Anticipation or attachment?

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”.


About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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6 Responses to Anticipation or attachment?

  1. Austin Dosaj says:

    Very true! This reminds me of the paradox I heard “act, react, but never try,” meaning we can act with the HOPE that something will happen, but not cling to whether or not it actually happens. I read it in a book called “Where’s My Zen?” by Master Nomi. I found it on amazon but the author offers a free PDF version on his site:


  2. Thanks for this, Tom. Very lucid.

    Some years ago now, I learned from a very good friend, inventor, artist, thinker, how not to get wrapped up in (identified with) projects. His method was just to shrug his shoulders when something he did wasn’t ‘successful’ – his mantra was ‘On to the Next Thing!’ I find that really useful. I’ve often thought of designing a course in ‘Shrugging the Shoulders’.

    Just recently after 70 years of slogging he’s had a highly successful exhibition of beautiful paintings so anticipation has worked itself out for him.


    • Yes, your friend’s mantra “On to the next thing!” strikes me as very useful. I think I’ll give it a try for a bit. Thanks as always for your welcome contributions to this blog, Colin!


  3. jessierhines says:

    I just came across your blog and I find it very insightful, well-written, caring and human. I’m a yoga therapist and yoga teacher, always looking for ways to weave such themes through my classes and sessions.
    Thank you,
    Jessie Rhines


    • Thanks for your kind words, Jessie. Nice to think that my blog musings may occasionally find their way into your yoga classes and sessions! I take a weekly yoga class at a studio near my home, and my teacher’s comments often find their way into my blog. We are truly all connected!


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