On Becoming a Part of the Path

In an article this week I read the following statement:

“All human behavior is goal orientated.”

It stood there stated as a fact, merely a lead up to a broader argument about how to use our motivation and drive to achieve certain goals in our lives. It was stated like a biological truth, deeply engraved into our DNA. I had to read the paragraph twice to actually catch it... I guess this was because my own mind had grown so used to take the statement for granted. Things we are deeply familiar with seem to merge with our environment, they become part of the landscape we move through. Like the color of tarmac or the invisibility of our bodies beneath clothes.

So I thought about it - all human behavior is goal orientated. Upon pondering about it I began to realise its distortion. I found many examples of great human achievements for which it is inaccurate: people in love may act based upon compassion, soldiers in an army act based upon orders, medical doctors in contaminated areas act upon self-abandonment. One could argue that a specific goal is even underlying this behaviour - to be loved in return, to win a war, to heal the sick. However, one can also argue that these types of behavior only become possible because these individuals have given up their personal goals. Their actions become possible due to devotion, due to the abandonment of self-centeredness. Wether their love helps them achieve a certain goal might be completely meaningless to the lovers. Wether a war is won might be irrelevant to soldiers caught in bloodlust. And wether a disease is cured can be meaningless to a doctor who has taken the decision to stay behind in a contaminated area with minimal chances of survival. They simply do. Driven by something beyond their personal goals. 

So maybe we should turn this statement upside down: great human behaviour emerges once no specific goal is pursued? While writing this I am reminded of my uncle who is a Zen priest. Whenever he visited my parent’s house he used to pause every now and then. He would stare into the air, return and say something like: “I think this moment is asking for a cup of tea.” or “This moment wants reading.” or “This hour is good for a walk.” I always enjoyed his company and was waiting for him to get another of these strange messages in... I found it deeply fascinating that there seemed to be a voice, a wanting, a desire in each moment, which we could give voice to once we abandoned our personal goals and objectives. To hear it, seemed to require a moment of pausing. To listen to it, seemed to require a moment of silence. To bring it through, required an openness to follow its lead, wherever it would take one.

The reason we might be so limited in our actions and pursuits as human beings might be exactly this: Because we orientate too many of our actions towards specific goals. We forget to be open and non-directed. To listen and to be silent.

In my boss' office there is a large whiteboard. On it she wrote a quote from Wallace Stevens: “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” If you set out on this walk around the lake in order to find truth, however, you might just as well stay at your desk. It is the spirit of non-orientation that brings through the unexpected.

In magic there exists a specific practice that requires us to actively assume such a state of non-orientation. All we hold in our mind during these moments is a question, an intent, an open door to the inner worlds for something else to step through. This is the practice of divination. A fortuneteller who has a specific goal on their mind when shuffling the cards or swirling the coffee cup - to please the client, to actually tell the truth, to earn some easy money - will keep all the gates tightly shut. In pursuing the goal of telling the truth the fortuneteller needs to abandon all goals. In order to gain access to a certain place they need to abandon all inner searching. In order for another voice to come through they need to enter into silence. This is the paradox I guess: In order to achieve goals that exceed our limited human consciousness we need to be open to work in blindness. Thus the fortuneteller immerse themselves into blindness, they actively enter a state of not knowing - and allow a simple question to take the lead. The door is swung open once no inner goal is pursued.

Really what this leads us to is the significant difference between scientists and entrepreneurs: All great achievements in science have been made by accident. The scientist accepts that they start out in one direction and may end up in a completely different one. All they can do is to pursue a question. The question is what leads the way. And even the question itself might change. It might change so utterly and completely along the journey that if they had held on to answering it their actual discovery might have never been made...

After all, true scientists and fortunetellers might hold more in common than they believe? They both accept blindness as an integral, an absolutely necessary part of their work. Both of them walk slowly but thoroughly, fumbling for a path in darkness. And both of them accept - in fact necessarily expect - that success is unpredictable. Instead of being the searcher they turn themselves into a part of the path. They may contribute to an insight, a discovery, a realization that will only come through in generations from now. What they discover today might seem meaningless for now, yet turn into a cornerstone of wisdom once more pieces of the puzzle have emerged in the future... 

Whenever we pursue a conscious goal we become judgmental. Judgmental of our own and other people’s actions. Judgmental of how the world seems to react to our intent and pursuit. It is exactly this being judgmental, being limited by our own goals what keeps our actual life-journeys so often from unfolding in beauty.

Of course it is incredibly hard to live by the truth that we do not know what or how we are meant to be. It seems incredibly hard at first to keep on walking once you discover the goal you thought you were pursuing doesn't exist. It seems incredibly hard to accept that our lives do not unfold like dashed lines on a treasure map leading up to a huge, hidden cross...

I guess what we truly achieve in life, what we truly leave behind from our pursuits is not wether we achieved what we believed to be our goals, but how conscious and kind, how open and curious we remained along the way. As magicians we can make an exponential increase in the success of our rites and workings if we give up on the idea of success altogether. It's one of the thresholds every magician needs to step over: to understand that it is not them who is on a journey, but that it is them who is part of the path. It's the walker that remains the secret.

Wallace Stevens - The Idea of Order at Key West