In the fall of 2009, I joined a bowling league. It was a men’s league in St. Clair Shores, and I was fortunate that an opening was on a team of senior citizens (two over the age of 70, and two over the age of 80). They were the last place team and participated for the exercise and fun. They had been in the league for decades. I hadn’t bowled in a league since around 1982 or 1983, where I carried a 155 average. This is considered a low average in a men’s league like the one I joined. Still, I was determined to apply the wisdom I gained over the years to make myself a better bowler, and I set the goal of a 150 average to start.
The league was on Thursday nights, and the bowling alley had a special on Mondays where bowling cost $1.50 per game. I would practice on Monday, then bowl on Thursday night, in an attempt to improve. When the 2009-10 season ended, I held the fourth lowest average in the league (144).
I bought a new ball and practiced a couple times a week during the summer and entered the 2010-11 season with the goal of improving my average to a 150.
I played all the mind games – that a 150 average would mean 9 misses or less in three games on the night; that knowing how many frames were left in the game, I would know what my score would be. I ended the season with a 147 average. Closer to the 150, and an improvement on the previous season.
In 2011-12, I continued the routine. I didn’t bowl as often during the summer, but maintained the Monday practice/Thursday league routine. I applied the same mental games as before, and set that 150 mark as a goal. There was some frustration that, back in the day, a 150 or better was the norm, and that it was not translating after two seasons and practice almost 30 years later. My average at the conclusion of this season was again a 147.
For a period in my life I swam in the waters of “positive thinking”; of goal-setting and all that mental focus on living in prosperity. I read the books and listened to the cassettes, and attended a church that was infused with what Oliver Burkeman in his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People who can’t stand Positive Thinking (Faber & Faber, Inc. 2012), called the “cult of optimism.” Since 1991 I drafted and tracked goals on a semi-annual basis. Some goals were accomplished, others not, and others abandoned because my heart was never into it when I first wrote the goal down. I stopped after 2001 because life was traveling at a dizzying pace.
So I knew the drill, and I set out on this bowling adventure attempting to use this “positive thinking” and “goal-setting” approach, despite feeling the contradiction of this mentality with my Buddhist practice.
Goal setting creates a mindset that you’re not “happy” or “good enough” or “successful” in the present moment. So you set a goal for a future event that will define you or your work as a success, and thus delay happiness to that point. To quote Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, the future is “(t)hat period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness assured.”
In the chapter titled “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work,” Burkeman demonstrates how goal setting backfires with, in some cases, deadly consequences. “In theology, the term ‘theodicy’ refers to the effort to maintain a belief in a benevolent god, despite the prevalence of evil in the world; the phrase is occasionally used to describe the effort to maintain any belief in the face of contradictory evidence. Borrowing that language, Chris Kayes termed the syndrome he identified as ‘goalodicy.'” (Burkeman, pg. 78-79). Furthermore, Burkeman sites a study that shows that those motivated by a goal are more apt to cheat (as well as proves that that the Yale Study of Goals – commonly sited by the positive thinking/goal-setting gurus – does not exist).
Burkeman reasons that goal-setting fails because it doesn’t address the issue we’re really trying to resolve – our uncertainty of the future. “Faced with anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.” (Burkeman, pg. 86).
After graduating from law school in 2004, and prior to studying for the Bar, I wanted to revisit the goal setting process. However, my deeper practice and study of Zen made the goal-setting process superficial and empty. In re-reading those entries from the twice-a-year logging of goals achieved, shelved, and committed to, I found that there was a lack of satisfaction. There were some things that created great memories. But it felt like an unending checklist that, once some goal was achieved, there had to be something else to replace it. And worse, concepts like being “prosperous” or “intelligent” or “wealthy” or “something better” lacked substance. What is wealthy? When does “wealthy” become achieved? It was like the hungry ghosts of Buddhist teachings, where the ghosts’ mouths are so small, yet their hungry bellies are so large, that no amount of “wealth” or “prosperity” or “intelligence” will be enough to fill them.
I sought to reconcile this and came upon a talk by Sangharakshita called “Nirvana” In the talk, Sangharakshita discusses “The psychology of goal-setting.” He defines a goal as an objective or “something you strive for.”
“You could, if you like, draw a distinction between striving to be and striving to have. But actually, the two come to the same thing: ‘having’ is a sort of vicarious ‘being.’ A goal is in the end something that you want to be.”
This makes sense to those who have goals of being wealthy, or being intelligent. Then, Sangharakshita takes it to the next step.
“There is one really crucial (if obvious) precondition for setting a goal: it must represent something you aren’t. You don’t want to have or to be what you already are. You can only want to be what you aren’t – which suggests, obviously, that you’re dissatisfied with what you are. If you’re not dissatisfied with what you are, you will never strive to be what you aren’t.”
This dissatisfaction ultimately is a desire to achieve happiness. No one seeks unhappiness. And these concepts of “prosperity” or “intelligence” or “appreciated” or “respected” are never ultimately achieved. Why? Because at any level, there will be felt a need to be more prosperous, or more intelligent or more appreciated or more respected, or for something better. They are the empty bellies of hungry ghosts.
What does Sangharakshita suggest is the fix to this? A change of attitude.
“Rather than trying to escape from ourselves, we need to begin to acknowledge the reality of what we are. We need to understand – and not just intellectually – why we are what we are. If we are suffering, well, we don’t just reach out for a chocolate. We need to recognize the fact that we suffer and look at it more and more deeply. Or – as the case may be – if we’re happy we need to recognize that fully, take it in more and more deeply. Instead of running from it into guilt, or into some sort of excitable intoxication, we need to understand why, what the true nature of that happiness is, where it really comes from. And again, this isn’t just intellectual; it’s something that has to go very deep down indeed.”
It’s now the 2012-13 bowling season. I did not practice at all during the summer. I have not practiced on Mondays, but left the bowling to Thursday nights, and Thursday nights only. I haven’t played the mind games of setting a goal of a 150 average, or calculating in my head what I need to achieve a score in a particular game. Instead, I’ve shifted my focus to the present frame, the present throw, be it the first one, or, if not a strike, the second one. With one week left in the first half of the season, my average is a 154. And the season has been more relaxed and fun than the previous three.
So what are my goals for 2013? I have none, other than enjoying life, including the uncertainty of it.