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A profound cliche

Meditation is a microcosm of life, in that you get to see how your mind works, do your best to manage it, and along the way find out what works and what doesn’t. And a simple but profound principle that emerges from it is this: focus on the process, not on the goal.

This is true right from the start in meditation, and is still true at its end. Take your first sit. You’re probably trying to focus on the breath. But you can’t do it. Your mind wanders almost continuously, interrupted by only occasional, brief periods of attention to the breath. This is distressing; you seem to be failing at meditation. Or meditation seems to be failing you. How are you ever going to get its promised benefits if you can't even do this? How will you ever get enlightened? But the benefits of meditation depend upon you learning a simple lesson: to keep working diligently in the meditation without regard to how you think you’re doing. Just keep coming back to the breath, again and again, no matter how many times your mind wanders. And if you can't do that, then you are likely to become increasingly frustrated, with both yourself and the practice, and you are liable to give up. Which is no way to get enlightened

Or let’s say that your goal in meditation is to reduce your stress levels – to relax. It’s certainly doable, but you won’t do it by trying to relax. If you keep on thinking about how much you want to relax, checking how relaxed you are, and finding that you are not as relaxed as you want to be, then you will become increasingly stressed, rather than relaxed. Whereas if you could shift your attention away from your goal and focus it instead on the procedures that might actually get you there (focussing on the breath, say, and slightly lengthening the outbreath), then you are likely to do rather better.

Or suppose your meditation goes very well. Suppose you master both samatha and vispassana and are within reach of final Awakening; of Enlightenment (I’m not sure such a thing really exists, but humour me). This is very exciting. But, there’s a catch, which is that your excitement and desire to experience final release is precisely what is going to get in your way. Because Enlightenment is a release, above all, from craving; from wanting things to be other than they are. So, if you want Enlightenment, you are wanting to stop wanting. Which does not seem like a project that is likely to succeed. Well, by now you know what to do: focus on the process, and not the goal. Just keep on doing the practice.

Probably it’s not too hard to see how this applies in everyday life. Most of the time, wanting a particular outcome won’t directly prevent it from happening, but it can certainly make you suffer. When we are focussed on what we want, we are dissatisfied with what we have. And should we manage to get what we want, then we quickly shift our focus to some other, new goal which is out of reach. And if we can’t get what we want, or can’t get it according to our preferred schedule, then we are vulnerable to disappointment, demoralisation, and even despair. We make ourselves suffer endlessly by wanting things to be other than they are.

To put a fine point on this, let’s turn to a place where meditation and psychology meet: in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, a therapy that blends meditation with CBT in order to prevent depression.

In MBCT, they have a nice way of talking about the problem of goals. They posit a discrepancy monitor within each of us: a module of the mind whose job it is to keep track of how far we are from who we want to be and how we want to be living. Depressed people, or so the theory goes, are tormented by their discrepancy monitors; by their perception of the gap between who they are and who they want to be. And this is all of us, much of the time, albeit to a lesser extent.

Of course, we need a discrepancy monitor – how could we make progress towards our goals if we never looked up from the road at our feet to see if we were on track for the distant mountain top? But it can all too easily run out of control, and with our eyes constantly fixed on the distant peak, we become demoralised by the length of the road ahead. Instead, we need the same approach that we need in meditation: a clear idea of where we want to get to, and the methods that will take us there, and then a close attention to those methods, with only an occasional glance at our distant, desired goal. Drawing on the wisdom of cliche, we just need to put one foot in front of the other.


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