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A Problem of Motivation

I’ve been pondering the concept of motivation lately, mostly because I’ve had very little of it the past few weeks. What is it that sets off that little internal spark, that flame that moves you from the couch to the running track, or from absorbing art to creating it? In my experience, motivation has always been fickle and mood-based, mostly taking the form of me waiting around until a certain feeling grips me, compels me to get moving. Sometimes, that mood is a sense of inspiration, of uplift, of wanting to put my stamp on things.

But the ups and downs of the past few years have made it clear to me how often I’m motivated not by desire, but by fear.

I think this is a bad habit I picked up as early as elementary school. Instead of being drawn to explore or study a topic out of curiosity, to be pulled toward it like a moth toward a flame, I found myself being pushed toward it – out of a fear of failure, of not measuring up to expectation, of not being perfect. That fear has propelled me through most of my life: through grade school, university, and the first decade of my working life. It propelled me with its toxic, anxious fumes toward a great deal of success (well, success as conventionally defined, anyway). But it was a fuel that was ultimately unsustainable, and sent me sputtering into complete burnout once it ran dry.

I’m realizing now, in my early 30s, that I’ve never learned to cultivate genuine, steady, consistent effort toward my goals. My fear has kept me running just quickly enough to outpace it, and this method did work for a time, as uncomfortable as it was to live with. But even that form of motivation was uneven, jagged, marked by periods of anxious procrastination punctuated with shaky bursts of effort.

Instead of learning to enjoy the process of learning itself, of coming to accept the ups and downs, setbacks and successes inherent in any venture, my motivation has been almost totally avoidant in nature. The flavour of my inner world up to this point hasn’t so much been “How can I learn and grow today?”, but rather “How can I avoid the pain of failure? How can I keep from getting in trouble?” But a life spent in avoidance, even one that seems successful from the outside, is a hell to live on the inside. Quite frankly, I refuse to torture myself like that ever again, even if it means “missing out” on certain opportunities. Luckily, I don’t think the situation needs to be so black-and-white.

In the zen tradition that I enjoy studying and (imperfectly) embodying, there’s the important concept of “aimlessness,” which doesn’t mean having no goals or sense of the future, but rather points to a state of mind in which you do things for their own sake. Instead of constantly running after a future state of affairs in which your present efforts have culminated and “paid off” in the form of a goal being met, or success being attained, zen tries to gently nudge you back into your present reality, into this moment, this breath.

In Buddhism, rather than the ends justifying the means, the means are ends in and of themselves. In other words, the point of doing the dishes isn’t to have clean dishes – it’s to do the dishes. The point of studying isn’t to attain knowledge or a degree in the future, it’s in the studying itself. Every action, every movement, every step, is meaningful and complete in its own right, without needing to feed into some greater meaning, into some future goal.

To many of us in the west, this notion might seem puzzling, or even downright offensive. After all, in a hyper-productive, mechanistic society, who are you without your goals, without your striving? We’ve identified with our ambitions for so long that we’ve forgotten that life is about living, about experiencing, not attaining. 

Zen gently whispers its secret into our ears: perhaps life isn’t so much about the content of what we’re doing, but how we’re doing it. If we fully engage with and find joy in our studies, does it really matter whether we get a C or an A on the final exam? If we don’t reach our desired end goal, was it a complete “failure” if we were present for and enjoyed the process of trying to get there? 

Is that even a failure at all? I suspect we have it all backwards; after all, if you spend your life savouring each step of the journey up the mountain, who gives a damn if you get to the peak? You certainly won’t, because that future view from the top won’t even be on your mind – only this step. May we all find the motivation to enjoy this current step for its own sake.


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