Goals Just Get in the Way

Here is another piece from my file of unused writing. I was looking at some self-help books one day at a bookstore and noticing that most of them seemed to me to be full of really bad advice. I thought maybe I could write a better kind of self-help book. I didn’t get very far with the idea. Just like the Zen of Godzilla book, I abandoned the project without finishing it. Some of what I wrote for the self-help book ended up in my other books, so you might recognize some of the sentences and paragraphs below from different books of mine.

This morning I went on YouTube to look at how the various self-help meditation courses out there pitch their wares. The very first thing I found was a course called Mind Method. They say that the Mind Master technique holds the key to achieving your goals and turning your dreams into reality.

In case you haven’t worked it out by now, the book you’re reading is not going to tell you how to achieve your goals and turn your dreams into reality. But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna tell you that you just have to settle for whatever crap life hands you. Not at all. My aim is to talk to you about seeing how the crap that life hands you may not be so crappy after all. And even if it is crappy, the only way you’re really ever going to fix that is by working with it here and now.

The trouble with goals is that they’re always distant. That’s what makes them goals. Scoring a goal in soccer or football is only exciting because the goal is far away and surrounded by all kinds of obstacles. But a good sportsperson doesn’t fixate on the far away goal and the obstacles in the way. A good sportsman does what needs to be done moment by moment. The goal isn’t the crucial thing. 

The other problem with focusing on goals is that in doing so we create habits that pull us away from our real lives here and now. These habits are very hard to undo. In fact, the more goal oriented your life becomes, the harder it will be to get out of that goal seeking mentality.

The goal seeking mentality does two things. On the one hand it can drive you to achieve something, like getting rich or famous or whatever it is you’ve decided you want. Once the goal is achieved, though, then you’ve got a dilemma. Because you have created a habit of always seeking something better, once you’ve achieved whatever it is you set out to achieve, you find you’re not happy there either. You’re immediately looking for the next goal and driving yourself toward that. 

This is why the richest and most powerful people are sometimes so deeply unhappy. They’re so successful at driving themselves to acquire things that they eventually have everything they ever wanted, or in some case, they have everything they could ever possibly want, at least among the things one is able to achieve through wealth and power. There are many people in this world right now who are so super rich they can literally buy just about anything. What’s left to achieve?

You may imagine that in that position one can just simply relax and enjoy the fruits that one has strived for. But that’s rarely what happens. The same restlessness that drove these folks to acquire their riches continues to drive them even when there’s nothing left to acquire.

OK. You may be thinking, “Big deal. If I ever get to that point I’ll just deal with it then.” The problem is that in driving ourselves to acquire those things that are far away from us, we miss out on what is very near. We miss out on our real lives here and now. And that’s the saddest thing that can possibly happen. Because your real life right here and right now is the most precious thing any of us have.

The very simple solution to this dilemma was something Buddha noticed 2500 years ago. And that is to forget all goals. Just throw them away. There is nothing at all to achieve. There is nothing at all to strive for. In this very moment you can give up all hope for the future and in so doing you can fully enjoy the present just as it is.

I’ll say it again and I’ll say it a few dozen more times before the end of this book. This does not mean being complacent. Part of living in the present moment is doing what needs to be done right here and right now to make this moment better. 

Throwing away your goals is easier said than done, though. In fact it’s probably the single most difficult aspect of zen practice. It’s so difficult that even within the world of zen, truly goalless practice is rare.

Think about some of the goals you had in the past. Which of them have you accomplished? Did they solve the problems you thought they’d solve? What new problems arose as a result of achieving those goals? Did achieving those goals make you as happy as you expected? In what ways were the goals you achieved like what you expected them to be? In what way were things different?

This is all very simple stuff.

A lot of research is being done these days in what they call “happiness studies.” There’s even a scholarly journal called the Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. One of the best books on the subject is Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. 

In this book Gilbert cites a researcher named Tom Wilson who says, ‘‘We don’t realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.’’ 

This is precisely what the Buddha discovered thousands of years ago, although he didn’t articulate it in quite that way. What he said has often been translated as, “The cause of suffering is desire.” It’s the Second Noble Truth, the first being, “All life is suffering.” But I’m not completely convinced these translations do justice to what the Buddha was actually trying to communicate.

My teacher, Gudo Nishijima Roshi, prefers to say that the First Noble Truth is the Truth of Idealism. When we look at things in an idealistic fashion, all life seems to be suffering because our real lives can never match our ideals about how our lives ought to be. This goes for anyone, no matter how rich or famous they are or how close their lives match the prevailing societal definition of fabulous.

As for the cause of suffering being desire, this is often terribly misunderstood by people who attempt to do Buddhist practice. They imagine that the goal of the practice is to reach some kind of rarified state in which they never desire anything. They beat themselves up when they find themselves wanting things. They imagine that they must be doing something wrong, that they are “bad Buddhists” because they still desire a better car or a hotter boyfriend or a nice burrito with plenty of guacamole. 

But that’s not really it at all. You cannot ever stop desiring things. That’s just the nature of the kind of animal you are. You need certain things to live. If you stopped desiring food and water, you’d die. Other desires arise naturally as different needs come up. Sometimes you desire thing you don’t really need. But that, too, doesn’t have to be a problem.

It may be better to look at the Second Noble Truth in terms of goals. As long as you have a goal that has not yet been met, you suffer. There is dissonance between you as you are right now and you as you think you’ll be once your desire is met. You feel incomplete. It’s like being hungry. You think you need to consume whatever it is you desire — either literally or metaphorically — in order to complete yourself.

But you’re wrong. You are complete as you are right now. No matter what you suppose that you lack. It’s not that your life couldn’t possibly improve if you got that thing. Perhaps it could. And perhaps you need to make efforts to acquire whatever that object might be. More than likely, though, if you really examine it dispassionately you’ll see that you don’t really need that object after all. But there are cases when maybe you do need it. So that isn’t the problem.

The problem is when you allow the desire to dominate your experience. The fact that you have desires and goals is not a problem in itself. It’s perfectly normal. You couldn’t rid yourself of it if you tried. So there’s no point in trying.

But you can learn to see desires for what they really are, just thoughts that occur in your brain. Some are useful, some aren’t. What messes us up is the way we identify with our desires. We have a thought and then we attempt to own that thought. And because it is now my desire, I think I must do something to relieve my pain that the lack of fulfillment of that desire is causing me.

Once you learn to stop this process of identifying yourself with your own thoughts you find that desires don’t really have much of a hold upon you. They’re just one more kind of thought that your brain generates. 

I don’t know of any scientific study that has attempted to quantify the number of thoughts we have each minute. I don’t think such a thing can be accurately tabulated in any case. But I’ve watched my own brain processes during meditation long enough to see that the number of thoughts I personally generate throughout the day must run into the millions. 

Most of these thoughts are simply ignored. Under normal circumstances — i.e. when you’re not in a meditation retreat or something similar — we don’t even notice them at all. They’re very subtle and fleeting. Other thoughts are a bit more concrete and stick around a little while longer. Yet we still dismiss them. 

Some thoughts appear to be tagged by some sort of habit-based mechanism in the brain for immediate dismissal. These are our supposedly “evil” thoughts, the thoughts we’ve been taught since early childhood are not to be allowed. Each one of us has a different set of these. But we all have them. Sometimes if we become aware of such thoughts we get deeply disturbed by the fact that they even appear in our minds.

But we shouldn’t because the mere fact that such “evil” thoughts appear in the mind doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. The brain is just firing away, doing what it needs to do, and some of that random activity is perceived as thought. As long as we don’t act upon those thoughts we know we shouldn’t act upon, we’re fine. It’s probably not a good idea to linger too long on such thoughts. But it’s not such a big deal.

In any case, most of the time these thoughts go right into to dumper. Well, it’s obviously more complicated than that. But whatever happens, we don’t consciously acknowledge them to any great extent.

Some thoughts, though, are attractive. They appear in our minds and we begin to play with them like a little kid playing with a lump of dirt. We manipulate them, we caress them, we pull them apart and put them together in new ways. And these thoughts often turn into desires and goals.

All we need to do is learn how to allow such thoughts to dissipate and vanish the way we allow most of our other thoughts to dissipate and vanish. 

The problem is that we start to identify these thoughts with ourselves. Think about how you define yourself. Isn’t one of the key ways we define who we are to state what we desire? I’m Brad Warner and I want to be a best selling author. What I want is, to a large extent, who I am.

So we fear that if we were to let go of our desires, we would be thereby letting go of who we are. 

But I’ve found that this really isn’t the case. I’ve discovered, through long and often very difficult meditative practice, that I am not my desires at all. I can let them go — all of them — and still retain my core being.

You can do this too. It’s not as hard as you might think. 



September 1, 2021 LECTURE Turku, Finland

September 2-5, 2021 RETREAT Hämeenlinna, Finland

September 8-12, 2021 BENEDIKTUSHOF RETREAT near Wurzburg, Germany

September 15, 2021 LECTURE at LibrairieAlmora Paris, France

September 18-19, 2021 TALK and more in the Ashram de Gilles Farcet, Angles-sur-l’Anglin, France