When I first started lifting weights, I had some very specific goals in mind and they all had to do with the number of pounds on the barbell. So I started lifting as much as I could. I will say this about weights: they are heavy. And heavy weights are hard to lift. So much so that adding just five pounds (the lowest amount you can add on a barbell) can be a monumental task and may take months or years, if at all. So what motivates me in the face of such difficulties?
Let’s back up a bit and start off by answering the question, “what is motivation?” One type of motivation involves visualizing a goal and working towards it, constantly checking. “Am I there? No? Then I must keep going!” You constantly “psyche yourself up,” re-energizing yourself until your goal is reached. This requires the use of some type of metric; something against which we may compare our progress. For a power lifter, the metric is the weight on the bar. For someone who is dieting, it may be the number on the scale. To someone saving up for a trip to Aruba, it may be a bank account balance. The numbers tell you how close you are to your desired number and whether or not your efforts are getting you closer to your goal.
In the above mentioned scenarios, the goal is outside of yourself. You are or have one thing but want to become or have another. The use of a metric as a tool for garnering motivation through progress measurement is proof of this. In this respect, a disconnect between you and your goal means you need motivation to reach it. In order to reach my goal, I must do things that I wouldn’t normally do if left to my own devices. To lose weight, I choose to eat foods I don’t want while avoiding those I do. To gain strength, I get out of the bed in which I want to stay to lift weights that will end up making me sore. It is motivation that allows us to make the sacrifices necessary to reach our goals.
And of course motivation is connected directly to the amount of desire you have to reach a goal and how difficult that goal is to reach. For goals that are easy, which require little sacrifice, a minimal amount of desire for achievement is required. If my goal is to write with this pen, I need simply click it. The goal is not difficult so there is no need to psyche myself up for it. For goals that are harder to reach, one must have a certain amount of “fire in the belly” in order to create the persistent behavior needed to reach that goal. Were I to choose to run a marathon, I would need to start by running, and, over time, add distance to those runs until I have reached my goal. This is greater commitment than that needed to use a pen. Simply putting on shoes won’t do. It takes a greater internal push.
There are many goals that bring people to practice: enlightenment, to end suffering, to save all beings, to become more compassionate, to ease stress, to understand the secrets of the universe or just to become a better person. In the beginning, with an eye on the prize, the energy to practice is strong. Motivation is there to reach the goal.
Funny thing about motivation, though. It uses up a lot of energy. Many dieters and weight lifters have given up mid-routine simply because of burn-out. I have been there. Pushing loads without gains was demotivating. The unobtainable nature of the goal took motivation down to zero. It became easier to simply stay in bed. Or look for another routine.
First day at the Zen Center, I wanted to gain enlightenment, end suffering, save the world. Everyone stands. We all read aloud the Four Great Vows.
- Sentient beings are numberless. We vow to save them all.
- Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.
- The teachings are infinite. We vow to learn them all.
- The Buddha Way is inconceivable. We vow to attain it.
These vows are the goals of our practice. Save all of these being which are numberless. Cut through an endless number of delusions. Learn an infinite amount of teachings. Attain that which cannot be conceived. The very reasons why I walked through the door. But there is something about these vows that that flies in the face of motivation. These goals are unobtainable. With unobtainable goals, where does motivation fit in?
There is a secret in strength training. The weight on the bar is irrelevant. If you want to become stronger, you must focus on technique and on just doing the exercise. Add weight, don’t add weight. Doesn’t matter. Just do it. Become strong.
There seems to be a type of motivation that exists at a physiological level. A motivation that is more than simply picturing a goal and energizing oneself to reach that goal. As living creatures, we need some type of drive to get us up and do what needs to be done. There is a drive that pushes us to satiate our hunger and end our thirst. A drive to gather together and curl up under a roof. But beyond the drive to find food or shelter, we find ourselves motivated to create. Though not necessary for survival, we are compelled towards art, poetry, architecture, fine foods and good beer. So what is art’s goal? What is there to gain through its creating? What motivates us to create art? For that matter, what is that spark that drives us to set goals in the first place? What is our “motivation” for anything, never mind practice? This is indeed a big question!
The goal of weight training is weight training. The goal of practice is to practice. When we practice, motivation falls away and we just do what we are doing. When we see that there is no goal for, what drives that next step?
My motivation for practice is compassion.