Note: This is the second part of a three part series I’m writing on freedom from outcome. Check out part one here.
Something I really enjoy is examining general concepts (some people call them “universal principles”) through the lenses of different paradigms and philosophies. The more I read from different sources – religious/spiritual texts, self-help books, biographies, ancient philosophies – the more I start to see the same principles over and over again. Different sources may use different vocabulary, but the underlying messages are usually the same.
The principle I want to continue talking about in this post is freedom from outcome.
In my last post I stated that freedom from outcome is something I’ve been using to help clear up my own confusion regarding ambition. Yet it is applicable in any area of our lives that involves taking action (so pretty much everything!). Let’s dig in.
Attachment to Outcome: The Real Issue
Have you ever wanted something so bad that your own desire seemed to get in your way? It’s like the very thing that motivated you to take action stops you from succeeding.
I’ve experienced this often in my life. One of the most notable areas is playing basketball. I can recall countless games where my intense desire to win, or even just play well, caused me to make careless mistakes. The same thing happens to me in non-athletic endeavors like writing. There are times when I’m so concerned with creating a good blog post that I can barely put together a coherent sentence.
The cause of my poor performance is simple: I’m attached to an outcome.
What does it mean to be attached to an outcome? It’s basing our happiness on whether or not our actions will produce a desired result. This seems like a natural mindset to have. After all, we take actions in order to produce results. Everything from eating to studying is done with an end goal in mind.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that desiring a result is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that desire is an unavoidable and necessary part of life. Desires are what drive our most basic actions. But there is a huge difference between desiring something and being attached to it. Desire is natural and healthy. Attachment is created by the ego, that persistent voice in our heads that tells us we need something external in order to be happy.
Being attached to outcome can hurt us in a variety of ways. It’s what causes us to endlessly (and miserably) chase things like money, fame, and success, hoping they will make us happy. And as I described above, it often hinders our performance while taking action. When we are attached to a specific outcome, we devote a great deal of our mental energy to focusing on it. This is energy that could be used to focus on the action itself.
Take my struggles with basketball for example. By focusing my attention on the end result (winning), I pay less attention to what is required of me in the moment. But it’s not just the lack of attention that causes me to make mistakes; it’s also the added stress and anxiety that my attachment creates. By making my happiness dependent on whether or not I win, I put unnecessary pressure on myself.
Of course, those are just the negative effects that attachment can cause before we get any kind of result. What happens when the result is the exact opposite of what we wanted? Usually it hurts. When we base our happiness on external results, some degree of future pain is inevitable. Sure, some people are very good at getting the results they want. But even the best can’t succeed all the time. So why suffer over something we can’t avoid?
Sources of Wisdom
I’ve talked about the suffering that can result from being attached to outcome. But what exactly does freedom from outcome mean?
In order to explain it I’m going to use two different sources in which freedom from outcome plays a central role: the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching. Both are ancient eastern texts that are still influential in modern day Hinduism and Taoism, respectively.
Freedom from Outcome in the Bhagavad Gita
I first came across the idea of freedom from outcome when I read The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture most likely written between the fifth and second century BCE.
The whole scripture is grounded in the concept of selflessness, specifically selfless action. It teaches that, by acting selflessly in all areas of our lives, we can achieve self-realization. This is most emphasized in the line, “Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires.” (Chapter 3, Verse 10)
It is this underlying theme of selflessness from which freedom from outcome springs. Selflessness and freedom from outcome are directly linked in this quote:
“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.” (Chapter 2, Verse 47)
When I first read this it seemed like such an odd concept. For years I had been taught that doing things for others was good. Yet something so extreme as being completely selfless was, and still is, very foreign to me. I’m a goal-oriented person, and most of my goals are based on how happy they will make ME. Not having any selfish tendencies just isn’t going to happen. Besides, how could being selfless possibly get me the things I desire in life?
Yet as I considered the term selfless, thinking about it in relation to all of the things I had read about the ego and finding internal peace, I began to realize that selflessness in this context may not mean only doing things for the sake of others. Instead, it means simply taking the “self” (the ego) out of the picture. And if attachment is the result of the ego, then selfless action would naturally be detached action. (Ironically enough, I soon found that being selfless in the sense that we normally use it was one of the easiest ways to reach this ego-less state.)
Still, being the skeptic that I am, I decided to put this idea of selfless service to the test. It just so happened that, having just been hired as a recreation leader at a summer camp, I had the perfect job to do this; I would make giving value to the kids the focus of all my actions, taking my own desire for recognition or even a happy work experience out of the equation.
What resulted was a transformation in my work experience. Moments that would normally try my patience started to flow easily. Any frustration I would feel towards misbehaving children or difficult parents subsided quickly once I reminded myself to take action for the sake of the kids.
More importantly though, I found myself actually performing at a much higher level than I had before. I was more focused, better able to respond to challenges, and even more motivated. By removing the “self” from my actions, and thus my worry over their results, I became a happier, more productive worker.
Freedom From Outcome in the Tao Te Ching
Another great source that encourages freedom from outcome is the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Taoist text written by Lao Tzu. While covering some of the same themes as the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching has a drastically different tone. Each of its 81 chapters takes the form of a poem, and gives lessons in somewhat paradoxical language. To be honest, it took me a couple of readings to get much out of it. But what I got has made a huge difference in my life.
The main theme of the Tao Te Ching is living in harmony with the Tao: the natural flow of the universe. Doing this results in a state of deep inner peace and joy.
In the realm of action, this way of living takes the form of wu-wei, which is roughly translated as “effortless action” or “non-doing”. It is first introduced in Chapter 2. I’m going to include the whole chapter here to provide some context:
All in the world recognize the beautiful as beautiful.
Herein lies ugliness.
All recognize the good as good.
Herein lies evil.
Presence and absence produce each other.
Difficulty and ease bring about each other.
Long and short delimit each other.
High and low rest on each other.
Sound and voice harmonize each other.
Front and back follow each other.
Therefore the sage abides in the condition of wu-wei (unattached action).
And carries out the wordless teaching.
Here, the myriad things are made, yet not separated.
Therefore the sage produces without possessing,
Acts without expectations
And accomplishes without abiding in her accomplishments.
It is precisely because she does not abide in them
That they never leave her.
I think the key part there is “the sage produces without possessing, acts without expectations, and accomplishes without abiding in her accomplishments.” This describes freedom from outcome in its ideal form. It’s not just detaching from outcome during the process, but after as well.
Chapter 43 also directly talks about being detached from outcome:
The softest thing in the world
Will overcome the hardest.
Non-being can enter where there is no space.
Therefore I know the benefit of unattached action.
The wordless teaching and unattached action
Are rarely seen.
This whole concept is quite paradoxical, but I believe it points towards the same principle that selfless service does in the Bhagavad Gita. Acting without effort essentially means not trying to force any kind of result. It is acting purely for the sake of the action itself.
You may have a specific result in mind when starting, but the only way to operate in accordance with nature is to take the proper action (to the best of your ability) and let whatever happens happen. There is no excess physical or mental activity. No anxious thoughts. No stress. No anger or frustration.
Think of the beauty and immensity of nature; all of the plants, trees, mountains, and lakes that have sprung up around us, not to mention the incredible vastness of the oceans. All of these things were formed with no effort, no stress over their final forms.
The giant sequoias didn’t get anxious over how big they would grow. They just grew, following their natural course in life. Some may have grown taller. Some may have withered away. Yet there was never any stress involved. Lao Tzu states it best in the line, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
I’ve noticed that both of these perspectives on freedom from outcome tend to serve me best at different times. In the realm of work and achievement, selfless service keeps me grounded. But in everyday life, I find that practicing wu-wei helps bring me a sense of peace.
It’s great reading about all of this and seeing it talked about in different contexts, but what are some of the concrete ways that freedom from outcome can benefit our lives?
Here’s a quick list of what I think are some of its greatest benefits:
- Less stress and anxiety
- Increased ability to concentrate
- Easier access to “flow state”
- Failures are replaced with lessons
Less Stress and Anxiety
This is benefit that comes in any kind of situation, whether it’s trying to win a basketball game or just enjoying a day at the beach. Most of us walk around with a constant buzz of stress and anxiety inside of us, whether we are conscious of it or not. This anxiety is usually a result of of our need for things to work out exactly how we want them to.
The irony is that this anxiety often ensures that our desired results won’t manifest. We end up losing that basketball game because we were too nervous. Our need for things to be perfect causes the slightest annoyance ruin our day at the beach.
Freedom from outcome immediately eliminates stress and anxiety because instead of being focused on a result, we are completely focused on the present moment.
Increased Ability to Concentrate
Often times our inability to focus on a single task is a result of our attachment to an outcome. Thoughts of success, failure, and all of the potential consequences associated with each, inevitably distract us from the only thing that actually produces results: the task at hand.
This is what usually happens to me when I write. I’ll be in the middle of a sentence and my mind will start ruminating on how many people will read my post and what their reactions to it might be. As a result I either get very little writing done or my writing just plain sucks.
When we let go of that attachment to outcome, it’s almost as if we are clearing out mental RAM. All that mental energy that was going towards thinking about the future can now be used to help us concentrate on what we’re actually doing.
Easier Access to “Flow” State
In his book “Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as, “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Usually this state is accompanied with feelings of intense peace and joy.
We’ve all experienced flow states at one point or another in our lives. It might have been while playing a video game, working on a project for school, or just enjoying a night out with friends. Regardless of the situation, we all crave that feeling of complete focus combined with a deep sense of joy. For most of us though, these moments of flow are hard to come by.
Freedom from outcome is integral component of reaching a flow state. Much like my favorite quote from the Bhagavad Gita, Csikszentmihalyi states that “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
As I stated above, our incessant thinking about past and future outcomes inhibits our ability to fully concentrate. Letting go out those attachments allows us to become fully engaged with an activity, making us more likely to get into a flow state. If we can learn to truly master freedom from outcome, our lives have the possibility of transforming into continuous flow-like experiences.
Failures are Replaced with Lessons
For me, one of the most dire consequences of being attached to outcome has been the intense pain that comes with failure. Going back to my basketball example, the nerves and stress that come from attachment usually seem manageable as long as I’m able to win in the end. But when I don’t get that W, boy does it feel crappy. It’s like adding a slap in the face on top of an already frustrating experience.
But what if I was to detach myself from the outcome? Sure, I could still desire to win (that’s the object of the game), but all of a sudden my happiness is not based on something external. This happens to be the optimal state for learning and improving. I may make mistakes and even end up losing. But afterwards I will be able to look objectively at what I did right and wrong in order to improve. I can stop looking at failure as something to be avoided, and start seeing it as a valuable learning experience.
After all, none of us are born knowing how to do everything perfectly. It’s only by falling down that we learn how to balance ourselves and walk. It’s only through bringing our weakness to the surface that we can start to improve them. But this is difficult to do if our emotions are tied up with our results
These are just a few of the valuable benefits that I’ve experienced while making freedom from outcome a part of my life. In reality, it’s a concept that is so intertwined with other components of living a happy life (such as presence and self-reliance) that the full scale of its benefits is hard to quantify.
In my next post I will offer some of the strategies that I’ve found most useful in achieving this detachment from outcome.