Goals, ambitions and expectations for the future commonly arise within the context of spiritual practice, just as they arise within the context of day-to-day existence. Along with more general notions of where we hope spiritual practice may take our lives – to some distant, hazy concept of Awakening or Enlightenment, perhaps, or to an equally fuzzy notion of mystical union with God, whatever that would mean – we also tend to identify with more immediate goals and ambitions. One person may wish to enhance a relationship with a child, parent or partner. Another may desire to improve her ability to focus attention effectively on particular tasks that have been resistant to such attention. Still another may wish to change a personal habit of long-standing that has consistently created difficulties, including pain for himself and others.
In fact, most of us invest in more than just one or two expectations for what spiritual practice may “do” for us. Most spiritual practitioners have laundry lists of things they want practice to provide in their lives. Better, more intense sexual gratification, more frequent sexual gratification, more loving and generous relationships, a better job that pays more money, recognition for accomplishments at home and work, recognition by others of one’s deep spiritual understanding and wisdom – all these and many other things arise as things we’d be willing to experience on our respective spiritual paths.
Given George Gurdjieff’s description of the fragmented nature of ordinary human consciousness, the presence of laundry lists of spiritual ambitions comes as no surprise. Even though spiritual work is “supposed” to be about transcending the disunity of thoughts and desires, each of us comes to spiritual practice from the multiplicities that ordinary human consciousness skips among. For years, practice consists in large part of dispassionately surveying and acknowledging the extent and depth of our internal fragmentation. And because we begin practice in disunity, it is inevitable, if ironic, that as our minds “think” about the context of practice, we generate ever-growing wish lists of ways in which we hope to transcend fragmentation, lists that are themselves artifacts of that same fragmentation.
This is not a “bad” thing. For most spiritual practitioners, it really is inevitable. Goals, ambitions, and expectations in spiritual practice, as in daily life, are no better or worse than any other illusory manifestation of the mind. It can be extraordinarily easy to forget that “spiritual” thoughts, ambitions, and goals are just another aspect of the ordinary operation of the mind. The distinction that needs making here is simply that wishing for something is different than making it happen. Gurdjieff pointed out that in this context, really “doing” something (beyond the ordinary limits of internal disunity) constitutes an accomplishment beyond the scope of the vast majority of human beings.
How, then, can a spiritual practitioner learn to truly DO? Through appreciation of the simplest truth imaginable. Practice consists only of what you can do in THIS moment. One cannot “fix” a life’s worth of “problems” in one moment, one can only do what can be done in that moment alone. Certainly "thinking" about all the things one "needs" to do will accomplish literally nothing. Such thoughts are at best distractions, at worst impediments that one must navigate around as necessary. Compared to the reality of physical existence, they are largely unreal, and have little to do with life as one lives it from moment to moment (although they can be utterly convincing as they categorize and explain what is “really” happening).
Learning to do in the moment starts with focusing attention upon, and really seeing, the moment. This entails surrendering – not identifying with – whatever thoughts and plans for the future arise in each moment. Thoughts need not – should not – be attacked, expunged or annihilated; they should simply be observed as if they were events in a movie, or as if they were happening in someone else’s mind. Moreover, the task is achievable precisely because the surrender of a moment is unique and affects that moment only. Only a limited number of things with which to identify can arise in any given moment. What one must learn to surrender in the next moment will be entirely different than what arose to surrender in the previous moment. Surrendering identifications is thus accomplished one moment at a time.
This approach addresses one of the most potent obstacles that the mind tends to throw up for spiritual practitioners who have begun to see the extent of their habit of identification. Look at all this stuff! thoughts may cry. It’s all too much – where would one even try to begin to make an appreciable dent in this Everest of identification?! Don’t even bother to try!
But seen from the perspective of the only place where one can have any leverage to change one’s habits – in the moment – the herculean task evaporates like mist. The practitioner is left with just what arises in that moment alone. And suddenly the challenge becomes manageable. Those who imitate the tortoise in each moment, consistently and repeatedly taking one step at a time, will eventually outdistance the quick, yet distract-able hares in their own minds. Just one step at a time.