Tag Archives: zen

Goalless endeavors

My friend Carl and I recently had a short conversation about zen meditation. He brought up some points that all basically referred to the end goal of meditation: health and mindfulness benefits, etc. To which I replied that meditation is necessarily a goalless endeavor. Yes, meditating will make you think clearer and harmonize your body with your mind and all that, but if you go into meditation trying to do these things, then you will not achieve these things. That’s the paradox of meditation. And here’s a quick psychoanalytical explanation of why I think that is from a paper:

The “self” and the “ego” must not be confused to be the same. Instead we must understand the ego to be an element within the self, a device for the self’s cognition. The self creates a cognitive framework in which the ego may recognize (re-cognize) self from non-self, in which the ego may create its home, thereby completing the individual’s identity in what Levinas calls the “I.” The ego moves outward toward the world in understanding, adequating the world around it and reducing other to same: thus the ego is the totalizing element within the self. In order to totalize, the ego must be self-referential, it must return to itself in its process of adequation; thus the ego assumes a teleological structure.

This teleological structure is exactly the same as any goal-oriented task. You say “I want to accomplish X, and I will do Y to get it.” After doing Y, you have X. This posits the end, X, before acting out Y, thus it is teleological. This structure is absolutely related to the totalizing movement of the ego, so it could be called an egoism, for better or for worse.

Our society largely follows this general teleological trend, which may have been why Carl wasn’t used to the idea of a goalless endeavor (which he admitted to). Now, I’ve been doing zazen meditation for 4 years, and I’ve studied the Japanese Kyoto School of philosophy, so I should have a good understanding of this idea. Today I meditated for the first time in about 6 or 8 weeks, and I noticed that my mind was racing, all over the place. You’re supposed to let go of your thoughts, but I couldn’t – they just kept racing, it was terrible. Reflecting on that later, I realized what happened: I had been so entrenched in goal-oriented thinking (eg. programming, problem solving, generally trying to figure out life) over the past few weeks that my mind had conditioned itself to work teleologically: I was constraining my thinking to a known end goal. As soon as I removed that end goal by meditating, my mind unleashed it’s pent-up creative chaos and went every which way.

This release is a great thing! Since this morning, I’ve had a few good ideas relating to a paper I’m writing, and I’ve been super productive. But I have two important points to make:

  1. Even if we have an intellectual understanding of this goal-oriened framework and the downsides that come with it, the natural tendency of our ego is to revert back to it. The ego is a powerful structure in the psyche, it’s quite overbearing at times, and it takes continual practice to let it go. This is something that meditation accomplishes. Regression is possible: if you stop meditating, you may go back to egoism. And, because it is so powerful, it tends to manifest itself in multiple layers of our society, from the way we structure businesses (greed and power) to the way we approach relationships (why are you really friends with/dating this person? for the things you get out of it?).
  2. The mind is decidedly not consumed by the ego. It can release the ego when necessary, such as during meditation, or during the pop-psychology state of “flow.” And, when the mind is not consumed by the ego, it is allowed to freely produce. It can be creative to its fullest capacity. The immense ability for creativity is one of humanity’s greatest assets and something that should be sought after. Ay, this egoless, creative state, achievable and practicable via meditation, certainly should be valued.

I’m not saying meditation is the only way to go about egolessness, but it is a quite effective one, with little barrier to entry. Martial arts, painting and drawing, practicing mathematics, reading literature, playing sports; these can all be goalless endeavors.

Brent Pottenger on “Self-Experimentation with Story Systems”

Brent Pottenger, author of the healthcare epistemocrat blog, asks:

How should we invest our intellectual and spiritual energy and capacity?

His answer lies within the confines of tradition. Take a look at his m=1 Story Systems example. I’ve been experimenting in an n=1 fashion for quite a while now, but the idea of an m=1 personal mythology—or my-thology—is somewhat new to me. Recently I’ve been thinking about my “personal mythology” more seriously, although I suspect I’ve done this unconsciously for all my life: created a narrative from my past with which to derive purpose and meaning.

The philosophy department director at my university is an ordained Soto Zen priest. Continue reading