Have you ever felt caught between the lure of working hard to accumulate wealth and the somewhat elusive goal of work-life balance? Or been seduced by the hustle culture that permeates western society? Can you achieve career success while living a contemplative life? Or does this represent two separate desires, at odds with each other?
There is a middle ground, and it starts with mindfulness — having an understanding of what drives you and taking a holistic approach to planning your future.
The role of mindfulness
As mindfulness is defined as non-judgemental awareness of the present moment, and goal setting represents future-focused attainment, I always viewed them as incompatible. It wasn’t until I read some of Dr Alan Wallace’s research that I was able to reconcile the two. Alan is an author and western expert on Tibetan Buddhism and teaches that there is great value in wholesome goals and desires.
That is, mindful goals and desires that are conducive to positive mental health and overall wellbeing. According to Alan, practising mindfulness improves mental balance in four areas, the first being conative. Conative balance allows you to set intentions, goals and priorities. The other three areas include strengthening your attention skills, achieving clarity and being better able to regulate your emotions.
Alan describes conative balance as “a reality-based range of desires and aspirations oriented towards one’s own and others’ happiness”. He adds that the ideal of having no desires or goals whatsoever is at odds with the Buddhist concept of genuine wellbeing. Although suffering may be caused by unwholesome goals, there is great value in wholesome goals and desires, such as the intention to be a conscientious and loving parent or to live in a sustainable manner. Contentment & joy from within
The Buddhist tradition has long taught the concept of impermanence and the psychological pain that can be caused if you focus on objects, events or other people’s admiration as your main source of happiness. Success, wealth and praise can be transient, and when they fade, so may your happiness. If you aim to develop a sense of happiness within yourself, rather than achieving it by external means, you can achieve a deeper level of contentment. In western society, there is an emphasis on striving, success and attainment, and this is often reflected in our goals and intentions. Many of us follow a well-laid-out path, whether consciously or unconsciously.
We do things because we think we should or because that’s what’s expected of us. To achieve happiness and balance, it can be helpful to shift the focus towards cultivating a sense of purpose and setting mindful goals that align with your core values. In this way, the pursuits of genuine wellbeing, congruence and compassion come to be thoroughly integrated.
Values-driven mindful goals
I recently came across a list of goals I wrote seven years ago. They included how much I hoped to earn, my ideal weight and my dream of becoming a published writer.
On reflection, I did manage to achieve these goals however the first two were completely transient and the happiness I derived was fleeting. In recent years I have spent time aligning my life goals with my core values.
I left full-time employment to work for myself in order to finish my nutrition studies. It has been many years since I have even owned a set of scales as my focus is now on my overall health and wellbeing.
As for the writing, it is still something I enjoy deeply but the happiness is not derived from seeing my name in print or receiving praise for my writing. It’s in the enjoyment of the writing process and in hearing how my words have helped someone through a difficult time or made them feel like they are not alone in their struggles. The key difference for me was changing my focus from the goal itself to the way it makes me feel.
Mindfulness can help you build a meaningful life that is productive and balanced, but that doesn’t mean it will always be easy. Challenges, suffering and loss are inevitable parts of life. However, knowing where the path is leading and being present for the journey makes it easier to overcome obstacles along the way. If your intrinsic values and beliefs are expressed in your life decisions and activities, then you can achieve a deep level of contentment. After all, what is wealth without wellness?!
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