(#81) The Rule of Actions: An action presupposes a motivation, and a motivation presupposes a goal. There are no random or unintended behaviors, but there are manyunacknowledged and/or unadmitted goals. -Fred Kennedy-from “The Rules” (compiled by the late Ryugen Fisher Sensei and Jim Eubanks Sensei)
Sometimes “motivation” is misunderstood in Buddhism, particularly Zen. We hear instead an emphasis on not desiring, not seeking, and not acting. This emphasis on what is perceived as non-action contributes to the misunderstanding of the link between motivation and practice. This is due to the important Buddhist teaching that overzealously desiring, seeking and acting leads to attachment, that a denial of the realities of impermanence and causal conditioning ultimately facilitates a cycle of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish. A more appropriate view of motivation reveals a categorical difference between not doing something “too much” or “over doing” and not doing it at all. We do indeed need and must value desiring, seeking and acting in Buddhism because these attitudes generate motivation, which is a necessary part of developing both a consistent practice and an earnest practice, one that works toward alleviating unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish. If we are appropriately motivated to achieve goals, we will recognize the value of the methods that will get us there. If we are not properly motivated, there is no imperative to make sure that what we do is efficient or successful. If I want to eliminate the “monkey mind” but work toward that goal only half-heartedly, or without any “real” desire to do so, there is no imperative to assess and reassess my practice to ensure that the goal of eliminating the monkey mind is being pursued appropriately.
The Buddha did not work in absolutes; he did not say “always do this” and “never do that.” Instead he advocated a balance based on the basic Buddhist teachings as they relate to the current situation, what we call “situational ethics.” It is pragmatic to set aside any sense of dogma and to act as a situation calls for rather than acting from a “script”. Likewise, even though most people in modern society tend towards excess as a compensation for unsatisfactoriness (like more money, more sex, more food), Buddhist teachings inform us to moderate our approach and not to eliminate it. The Buddha made clear in the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel that his paradigm was one of moderation between the extremes of excess and denial.
There is another critical aspect of motivation. A practitioner must ensure that an understanding of impermanence and causal conditioning informs what is desired, what is sought after, and how one acts to get there. In other words, as we develop goals and take concerted steps to cultivate various changes within ourselves, we must also remember–at each step along the way–that the path we are taking is subject to change. The path to any transformation take unexpected turns dependent on internal and external causal factors.
Taking this to heart, one can accept the reality of impermanence and causal conditioning and remain open to the many unforeseeable variables along the way without losing sight of the path. When we come across difficulties as we move towards our goals (like creating a daily practice), we must “go with the flow” instead of resisting those difficulties. We use the difficulties to facilitate our continued progress instead of fighting against them. Samuel Beckett saying, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” can act as a mantra to strengthen motivation.
The Passion: Motivation in Pragmatic Buddhism
What makes a person a Buddha, as distinct from other enlightened persons (called arahants), is that a Buddha discovers and teaches the path to enlightenment. What is crucially important about all Buddhas is that they began and ended life as human beings (what they are at this moment is an open debate). According to the early Buddhist tradition, the path blazed by the Buddha is a path available to all human beings who strive in each moment to attain the moral conduct (sila), mental culture (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna) taught by the Buddha.
John J. Holder in his book Early Buddhist Discourses offers that Siddhartha Gautama was driven by motivation and goals. It is this “passion” that was a causal factor in him leaving his family to search out experiences that might lead to answers to his questions, it allowed him to study and master all of the major spiritual and philosophical schools of his day and meet or exceed their knowledge and level of practice. The Buddha had a clear purpose in mind throughout his studies which was to understand the origination and termination of human unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). Once he mastered the available worldviews and came to realize that a “middle way” was necessary to resolve unsatisfactoriness, he came to the realization that knowledge mandates responsibility. To the Buddha, one who truly understands the dharma shares that understanding selflessly and through all his or her attitudes and actions become an example to others that personal responsibility is a critical component when walking the middle path. In doing this, the Buddha also became a great source of inspiration for others. As Daniel Coyle states in his excellent book, The Talent Code: “Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening. Where deep practice is an incremental wrapping, ignition works through lightning flashes of image and emotion, evolution-built neural programs that tap into the mind’s vast reserves of energy and attention. Where deep practice is all about staggering-baby steps, ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be. We usually think of passion as an inner quality. But the more I visited hotbeds [of exceptionally talented groups of people], the more I saw it as something that came first from the outside world.”
We can see that Buddhism not only leaves room for an understanding of and appreciation for“passion/motivation/goal-oriented thinking and acting,” it requires it for success. While we remember that we must be open to change, we stay focused on our continued practice and development. The earnest cultivation of new behaviors, what Coyle and other Buddhists have called “deep practice,” is coupled with our positive intention to not only do it, but do it with excellence. We move through deep practice step-by-step and use our mistakes to inform our next step. Our motivation for practice is to make being a better human being a habit, to make excellence in our personal character a habit.
As Aristotle said, “Excellence is a habit.” Indeed it is.