The Paradox of Having a Goal


February 27, 2019

how to set goals mindfully |

By eM Life Teacher Jim Austin

I’d like to set a goal to meditate more often, but what I love about mindfulness practice is that I don’t need to have any goals or ‘do’ anything.  Instead, I feel like I can just ‘be’ without trying to achieve anything.  But shouldn’t I try a little harder to be with the breath? How can I be in the moment and have a goal at the same time?

This question comes up for many of us from time to time because – it’s true!  It seems paradoxical to, on the one hand, practice just “being” without judgment or striving to make things different, and on the other hand have goals, even for mindfulness practice itself. What’s this all about? 

The reason non-striving and letting things be ‘just as they are’ is emphasized in our mindfulness practices is that we have such a hard time doing it!  Many of us have spent years trying to arrange things to get them organized just so. We’ve bought into a basic view of happiness that says when you get everything arranged the way you want it in your life, then you’ll be as happy as you can be.  Of course, this is a rather fragile foundation for building any lasting happiness because, as you’ve probably noticed, life has a way of not staying put the way we’ve arranged it!  

In normal everyday life it’s easy to find ourselves vacillating between “I like this, I want more of this” and “I hate this, get me out of here!”  So, instead of contentment, we end up with a desire for things to be different.  In our mindfulness practice we emphasize “being with what is” as a way to highlight for ourselves how little we actually want to do just that. At the same time, through practice, we build a greater capacity to be ‘ok’ with, or at least find workable, a range of physical, emotional and mental circumstances.  Thus, we increase  the number of circumstances and moments of our life where contentment is possible.

lady breathingDesires are perfectly normal and useful.  We all desire to have enough to eat, a share of contentment, good health, and a roof over our heads.  And that’s just for starters!   It’s also normal to want to be respected and liked, have meaningful work, and fulfilling relationships.  Who wouldn’t want to move toward fulfilling these desires? The problem comes when we latch onto these desires in such a way that we end up striving too much to make them happen; we create stress for ourselves; we become so aware that where we are and where we want to be, are in fact so far apart.

Having a desire to develop your mindfulness meditation practice, perhaps by setting up a goal to practice five times per week, is a useful and wholesome desire. It’s leading us in the direction of less stress to develop this skill to ‘be’ with our experience moment to moment.  On the other hand, to beat ourselves up because we only practiced once this week would be creating stress.  “I want to be someone who meditates five days a week, but apparently I am someone who meditates only once a week!”  The way we ‘hold’ even a wholesome desire matters.

Having an intention to be with the breath sensations in an awareness of breathing practice is a goal that can help the mind to calm down. But, getting impatient with ourselves because our mind is wandering a lot is striving. We are latching on to wanting the mind to be a certain way, not accepting that in this particular moment “it’s just like this”. This journey does take some effort – not in a striving, but rather in a persistent, kind, and patient way.

Mindfulness helps us remember to be present to what is actually happening in this moment. This is where the learning happens. You may consider using stress itself as a kind of yardstick–to help measure if a desire, or goal, is useful and helpful. Is it leading to less stress – or are we holding a desire, even a wholesome desire, in a way that is creating more stress for ourselves? 

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About the Author

Jim Austin has had an active personal mindfulness practice for over 40 years. He has taught as the Lead Teacher at eMindful since 2012. Before then, Jim spent the previous 12 years teaching live yoga, mindfulness meditation, and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes (MBSR).  In his teaching, Jim welcomes the opportunity to combine his years of mindfulness practice and teaching experience with his understanding of the realities of working in the business world gained from his previous careers in software development and IT work.

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