This is probably my favorite quote of all time. It’s a helpful reminder that the only truly controllable thing in life is the effort I put into my work; the results of my work…well those may or may not come.
Note: This is the final post in a series on freedom from outcome. You can find the first two posts here:
In my last two posts I discussed what freedom from outcome is and how it can benefit our lives. Now I want to talk about a few of the best strategies I’ve found for cultivating it.
This is something I touched on in Part 2. Selfless service – Seva in Sanskrit – is the underlying theme of the Bhagavad Gita, though it is encouraged in most religions as well. It means acting to benefit other people or society as a whole.
What fascinates me most about selfless service is the idea that it can be performed in every part of our lives. Pretty much any action can be done in the spirit of selfless service, even if it’s something that appears to be done for our own gain.
This idea is emphasized in the line, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in your mind.” (Chapter 3, Verse 19)
How exactly would this look?
In my previous post I gave the example of how I tried to act selflessly in my job as a recreation leader. With every action I took, I did my best to focus on how it could benefit the children I worked with or society at large. I applied this from everything from planning summer camp activities to setting up tables and chairs. Having a job that dealt directly with helping people, this ended up being easy to do.
Of course, there are plenty of actions that don’t seem related to serving others at all. How can we brush our teeth or read a book selflessly? I try and solve this conundrum with some mental yoga. I think about how, by brushing my teeth consistently, I will have a smile that can help brighten someone’s day. Or I imagine how reading a book will give me a little more knowledge that I can pass on to others. It probably sounds like a stretch (hence the mental yoga), but so far it’s worked pretty well for me.
What makes selfless service so effective at cultivating freedom from outcome? The Bhagavad Gita explains it best: “They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego cage of “I,” “me,” and “mine” to be united with the Lord.” (Chapter 2, Verse 71)
Attachment to outcome often stems from the ego’s habit of making everything about “me.” Selfless service helps get us out of our heads and away from our egos. When we are working for the sake of others, our concern is no longer “me, me, me!”
I know it’s not a perfect strategy. It’s possible to still be attached to outcome when doing things for others. There’s even the risk of building an ego around selflessness. But I look at selfless service, not as the almighty solution to attachment to outcome, but as a useful tool to hammer away at it.
Accomplishing anything in life, no matter how small, requires that we go through certain processes. To clean our cars we have to hose them down, scrub them with soap, and then dry them off. In order to write a great essay we must sit down, draw up an outline, create a first draft, and then make edits from there. Skipping steps in any process may work on occasion, but it won’t produce consistent results.
Process orientation means focusing on the processes instead of the results they produce. It’s a concept I was first exposed to in the book “Mastery” by George Leonard, though I don’t think it ever uses that exact term (I actually don’t remember where I heard it). The main premise of “Mastery” is that, in order to master anything in life, we must embark on the “master’s journey.” This journey is full of ups, downs, and plenty of plateaus, and it’s only by learning to enjoy the process that we can make it through.
This illustrated in the line, “How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself.”
The parallels between this concept and the advice given in the Bhagavad Gita are pretty remarkable. In fact, I like to think of process orientation as the mindset of freedom from outcome manifested in action.
I’ll use the process of creating a blog post as an example. Starting out, I know I want to write a great post. So I stop and consider what steps (to the best of my knowledge) will allow me to do that. Usually it starts with me coming up with an idea and getting a basic outline on paper. Then I have to type out a couple of pages, trying out different ideas, structures, and tones. Only after I’ve done that for an hour or so will my writing start to flow. Once I feel I’ve written enough, then comes the slow process of editing and restructuring my post until it’s ready to publish.
If I had the choice, I would happily skip the first two or three steps of that process and go straight to the part where my writing is flowing. But that’s not possible. It’s only by going through those initial steps that getting into a flow is even possible.
The only logical thing to do in this case is surrender to the process. So I go about creating my outline, writing a rough draft, and so on. I’m not thinking about the end result or how much I can’t wait to get to the next step. This is because I fully accept that completing the current step is the only way to move on to the next.
This probably doesn’t seem like an attractive concept, let alone an easy way to cultivate freedom from outcome. It takes a lot of discipline to be consistently process oriented. But I think it pays off.
I’ve found that looking at life from the perspective of processes takes a lot of pressure off myself. I no longer have to worry about being “good enough” to accomplish something and I stop attributing my failures to weaknesses in my character. Instead, when looking at any goal or task, I ask myself what steps are necessary to accomplish it and then surrender to them.
Much of our attachment to outcome is a result of too much thinking and not enough action. We think about the results we want, who we want to see them, and all the things that could go wrong along the way. Then we think some more. We become paralyzed by this endless cycle of thinking.
The simplest way I’ve found to stop all this thinking, and thus gain freedom from outcome, is to take massive action towards what I want. This is something I’ve really tried to implement in my life recently. Whenever I find myself procrastinating, worrying about how things will turn out, I just start taking action.
This applies to big and small anxieties. If I’m worried about how a blog post will turn out then I simply go and write more. If I’m concerned about my future financial situation then I start learning how to budget and invest my money. So far this strategy has been very effective for me.
Massive action serves the dual purpose of getting us out of our thinking minds while also bringing us closer to the results we want. It’s as if we are so busy taking action that we simply don’t have to think, let alone worry about outcomes. And more often than not, taking massive action leads to the outcome we want. If it doesn’t, then we learned a valuable lesson that only taking action could have taught us.
To sum up, selfless service, process orientation, and massive action are three strategies that have helped me cultivate more freedom from outcome in my life. I sincerely hope they can do the same for you.
If you give any of them of try, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.
Note: This is the first of three posts on a concept I refer to as “freedom from outcome.” This post will serve as an introduction, while the other two will go more in depth on the concept.
To Strive, or Not to Strive…
I’ve struggled with the idea of ambition for a long time. When I was growing up it always had mixed connotations depending on who I was talking to. Sometimes people would call someone overly ambitious as an insult. Other times ambition was praised. More often than not, it seemed like people judged based on what someone was ambitious about, with some ambitions being superior to others.
This ambiguity towards ambition has stuck with me in my adult life. At times I see my own ambitions as a source of pride. During others I view them as chains that will ultimately lead me to an unfulfilled life. I’ve usually just erred on the side of having little ambition.
Despite the occasional desire for extravagant things, I’ve been able to convince myself that I don’t want too much out of life. All I really need is the ability to travel and have new experiences. Things like wealth and extreme success (in any area) just seem superfluous, like things that will only distract me from what really matters in life.
But do I truly not want a ton of money or amazing levels of success? Do I not want to explore the heights of what I can accomplish? Because deep down I see the potential I have to do great things and live a really amazing life.
My lack of ambition is starting to reveal its true identity: fear. It’s the fear of trying to get get these things and failing. It’s the fear that I don’t have what it takes to succeed. It’s the fear that I will become miserable by going after things like money and success.
But isn’t not thinking big out of fear just as damaging as expecting money and success to make me happy? Aren’t both situations just two sides of the same coin?
As someone who loves to read, especially about self-development and spirituality, I see that I’ve fallen into a mental trap. I’ve read tons of books about how true happiness is purely internal and I’ve bought into that idea. That’s not necessarily a problem by itself, but I’ve been using it as an excuse to not take any real action in my life. I reason away my stagnation by saying, “What’s the point of pursuing any challenging goals if it won’t make me happy in the end?”
This is bullshit logic though. Sure, happiness does ultimately come from inside, but if I were to truly take that to heart I would give up all my possessions and go live in a cave. Yeah…that’s never going to happen.
The truth of the matter is that I want A LOT of things. I want success. I want money. I want passion. I want adventure. I want to have my cake and eat it to.
Lessons From the Past
This situation reminds me of a lesson from the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture that I read last summer.
The Gita takes the form of a narrative, with the young prince Arjuna as its protagonist. Arjuna is preparing for the Mahabharata war, in which he must fight against members of his own family. Unsure of how to proceed he asks his charioteer, Lord Krishna (an incarnated form of God), for guidance. The rest of the scripture offers wisdom in the form of Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjuna.
A large part of this advice centers around Arjuna’s conflicted feeling towards fighting his own family. In order to guide him toward the right course of action, Krishna introduces a few different concepts, namely the different paths to self-realization (enlightenment) and the role of dharma.
According to Krishna, there are three main paths to self-realization: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga. I’m going to focus on the first and last paths. Karma yoga is essentially liberation through action, specifically action without attachment to results. Jnana yoga is liberation through wisdom and contemplation. It means renouncing all desires and action (think living in a cave).
There is no exact translation of Dharma in the English language, but it roughly translates to one’s personal duty, or “right action”. I liken it to the different roles we play in our lives, like that of a parent, teacher, doctor, or even a member of a community. Fulfilling your dharma means performing that duty to the best of your ability.
One must follow his or her dharma in order to reach self-realization. This is how dharma and the different types of yoga tie into together. Whether you choose karma yoga or jnana yoga depends on your dharma. The dharma of of young man who wants to live an active life would be different than that of an old man who wants to live a quiet life. Thus, the young man would take the path of karma yoga in order to achieve self-realization. The old man may be best suited retiring away from the material world in order to gain self-realization through wisdom and contemplation.
Concluding his advice, Krishna tells Arjuna that the best way to self-realization is through following his dharma as a warrior and fighting in the upcoming battle. In other words, he must take the path of karma yoga, taking action without being attached to the outcome.
How does this relate to my struggle with ambition? While I don’t necessarily believe in self-realization in the way it’s described in the Bhagavad Gita, I think it can be interpreted as the highest degree of fulfillment you can experience in life. From this perspective, the concepts of dharma and the different types of yoga offer a kind of guide for living a truly fulfilling life.
The attitude I spoke of above, in which I claim that happiness can only be found internally, is similar to jnana yoga. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with it, yet as a young man who enjoys living in the material world – not secluded on a mountain – it would make very little sense for me to follow that path towards happiness. Instead, my dharma would be that of someone who has material desires and wants to achieve success.
Maybe when I’m old and broken down I’ll find happiness through inaction. But at 24 years old, taking action is the only way to go.
Freedom from Outcome: Balancing Action and Desire
I’m starting to realize that happiness doesn’t come from not pursuing my ambitions, but from taking action towards them and enjoying the process. It’s a balance between inner and outer fulfillment.
This has been a great realization, but how do I manage to go after the things I desire without falling into the trap of basing my happiness on them?
This is where freedom from outcome, the main theme of this series of posts, comes into play. Freedom from outcome (or detachment from outcome) is a concept that I first came across in the Bhagavad Gita. However, I’ve noticed that it’s a core principle taught in almost all of the spiritual, philosophical, and self-help resources I’ve come across.
So what does is mean to be free from outcome? It means taking action while simultaneously being unattached to the result of that action. On a deeper level, it means finding satisfaction in the process of taking action instead of the result that comes from it.
I truly believe that, if applied even a little bit, freedom from outcome is the solution to my own dilemma regarding ambition, and also a myriad of other problems that most of us face in our daily lives. These problems include stress and anxiety, creative blocks, and extreme emotional ups and downs.
In my next post I will go into detail on freedom from outcome, examining what it looks like, some of my favorite sources that encourage it, and the benefits it can have in our lives.