Mindfulness vs achieving your dreams: how can you be present and yet focus on your future goals?

The following is a transcript from a WhatsApp conversation I had recently that I thought would be interesting for those who are not sure how goals and dreams sit with mindfulness principles.

P: So, I have trained in NLP and done bit of Life Coaching. The aim of NLP is to get the person to go from one state (unhappy, stressed) to a better/more resourceful state (happy, calm) and in life coaching it’s all about getting the person from a to their goal b. In order to achieve the goal the person needs to really want it, to have the drive, passion and energy to take the steps required to achieve their goal. They have to reeeeally want it and desire it to keep the motivation high…so..I’m reading “The Mindful Way through Depression” it says:

“We’ve been taught that setting goals and working towards them is the way to get where we want to go: to happiness. It may be difficult to believe that not clinging to goals, even worthy goals, maybe the way out of unhappiness”

So how can we set a goal..any type of goal for ourselves – have the drive and motivation to work towards it – but at the same time remain unattached to the outcome?? How can we goal set mindfully? The state of ‘being’ sounds wonderful but surely we need to be in the ‘doing’ state to achieve what we want? I want to be mindful when helping clients to be happier..but current the craze of Life Coaching makes me question if I want to work in that way..goal setting etc. Seems so..forced..

Any thoughts? Thank you!

Darren Yap: It’s something that I’d pondered for a while. I think it’s about balance. I do coach people but I call it compassionate coaching. None of that Anthony Robbins motivational speaker stuff as that’s far too American for us Brits!

So on the one hand, yes, you want to achieve the goals and need to have the desire for it. I run my own business and have big goals for it. I also help others to achieve their goals but I don’t shout at them telling them that they’re a tiger and launch fireworks.

On the other hand, it’s about accepting where you are, accepting your failures and weaknesses so it doesn’t get you down or hold you back, so that you can still believe in yourself to achieve said goals and don’t get frustrated and angry (negative emotions) when things don’t work out. Richard Branson said to fail fast so that you can recover quickly. Mindfulness helps with this, it improves resilience and keeps you focused.

Mindfulness isn’t just about going nowhere and getting nothing done, sitting in a gutter on the corner of a street in London begging for coins but being happy. Mindfulness is about living your life in a more grounded manner, achieving your dreams, enjoying time with your family, getting the best out of your career.

P: So is it about setting a goal but then toning down the drive..passion and Grrrr about achieving it? Wanting but more gently?

Darren Yap: No, that’s fine. But you use the mindfulness techniques to avoid negative feelings associated with disappointment, failure, etc and also to avoid the mind clutter getting in the way of achieving what you want.

If the drive/passion etc is making you too anxious or excited to knuckle down and get the work done then mindfulness can help, too.

P: What if the drive and passion is helping you to achieve it? Not making you anxious etc..it’s keeping you focused..but the wanting it so much means you can’t be unattached to the outcome?

Darren Yap: The problem is that having drive and focus doesn’t guarantee anything but if you are not successful, your attachment to the outcome can lead to disappointment or worse.

P: Yes exactly.. just hard not to become attached to it..if it’s something you really want. For instance, the goals you have for your business, you must really want to achieve those.. so do you tone down how much you want them to work.. so that you are less attached and in case they don’t happen..?

Darren Yap: You can still want it to work but not be attached to the outcome. I play tennis. But I only manage to play once a month.

I actually compete in club tourneys. But because I only play once a month properly, I’m pretty poor. I love playing and want to win, obviously, but 80% of my matches, I lose. I’m fine with it.

So I leave happy and having enjoyed the match.

If I was attached to the outcome and wanted to win, I’d hate it as I’d come away feeling crappy.

P: Ok yes I see it in that situation..but if you practised every day..put 110% into it..really really wanted the gold medal or whatever…you want that achievement badly! Say it’s your career…then how could you not be attached to the outcome? To winning?

Darren Yap: It’s about being in the moment. When you’re competing, if you’re thinking, you’ll tense up, you’ll stop your hours of training from doing what the training is supposed to do and will make mistakes. When competing, if you’re in the moment, you don’t think “that was a good shot” or “that was a bad shot”. You just play. The 10,000 hours of training will have created the body to move and perform as it should. The brain will just get in the way. The zone as they call it.

If I play a decent player, they don’t think, they just play, they will win as their technique is better, more honed.

P: Yes I get that..so when you are doing whatever you need to do to achieve your goal it’s about being in that moment and not thinking about achieving the goal..?

Darren Yap: Yes.

So it’s perfectly fine to have goals in life but the trick is to not be too attached to them as having determination and drive doesn’t necessarily mean they will be guaranteed to happen and it can become quite depressing if you fail to achieve them or realise you are best off quitting.

Summary points:

  • it’s fine to have goals and dreams
  • practice being in the moment
  • use goals to give you direction
  • don’t become attached to the outcome
  • use mindfulness to practice developing focus and concentration to get relevant steps achieved
  • mindfulness can help you bounce back after failure