Few things bring me a greater sense of peace than going to the beach at night. The constant lullaby of crashing waves. The way the light from distant cities colors the water. The feeling of smallness that comes from looking out into the pitch black ocean. It never loses its charm.
As I get ready to move to Sevilla, a city more than an hour away from the coast, I have to pause and consider just how lucky I’ve been to live so close to the beach my whole life. Whether I was growing up in Long Beach, or spending the last year in San Sebastian, that constant source of peace was never more than a short drive away.
So I’m writing here to express my gratitude; for the countless nights spent gazing at the ocean, and the knowledge that more await me when I get back.
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.
I once heard someone say that every great life has had in it a great renunciation. Now I don’t know enough about great lives to sway whether or not that’s true, but it definitely resonates with me. Ever since I turned 21 I’ve been on a journey of personal growth, determined to change myself and my life for the better. In the three years since then I’ve undoubtedly changed a lot. Yet the whole time there has been something keeping me from making the types of changes I’ve really wanted to make: the core level changes. That something is the past.
By past I don’t mean just the past events that have made up my life. I’m talking about the old habits, actions, beliefs, and thought patterns that have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The remnants of my past have stood out clearly to me as of late. Two weeks ago I finished my 8 month stint teaching English in Spain and moved back home to California for the summer. This isn’t the first time I’ve returned home after being away, but 8 months is the longest I’ve been gone.
I can’t say that I’m a completely different person than when I left back in October. I’ve definitely changed though. I’ve got new experiences under my belt, new perspectives, new insights into the inner workings of my mind. Yet upon arriving home, all of the “new” has quickly managed to take a backseat to the old. I’ve found myself instinctively falling back into old patterns, regardless of the changes I made while abroad. For me those old patterns include a lot of negativity, a lot of sitting in front of the TV, and a general lack of action. All of the great habits I built up while abroad like meditation, eating healthy, reading, and writing seem to have gone straight by the wayside.
The big issue for me isn’t how I’ve struggled in the two weeks since coming home. To be honest I expected to need a week or two to get my positive momentum back and generally adjust to life back in the states. But seeing how quickly and easily I’ve gone back to old behaviors has made me question just how badly I’ve been wanting change in my life.
I’ve talked a lot about wanting change in my life, about wanting to live a life of excellence. While that is my genuine desire, I’ve also been holding onto my comfortable past. Things like laziness, negative self-talk, judging others, complaining, staying in my comfort zone, and allowing fear to control me. These might seem like pretty normal habits, and they have been for me, but they are not congruent with who I say I want to be. They aren’t congruent with the desires that motivated me to start this blog.
I’m starting to realize that I can’t have a new and exciting future while holding on to the mindsets and behaviors that made up my past. It’s as if I’ve been driving, but the whole time I’ve had one eye on the road in front of me and one on the rear view mirror. Sure, it’s okay to occasionally look behind me, but having one eye always focused there makes it a lot harder to stay on the proper path ahead.
So as I sit here contemplating my attachment to the past, the idea of a great renunciation keeps crossing my mind. Am I willing to renounce all the things in my life that aren’t contributing to the bright future I desire? My instinctual answer is yes. But saying yes is a lot easier than actually acting on it. I’ve held onto my past for a reason. It may not bring me the happiness I desire but it’s comfortable. It’s safe. The future I want is full of unknowns. Plus there’s a big part of me that doubts I can even do it. What if I fail? What if I go back to my old ways after a few days or a few weeks?
Of course, these are all hypotheticals. The only way to actually know whether or not I can make such a great renunciation is to try it. So here goes nothing…
I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of achievement. There’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes from knowing you’ve put in the work to accomplish something, no matter how small it is. Hell, even as I write this, I feel damn good for get getting these words on paper.
I suppose the simplest way of experiencing the satisfaction of achievement is through goals. They are straight forward. Black and white. You always know when and how you accomplished them.
Yet despite how much I enjoy achievement, I’ve always been terrible at following through with goals. For as long as I can remember I’ve been setting goals and subsequently failing to achieve them. Everything from getting a six-pack to writing every day. Nothing ever seems to stick.
This isn’t a new story of course. Goals are something most people struggle with. I read a statistic that out of the 45% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, only 8% successfully achieve them. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it doesn’t sound too far from the truth. I don’t think this is an American phenomenon either.
For a long time I attributed my inability to follow through on goals to my own laziness or lack of will power. This translated into me telling myself things like, “I can’t achieve my goals because I’m a lazy person” and “I don’t have enough will power to accomplish anything significant.” With this kind of negative self-talk, setting and working towards goals became less and less about the goals themselves and more about vindicating myself from those negative labels (which, ironically, I had self-applied). As you can imagine, this didn’t make sticking to my goals any easier. All it did was make the pain of failing so much greater. My failures to achieve my goals became indicators of my own inadequacies.
About a month ago, after years of dealing with this internal conflict, I decided to take a step back from goals all together. I didn’t really have a plan or even a time frame (it took a lot of effort to not make not setting goals a goal). I just knew that my current method of setting goals and working meticulously to achieve them wasn’t bringing me many positive results.
Upon making this decision, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off of me. What I had essentially done was give myself permission to not accomplish anything. No goals. No mission statements. No super-important tasks to get to outside of going to work. It was liberating.
Unfortunately, along with this feeling of liberation came a huge feeling of guilt, at least in the beginning. For the past three years all I had done was focus on improving myself, usually by way of setting goals and working towards them. While letting go of those goals felt good, I also felt as though I was letting myself down in some way. If I wasn’t working towards something, then how could I possibly be happy?
This internal conflict was, at its core, a symptom of my underlying belief structure, mainly in regards to how life is supposed to be lived. For simplicity’s sake I would characterize my normal way of thinking as “achievement-oriented.” I’ve always based my self-worth on what I could achieve, or at the very least what I was working towards. Going even deeper than that, I’ve always assumed that true happiness required struggling to overcome challenges, that I didn’t deserve to be happy unless I was working towards a bigger purpose in life and challenging myself every day.
Still, it was obvious that setting goals is not an effective strategy for me, regardless of the reason why. Yet my own happiness is still in many ways tied to achievement and the idea of working towards a purpose. It’s a paradox that I don’t see changing any time soon. So I came up with sort of a mental compromise.
What’s interesting is that in the month since I abandoned goal setting, I haven’t been any less productive. In fact, I’ve made more progress towards the life I want than I had in the several months prior to this change. I began meditating consistently. My diet improved notably. I’ve read more. I started this blog. Overall, I’m feeling a lot happier, which is most likely the result of constantly feeling as though I’m achieving something.
So how have I been able to be productive without any clear goals to work towards?
Simply put, instead of setting goals I just started focusing on what I wanted out of life. Not what I thought I should want, or what I thought I should accomplish. What I really WANTED. I started getting in touch with my core desires.
Waking up in the morning I didn’t think of my normal checklist for that day. I just paused and considered what I wanted my life to look like. To give you an example, some of the things I thought of included being more present to the moment, being more positive, filling my days with things I love doing, and creating an amazing blog.
I found that, by simply having what I wanted at the forefront of my mind throughout the day, I naturally started taking the actions that would bring me closer to those things. I began to live intentionally instead of in reaction to my environment.
Up and Down Cycle
For most of my life I repeated the same cycle of rapid progress and equally rapid burnout. I would be super consistent when it came to my goals, using every ounce of willpower I had in order to reach them…for a couple of weeks. Then, one day when the willpower just seemed to escape me, I would end up on the couch, binge-watching Netflix and hating myself. A few weeks later I would start the process over again, vowing that this time would be different, this time I would stick to my goals. On and on the cycle went.
While it’s only been about a month, I haven’t experienced any of those drastic motivational ups and downs. I might spend an hour or two watching Game of Thrones or catching up on some NBA highlights, but I don’t find myself binging on entertainment the way I used to. After a couple of hours of doing anything that doesn’t bring me closer to the life I want, I just get antsy and want to start taking action again.
I think what this really comes down to is allowing myself room to be imperfect. What I’ve found with goals is that they box me in to a specific result and a specific course of action. Maybe it’s just the rebellious kid in me, but being told I have to do something, even by myself, makes me really not want to do it. I think meditation is the most relevant example in this case. If you were to come up to me right now and ask me how I feel about meditation, you would only hear good things come out of my mouth. I freaking love meditation! Yet whenever I’ve set a goal for myself to do it every day, meditation and I stop being such close friends.
However, when I simply start my day by thinking about how much I want presence and positivity in my life, it seems only natural that I would meditate at some point. I go from begrudging it to looking forward to it. Now, after about 30 days of doing it, mediation just feels like a normal part of my life.
A lot of people would probably argue that the point of goals isn’t to have a rigid structure, but to give you a direction to head. That may be true but for whatever reason I have a hard time viewing goals in a healthy way. That’s just me though.
If I really analyze the past month, all I’ve done is simply make my goals a little less strict, a little less absolute. Either way I’m glad it’s working.
I’ve always loved the analogy of the mind being like an ocean. The surface – our everyday stream of consciousness – is often rocky and unpredictable. Our thoughts, emotions, and desires are continuously buffeted along by strong winds. These winds are the external forces in our lives – things like our jobs, our family situations, social conditioning.
But what lies beneath the surface? Is there a deeper level to our minds, an equivalent to the dark and mysterious depths of the ocean? This is a question I’ve spent a lot of time trying to answer when it comes to my own mind. And what I’ve found, in those rare moments when I’ve been able to calm the mental storm in my head, is that there is an incredible stillness to be found beneath the surface.
At first that stillness was detectable only in my most peaceful moments. I recall my almost nightly drives to Seal Beach during the summer of 2013, my first conscious attempts to escape all of the noise in my head. I would walk out to the edge of the pier and just stare at the ocean for an hour or so, letting the sounds of the waves and the surrounding darkness calm me.
After a while I would feel a shift inside. It was like all of my worries and superficial desires would just float away. My mind was finally just…still. It was in those moments that my desire for a life filled with adventure and beauty started to come to the surface.
For the first time in my life I could see that I wanted so much more for my life than the textbook version of success I had been chasing. It was clear that typical things like finding a nice job, chasing after money, and searching for comfort and security just weren’t for me. It was as if the call of my heart was finally louder than the chatter in my brain.
To this day the contents of my brain are just as scattered as they were three years ago. When I wake up in the morning, seeking out the beauty in my life is the last thing on my mind. When someone is rude to me or I make a stupid mistake at work, I don’t think about adventure and romance, I just get pissed off. I wrestle with a myriad of fears, anxieties, and petty emotions every single day.
Yet the knowledge of what I’ve felt in those moments of stillness has stayed with me. I know that the tumultuousness of my thoughts and emotions only represents the very surface of who I am and what I want. I know that deep inside me, at the very core of my soul, exists a vision for my life that is so much greater than my everyday concerns and superficial desires.
Knowing all of this, when I feel myself getting caught up in life’s frenzied current, all I can do is pause and get in touch with that stillness. It’s in that state that I’m able to see clearly what I want out of life. It’s in the stillness that I derive my energy. And it’s in the stillness that I’m fully consumed by an appetite for beauty.