“You are perfect the way you are…and you could use a little improvement”
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
This blog post began as a goal. About 2 weeks ago I set a goal to create a blog of 1,600 words or less by a specific date 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 I just had a birthday or maybe because the 3-day intensive mPEAK course is about to start in June, 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?
"How do we successfully balance being enough in the present moment while working toward an improvement goal for the future?"
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. In this first blog, let’s explore some of the common pitfalls of goal setting so you’ll know what to watch for. There will also be a part 2 of this blog that offers insight into how to successfully bring mindfulness to goals.
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.
"...it can be very easy to get attached to the outcome of our goals."
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.
"Often striving does actually work to push the desired results, but is it really the best way to move forward?"
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 well-being 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 is 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.
Now that we know what not to do, stay tuned for the next post which will give examples of how to relate to goals so that performance continues to improve, but without the stress of attachment.
You are invited to join and learn with Pete at our next mPEAK trainings. mPEAK is a cutting-edge training program for those seeking new levels of performance and success in their work, sport, or other challenging endeavors. mPEAK is built around the latest brain research related to peak performance, resilience, focus, and“flow”. The mPEAK program enhances mindfulness through established and empirically supported practices and exercises, tailored to fit the needs and desires of the team or individual.
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 credts 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. The next program begins Tuesday evening, May 12, 2015, 6:00-8:30pm.