, Living as a River.
My own presentation at the weekend was on mindfulness, appreciation, and gratitude: being in and valuing the present moment.
These two themes — having goals and appreciating the present moment — might seem contradictory, and it was interesting to explore how they’re actually not, but instead are (or can be) complementary.
One exercise I’ve done myself and which I recommend others to do is this: Imagine it’s 10 or 15 years in the future. You walk into a large room, and to your surprise it’s full of friends, relatives, colleagues, and members of your spiritual community. They’re all there for you. One by one people stand up and talk about you. They talk about the positive influence you’ve had on their lives. They rejoice in the qualities they admire in you. They celebrate your accomplishments.
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I suggest to my meditation students that, having done this reflective exercise, they write down the main points of what they’ve heard.
What’s happening when you do this exercise is that you’re getting in touch with your deeper values and aspirations. It’s easier to do this than when you simply sit down and ask the question, “What are my values and aspirations,” because when you do that you’re speaking in your own voice—the voice of your everyday ego, riddled through with doubt, pride, and fear. In hearing others’ voices you bypass the ego and hear a more direct and unfiltered account of what you most value. In fact, what you hear from these “others” is often surprising!
I call this “The bud dreaming the flower.” The bud looks deeply into its nature and sees its own potential. This is the resolution of the apparent paradox of having goals and ideals (which inevitably involve the future) while being completely in the moment. When you do an exercise like the one I’ve suggested, you’re seeing yourself more truly than when you’re simply mindful of who you are right now. This is because “who you are right now” is not something static. It’s a process.
There is no being, only becoming.
You’re always changing. Who you currently are is only a snapshot of an ever-unfolding and ever-changing process. You’re an arrow in flight, completing the long arc from birth to death. Being aware of what’s arising for you right now is like taking a still photograph of one moment from the long curve of your life.
It seems as if a bud need do nothing in order to transform into the flower, but that’s because we don’t see the immense effort that goes into its growth. The bud’s growth is not conscious, however.
Our own growth will often not take place unless we consciously become aware of our potential, unless we consciously work at overcoming the fears and doubts that hold us back, and unless we consciously apply ourselves in our lives. This deeper form of mindfulness is called sampajañña, or “mindfulness of purpose.”
The bud, dreaming the flower, comes to know itself more fully. It comes to see itself not as a static “thing” but as an ever-unfolding process. It comes to see itself in terms of its potential. Having seen this potential, its life becomes more conscious. When decisions are made—whether large or small—they become tools for steering oneself toward our potential future self. Every action becomes, potentially at least, a small step toward the full flower of our potential.
This awareness of our potential is an important practice in Buddhism. It’s why Buddhists commonly chant the refuges and precepts before a period of practice, paying homage to our potential and to the practices that enable us to manifest it. It’s why Buddhists visualize Buddhas and bodhisattvas (this is called “Buddhanusati”), and chant mantras—these are ways, once again, to dream the flower, seeing our own potential enlightened selves.