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Modern life can be deeply stressful and confusing because of its complexity. Like a maze with too many directions, life fosters anxiety because it is difficult to know which way to go. This article can help you navigate the labyrinth by embracing two big "G" words: Goals and God.
Goals help you define your direction, gather your energy, and cut through a dizzying amount of distraction. They relieve stress because they provide a conduit for wholesome, positive action.
Inaction fuels helplessness, generating the worst kinds of stressful states of mind: desperation and despondency. We become trapped in habit patterns of negative thinking, blind to opportunities, victimized by powerlessness. Setting goals helps reverse these conditions. By defining targets and taking small, consistent steps toward them, we clear a path through the complexity. Instead of being stuck, we become empowered.
There's More To Life Than Setting and Achieving Goals
Of course there is much more to life than setting and achieving goals. Life can be shallow and self-centered if it lacks an expansive connection to the infinite creative presence known as God (Goddess, Brahma, Buddha nature, Christ consciousness, Allah, Life, Being, Spirit). When we unite ourselves with a loving, inclusive God, we are lit from within. We no longer feel driven to define ourselves by approval or results. We build a consciousness that can move with equanimity through frustration, fear, and pain.
We are naturally inclined to walk what Colleen and Bob MacGilchrist (authors of Match! Simple Strategies for Happily Ever After) describe as "the high road." High-road decisions are skillful and loving. They reduce stress and minimize conflict because they are responsive, respectful, and collaborative. The MacGilchrists say,
"Taking the high road creates a peaceful spaciousness that allows the grace of God to reopen your heart.... Conflict can evolve into something easier to manage, or it can go away entirely."
What Is Spiritual Goal Setting?
When goals become partnered with awakening to God, it yields a process I call "spiritual goal-setting." Spiritual goal-setting is a tool for much more than simple acquisition of things and management of life's confusion. When goal-setting is spiritualized, results are not the main focus; it is the process we care about. Through the process, we grow, learn, and awaken. The goal itself is merely icing on the cake.
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Spiritual goal-setting works in partnership with desire — a tricky combination. Desire creates energy, but it must be steadied with equanimity, compassion, and a growing sense of being spiritually complete exactly as you are. Otherwise, it spins you in circles, treading over the same tired ground, generating an inexhaustible drive for more.
The ultimate purpose of spiritual goal-setting is to explore and strengthen qualities of being that bring enduring happiness: loving-kindness, courage, composure, tenacity, generosity, compassion, insight, and humor. These qualities are beyond the limited world of desire and acquisition. When we operate from a center of divinity that embraces these qualities, we no longer experience stress; we experience liberation.
Foundation Principles of Spiritual Goal-Setting
There are a few foundation principles upon which spiritual goal-setting rests:
• You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts don't define you. They are like clouds in the sky. They are generated by any number of stimuli, many of which are grounded in memory and fantasy. You are much bigger than your thoughts. The less you identify with them, the more freedom you'll feel and the more insight you'll experience. When an unwelcome thought grabs your attention, you can say, "Oh look, there's that thought again. Isn't that interesting?" Meditation practice is an excellent way to develop this skill.
• You are never alone. Loneliness often seems to walk hand in hand with spiritual awakening. As we expand into our relationship with God, we shed our limiting beliefs and narrow definitions of who we are. This is why it is so important to begin each day with a spiritual practice such as meditation or prayer. You step back from your loneliness, seeing the greater picture and the greater you. In the silence, there is comfort and warm support from the universe. And you will probably attract new friends and companions who will keep you company along the path.
• Small steps lead to big triumphs. When working on an important project, people tend to want fast, dramatic results. They devalue small steps, searching for shortcuts and easy answers. Then they wonder why they fail. They forget that every successful path is walked step-by-step. Each step is difficult or impossible to take without having taken the previous step. The more challenging the project, the smaller the steps may need to be. Marathon runner and author Tawni Gomes trumpets "baby steps" as her primary strategy for changing a life-time of unhealthy habits; that is how she stepped out of a wheelchair, dropped 100 pounds, and evolved into an athlete and a nationally recognized motivational leader (www.connectingconnectors.com).
"Look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before." — Jacob A. Riis, journalist and social reformer
• Fear comes with the territory. Stop thinking that fear must vanish before you can start a project. Fear is part of life. You hear it when you're perched on your growing edge. Tilt your head to listen, and then press on. Demystify the fear by saying, "There's the same old fear sitting on my shoulder. I'll just go about my business." You'll know in your heart if it is appropriate or paranoid. Attending to fear without losing your emotional balance is a simple, powerful skill that develops quickly with practice.
• Every day is a new beginning. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi says, "In the beginner's mind are infinite possibilities, in the expert's mind very few." A beginner's mind allows for a new view of an old situation. It is especially helpful when you feel like you're off target, when you've made mistakes, or when old, unskillful habits reassert themselves. Through the eyes of a beginner, you can see each day as a new opportunity to wipe the slate clean. It doesn't matter what happened yesterday; today you start fresh with no mistakes. Quoting scholar Edward Said, "Beginning is not only a kind of action, it is also a frame of mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness."
How to Set Spiritual Goals
The Buddha talked about the importance of cultivating four states of mind: equanimity, loving-kindness, compassion, and joy in others' successes — states collectively known as the "heavenly abodes." The more they arise, the more happiness we experience. Stress has no room to take root.
Spiritual goal-setting provides a wonderful opportunity for cultivating the heavenly abodes. How? The answer is simple: through generosity. The driving energy behind spiritual goal-setting is generosity. As you'll read below, every goal is extended into a generous action. The Buddha says that, in a single act of generosity, all four heavenly abodes are experienced equally.
"We make a living by what we get;
we make a life by what we give."
— Sir Winston Churchill
Now to the specifics. The process of spiritual goal-setting can be divided into three parts:
1. Declare your goal;
2. Define your extension;
3. Design your process.
Declare Your Goal
Goals must be measurable. Make your goal as specific as possible so that you'll know when it is achieved. It should also have an end date or condition. On her website (www.chellie.com), educator and businesswoman Chellie Campbell, author of The Wealthy Spirit: Daily Affirmations for Financial Stress Reduction, defines a goal as a dream with a deadline. Here are a few simple examples:
• Submit my book manuscript to publishers until a contract is offered and accepted.
• Finish my yearly status report at the office by the end of this month.
• Ride my first century (100-mile bike ride) by September 1 of next year.
• Reorganize the garage (floor cleaned, tools stored, workbench built, excess donated) by Labor Day.
• Practice at least twenty minutes of daily meditation for the next thirty days.
Extend Your Goal
This is where you extend your goal into an act of generosity. Some goals are naturally noble; others need to be expanded a bit. Find a way to serve others with the goal you have set for yourself. Here are a few examples:
• Once I receive my book contract, I'll donate at least 10 percent of my advance to the local animal shelter.
• Once I finish my status report, I'll take my spouse out for a special dinner.
• After my first century bike ride, I'll contact my neighborhood association to organize a ride for the kids.
• After the garage is reorganized, I will host a "thanks for the help" party for my kids and their friends. I'll also surprise them with a special storage cubby for their book bags and coats.
• After one month of daily meditation, I'll volunteer a full day of service to my church in celebration of my commitment to practice.
By extending your goal into charitable action, you fuel your enthusiasm for achieving it. Each act of charity brings you happiness in three ways: the pleasure of the planning, the joy of actually doing it, and the warmth of the memory. Generosity is a delight and a relief. It is the ultimate stress reducer. Through generosity, the uptight, demanding energy we some-times bring to our projects is either expelled or never really has a chance to develop.
My friend Bob complained about this step. "Why should I extend my goal into a generous action? I already put in a million work hours to support my family. My whole life is a generous action!"
Let me clarify: The idea is to include generosity as part of your goal; it doesn't have to be a staggering effort. Make the extension something you will enjoy or care about doing. For example, if Bob decides that he is going to submit his taxes on time this year, he could extend his goal into a special trip to the park with his children.
Like Bob, you may be burdened with "daily grind" responsibilities that feel emotionally and spiritually empty. You're probably careful not to squander what little energy you have left at the end of the day, but energy and happiness grow from sharing, not hoarding — from emptying your cup so that it may be filled again. This is accomplished by acts of conscious, open-handed generosity. It may be challenging to get started, but no lesson is more important to learn.
Design and Divide Your Process Into Bite-Sized Pieces
This is where you divide the goal-setting process into bite-sized pieces. There are a thousand ways to do this, but my favorite is to reverse-engineer the project. I take the end product (the goal) and work backward using a calendar to schedule interim goals. Walking backward through time, I usually get a pretty solid list of tasks. I write them in pencil because I'll probably need to rework them as the process unfolds. I then look at the task closest to the present and divide it into smaller steps. Once I finish working with one task, I'll divide up the next task on the calendar. Sometimes reverse engineering isn't required. Every goal, every situation is a little different; you have to be flexible.
Naturally, you want to be able to check off your interim goals as you accomplish them, but busy people always live complicated lives. You'll probably need to reschedule and perhaps even renegotiate the end result. When you're stymied and you can't see around the corner, try taking even smaller steps. Big leaps can work, but they tend to be intuitive and serendipitous — an unexpected confluence of circumstance. It's a case of fortune favoring the prepared.
A final word about this process: always include quiet time for meditation or prayer. Try starting and ending your day with a spiritual practice. It will help transform a potentially self-centered effort into an open-hearted, creative sharing of universal abundance.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. ©2004.
Stress Reduction for Busy People: Finding Peace in an Anxious World
by Dawn Groves.
Offering serious information with a light touch, author Dawn Groves shows that by starting with a few simple changes, anyone can find a few minutes each day to take care of their bodies with exercise, sleep, and good food; their souls with meditation and prayer; and their minds with pursuits that challenge and please. She demonstrates how a few choices can change old, bad habits into new, good ones and how parents can not only cope with children but also help them become part of the lower-stress solution.
Info/Order this book. Also available as a Kindle edition.
About the Author
Dawn Groves is a minister, author, and educator who clearly addresses the challenges of people attempting to combine professional achievement, spiritual growth, and a balanced lifestyle. She teaches workshops and classes for the government, private industry, community colleges, and spiritual centers throughout the United States and Canada. She is the author of Meditation for Busy People, Massage for Busy People, and Yoga for Busy People . For information about Dawn's lectures, workshops, classes, and tapes, please visit her website: www.dawngroves.com