Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Value the Means, Not Just the End

Could the steps in achieving a goal, paradoxically, be goals, too?

If you’re like most of us, you’re driven to accomplish certain goals—goals personally meaningful and valuable to you. It doesn’t much matter whether the end of your pursuits is completing a manuscript or a marathon. And your “payoff,” your “high,” revolves around your final achievement. It’s unlikely that you consider the actual doing—the specific activities engaged in to reach that goal—as particularly notable or sustaining. Yet if you’re to live life to the utmost—which is to say, live it mindfully—it’s essential that, independent of your aim, you fully immerse yourself in the moment-to-moment progression toward this aim.

In a sense, this piece complements an earlier four-part post I wrote entitled “The Purpose of Purposelessness” (see parts 1, 2, 3, & 4), in which I advocated approaching life more playfully—without, that is, constantly focusing on the practical utility of your behavior. For if all your actions are goal-oriented, life becomes pretty much a “business”: more work than play. And it’s questionable whether living in such a purposeful, “directed” manner ultimately yields as much happiness, well-being, or peace of mind as might otherwise be attainable.

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Here what I’d like to emphasize is that there can be satisfaction, pleasure, and even joyfulness in the “doing” of virtually everything you undertake. As long, that is, as your mindset is one of acceptance and creative absorption. This is generally what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow,” as well as a fundamental tenet of positive psychology.

It’s about getting lost in the moment, losing your sense of space and time, concentrating your attention on all you’re doing and, too, all that’s going on outside you (even if it’s just waiting in line!). It’s about going with the flow (vs. struggling against it) and becoming one with whatever occupies you right now—however petty or mundane. And it has the power to ward off the frustrations and disappointments you’re vulnerable to absent this mental outlook of adaptation and acceptance. You’re totally awake to the current moment. And your “present-ness” can—paradoxically—itself be your goal. When you’re doing something that may be tedious but nonetheless essential to realize some specific intent, could you become creatively absorbed—and sufficiently satisfied, even “enlivened”—by that?

One example I might offer here is the act (or art) of fishing. Recreationally speaking, fishing is about relaxation (more so than skill building); and maybe also about socializing—or, well, its opposite, solitude. If you were the fisher-man or -woman, could you experience pleasure independent of whether you actually landed any fish? Even though fishing expeditions are conventionally viewed as mostly about catching fish, could you take comfort and contentment in—and maybe even celebrate—the activity itself . . . without feeling somehow defeated if the fish just didn’t happen to be cooperating that day?

Obviously, the larger question I’m posing isn’t about snagging things out of the water. It’s about an appreciative attitude toward life—and living!—that can safeguard you from experiencing boredom, frustration, stress and aggravation, discouragement . . . or downright embitterment. The issue is whether you can begin to approach each of your activities as a challenge—as a fresh opportunity to learn something, to get more closely in touch with yourself and others, to discover the yet-to-be-recognized subjective value and vitality in everything you do. Whether it’s something you want to do or have to do.

And finally, I believe that such an attitudinal shift may be one of the principle characteristics of enlightenment. Certainly, what I’m describing is no easy task. It’s hardly a simple thing to align yourself to all you’re engaged in with such a “winning” frame of mind. As straightforward and simple as what I’m portraying may sound, it yet demands marked self-discipline to accomplish. After all, focusing on process rather than purpose probably runs counter to so much of what you’ve probably been taught—or come to believe. But I’m still convinced that it’s one of the very best paths to a happy and fulfilling existence.

Note: If you know of anyone who might resonate to this piece, please consider sharing it.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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