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Goal oriented action – a useful illusion?

There is an intricate and subtly fine-tuned mechanism which governs our daily choices, actions and motivation. In its most general sense it is the motivation – goal – reward system. This mechanism whether we like it or not, is an active process present in every healthy person. What I’d like to discuss here is firstly how the choices of goals (and values which give those goals substance and meaning) influence and shape our lives, and secondly how transcending this mechanism may be of benefit.

From the moment of opening our eyes in the morning to closing them at night when retiring from the day’s activities, we’re constantly driven by a multitude of motivations, each serving an more immediate or remote goal. Making breakfast, as we chop some tomatoes or open a cereal box the neurological limbic system is driven toward its dopamine induced reward of nourishment. But breakfast is just an initial stepping stone to the main goal of the day which in most cases consists in completing a productive day’s work or study. Again, going further, each of those days are in themselves intermediate stages on the path toward a more distant goal – may it be graduation, setting up your own business or repaying a mortgage on the house – all shining in the distance like stars, giving us a sense of direction. It should be added here that some goals are pursued in and of themselves – without the expectation of a reward. Take the example of goals used in the shaping of personal or social identity – receiving a degree in some academic field may not necessary be pursued for its rewards in the form of knowledge or employment, but for a self satisfactory notion which shapes one’s identity – I’ve completed tertiary education, period. Those greater goals are the milestone’s which we believe should offer and shape a fulfilling and happy life, whatever our idea of fulfillment or happiness may be.

The point is that this sense of direction, which ultimately we conjure up ourselves, is necessary to healthy functioning – this is at least the view (and consensus as far as I know) of conventional modern psychology. It has been shown that one of the primary causes of depression is a collapse of this motivation-goal-reward system. That is, it occurs when one ceases to value any goal and hence is no longer motivated to attain it. This usually occurs after the motivation-goal-reward balance is violated with a prolonged series of occurrences of failing to reap a reward when a certain goal is achieved or when one notoriously fails to achieve a desired goal. In short, in such cases we suffer.

One safety valve helping to avoid the adverse effects of such scenarios is skillfully transcending the motivation-goal-reward system with such a philosophy which renders the goals less substantive and absolute by helping one realize that after all they’re mere illusions. An interpretation of the existentialist philosophy, which I have selectively adopted, rejects the notion of absolute meaning which then makes values, which are contingent on meaning, also devoid of the absolute status. In short existentialists, reject any external notion of meaning of life – they create meaning for themselves and hence values are chosen by proxy.

“[…] values derive their meaning from an original projection of myself which stands as my choice of myself in the world.” Jean-Paul Sartre

Hence in the existentialist framework we could compare the status of a goal endowed with value to a magic show where we’re both the magician and the audience – that is we conjure up the illusory goal ourselves, and at the same time, effectively, allow ourselves to be fooled by their direction-giving status which keeps intact the motivation-goal-reward system. It is a rather difficult position to hold however – unsurprisingly. How can one justifiably conform to a motivation toward a goal which we know to be devoid of intrinsic value? This aspect of existentialism I’ve found quite close to a Buddhist attitude, but which in addition suggests an answer to the above question. What makes this particular interpretation of existentialism attractive to me is the admittance, that since values and goals are illusory, then I may as well create my own illusion by exercising freedom of choice.

The immediate and obvious benefit of transcending the motivation-goal-reward mechanism is the ability to re-direct one’s goals when it becomes apparent that their choice was erroneous and their attainment is impossible, or the rewards flowing from them are not guaranteed. That is to say, one does not become too attached to something one knows to lack inherent value. Also one will be cautious with the expectation of the rewards a goal offers. Previously, due to inaccurate judgment one may have been disappointed and disillusioned by the magnitude of the reward – a scenario, which could result in unnecessary suffering – “What? That is all? But I expected so much more? All this hard work for nothing?”. In the case when the mechanism has been transcended, once we come to face the illusory nature of the reward – we do so without surprise, and cherish the healthy road of meaningful days directed by healthy motivation which lead us to this summit despite its empty reward.

I believe that it does not come as a surprise to the readers of New Lotus, that Buddhism contains a philosophy which effectively transcends the motivation-goal-reward mechanism. “Goals are not goals – that is why they are called goals”. Goals are but illusory milestones on a perpetual circular path to nowhere, and possibly the motivation that seeks them is a manifestation of ignorance. I feel Buddhism suggests a way out (although I must admit it is not an easy one) of the conundrum present in existentialism: how to deal with the apparently inconsistent pair of seeing goals and their rewards as illusory and at the same time keep motivation for their attainment somehow justified?

I’ll attempt answering (with a question) by allowing myself a guess of a novice – how can a pair which does not inherently exist be somehow inconsistent? I have to admit that although I believe this is an answer in accordance with Dharma and Nagarjuna’s contributions, I’m still too ignorant and illusion clingy to fully appreciate its meaning.

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