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What are we looking for when we strive for something? I think we are often missing a great truth when we aim to make our goals happen rather than allowing ourselves to be present in the journey.

I’ve struggled with this recently: I’ve been trying to meditate in order to improve mental function, and going to the gym in order to get buff. These focuses are extremely counterproductive if I actually want to enjoy my life, and have meaning and integrity in my habits and practices.

I’ve written about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards before, but I’ve been reading about Taoism recently and the philosophy of Purposelessness, and it has given me a lot to think about in my life and work.

This story is a perfect example:

A man is chopping down trees in a wood when he happens upon a large bird eating some seeds in the clearing. He resolves in his head:

 

“I am going to eat that bird for my dinner tonight!” 

 

The bird reads his intentions and as the man approaches with his axe, the bird vanishes into the brush. The man, knowing that the bird will return to eat the seeds, goes to the other side of the clearing so that he will not be spotted. The bird returns, but as the man rushes in with his axe the bird hears and feels his heavy footsteps on the ground, and vanishes in the other direction.

 

Defeated and frustrated, the man returns to cutting trees. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the bird return, but has given up on trying to catch it. The bird raises its head and looks at the man chopping at his tree, as if to say:

 

“What, you’ve given up?”

 

At that moment, as the man swings for the tree, the axe head flies off the handle, careening through the air and cutting the bird’s head clean off.

This is a principle of Taoism: holding a mental state of purposelessness.

When we realise that we cannot through concerted effort make a specific goal happen, and instead we put the focus out of our mind, we open ourselves up to the possibility of gaining what we need to live without straining. Life can be like quicksand sometimes; the more we struggle, the faster we sink. Before long we drown or need someone to throw us a rope and pull us out.

Applicable to life

You might have heard the same thing about relationships. I know I have. “Things will work out when you least expect them to.” This is not a throwaway comment or a simple generalised optimism. The outcome we desire will come when we are not focused primarily on achieving it, regardless of the means. This is not mysticism at work though. Rather, it is what happens when you are on the journey and not focused on the reward. The pot at the end of the rainbow is not the point – the rainbow is the point. The journey is the reward.

When you realise that the self-improvement and character built from going on the journey is the reward, you unlock a hidden well of potential within yourself. After all, you can succeed or fail at a task, where the goal is the only purpose. But can you succeed or fail when you remove intentionality?

Absorb the message of Purposelessness. Every endeavour is imbued with purpose that is separate from the goal or the outcome.