Meditation, goal-setting, and the purpose of life

Golded picture frame on antique wallpaper

A few weeks into a new year, it’s as good a time as any to wonder what we want to do with our lives. Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn[1] names a whole chapter  “What is My Job on the Planet with a Capital J?”[2]

It’s a big question. Sometimes it’s easier to just break it down, thinking about the things we want and setting goals to achieve them. Despite research indicating less than a 10% success rate of new year’s resolutions, or perhaps because of this, goal-setting (and motivation, and personal development) has become a bit of a science…and increasingly big business. I’ve been reading about the role meditation might play in goal-setting, and in answering the big questions above with the Capital J.

The best kind of goals

There’s extensive literature on best practice goal-setting. Amit Amin, founder of HappierHuman has done a fair bit of research and offers a good guide integrating the methods that work.

Amit makes the point that goals help us to actually act on inspiration. Inspiration comes and goes easily…motivation is what stays. He likens inspiration to salt water, which is only valuable when purified:

“Goal setting isn’t primarily effective because it’s inspiring, but because it converts transient desire into long-term focus and commitment. It’s a purifier.”

Evidence suggests that we have a better chance of achieving our goals if they are:

a/ specific,

b/ realistic enough to be achievable, and

c/ if they are written down.

Vague directions, lofty ambitions and voices in our heads are great, but perhaps not the best way to get from A to B in 2 months ..or ever…if we really want to get there at all.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy increases specificity of life goals

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) has done some research in the last couple of years that suggests that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) helps on the first condition; it can increase the specificity of life goals[3].

In 2011 researchers at the centre studied the immediate effects of a course of MBCT on the specificity of important life goals, but only on chronically depressed patients with a history of suicidality. The OMC’s mission is to alleviate depression, anxiety and related illnesses, so their research tends to focus on relevant study groups.

The paper explains how previous research has shown that “individuals who are oriented towards more abstract goals (‘high level strivings’) perceive their goals to be more difficult to achieve and report more depression. Work in the clinical domain has also identified a lack of specificity in goals and plans as a problem for depressed and suicidal patients.” Ruminative, abstract thought patterns accompany depression and gets in the way of specifying tangible life goals.

The study found that after 8 weeks of MBCT, participants reported significantly more specific life goals rather than pre treatment, compared to a waitlist control group. “They also reported a significant increase in the likelihood of achieving their important goals whereas the waitlist group showed no significant change.”

The group who took the MBCT course also had significantly better mood levels following the therapy; further research needs to ascertain whether the mood increase helped make life goals more specific and seem achievable, or whether being able to specify goals and feel that they are achievable, increased mood of the participants.

This particular piece of research studied currently depressed participants – further research needs to show whether mindfulness-based therapies similarly impact everyone.

When considering the method of mindfulness meditation, it makes sense that it might encourage more specific thought rather than abstract – because mindfulness meditation draws one’s attention to the very specific nature of any given moment – the sounds around us, the light, the sensations, the thoughts…it encourages becoming much more aware than we usually are of all these specific phenomena, rather than of any abstract thought as such.

How mindfulness meditation helps with the big question

Scientific studies haven’t yet addressed the impact of meditation on helping people figure out their life’s purpose, as far as I can find. But the masters of meditation have much to say about it. I have just finished Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book “Wherever you go, there you are”; eloquently written about what mindfulness really means and how it works, specifically for people, who as he says, don’t like rigid structures or being told what to do. That would be me, thank you.

The gist of it is simple. To understand who we want to be and what we want to do, we firstly have to understand who we really are. This is what mindfulness meditation helps us achieve, essentially, as opposed to just thinking about it. We may think we are this or that, but regardless of how accurate or not these thoughts are, all they will ever be are thoughts – the reality is something we can reach with an awareness that is beyond thinking.

“Awareness is not the same as thought. It lies beyond thinking…Awareness is more like a vessel which can hold and contain our thinking, helping us to see and know our thoughts as thoughts rather than getting caught up in them as reality.”

Once we have a sense of who we are beyond what we think we are, we begin to understand fundamentally what we want to do with ourselves. Otherwise, if we only ever think about the question, we will start from an illusion of ourselves to reach yet another illusory ideal.

And with regards to the big question, he encourages people to always keep asking themselves..’What is My Job on this Planet with a Capital J?”.

There is an honest warning in the book that cultivating mindfulness isn’t easy –  “it is the work of moments and the work of years” …committing to practice every day is like bucketing out a pond…it’s a toil. To have the motivation to do it, one needs their own personal vision for why they want to do it, the vision that will get them up out bed early to practice even when they don’t feel like it. This vision has to reflect their personal values in life.

Meditation isn’t positive thinking

Finally, a particularly interesting chapter is devoted to explaining that meditation isn’t positive thinking…which even if helpful at times, is after all just more thinking.

“It too can be confining, fragmented, inaccurate, illusory, self-serving, and wrong. Another element altogether is required to induce transformation in our lives and take us beyond the limits of thought.”

What does it feel like to find ourselves through meditation if it doesn’t involve thinking? I haven’t got there yet.


[1] Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who brought mindfulness meditation to Western clinical community; MIT trained molecular biologist

[2] “Wherever you go, there you are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn

[3] Crane, C., Winder, R., Hargus, E., Amarasinghe, M., & Barnhofer, T. (2012) Effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on specificity of life goals. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36,182-189.


One Comment on “Meditation, goal-setting, and the purpose of life

  1. from my experience, meditation is simply a relaxation/emptying the mind of repetitive thoughts – dropping the endless cycle of pull-through celluloid film frame of one thought triggering the next where one is not seeing the world, but just watching an endless replay of their thoughts on the screen of their mind

    dropping that – as an empty vessel – allows crystal clarity perspective – of the world around

    I am always noticing glorious beauty around – which I point out to my companions – and they are typically – huh ? what ? – lost in their own thoughts – head down walking – I walk with my head up, looking/seeing everything – enjoying everything I see – it’s a beautiful world

    like something I read recently – a guy complaining about the in-flight wi-fi not working – his neighbour says ‘but you’re sitting in an armchair in the sky !’ – the hedonic treadmill allows mindless seeking of sensory satiation – always seeking satisfaction from external stimuli – never realising the answer lies within …

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