This blog began as a goal. About 2 weeks ago I set a goal to create a blog of 1,600 words or less by January 10th and then delegated a few chunks of my schedule for writing and editing. Now here I am in the present, looking at a list of blog topics I’d created in the past, for future consideration. Maybe because it’s the New Year or maybe because the 8 week mPEAK course just started, but mindfulness and goal setting seems to be an especially relevant topic.
No Goals Allowed?
As I begin, I’m curious how many people reading this believe I’ve gone against a fundamental of mindfulness by taking a goal setting approach to writing this blog? After all, Mindfulness is about being in the now, not in the future land where goals live, right?
If you’ve taken a mindfulness course, chances are you’ve heard the teacher say something like, “There is no goal in Mindfulness- no place to go and nothing to get.” This wisdom is commonly met by new students with the response of, “Hold on, it’s not about doing anything?” “Nope. Not improving, changing or fixing.” This can initially be a difficult lesson to grasp. In essence, Mindfulness is about recognizing that simply being present and fully accepting what’s already here, is enough.
But what about all those piles of research findings suggesting the benefits of creating specific, measurable, achievable, time dependent goals? Are they in conflict with the other piles of research findings on the benefits of mindfulness? Is the practice of already “being enough”, at odds with my goal to write a blog, or the goals of my coaching clients who want to start going to the gym, run a race, balance work and life or make more profit for their business?
Perhaps the first obstacle to true understanding is the duality of the very questions being asked. Rather than seeing it as either/or, we might try the inquiry: How do we successfully balance being enough in the present moment while working toward an improvement goal for the future?
As I’ve worked with these inquiries over the last few years I’ve found that it’s less about the goal and more about how we hold each of our unique aspirations. There are ways of relating to goals that will increase performance while bringing more enjoyment and there are also ways of holding goals that will lead to greater stress. But first, let’s explore some of the common pitfalls of goal setting so you’ll know what to watch for.
One of the reasons Mindfulness Teachers warn against goal setting is that it can be very easy to get attached to the outcome of our goals. Take for example a client of mine who set a goal to lose 20 pounds at the advice of her doctor to decrease her risk of diabetes. She set out with force and ambition, walking, doing yoga, eliminating processed food and sweets during weekdays. Everything was working perfectly, until it wasn’t. The first slip up initiated a cascade of stress hormones that caused tension in the body and sabotaging thoughts, triggered by an old fear of failure. Not wanting to face her disappointment and negative body image, she was convinced that the only thing that would help her feel better about herself was more cheesecake.
When we get attached to a goal, it becomes part of our identity, which typically turns out in one of two ways. For some people like my weight loss client, one simple slip up can be elevated beyond a single failed moment, to a more global, “I am and always will be a failure as a person.” In this case, self-efficacy goes down the drain with yet another goal not achieved. For others, goal attachment leads to the opposite effect of not giving up on a goal even after it’s long ago lost value and relevance. Failure after failure doesn’t seem to loosen their white knuckled grip. Rather than just letting go, goal attachment can lead some to go down with the ship.
Striving & Driving
Many mindfulness students who come from corporate America or competitive sports are utterly baffled by the concept of “Non-Striving”. Striving is not just common in their culture; it’s a normal and expected way of being. Everyone is “striving to be their best” or “striving for progress”. Often striving does actually work to push the desired results, but is it really the best way to move forward? Just take a look at the word “Strive”. According to the Oxford dictionary it means, “to make great efforts to achieve or obtain something” or “to struggle or fight vigorously.” In fact the word strive has its origins in the word “strife”, which means “angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues; conflict.” The only reason this anxious, urgent and even desperate way in which people strive ends up going unnoticed, is because everyone else is working that way too.
Take for example a client of mine who wanted to compete in a triathlon. Her friends were signing up and it had been on her bucket list for many years. After the long list of accessories were purchased, a new bike, wetsuit, swimming goggles, running shoes, and a new device for tracking miles, she was off to the races. Each morning getting up early to train, sacrificing time with her family, preparing meals and diligently planning out training days so that her time decreased and her mileage increased. All sights were set on race day. If results were what mattered, then her hard work was paying off and she could be seen as a success. But if wellbeing and enjoying life was any factor at all, then she was failing miserably.
When we’re striving to reach an end goal, we can begin to lose perspective and diminish the rewards of the journey. We might be making progress but at what cost? Even with high stress levels and an underlying sense that “something is wrong”, many of my clients still express fear in letting go of their striving. “If I didn’t strive to finish my projects, nothing would get done on time.” One of the biggest challenges for these people is that the stress caused by the striving its self, limits the ability of their mind to see any of the other infinite, creative ways to go about getting things done.
At the heart of any unskillful goal setting is the belief that “If I reach that goal, then I’ll be happy.” Happy could just as easily be replaced with “peaceful, lovable, worthy etc.” The assumption is that things are not OK right now, but if I did x, y and z, they would be better in the future. This thinking leads some to disenchantment with life when they realize that one achievement after another doesn’t lead to the expected happiness. But others continue to chase the carrot year after year, telling themselves the same story. “I thought it was the 10 pounds that would make me happy but maybe what I really need is to save up for a new car.” “I thought it was a new car, but it must be a new wife.” “I thought it was a new wife, but it must be more travel.” The reason things you think would make you happier don’t, is explained by the theory of “Hedonic Adaptation”. This is the tendency for people to quickly return to a stable level of happiness, or a “happiness set point”, despite major positive or negative events or life changes. For example, if someone reaches their goal of losing weight, getting a raise, moving to a bigger house or buying a new car, eventually his or her expectations and desires rise in tandem, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness. This is referred to as the Hedonic Treadmill…it’s a cycle that just keeps going and going, always striving to get to an imaginary “there”, but never arriving.
Mindfulness Based Goal Setting
Although there are risks of becoming attached and consumed by our goals, they don’t need to be eliminated, just approached more mindfully. I’ve found that while it may not be helpful to set a specific and measurable goal to achieve mindfulness, it can be very helpful to bring more mindfulness to achieving goals in life, work and sport.
The biggest distinction of Mindfulness Based Goal Setting (MBGS for those who needed one more acronym) is to hold your goals lightly. Treating a goal as an intention or a commitment rather than a rigid destination helps to decrease attachment and clinging to an expected outcome.
The Goal Is The Anchor
Participants of the mPEAK Program and others who know the basic instructions for Awareness of Breath Meditation will be quite familiar with the intention and commitment to following the breath as a single point of focus. We set out attending carefully to the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath… until we don’t. When we get distracted by thoughts, feelings, sounds or sensations, the instruction is to simply notice the wandering mind and return to the breath with kindness. This is the same way to practice with our goals! We set an intention or commitment to finishing a project, going to the gym, eating less gluten or being nicer to our spouse. When we inevitably lose motivation, get distracted or begin a pattern of self-sabotage, the instructions are to simply notice and gently but firmly come back to the goal.
The word “aspiration” is related to the Latin word spiritus, breath, and comes from the French aspirare meaning ‘to breathe out.’ When we relate to goals as aspirations, they can be used like the breath as a focus for practice, developing greater concentration and anchoring us to the present moment. I often tell my clients, it’s not the one who clings tightest to the goal who succeeds, it’s the one who continually comes back to the goal over and over.
I’ve been practicing this way with my own aspiration while writing this blog. For instance I’ve been aware of a desire to stop writing and fix a snack about every twenty minutes or so. I’ve noticed that the sound of an incoming email pulls my attention away and creates a sense of imagined importance and urgency. I can also hear the thoughts of my own inner critic judging my writing, “This blog is long and boring and nobody will probably read it”. But with mindfulness, I can simply notice the thoughts and impulses and make a choice to either indulge the distraction, or continue writing toward my goal.
Goals As An Experiment
Another way to loosen our grip on goals is to treat them like experiments. Rather than measuring success only by the specific outcome, we can begin to look for value in the learning and development that comes around any goal. Whenever I set a goal that stretches me from my comfort zone, I can count on all my “stuff” being triggered. By bringing curiosity to my thoughts and patterns that arise during the process of working toward a goal, I deepen my understanding of what makes me perform well and what holds me back.
While working toward the goal of finishing this blog, I’ve learned that I’m more creative and enjoy writing in the mornings rather than in the evenings. Because of the introceptive awareness I’ve cultivated through practicing the Body Scan Meditation, I am keenly aware that 1 cup of coffee engages my body and mind, stimulating my fingers to type efficiently. However with a cup and a half, a subtle nervousness sets in that leads to more distractibility, typos, made up words and run on sentences. There has also been self-awareness and knowledge gained around how to prepare to write. I’ve found that a little prep work of reading other material on my topic can help me get into my flow. But without watching carefully, this preparation can take on a life of it’s own, becoming an all-consuming research project fueled by the fear of not knowing enough.
Goals As A Gateway
Another way to hold goals lightly is to trust that our goals will evolve naturally as our practice deepens. When I first began meditating, over a decade ago, I was clear that my goal for meditation was to be a Jedi- Samurai warrior. I had practiced martial arts for many years and watched enough Kung Fu movies to know that anyone who wanted to seriously kick butt had to meditate. Was this the wisest aspiration for a meditation practice? Ultimately no, but it’s the one I had and it’s what got me through the door. Since then my aspiration for meditation has gone through many incarnations with each new understanding giving rise to a new “goal”. Letting go of “kicking butt” gave rise to wanting to be more “spiritual”. Letting go of the image of being spiritual made space for acceptance of who I truly am, which set the stage for greater compassion towards the people in my life. Eventually this may even lead to the realized aspiration of compassion for all beings...but I’m still holding that one lightly.
Not only have I noticed that my goals have evolved with practice, they’ve also started dropping away. I’ve written a goal list every New Years since I was 13. Recently as I reviewed goals from each of the last five years, I noticed a progression toward more simplicity and less ambition. This isn’t because I want my life to be less rich or have less impact, it’s because I trust myself more. Ultimately at this stage of practice, I know what’s in my heart. I know the path I’m on. I know the work that needs to be done and I trust that in most moments, I’ll make appropriate choices that align with my deepest values. Even without rigid goal setting I eat clean, give it my all at the gym, continue to grow my coaching practice and find fulfillment in my relationships. For me, that is enough.
Now that I'm coming to the end of this blog, I can see that I've over shot my maximum length by more than 1000 words and took an extra week to complete it. Oh well, I wasn't attached to that goal anyways. Writing was a fun process and I learned a few things along the way.
When it comes to setting goals, the most important thing is to start where you’re at, which is typically right here. Look deeply into your own heart and ask yourself what you really, really want out of your life, your practice, your sport, your work and your relationships. Set goals that move and inspire you to stretch and grow. Work toward these goals mindfully and diligently with kindness and non- attachment, allowing them to naturally evolve… and evolve you, over time.