Goals and the illusion of progress

Some years ago I got mildly involved with a local group of religious people whose devotional priorities were similar to mine. Despite not being a member of their tradition and not even a member of their primary cultural background, I’ve been made welcome and taught a great deal. Because their path is not mine I gave myself a list of reasons why I was participating in what they had to offer. See, rightly or wrongly I figured that if I could clarify why I was there I’d avoid any muddled categories on my part. This is perhaps an entirely sound approach to knowledge gathering and participatory research (I certainly recommend goal-clarification to people feeling befuddled by their practice) but the problem with goal-setting, even casually, is that eventually you expect to arrive. You start thinking of yourself in relation to this goal – how close are you to it? how far away? what still needs to be done in order to reach that goal? etc. Furthermore, you expect to eventually reach goals but what comes next?

I’ve tripped myself up plenty of times with these built-in assumptions regarding goals. I don’t want to be just hanging out wasting the time of the people who’ve opened their community to me but neither do I want to get too involved; I have my own set of priorities that are rather separate from what this community offers and that’s my own business. I like to keep various avenues of engagement separate because – well, because it just seems more courteous. And perhaps for a while that was an entirely fine thing to do. (For the sake of courtesy, it’s still a fine thing to do.)

Every so often I come back to wondering what I’m doing hanging out with this community; although we share some spiritual heritage not so very far back, they are not exactly my people – or at least, they are not the Perfect For Me brand of spiritual community that I imagine in my head. I reiterate my goals of service and education, then go on. But again, with goals you expect to gain something and when nothing is gained, you feel discontented.

Like I’ve talked about before, the past couple years have been largely about me facing just how much anxiety I live with every single day. Anxiety, I’ve found, is closely tied to goal making and achieving. I fear things working out poorly; I hope for things to work out well; I fear that nothing will ever work out and I find plenty of evidence to support my fears. At the same time, I selectively ignore all the evidence that points to things being OK, if fundamentally imperfect. I fear all kinds of things that I have already successfully navigated – and could do again if I had to. Although I can reason through some degree of anxiety now, it still distorts my day to day. I am haunted by unresolved expectations – by goals that I mistakenly set.

If all this had to do with, say, the business of moving up on the career ladder or of achieving a cleaner house then yes, tracking progress towards a goal would be entirely reasonable. But because I’m dealing with matters of devotion, goal setting becomes a really unreasonable approach. In the Narada Bhakti Sutras we’re told outright that means are the goal – that doing devotion *is* devotion. Since in polytheism we don’t typically have really clear devotional objectives, I find that Narada’s assessment fits us as well. Our devotional practice exists in the doing; we can do our practice more frequently, with greater intensity, with greater clarity of heart, with greater personal insight, etc. but it’s all still doing devotion. There is no goal past the doing, in other words.

However useful having specific goals might have been at one point with regards to sharing space with this particular community, I fear they’re simply muddying the water at this point. I know what I want – devotion – and I know what I have – also devotion. The avenues which I engage to experience the facts of divine relationship are rather unimportant; I could choose any number of practices from any number of traditions. What’s more important is recognizing that I’m not getting closer to any abstract devotional goal – because there isn’t any, not exactly. I might fail to observe all the practices I’ve set myself to. I might fail to bring myself in full honesty to my practice on any given day. However, observing all practices and being fully honest are not automatically “succeeding at devotion”; they are endeavors that support the fact of devotional life, but they are can’t be mistaken for the entirety of devotional life. Devotion doesn’t go away simply because one fails to act or because one arrives with less than perfected honesty to the practice. (If it did, none of us would experience devotion at all and clearly we do.)

I realize this might all sound pretty opaque. I’m not sure I entirely understand these things myself. I think my basic point is that devotional experience, devotional life, the devotional fact that is being in sacred relationship, is not a goals-based endeavor. It is simply a fact, a lens through which life is experienced, a perspective, a way of relating to Things As They Are. We might adjust our interior experience of Things As They Are in such a way that clarity is allowed or obscured, but even without any personal clarity or insight we might still exist within the devotional fact. That’s all there is to it.

(ETA: None of this is to say that the “doing” of devotion – through whatever means one chooses to express the devotional fact – is unimportant. Choosing a method of expression and then following through on that choice is incredibly important and certainly forms the essential part of many people’s devotional lives. However, the doing shouldn’t be mistaken for the fact being expressed through the activities in the first place. Anyone can simply light a candle or recite a prayer – these actions only become meaningful when a person exists within a context of relationship (or desires to be, which is still a relationship, too). Without the sentiment or trust in the fact that one exists within relationship, then action is empty and lacks even the potential to be filled with the devotional fact. I admittedly hate to say that it all comes down to how you feel, but it kinda does. Of course, the fact of relationship is communal and the other party(s) may have their own idea of how devotional life should be expressed.)

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One thought on “Goals and the illusion of progress

  1. Silence says:

    ETA: None of this is to say that the “doing” of devotion – through whatever means one chooses to express the devotional fact – is unimportant. Choosing a method of expression and then following through on that choice is incredibly important and certainly forms the essential part of many people’s devotional lives. However, the doing shouldn’t be mistaken for the fact being expressed through the activities in the first place. Anyone can simply light a candle or recite a prayer – these actions only become meaningful when a person exists within a context of relationship (or desires to be, which is still a relationship, too). Without the sentiment or trust in the fact that one exists within relationship, then action is empty and lacks even the potential to be filled with the devotional fact. I admittedly hate to say that it all comes down to how you feel, but it kinda does. Of course, the fact of relationship is communal and the other party(s) may have their own idea of how devotional life should be expressed.

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