Value the Means, Not Just the End

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., Guest Writer
Waking Times

If you’re like most of us, you’re driven to accomplish certain goals—goals personally meaningful and valuable to you. It doesn’t much matter whether the end of your pursuits is completing a manuscript or a marathon. And your “payoff,” your “high,” revolves around your final achievement. It’s unlikely that you consider the actual doing—the specific activities engaged in to reach that goal—as particularly notable or sustaining. Yet if you’re to live life to the utmost—which is to say, live it mindfully—it’s essential that, independent of your aim, you fully immerse yourself in the moment-to-moment progression toward this aim.

In a sense, this piece complements an earlier four-part post I wrote entitled “The Purpose of Purposelessness” (see parts 123, & 4), in which I advocated approaching life more playfully—without, that is, constantly focusing on the practical utility of your behavior. For if all your actions are goal-oriented, life becomes pretty much a “business”: more work than play. And it’s questionable whether living in such a purposeful, “directed” manner ultimately yields as much happiness, well-being, or peace of mind as might otherwise be attainable.

Here what I’d like to emphasize is that there can be satisfaction, pleasure, and even joyfulness in the “doing” of virtually everything you undertake. As long, that is, as your mindset is one of acceptance and creative absorption. This is generally what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow,” as well as a fundamental tenet of positive psychology.

  • It’s about getting lost in the moment, losing your sense of space and time, concentrating your attention on all you’re doing and, too, all that’s going on outside you (even if it’s just waiting in line!). It’s about going with the flow (vs. struggling against it) and becoming one with whatever occupies you right now—however petty or mundane. And it has the power to ward off the frustrations and disappointments you’re vulnerable to absent this mental outlook of adaptation and acceptance. You’re totally awake to the current moment. And your “present-ness” can—paradoxically—itself be your goal. When you’re doing something that may be tedious but nonetheless essential to realize some specific intent, could you become creatively absorbed—and sufficiently satisfied, even “enlivened”—by that?

    One example I might offer here is the act (or art) of fishing. Recreationally speaking, fishing is about relaxation (more so than skill building); and maybe also about socializing—or, well, its opposite, solitude. If you were the fisher-man or -woman, could you experience pleasure independent of whether you actually landed any fish? Even though fishing expeditions are conventionally viewed as mostly about catching fish, could you take comfort and contentment in—and maybe even celebrate—the activity itself . . . without feeling somehow defeated if the fish just didn’t happen to be cooperating that day?

    Obviously, the larger question I’m posing isn’t about snagging things out of the water. It’s about an appreciative attitude toward life—and living!—that can safeguard you from experiencing boredom, frustration, stress and aggravation, discouragement . . . or downright embitterment. The issue is whether you can begin to approach each of your activities as a challenge—as a fresh opportunity to learn something, to get more closely in touch with yourself and others, to discover the yet-to-be-recognized subjective value and vitality in everything you do. Whether it’s something you want to do or have to do.

    And finally, I believe that such an attitudinal shift may be one of the principle characteristics of enlightenment. Certainly, what I’m describing is no easy task. It’s hardly a simple thing to align yourself to all you’re engaged in with such a “winning” frame of mind. As straightforward and simple as what I’m portraying may sound, it yet demands marked self-discipline to accomplish. After all, focusing on process rather than purpose probably runs counter to so much of what you’ve probably been taught—or come to believe. But I’m still convinced that it’s one of the very best paths to a happy and fulfilling existence.

    About the Author

    Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers.

    The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventons. These techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful.

    This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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