The modern human is obsessed with pursuing all manner of life goals — happiness, success, achievement, or whatever else. Goal-orientated living has become so commonplace that even the idea of having no goals seems unthinkable. To look ahead and plan is of course very natural to the human animal. After all, we have immense mental capacities as a species and we make great use of these. Why wouldn’t we? So, the problem is not planning and looking to the future per se, but the inconsistent way in which we do so.
Are life goals different to other goals?
Strictly speaking, the word ‘goal’ may be used to refer to such mundane things as catching a train on time or keeping your dinner appointment. These require looking ahead and planning too. What often leads to major anxieties, self-doubt and all manner of psychological suffering, however, is rarely such mundane goals. Rather, it’s our life goals — goals of apparently greater significance.
Yet, while seemingly different, it’s not obvious what makes our life goals stand apart from goals of the mundane variety. At core, they both require planning and thinking ahead, so is there any reason one type should be more troublesome than the other? Why do so-called life goals burden us with much more anxiety and pressure?
The immediate answer is that we give arbitrary and high importance to them. Yet, this only begs the question of why we do so? It also raises the question of what goes on when we do so. What is the psychological process involved in giving arbitrary importance to what we call life goals? And, can we approach things differently?
The key lies in understanding the way in which we relate to the future in respect of life goals — one that greatly affects our psychological and emotional experience in the present — that tends not to arise when simply making plans for dinner!
Who said life goals are so important anyway?
The difficulty with life goals, is that unlike goals of the mundane variety, your self-worth gets tied to achieving them. Unconsciously if not consciously, there exists a nagging belief that you will only be a complete person when you finally tick-off whatever you have set for yourself as a life goal. While the importance we give to various life goals is in one sense arbitrary, in another sense it’s entirely predictable.
Much of the time, what we pin our self-worth to is driven almost entirely by social norms and whatever status achievements our culture values. This is only to be expected — we are the most social species on the planet after all and we crave the approval of our kind. Yet, the fact that it’s probable does not mean that it’s inevitable, or that we must unquestioningly accept things. Indeed, this is what it means to develop insight through self-knowledge.
Once you start to notice that you give arbitrary importance to life goals and why you might do so, you can also start to notice how this affects your day-to-day experience of life.
Being and becoming
The thing about giving great importance to life goals is that it almost certainly creates a situation where you are anxiously looking to the future. Putting yourself in a constant state of becoming rather than being. For, looking to the future inevitably compromises the quality of your experience in the present.
Vast amounts of ink have been spilt on the value of living in the present. What most miss, however, is that what enables living in the present, is abandoning any idea that you can be a better or more improved person. That you can somehow increase your self-worth through the achievement of some life goal.
Paradoxically, to seek such things as happiness, is to not find it. For, it’s in such seeking that, however subtly or unconsciously, we hold ourselves in a state of anxiety that prevents us from experiencing the fullness of the present.
And, what is involved in this seeking? Seeking is a process of desperately clinging to some image of the self that we wish to create. An image, whose realisation, we believe will bring fulfilment. But any image of the self is highly partial and fragmentary. We cannot even begin to grasp the infinity of our being with our intellect. Powerful as our reflective capabilities may be, these can only conceive of reality in a limited way through arbitrary classification.
The mind’s tendency to constantly box things — to categorise and label — is of course very useful. As long as we remember that our symbols and words are mere approximations. They help us make sense of and predict the world, but we have to recognise that the symbol is not the thing — the map is not the territory. The finger that points is not the moon.
What the reflective mind does when categorising the world, it also attempts do in relation to the self. The mind projects backwards and forwards in time to create some partial self-image that it clings to. Yet, this is a false identity, cobbled together using selective memory and cultural norms, that it then obsesses over and strives to improve.
At best, the image of self is a symbolic short hand — like using the word ‘chair’ to refer to the actual thing. More usually, the ego image of self is some distorted idea that does not even point to the real thing. Yet, it is this image that we strive to change and improve, not realising that we are dealing with a garbage-in, garbage-out scenario. The starting point is fake, so there can be no improvement!
Is it possible to live in the present?
Striving is of course only possible through time. This fact is trivial, but it has huge implications. For, it is time that allows you to work on your self-image. It’s for this reason that Krishnamurti equates ‘the self’ with time. More precisely, we can call it the false idea of self as an arbitrary image, which is created through time — which is created through striving towards a future self that is ‘better’. Such that relinquishing this false self-image amounts to the “ending of time” — to a wholehearted immersion in the present moment¹.
Having no goals is not about living like a fool without making any plans for the future. Rather, the point is that “making any plans for the future is really only of any use to people who are already able to completely live in the present”². And, living in the present in a sustained way, is only possible by giving up any false image of the self. Any attempt to mould, improve, or better the self, implies existence of a self-image — it automatically implies time…becoming.
Of course, none of this means that we can’t have major life goals or plan things. This does not mean that you can’t practise towards a better tennis forehand or save up to buy a house! The point is to notice how your goals so often become a means of boosting your self-image. Such that you can only feel good about yourself when your forehand is better or when you have ‘succeeded’ in life. This is to constantly live in the future at the expense of the present. This is the trap of chasing life goals.
You cannot sculpt air
There can be ‘planning’, there can be ‘doing’ and there can be ‘being’ — but there can be no ‘becoming’. For, becoming is predicated on moulding a highly partial, and therefore false, idea of self. It’s as if you were trying to create a sculpture out of air. Luckily, we usually manage to keep self-image out of our mundane goals. Otherwise, even going to the shops would become intolerable! The trouble starts when we become hostage to self-image in respect of life goals.
What then is to be done? To prescribe inaction is as futile as prescribing action. For, if either is motivated by any kind of self-improvement, we are back to square one. All that can be done is to notice the difference between action motivated by the desire for betterment, and action that is done for its own sake. All that can be done is to notice the difference between being and becoming. That paves the way for a more creative intelligence to emerge.
Bibliography and further reading:
1. The Ending of Time — Discussions between J. Krishnamurti and D. Bohm
2. The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are— Alan Watts
3. Machine Ego — Harsha Perera
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.