So the New Year is Here - Can Goals ever be Mindful?
The start of the new year brings with it the usual quests, promises and ideas to do something different, or better - or more of it, or less. From articles on how to instill new habits (66 days apparently), to how to create vision boards, or how to be a ‘better you’, early January is often a time when we are inundated on advice on how to be anywhere but where we are now.The crux of the issue is that goals, visions and objectives are future orientated – whereas mindfulness is based on present moment awareness. Goals by their very nature take us away from the present moment, to a future time that doesn’t exist yet. Moreover, mindfulness helps us to accept the present moment as it is, often realising that the moment is actually OK. How can we marry a future orientated goal with being OK with the present moment? It would be easy to say that anything based in the future is unhelpful, but that is not the case. Goals and objectives do have their place, it is just how we use them and how we go about reaching them that needs to change.The concept of psychological timeDid you know that there are two kinds of time – clock time and psychological time? The teacher Eckhart Tolle highlighted these concepts in his seminal work “The Power of Now”. Clock time is the time we use to manage appointments, and diaries, and planning projects. We use it when we draw trends from past events and apply learnings. More importantly for this article, we use clock time when we set or work towards a goal or an objective.Psychological time is when we dwell in the past or project into the future, and with it comes emotional attachment to a future or past state – one that is either feared or idealised. Psychological time isn’t real, as the moment does not exist yet, except in our heads. As psychological time is not real, it easy to attribute thoughts and emotions onto a future or past state – about how it should be, how we would like it to be, how we hope it will be. When we live in psychological time, anything that threatens these thoughts is likely to make us anxious and fearful. Moreover, we often create goals in psychological time, for example 'When I lose weight, I will feel better', which only adds to the false expectations of the future.Why a future looking world is unhelpfulThe world we live in is anything but focused on the present moment. Advertisers and companies encourage us to buy more, have more. We are encouraged to eat more – or less. Schools are focused on students’ performance in future exams and entrance to university, rather than on what the children are learning and enjoying today. Companies look at the next quarter profits, the next meeting, the next deadline, rather than the value that is being created now.
- It creates a sense of lack, of never being enough
For me, the biggest issue I have with traditional coaching and goal setting is the oft mentioned idea of somehow ‘being a better you’. Whilst I respect the sense of inspiration and encouragement such ideas may bring, the problem I have is that it creates a real sense of lack: in the person themselves, in their achievements, in their life, even with their material possessions. ‘Being a better you’ implies that you are somehow not good enough as you are, right now.We already live in what Brene Brown calls a ‘scarcity culture’, one where we are always made to feel as if we are not good enough. When we look forward too much, and when we consider the present moment to be inadequate we contribute to this ‘never enough’ culture. The problem with never feeling as though we are ‘enough’ (rich enough, thin enough, promoted enough, dating enough – and the observant among you will have noticed how these all align to some very popular new years resolutions), is that we can suffer from a profound sense of shame. Brown defines shame as a sense of ‘I am bad’, as opposed to guilt, which can be seen as ‘I did something bad’. For me, encouraging people to ‘be better selves’ just reinforces this culture of scarcity, these feelings of unworthiness – and can even take advantage of people’s shame.
- It creates the idea that you are not where you should be or that things should not be how they are
A key concept of mindfulness is awareness, without judgement, of the present moment. When this is practised enough, we can start to understand that we are always exactly where we need to be, and that things are exactly as they should be. A future looking world assumes that the present needs to change, or that we need to be someplace else. Being OK in the present moment encourages acceptance of reality. As Byron Katie succinctly explains, this is not to be confused with passivity. There is a lot of difference from the anger and suffering of 'I shouldn't have lost my job!' and the acceptance and action of 'I lost my job, what can I do now?'. This example shows how engaging in wishful thinking that things should be different, can sometimes be less empowering, than acceptance of the situation and moving forward.
- It creates stress
Living anywhere but in the present causes a lot of stress. In the workplace especially a constant focus on future performance, on always getting ahead, on winning, on ‘development’, causes an stressful culture where staff feel as though the job is never quite completed. Even at home the endless To Do lists or the feeling that the admin never ends can seem overwhelming. Constantly looking at what needs to be done, rather than focusing on whether anything actually has to happen right now, not only makes us feel stressed, but also contributes to sense of lack, of not achieving, not getting ahead.
- It destroys enjoyment and pleasure in the moment
On the day I got promoted at Deloitte, it was approximately 20 minutes after I had heard the news, that I received a call from another partner to inform me that I was on the list as someone who was likely to get promoted again in 12 months’ time - an unusual occurrence. And that this had been noted by the managing partner of our group, and that I had better not be resting on my laurels. I had been allowed exactly 20 minutes to enjoy my achievement, to actually just ‘be’ my new job title – before the next hurdle had been set. Always focusing on the future prevents us from experiencing the real joy of actually achieving our goals.
- It is often too focused on the external and the false self
As part of growing up, we start to create an image of ourselves that is separate from our families; this is a very typical process in our teens and early twenties. Defining yourself by job title, neighbourhood, college attended or clothing preferences is a stage we all go through as we mature. Traditions as diverse as yoga and Jungian psychology talk about the creation of the false self. This ‘false self’ is based on externally driven criteria, and is not a real self based on a deep understanding of who we are. Moreover, this false self is much more likely to feel threatened: by friends and neighbours who earn more, or who are thinner, or our yoga teacher who seems to be a much ‘better’ person than we are.In our never enough culture, this threatened false self can often lead us to focus on some very externally driven goals. Weight loss, new material items, more dating / finding ‘the one’, job promotion, passing exams, starting a new business. None of these are problematic in themselves, the question is why the goal has been set in the first place. Is it reinforcing or protecting your false self? Furthermore, what happens when the car is bought or weight is lost and yet the depression, sadness and feelings of ‘lacking’ still remain?How to set and realise goals mindfullySo how can we ensure we use goals and objectives mindfully, and as a power for good, rather than creating more stress and expectations upon ourselves?
- Use clock time, not psychological time
Meeting goals and objectives needs to be done in clock time. This means applying past learnings now and completing actions for goals today. Give your fullest attention to each step of the process that is required to achieve the goal, and enjoying doing and being present in each step – as much as you would when you reach the goal. Being mindful in this way has added benefits for example, being more realistic about obstacles. Using clock time also means being aware of when you are losing yourself in the emotions around what the goal means to you, for example are you pinning your happiness onto it? This would be slipping back into psychological time.
- Be intentional
As Ed Halliwell says here, intentions are found in the present, goals in the future. Being intentional means not only focusing on what can be done right now, but also how it is done. Being intentional means completing actions with all of our attention, with our fullest ability and really caring about what we’re doing. As I said in this article, if your goal is a handstand in yoga, an intentional way to meet that goal is to focus on shoulder opening, building core strength, trusting your partner, working mindfully at each step until you are ready to move onto the next, rather than forcing yourself to do difficult poses that your body might not be ready for.
- Apply goals from a place of abundance, not scarcity
Intentions also come from a place inside you and are not externally driven. When we apply an intention it comes from a sense of self that is already complete; we are not seeking anything else. It is important to start from a place of wholeness when goal setting to ensure you are not using goals to patch up your false self. When we feel whole, it gives our goals different meanings; for example desiring a promotion when you already know you’re worthy could mean you want more responsibility, or to do something different. It’s not because you want that job title or more money to impress people. We can only really honestly examine these motivations when we are truly aware of ourselves and what is going on for us at any given moment. It is in this way that we can apply mindfulness to setting a suitable goal that develops the internal self, not the external false self.
- Avoid attachment to the outcome
Perhaps one of the most difficult things about goals, objectives and visions is how we attach to them: we give them meaning, they take on emotional resonance. If we don’t meet them, or they don’t happen then then we suffer. In a mindful approach, we intentionally approach our goals, completing actions towards them. We care very much about the outcome of our actions, but this care is demonstrated in how well we complete each task, not in what the outcome might mean for us. Attachment is also very different from genuine emotion at not meeting a goal. When a sports team doesn't win the final, grief and disappointment are expected for a few days. But if suffering continues, if it starts to eat away at the players, or drive them excessively, then this shows an attachment to the outcome.
- Maybe it’s (not) up to you
When I was in Bali completing my yoga teacher training, we visited a healer. He informed me I had a small amount of anxiety about my new life, but that “mumble, mumble….up to you”. I couldn’t make out if he said ‘it’s up to you’ or ‘not up to you’, and in my nervousness about being treated by a healer I didn’t want to ask – and anyway, he was already summoning the next person, my time was up.As I was pondering this, it occurred to me that his answer was actually perfect. Because it is up to me – and yet it also isn’t. I can set as many goals as I wish, I can work as hard as I can, but it still might not work out, because maybe this plan isn’t meant to. Understanding this, and more importantly being OK with it, is a fundamental aspect of spiritual maturity. Knowing how much is us, and how much is the universe, at any given point, is an art. In our modern, Western world any notion that we not fully in control of our lives or destinies is met with scorn – and a lot of very real fear. Sometimes the universe, life, God, whatever you call it, has a different idea about life than you do, usually based on something you haven’t learned yet. So go ahead and set those goals, but understand that meeting them might not be 100% in your hands. So go ahead and set those goals, create the vision boards, make the plan.Then throw them all away - and focus on today's task at hand