There are risks of becoming attached and consumed by our goals. In Part 1 of this blog, we considered how striving for results and clinging to outcomes can lead to stress and anxiety, diminishing well-being and eroding performance over time. However, goals don’t need to be eliminated because of this, 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. In this blog we’ll explore a few of the ways to practice working with goals that can both enhance performance and lead to greater fulfillment.
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 an 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
“The view changes as we walk along the path and we abandon the goals that, at first, we had in mind. It’s painful to let go of our original intentions but, eventually, they are in the way because we have been changed, we are no longer the person who set off. Our intentions gave us the journey and that is enough.” - John Tarrant, Zen Teacher
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 trying to be 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.
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.
Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge
3-Day Intensive mPEAK course Program activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices.
CE credits are available. June 26-28, 2015 The Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA
For our local San Diego residence you are also invited to register for the full 8-Week mPEAK program held at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness.