Aspire Without Attachment

Practice of the Week
Aspire Without Attachment

Category: SLOGANS THAT HELP: Advertisers know that slogans work! So let's put them to a positive use. Adopting these slogans as your personal guides and reminders will help bring more peace and more joy into your life. Journaling about how you're trying to implement a given slogan will help integrate it into your life.
'I once heard Thich Nhat Hanh described as “a cloud, a butterfly, and a bulldozer.” Hearing him speak I couldn’t agree more. He is so soft, gentle, and egoless, yet surprisingly powerful.' (Kozo Hattori)

To live is to pursue goals. Out of healthy self-interest and kindness to yourself, it's natural and fine to seek security, success, comfort, enjoyment, creative expression, physical and mental health, connection, respect, love, self-actualization, and spiritual development.

But is your pursuit of your goals driven and stressed? Or do you pursue goals with outer effort and inner peacefulness? If your pursuit is driven and stressed, then you are attached to an outcome. If, however, you are rewarded by the journey itself no matter the destination, then your pursuit is one of aspiration without attachment.

The difference between attachment and aspiration got really clear for me one time in Boulder, Colorado, where I'd gone with my old friend Bob for a week of rock climbing. Our guide, Dave, asked us what our goals were, and I said I wanted to climb 5.11 (a stiff grade) by the end of the week; at that point I could barely climb 5.8. Bob stared at me and then said this was crazy, that I'd only get frustrated and disappointed (Bob's pretty driven, and doesn't like falling short). I said no, that it would be a win for me either way: my goal was so ambitious that if I failed to reach it there'd be no shame, and if I did manage to fulfill it, wow, that would be a ton of fun. So I kept banging away, getting steadily better: 5.8, 5.9, easy 5.10, hard 5.10 ... and then on the last day, I followed Dave without a fall on solid 5.11. Yay!

At the heart of attachment is craving -- broadly defined -- which contains and leads to many kinds of suffering (from subtle to intense). And while it may be an effective goad for a while -- the stick that whips the horse into a lather -- in the long run it is counterproductive, when that horse keels over. On the other hand, aspiration -- working hard toward your goals without getting hung up on the results -- feels good, plus it helps you stretch and grow without worrying about looking bad.

Paradoxically, holding your goals lightly increases the chance of attaining them, while being attached -- and thus fearing failure -- gets in the way of peak performance.

If you sit on the couch your whole life and never take care of or go after anything important, you can avoid the pitfalls of attachment. But if you have a job, intimate relationship, family, service, art, or spiritual calling, the challenge is to stay firm in your course, with dedication and discipline, centered in aspiration.


Aspiration is about liking, while attachment is about wanting -- and these involve separate systems in your brain (Berridge and Robinson 1998; Pecina, Smith, and Berridge 2006). Liking what is pleasant and disliking what is unpleasant are normal and not a problem. Trouble comes when we tip into the craving and strain inherent in wanting, wanting, wanting what's pleasant to continue and what's unpleasant to end. So learn to recognize the differences between liking and wanting in your body, emotions, attitudes, and thoughts. I think you'll find that liking feels open, relaxed, and flexible while wanting feels tight, pressed, contracted, and fixated.

Then, see if you can stay with liking without slipping into wanting:
  • Help little alarm bells to go off in your mind -- Alert! Caution! -- when you get that familiar feeling of wanting/craving, especially when it's subtle and floating around in the back of your mind.
  • Relax any sense of "gotta have it." Feel into the ways your life is and will be basically all right even if you don't attain a particular goal. Seek results from a place of fullness, not scarcity or lack.
  • Try to remain relatively peaceful -- even in the midst of passionate activity -- since intensity, tension, fear, and anger all fuel strong wanting.
  • Release any fixation on a certain outcome. Recognize that all you can do is tend to the causes, but you can't force the results.
  • Keep the sense of "me" to a minimum. Success or failure will come from dozens of factors, only a few of which are under your control. Win or lose, don't take it personally.
Along the way, watch out for the widespread belief that if you're not fiercely driven toward your goals, you're kind of a wimp. Remember that you can have strong effort toward your aims without falling into attachment to the results. Consider the description I once heard of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who has accomplished many things as a peace advocate and teacher:
A cloud, a butterfly, and a bulldozer.
For Journaling

How do you understand aspiration without attachment? Write out how you would explain it to someone else.

The distinction between aspiration and attachment parallels the distinction between request and demand: If the answer is "no," then the degree to which you are bothered or upset is the degree to which you were demanding/attached rather than requesting/aspiring. In your journal one morning make a list of all the things that you would like to achieve or have happen in the day ahead. List 10-20 things. Then put a rating beside each item on your list, from 0 (you won't be upset at all if that doesn't happen) to 10 (you'll be very upset/bothered/disappointed/despondent if that doesn't happen). Reflect on your list and the ratings you gave. Using the tips above in the "How" section, can you lower your "upsetness" ratings?

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