Being in a goal-orientated or purposeful frame of mind seems like a positive way to be; when we are goal orientated we feel that we are getting somewhere, or at least, if we are not yet getting anywhere just yet, then we soon will be. In other words, the goal-orientated mode is laced with the expectation of good things to come! Because our view of this mode is so positive, it is hard to see what its limitations might be, and when there might be a possibility of us misusing the G.O. mode. It might seem strange to talk about misusing the goal-orientated faculty as if it were a drug with ‘abuse potential’, but actually this is really quite an accurate metaphor. The truth is that it is precisely because being in G.O. mode feels good that we tend to use it when we would be better off without it.
As we have said, the ‘hopeful’ or ‘positive’ feeling comes about because we have an implicit trust or belief in the power of control to help us obtain or realize whatever goal it is we have in mind. If we aren’t being successful in our goal-orientated operations, then the problem must be that our activity is not skilful enough, or the method we are using isn’t effective enough, or perhaps that we simply aren’t trying hard enough. The answer, in any event, must be to maximize the efficiency of our goal-driven behaviour.
SOME THINGS AREN’T GOALS!
There are two very serious errors in this way of thinking. The first has to do with the fact that some things just aren’t goals. Or rather, they are not ‘practically attainable goals’. We can give a few examples of this to help make it clearer. One would be the goal of achieving 100% success in whatever I am doing, which is of course the (implicit) goal associated with the trait of perfectionism. Because I can never really ‘make everything perfect’, what happens is that I get locked into an endless task, a job that goes on and on and on without ever getting to the point where I can declare myself satisfied. This is obviously a waste of time, and in addition it is very frustrating and stressful.
Another unrealistic goal is the goal of sorting out all my problems in advance, which comes down to ‘eliminating all risk’. This sounds like something no one would try to do because it sounds a bit silly but in fact it happens whenever we lie in bed, unable to sleep because we are trying to solve the next day’s problems. We can make a bit of headway, as we lie there, but new difficulties keep popping up in our head, and at best we only ever ‘half-solve’ them. Experience shows that this is a totally impossible task because if it wasn’t then we would get to the point where we successfully ‘sort it all out’, roll over, and then fall fast asleep, perfectly content and happy. This simply doesn’t happen, and the reason it doesn’t happen is that we are locked into G.O. mode, trying desperately to solve a problem that just can’t be solved. There is no end to it. The trouble is, we don’t really understand this – we hang to the belief that it is capable of being solved, we hang on to the belief that there will be ‘an end to it’ if we keep on trying long enough, or hard enough. It is this false and misleading belief that is the cause of our sleepless nights, not the unsolvable problems themselves. Or to put it another way, the problem isn’t the problem itself, the problem is our blind insistence on trying to fix the problem no matter what, even though the ‘problem’ isn’t capable of being solved.
LIFE ISN’T A GOAL!
The first potential drawback with the G.O. mode of functioning is therefore that some things are not goals (or that some things should not be made into goals). If we clearly see this then everything is fine, but if we don’t see it, but get locked into trying to fix them, then this is a recipe for disaster. The second drawback has to do with the fact that when we are in G.O. mode, this inevitably means that that we are ‘living in the future’. When I am relating to my goals, I am obviously going to be one step ahead of myself because the fact that the goal is a goal means that  it hasn’t happened yet,  I want it to have happened. In my ‘idealized version’ of the future (which I am imagining at that moment) what I want to happen has happened, and this projected picture naturally exerts a magnetic attraction upon me. My assumption is that in time (and with the correct type of intervention) the imaginary future will become fact, and it is this underlying assumption that justifies and validates the whole goal-orientated enterprise.
But even if the assumption turns out to be correct, and the goal is practically obtainable, there is still a very big drawback. The drawback is that if I spend my time always planning to obtain a better situation for myself (or always planning to avoid a worse situation, which is the same thing), then I am never actually in the situation that I really am in. I live my life, but I’m never actually home – I am always greedily grasping for more of what I like, or fearfully trying to get less of what I don’t like. One way or the other, I am spending my life in a state of positive or negative expectation, which means that I end up missing the point of everything (because expectations are not the same as reality). In effect, I am simply too ‘clever’ for my own good, and so I end up cheating myself out of my whole life. Life happened to me, but I just wasn’t there at the time.
Another way to explain this is by saying that life isn’t a goal to aim for, but a given situation that we need to learn to perceive in order that we might appreciate it. The point isn’t to struggle to ‘get it’, but to take the time to see what it is we already have. If we make life into a goal then we fall into the error of ‘assuming that we already know what life is’, and putting all our energy into obtaining what we (mistakenly) think it is. The result of this, as we have said, is that we miss the actual bus by trying so hard to catch our idea of it. Being in G.O. mode the whole time ensures that we aren’t in the ‘here & now’, and because there simply isn’t anywhere else other than the ‘here & now’, we aren’t anywhere else either!
THE URGE TO IMPROVE THINGS…
Of course, the suggestion that we spend our whole lives in G.O. mode seems ridiculous to us – we can’t imagine that this would ever be the case. I always assume that my goals are just a means to an end – that when I get what I want, I will let go my strategizing and controlling, and enjoy whatever it is that I have achieved. This is what we think, but unfortunately things don’t work out this way because the tendency to want to control things doesn’t go away by itself – it has a life of its own so that once in place it keeps on finding excuses to stay there. This is like a middleman or intermediary who promises to leave the stage when he has introduced you to someone, but never actually does. So for example when things work out for us we might expect that we will relax and let things happen, but if we had been worrying beforehand then the habit of worrying will not disappear just because everything now seems to be okay. Habits never go away of their own accord – the best we can hope for is for them to stay out of sight for a short while before they come back stronger than ever.
Basically, the G.O. mode is all about the refusal to accept discomfort or pain. When we uncomfortable in some way we think about ways to improve our situation, and this is of course because we think that the way things are right now is not ‘right’ (or not ‘ideal’), and we live in hope that it can be made to be right or ideal. This is a slippery slope however because as we all know the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and so once we start trying to improve our situation, we will never stop or find peace. The only comfort we will find is the false comfort of ‘hoping to get there in the end’, which of course we never will. Once we understand that the root of the problem is pain refusal this helps us to see how to get out of G.O. mode. The answer is so simple that we never even stop to consider it: whatever situation I am in, that is where I am. There is nothing to be added to it, and nothing to be taken away. It is right exactly the way it is – it has to be right because there is nowhere else that I can be. If I can’t learn to be in the moment when things are tough, then I won’t be able to be in the moment any other time either because the only capacity I will be developing will be the capacity to distract myself from reality. And without the ability to be in reality, all the goals in world mean nothing.