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Friday, January 07, 2011

Goals versus Desires in Buddhism.

Bridge at Japanese garden in Portland, Oregon. By James R. Ure. Creative Commons apply. You may use for non-commercial purposes only; with attribution to photographer.

I wrote this piece as a response to a commenter on my recent post about expectations, titled, "Letting Go of Expectations." They wanted to know how a person can still go about wanting to do certain things in life without desires. So, the following is my response, which I decided to make a post from in case others had the same question, because I did when I was first starting out on the Dharmic path: I think desires aren't necessarily "bad" but rather the attachment to them is what causes the suffering. The idea that we can't be happy without the constant fulfillment of our desires. It's a cyclical trap of suffering.

Instead of desires, I think a more skillful approach is to have goals. Goals are about setting achievable and realistic outcomes based on a flexible plan; grounded in the reality that not every detail might work out the way it was planned. So, that from the beginning you know that you might have to adjust those goals as you go along—in other words, with goals, you’re prepared for revisions.

Whereas, desires are based on pure craving and expectations, which demand a particular outcome to be happy. These expectations are unreasonable and will always let us down. And having placed, so much energy into the desired outcome we are devastated when they don't come true--and we suffer greatly. Again, with goals, we are ready or prepared for set-backs and have a back-up plan on what to revise in that instance. So, we aren’t as attached to a particular outcome with goals. We temper your desires in this manner.

The whole meaning of a desire is to dream big and have HUGE expectations that those dreams will unfold EXACTLY how we desire them to.

So, set manageable goals with back-up plans and you should be less driven and attached by desired expectations. That’s the way I understand the difference and how to go about planning and living life without being pulled into the unmanageable cravings of desire. I’m not a teacher though and I struggle with desires versus goals daily but I have picked up a small bit of knowledge and experience in my years of practicing Dharma. But I’m not an expert by any means. Still, I hope this advice helps.

~Peace to all beings~

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David "Shinzen" Nelson said...

Here is how I attempt to work with desires/goals...I see them as a natural part of our life, like having to urinate. The desire to go is not just leads me to the toilet...I go...then flush. I don't hang around and try and hold onto the pee. Same with desires. Move with them, but then let them go down the toilet...cause the desire or urge to go will return...

Nakamuras on Saipan said...

Thank you this helps a lot.

EZ Goodnight said...

Wow, James, nice photograph. If you don't mind a bit of off topic discussion--what camera did you use?

They call him James Ure said...

@David...Great analogy!!

@Nakamuras...You're so very welcome.

@EZ...Hey, thanks!! I am a photographer and am working to get some prints to sell. I took it with a Canon Powershot S3 IS. I love Canon cameras.

Sage Berg said...

This is a good explanation, of the difference between attachment and reasonable goals. It is a very relevant topic for me, because this is the first question that people ask me when they find out that I am a Buddhist. "Why do anything if you want nothing?" It is not that Buddhists want nothing, but if we are mindful, nothing we want will cause us to suffer.

Nice picture of the Japanese Gardens by the way. I live in Oregon, so I have been there a couple of times. It is the most beautiful man-made place I have ever seen.

Jack Daxter said...

Once one has largely purged oneself of attachments, then what initiates a goal?

I am grappling with coming up with goals that are not immediate like taking out the trash, going grocery shopping, paying the mortgage, etc. I am also wondering about being captured in a local equilibrium of economic circumstances. That is, given my education level, work history, and monthly expenses, I can navigate myself to sustain that level of living indefinitely. It may be that I am already there.

So it is possible that ten, twenty years may go by, and I am still a bag boy at the corner store. Instead of going to the bar on Friday nights and watching games with the guys, I read books and meditate in my spare time. Otherwise, in many ways, there are others like me in this small town who have never left it, took a job with little advancement, and while away their time doing basically nothing. These people have dampened their ambitions and lowered their expectations.

My self-assessment is that I have been on a even keel for the past three years. My routines are comforting and my needs are easily met. I don't mind doing "chores" like washing dishes, sweeping, etc. I often enjoyed these activities. Yet, there are times that I wonder if I have shortchanged myself in some ways. That practicing non-attachment, non-craving is but a different way of not coping with the challenges of life?

Still when I sit besides the brook for hours, there is a calmness. There has yet to be a goal that occurs to me beyond the most basic.

Am I fooling myself in not having major desires? Could it be I am just lowering my expectation like the others in town?

If one sees that desires and their ilks are not good ways to motivate oneself into actions, then what would you suggest as good ways to do motivate oneself into action.

My question is to your own personal take instead of limiting it to some kind of buddhist answer.

They call him James Ure said...


In your current moment, you have realized that you have found the level at which you can live indefinitely without too much hardship. Perhaps that’s a good thing, rather than seeing it as plateauing. It enables you to free up your mind to focus deeper on practicing the Dharma.

I think high-power careers and high-profile professions are over-rated anyway. If you believe your ambitions aren’t good enough or that your expectations are too low, then how would you define the life of someone who does have ambition?

In the eyes of the world, monks just “sit around and do nothing” yet would you say they lack ambition? Would you say they aren’t facing life’s challenges?

Your work has enabled you the time and space to tackle the biggest challenge of all, over-coming suffering. The fact that you meditate at all shows a lot of ambition. A lot of people struggle to find the motivation to meditate, and they suffer for it. Sustaining a meditative practice that brings one peace is a big challenge for some people.

You have embraced the Buddha’s challenge to free yourself from absolute suffering—what bigger ambition is there than this?!

In the end, all other challenges in life don’t really amount to much. A high-powered career doesn’t bring happiness, but endless stress from having to constantly work--even a busy social life isn’t worth much, in the end. Friends are great, but they can never give one the kind of happiness that living the Dharma affords.

There are people who have everything the world “values” who would give it all away to live “the simple life” that you enjoy. Therefore, success, ambition and expectations are all relative. Besides, I think lowering expectations is a good thing. I think that we expect too much out of life. Nothing brings the kind of fulfillment that is experienced through meditative oneness.

So, maybe your challenge in life is to build on that meditation practice to help others walk the same path and realize the same peace and calmness you enjoy at your babbling brook. In my view, there is no greater challenge than living the Dharma and sharing it to those who are suffering.

As for how to motive oneself without desire—I think it’s all about intention. For example, if the intention of our desire is to pursue an action or goal that will help free us (and others) from attachment, such as meditation, then our motivation remains pure.

If I use this as my motivation, then I find I pursue positive goals that release me from suffering, rather than create additional suffering. I’m not a teacher or “certified” monk, so take my insights with a grain of salt. I hope, though, that something I said helps.

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