If we accept that self-observation and self-awareness are fundamental practices for cultivating the skill of mindfulness, then few things are more useful to observe and be aware of than our tendency to get attached to the outcomes of our endeavors. Just consider for a moment the activities that you’ve been engaged in over the past 24 hours, or that you plan to be engaged in during the next 24. Are there any items on your agenda – even the leisure pursuits – for which you don’t have some anticipated outcome in mind?
My guess is, probably not.
And you might well say, of course not! Why should I – or anyone else, for that matter – pursue any activity if there is no anticipated outcome expected? What would the point be? Why bother?
And in fact, I would agree with you. I spend a huge portion of my time planning projects, scheduling tasks, and anticipating outcomes. And if I did not have specific outcomes in mind, I certainly wouldn’t bother with all the planning and scheduling.
But I would only agree with you up to a point.
And that point would be where we need to make a clear distinction between anticipating outcomes and being attached to outcomes. That point defines the fine line between “I intend to produce this outcome, and I will be very glad to achieve it” (anticipation) and “I must have this outcome, and I will be very upset if I don’t achieve it” (attachment).
At that point, where an anticipation of obtaining a particular outcome crosses over to an attachment to obtaining that outcome, I would argue that, instead of pursuing that particular activity, you might be better off not bothering with it at all.
Let’s take a closer look at two possible scenarios where an outcome you have in mind is not obtained. In the case where you are attached to the outcome, your upset with failing to obtain it can manifest as frustration, anger, depression, despair, or any number of other negative feelings. And once mired in those feelings, your energy must go to alleviating them – often in unskillful ways such as escapist activities (aimless web surfing, as one example) or hurtful actions (for instance, speaking unkindly to a friend or family member).
Attachment often results in these kinds of breakdowns.
But in the case where you are anticipating the outcome without attachment, your disappointment at failing to obtain it is tempered by your understanding all along that it might not occur in spite of your best intentions. So if you fail to get the result you were looking for, your energy is free to go toward more skillful actions, such as seeking to understand the causes of the failure, and making appropriate adjustments to your project so that your chances of success are improved with your next undertaking.
Anticipation often leads to these kinds of breakthroughs.
As happens so often with our topics in this blog, it comes down to a simple paradox. The most effective way to conduct ourselves in our day-to-day activities is to be fully engaged in our projects, yet completely non-attached to their outcomes.
Paul Simon has articulated this “fully engaged, completely non-attached” paradox concisely and convincingly in this excerpt from the liner notes he included with his recent CD release, So Beautiful or So What ….
“That’s the very mystery and fascination of it. The trick, as I know it, is to care like hell and not give a damn at the same time.”
A mystery and a fascination – and the very essence of “engaged mindfulness”.