A strong message in our culture encourages us to work hard and keep our eye on the prize, whether that prize is material comfort and security or a heavenly reward. While learning how to handle delayed gratification can be beneficial, a mindset that focuses only on the future causes suffering for ourselves and all beings. It sets up habitual patterns of thinking, so that if and when we get to the goal, we don’t know how to be present to enjoy it. The long-sought achievement doesn’t feel as satisfying as we imagined, and we restlessly search for another goal that might deliver the goods, not realizing ‘the goods’ are within us in every moment, if only we learn how to pay attention.
Staying laser-focused on a goal is like going through life looking through binoculars. We tune out so much of what is important: this moment here and now. If you believe that being goal-oriented is the only way to accomplish anything, I quote the quintessentially successful Kevin O’Leary, the self-proclaimed “Mr. Wonderful” on the show Shark Tank, who advises his entrepreneurs to “savor the journey”. So, clearly you don’t have to be a mendicant in a loincloth begging from door to door to be present.
For the religious, the deepest spiritual understanding is the discovery of God’s presence in every moment, not as some distant reward for putting up with this miserable life. The patterns of how we live now are the patterns we bring to into the future and beyond our last breath. Can we greet each moment as the gift it is?
After all, this moment is the only one that actually exists. The future is just a hopeful or angst-ridden idea and the past is only a fallible collection of memories. This moment here and now is our personal point of power and connection. When we are fully present we can sense the power. Think about it: Only in this moment can we make choices that send us in skillful or unskillful directions that will have consequences to ourselves and others rippling out through time. We have so much power in this moment that we better pay full attention to what we’re doing…to ourselves, to others, to the planet.
Every mistake we’ve made in our lives was done in a moment of mindlessness, of not being present. Is this true? Pause and think about your own life.
We are living with the consequences of past choices we made when we either were paying attention or, sadly, weren’t. They shape our current conditions, but even so, this moment, just as it is, is rich with choice. We are always at a crossroads making a choice. Hopefully we choose to be in skillful relationship with what is arising in this moment, in this situation, instead of seeing it as an obstacle on the path to some future moment that will be more worthy of our attention.
This may be distressing to someone with a mindset of needing to ‘get’ somewhere, to finally be at a solid destination. But all life is in flux — an ever-changing cohesive web of networks, currents, synapses. So it’s more skillful to learn how to be present and dance with these currents, surf these waves of uncertainty, and savor the moment we’re in, rather than ignore or reject this moment, hoping something better will come along. It won’t!
Every moment is your moment! Savor this precious gift! If it doesn’t look like much, adjust your awareness to all your senses. See how fear has distorted your vision, creating aversion, comparing mind, and a sense of not enough. And when in doubt, turn to this very handy guide, The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, to help us make informed, beneficial and empowering choices.
So should we not have a goal?
It’s good to have plans for dealing with potential challenges we might face, but we can put them into place in a way that isn’t obsessive. If we just stay in the moment and say la-di-da about the future, we might have some regrets later on. But we don’t have to make it an overwhelming chore. These days it’s fairly simple for most people to, for example, set up automatic transfers for savings and auto-pay to keep on top of regular bills; to have health insurance, make an emergency kit, etc. These are all ways we can protect against the economic ill-effects of possible calamity. It comes from compassion for your future self and family. If these tasks seem beyond your capabilities, get the training, guidance or assistance of a qualified person you trust.
When it comes to education, developing skills and knowledge in your field of interest is wise and enlivening. Obtaining whatever certification is required in order to continue your interests and make use of your skills in a way that is beneficial is Wise Effort. But pursuing a degree just to frame it, or as a ticket to ride to somewhere you have no interest in going isn’t beneficial to anyone, especially you. (And while you’re on a ride to nowhere, you’re taking up the seat of someone who feels a real calling in that direction. Just something to consider.)
Goals to prove something to yourself or the world can be harmless or very destructive. They can endanger physical and mental well being. Relationships can be lost to their dogged pursuit. Often the activities to achieve these goals, and the goals themselves, are not aligned with caring for the planet and all life. And there is the potential of getting caught up in destructive distractions that can ruin and prematurely end your life. Instead, you would do better to attune to your own inner wisdom, remind yourself that you have nothing to prove, nothing to fear, nothing to hide, but you do have something to give — then explore what that is and cultivate it wisely.
So notice the nature of your goals. Are they thoughtful plans grounded in Wise View and Wise Intention? If not, push the reset button. And be sure whatever you do is Wise Effort.
More tips on Wise Effort
Pause! So often we jump right from one activity to another without giving ourselves even a moment to realign with our deepest intentions or give ourselves needed rest. If you lead a busy life and schedule appointments back to back, schedule in these pauses as well. And let these pauses be restful and mindful, truly nourishing yourself.
Reframe your wording — The language we use to describe our experience can adversely affect our effort: ‘I’m struggling with…’, ‘I’m wrestling with…’, ‘I’m up against a wall.’, ‘This is a tough hurdle.’, ‘I have to jump through hoops.’ Sound familiar? Perception is key! Notice the way you talk to yourself and others about effort. Your choice of words may creating difficulty where it doesn’t need to be.
Work together — Skillful effort often happens in collaboration. For me it is sometimes difficult to undertake a large project, but if I join forces with my husband, a friend or someone with a shared interest, good things happen. And it’s much more fun! There is a long tradition of collaborative effort on all kinds of projects from barn-raising to quilting bees to political action. Of course, a group could be unskillful, and we need to keep our antennae up for fear-based motivations, etc. But community with a shared purpose can be wise effort.
Stay in the body — When working on a project whether it’s on the phone, at the computer or doing physical labor, it can be easy to be so focused on the needs of the project at hand that we forget to register the body’s needs. For example, working in the garden, bent over pulling weeds, we may ignore our back’s messages of pain and suffer the consequences. Keeping the senses alive in the moment will make the experience more whole and more healthy.
Consider The Hindrances — We can discover a lot about whether our efforts are wise by looking over the Buddha’s list of Five Hindrances of Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor and Doubt. Feel free to explore the numerous posts I’ve written on that subject.
Whenever you notice that your efforts feel unskillful, instead of feeling bad about it, turn to these teachings of that brilliant early psychologist, the Buddha, for guidance. That’s Wise Effort!