Focused on Results

March 1, 2016

Sometimes you hear that when you practice you shouldn’t be focused on getting results. The extreme version of that idea is that meditation should be totally purposeless, totally useless. Of course, when you hear people saying that they meditate without any purpose, without any sense that it’s going to be good for anything, they’re hoping for a result: They’re hoping to impress you.

Every action has a result. And we act for the sake of results. The question of being focused on getting results comes down to the fact that there are skillful ways and unskillful ways of being focused that way. So it’s good to know the distinction.

After all, the Buddha said that wisdom begins with the question, “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” That’s looking for a result right there. Long-term results, lasting results: That’s what we want. The question is, “How do we get those lasting results?”

Two wrong ways of being focused on results that get in the way are, one, wanting whatever you do to give good results and, two, wanting to have the results right away.

The first case is simply a kind of narcissism: You decide that you want to do something and you want the results to be good, you get upset when the results aren’t good, and you complain. Or you try to get everybody to agree that, yes, those really are good results. But you don’t learn anything that way. You just try to force your will on things and, of course, things are going to push back. You can keep it up for a while, but there comes a point where it all breaks down—and you suffer.

The second unskillful way of being focused on results is basically impatience. We do something good and we want the results right away, without taking into consideration the fact that we’ve been doing things unskillfully for a long time, and some of those things are going to be giving their results, so that the new and the old are going to be mixed up together. So we have to learn how to accept that. Sometimes it takes a while to develop the skill that we need. And it takes a while, once we’ve finally got the skill, for the results really to get solid and dependable.

So when you find yourself frustrated in the practice, step back a bit and ask yourself, “Are you being too impatient?” Now, patience doesn’t mean that you just sit back and be passive. You have to actively do good things, to try to work on developing your skill. But you want to learn the powers of endurance that allow you to develop something that’s going to take a while. We’re in this for the long term. And we have to learn how to deal with long fallow periods when we’re putting in effort, and the practice is something we’re doing every day, every day, and yet the results aren’t quite what we want.

And one of the important keys to having patience is learning to have a good sense of humor about all this.

There’s an interesting passage in Slaughterhouse Five, where the main character, an American prisoner of war, visits the British in their prisoner-of-war camp. And it’s a very different camp. The Americans are sitting around moping and depressed and pretty hopeless, even plotting revenge on one another, whereas the British are all well-shaven, all well-looked-after. They put on plays to entertain themselves. In other words, they learn how to find what is enjoyable in the midst of a long-term project, even when the odds seem against them.

You hear that story about Shackleton and his crew going down to the coast of Antarctica, not even making it to the coast: getting caught in the ice, and their ship gets crushed. The men have to make their way all the way across to the island of Georgia. It takes a long time.

And he doesn’t lose anybody. As he said later, a lot of it had to do with the fact that everybody was disciplined. They knew what had to be done and, even though things looked hopeless, they just did it. They knew that if there was any hope at all, it would depend on their actions. So Shackleton apparently was really good at keeping people’s spirits up as best as possible.

One of my favorite stories of ships being caught in the ice was a case where they were looking for the Franklin expedition, which had been a big disaster in an attempt to find the Northwest Passage. Ship after ship was sent to find at least the remains of the expedition, if not the living men.

One of the ships sent out in search went around Cape Horn and up through the Bering Strait, to attack the Northwest Passage from the west. They got stuck in the ice north of Alaska and had to winter over.

So what did they do? The ship’s captain decided to teach all the men how to play billiards. That was back in the days when billiards was an upper class sport. But he said, “Well, forget that. Get everybody on board playing billiards.” So they went out on the ice and built a billiard table out of ice. And he taught everybody how to pay billiards. That’s how they kept themselves entertained throughout the Arctic winter.

You read about the Fram, the Norwegian ship that was stuck in the ice. They actually would print a little newspaper with entertaining stories. People would put on plays and there’d be entertainment on a regular basis.

All of which shows that if you’re going to go through fallow periods, you have to keep yourself entertained. If your sense of humor is good, and you see the irony in your situation, whatever it is, that attitude can keep you buoyed up, so that even though the results aren’t coming as fast as you want them to, you give yourself the strength to keep on putting in the effort.

There’s a similar passage in Joseph and his Brothers, where Joseph has been caught, accused of an attempted adultery, and thrown in prison. So he decides to entertain himself by interpreting dreams. He starts by interpreting his own dreams, and then interpreting the dreams of his wardens.

Eventually, of course, the Pharaoh has his great dream. And Joseph’s talent as a dream interpreter ultimately gets him brought into the presence of the Pharaoh, and he gives the right interpretation. So what started out as a pastime actually became his key to getting out.

You look at the forest masters. All of them have really good sense of humor, the kind of humor where they could laugh in a good-natured way at their own mistakes. That’s what helped them overcome not only impatience, but also whatever traces of narcissism they might have had. They needed that sense of humor because they’d be stuck in the forest—and it’s not the case that when you get out there and you finally have no more responsibilities, your practice just goes lickity split.

A lot of us think that because we have this or that obstacle in our daily lives, that’s what explains why our practice isn’t progressing. But if finally we had 100% of our time to give to the practice, everything would go really well.

Well, it doesn’t always happen that way. A lot of times you’re out in the forest and nothing seems to be working—because you’re not there alone: You’ve brought all your memories of the past along with you. And you’ve got to learn how to deal with them. So you learn how to find some humor in the situation, keep yourself entertained in ways that are in line with the Dhamma. This is how the ajaans became the ajaans. Their senses of humor saw them through.

So we do focus on results. We focus on acting in a skillful way and learning from the results of our actions. That’s how the Buddha found awakening, and that’s how we’re all going to find our own awakening: by being very clear about what we’re doing, the results we’re getting, and what we can do better. So in this way, we are focused on results.

What this means is that you have to put your preferences aside. That old Zen saying that the Great Way is not difficult for those with no preferences: It doesn’t mean you just give up preferences of all kinds. You prefer to get skillful results and you prefer to gain awakening. What it means is that you don’t stick to your old ways of doing things, saying that “This is the way I’m going to do things, this is the kind of person I am, and this is how it has to be, and I want to get good results that way.” They don’t come simply because you want them to. Narcissism is not the Great Way.

You learn from your actions—that’s why we’re focused on our actions and on their results. Given that the principle of kamma is quite complex, the results may not come as quickly as we’d like. That’s where patience and maturity come in. If you’re patient about learning from your actions and learning from your results, and mature in having a good sense of humor about your mistakes, that’s when your focus is on target.

So being focused on results is a really necessary part of the practice. It’s simply a matter of learning how to do it right.