Do Buddhists Set Goals?

Meditation is a process of of trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have.

-Pema Chodron

We talk a lot about being in the present moment at New Minimalism.  We solve clutter problems that exist in the house, today.  We redesign the layout using the furniture and materials that are already present in the home.  We help clients to embrace who they are now by releasing outdated versions of themselves - which is often reflected in their belongings.  

What both Cary and I have learned through our personal meditation and yoga practices is that the mind has a life of its own (often referred to as "mind chatter", the ego, the identity), and that this wild and unruly mind will habitually dwell in the past or pull us into the future without us even realizing it.  The mind is very good at avoiding the present moment.

What's so bad about this? If you spend too much time reminiscing about the past, or wishing you had done something differently, you eventually live your life there 100% time.  You also miss the opportunity to appreciate all the beautiful things happening around you - right now!  

It's easy to understand why living in the past has a down side.  But what about planning for the future? Micro managing your path forward is hard to resist, and more difficult to see the potential downside.  Using your smarts to plan / strategize / anticipate is essentially what makes us human, right? 

And yet!  This looking ahead can lead to expectations, grasping for something to play out precisely as planned.  If a best laid plan doesn't work out you can find yourself disappointed and frustrated. As Marianne Williamson writes, "Goal-setting is trying to get the world to do what we want it to do.  It is not spiritual surrender."

So here we are in February, a month after you've made resolutions for the year ahead. But how do these resolutions, these goals fit into living in the present moment?  All these questions lead me to Google the following question:

"Do Buddhists set goals?"  

What I verified is that Buddhist teachings do not necessarily disapprove of goal setting.  There are goals within the practice:  "to awaken", to achieve enlightenment, to relieve suffering.   Yet I think the important distinction here is that these are not necessarily end-goals.  They instead require the discipline and dedication of daily practice. I think this dichotomy is the most fascinating -- the difference between attainment of an end-goal versus the practice of continued discipline and dedication towards a value. Because growth, growth is an essential part of the practice.

Whether you identify with Buddhist teachings or not, goal setting has its place in life.  It is great for measuring your progress, for knowing where you are, for creating a vision of where you want to be, and for filling in the steps in between.  There is nothing inherently bad about goal setting, but as a culture prone to achieving, we must stay attuned to the motivation behind our goals. Do your goals stem from comparing yourself to others?  Or feeling that you need to check-off particular things in order to be a fully-functioning, "successful" adult?

I worked for a company that spent a lot of time on employee goal setting.  It was amazing!  It was so refreshing to take that time to really think about what I wanted and what I valued.  But what was interesting is that everyone's goals started to look the same!  I think once everyone started to read everyone else's goals, it seemed everyone had "run a marathon" in their health goals.  Setting goals based on comparing yourself to others is the fastest route to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Because then you are not intrinsicly motivated to achieve goals that are not your own, and not fulfilling your goals can lead to frustration.  

We can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are and what we’re doing rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing. The key is to wake up, to become more alert, more inquisitive and curious about ourselves.

-Pema Chodron

When goal-setting perhaps one of the most important pieces to understand is your personal tendencies. Are you prone to sit back and relax, go with the flow? Maybe more discipline in your life would be contribute to your personal growth.  Or, are you a Type-A achiever who has a hard time slowing down and taking a break? Maybe a planned sabbatical, whether an hour-long or a month-long, would be the best path towards personal rejuvenation?

Buddhism refers to the middle path, the idea that everything matters and at the same time, nothing matters. So when checking in with your new year's resolutions, now that we are a month into the year, what continues to resonate with you?  And what has already fallen to the way-side?  Let the goals that really light you up, that truly motivate and inspire you, lead the way.

So the moral of the story?

Yes, you can live in the present while continuing to grow.  In fact, a spiritual path requires intentionality and direction in order to lead to true growth and learning.  What's important is to accept your current circumstances, while at the same time continuing to test yourself and expand beyond your comfort levels. 

Inspiration for this post:

The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron

A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson

The Paradox of Having Goals in The Moment - Wildmind

Maria Popova interview - On Being

Image via The Master Shift

Image via Kelly Sparks