Letting go of goals

Dilbert-on-ObjectivesLast week I wrote about one aspect of approaching meditation in the right way – not trying to stop thoughts and empty your mind, but just to sit on the side of the road and watch the traffic.

Another very important aspect of approaching meditation is not being attached to a particular outcome, such as feeling calm or being able to concentrate for long periods of time. If you start trying hard to achieve a feeling or state of mind, you’ll soon have steam coming out of your ears in frustration.

This might sound a bit strange – if you didn’t want to change how you feel then why would you be meditating in the first place?! Carl Rogers put it this way: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

I got off to a bit of a flying start when I first started to meditate because I didn’t think I really needed it. The reason I started meditating was that I had an ex-girlfriend who was very self-critical, and I couldn’t understand why. Everyone could see her good qualities except her.

I asked a friend who was a psychotherapist how he would help someone in that situation, and he said he might suggest they try meditation. At this point, I didn’t think I ‘needed’ meditation because I felt fairly content and considered myself self-aware.

I look back on that time and think that I’m far more content and self-aware now than I was then, in no small measure thanks to meditation, but this was actually an ideal ‘beginners mind’ because I had no expectations.

Expectations did creep up on me after a while though. Halfway through my first silent retreat, I felt exasperated because I didn’t feel like the meditation was ‘doing’ anything. I felt exactly the same after this meditation as after the last one, whereas at home I’d got used to feeling noticeably stiller and calmer after meditating.

The teacher pointed out that I’d become attached to feeling ‘better’ after my meditation and I had to accept that it might only be looking back over the course of several weeks or months that I would be able to see the impact. In fact, by the end of the week I did feel dramatically different, probably partly because I’d let go of trying to make that happen.

On my second silent retreat I noticed I was getting frustrated that lots of people were asking the teacher about all these intense emotions and sensations they were feeling during the meditation. “Why aren’t I feeling anger, jealousy, or heart-ache?” I thought. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe there’s something wrong with me… Maybe I’m trying too hard? Why does everyone else get to experience these difficult emotions except me?!

I asked the teacher again and again he told me again to accept whatever I was experiencing and let go of wanting it to be different. It’s funny how we can accept a rule on one level but think that this one time is an exception!

I think Shakespeare said it best when he gave Hamlet the line “Tis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” There is no clearer demonstration of this than in meditation. When you judge your experience against your expectations or compare it with others, you’ll get tense and frustrated. If you can just accept that ‘it is what it is’, you’re on the road to a harmonious mind.
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