on having no goals

Updated On — 25th Sep, 2022

As you set out on your meditation journey, don’t set yourself up for failure and avoid aggressive self-improvement. There isn’t anything to improve. And really, the present moment is un-tweak-able. It’s just fine as it is, and so are you.

One of the trickiest aspects of mindfulness meditation is the whole thing about letting go of goals. It seems to make no sense at all to not have any goal for our meditation practice. I mean, if there weren’t any real benefits to this practice, sure, there would be no reason to continue this odd behavior.

But since there are, and we feel them, what’s wrong with seeing these benefits as goals? Like feeling more relaxed, happier, more peaceful and present. What’s wrong with wanting to feel more peaceful and less harried?

On Having no goals/ Arthur Dove's Pond in Sunlight (1935) famous painting. Original from the MET Museum.
Arthur Dove’s Pond in Sunlight (1935) from the MET Museum.

the problem with goal-directed meditation

We are told the problem is goal-directed meditation impedes appreciating the peace that’s already here. That goals trick us on a pre—conscious level into believing there is something better down the road as long as we keep up the practice.

A better, more improved peace. A peace 2.0. But If we bite on this hook, the here and now feels less peaceful.

That’s what makes this practice so tricky. Biting on that hook keeps us on the hamster wheel of evaluating and comparing. Of liking/ disliking. Of wanting/ not wanting. Of not good enough.

Sure, we are drawn to meditation out of a desire to feel better in some way–in an everyday sort of way, or perhaps in a more existential way. But here’s the rub–desire is desire, even if it’s wearing a cosmic cloak.

we can get agitated if a meditation session doesn’t turn out the way we expected

If we meditate with this desire to feel good, we internalize that meditation is all about feeling good, calm, and peaceful. And when we don’t feel calm or peaceful, we can get frustrated, even agitated.

We’ve just encountered the central issue the historical Buddha emphasized in his whole teaching career–that we somehow insist on having an experience other than the one we are having.

Every moment our nervous system is engaged in pre-conscious binary processing of sensory input as safe/ dangerous, of pleasant/ unpleasant. Then liking and disliking happen, which leads to the hamster wheel of wanting and not wanting.

The Buddha called this last process tanha, thirst. And if we examine all our day-to-day activities the Buddha claimed, we encounter this thirst on many levels. Even the small shifting movements you make while sitting on your chair in your office–not liking the sensations arises, so you shift, only to later not like those, either.

the four Noble Truths

This is the first of the Buddha’s well-known Four Noble Truths: the arising of tanha in the mind sets off a subtle chain reaction of –>> liking/ not liking–>> wanting/ not wanting–>> eventually culminating in the many varieties dukkha–stress, disappointment, pain, loss, anguish.

How we can skillfully relate to this tanha, evident even at the per-conscious level, is the central concern of our meditation practice.

This is on a micro-level. On a macro-level, this plays out as the insatiable greed of empires, the hatred between religions, the delusion of indoctrination and indifference.

But it’s the very same mechanism, which starts pre-consciously with evaluation, comparison, liking, disliking and quickly proceeds to happiness and sorrow on increasing orders of scale, often below the horizon of conscious awareness.

the Buddha’s answer

The Buddha’s answer was to nip liking and disliking in the bud, before it has time to muster an army. As we notice the thoughts, sensations, and sounds that arise in the mind, we practice non-reactivity.

The thoughts will settle on their own. We notice liking and not liking, but we don’t bite the hook. We don’t jump in and take sides. Expecting our meditation to produce certain results is taking sides big time.

Yes, we all start with a rebellious mind. That’s why this practice of goal-less non-reactivity takes a lot of patience. After we have been sitting for a few minutes, the mind can feel bored–> liking/ not liking. It wants to stimulate itself with some spicy fantasy, or when it’s melancholic, it wants to cheer itself up–> wanting/ not wanting.

And when it’s restless, tired, or cranky, it just wants to dive into a slice of Mac and Cheese Pizza.

don’t set yourself up for failure

As we set out on the meditation journey, it is crucial to avoid setting ourselves up for failure and avoid aggressive self-improvement. There isn’t anything to improve. It’s just about embracing now, without trying to improve or tweak anything. Trying to tweak things just brings more frustration.

And really, the present moment is un-tweak-able. It’s just fine as it is, and so are you.

When reflecting on his teaching experience the contemporary Burmese meditation teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya observes,

Many yogis tell me that meditation is difficult. What they are actually saying is that they cannot get what they want.

Ok, so we just explored the tricky issues of having goals for your meditation journey. We saw how they can create more problems than they solve.

mindless zombies?

If that’s the case, then are we to become mindless zombies when we sit on our cushions to meditate?

No, the issue was that goals tend to lead us out of the present moment by the process of comparing and evaluating we just talked about.

However, the true goal of our practice has never changed: the continual awareness of the present moment just as it unfolds, prior to the arising of liking and disliking, free of conceptual overlays.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya offer this guidance:

Don’t practice with a mind that wants something, or wants something to happen, or wants something to stop happening. The result will only be that you tire yourself out. You are not trying to make things turn out the way you want them to happen; you are trying to know what is happening as it is.

Just hang in there with all the liking/ disliking, and watch the wanting/ not wanting without jumping in to fix your unease. Yeah, takes patience alright, but it’s worth it.

After practicing like this, goal preoccupation slowly starts to wither. Those thoughts may still crop up; you just won’t care about them as much anymore.

And If it doesn’t go like this for you at first, it’s alright. Just continue your goal-less, present-moment centered practice.

You’ll thank me later.


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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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