A life devoid of aspirations might be comfortable, but it is not fulfilling. Your aspirations are your fuel for movement and growth. They make you feel more purposeful, engaged, and alive.
Aspiration is the thread that weaves together all topics of personal development. Indeed, Aspiration is not only one of the three pillars of Mindful Self-Discipline, but the heart of it—the reason why you’d want to be disciplined in the first place.
You can call your aspiration your purpose, your why, your dreams, your vision. The more you are clear about your aspirations, and emotionally connected to them, the more energy you will have to overcome any obstacles in your way.
He who has a why can bear almost any how.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Aspirations are different from goals. While aspirations are typically life-long pursuits, goals are short-term projects. Aspirations are broad and inspiring; goals are specific and action-oriented. You need both aspirations and goals.
An aspiration without an associated goal is too vague, and won’t drive you to take action right now. A goal that is not part of a bigger aspiration can drive you to action, but will feel devoid of a deeper purpose or why.
You can learn more about goals vs. aspirations here. For this article series, I’ll focus on the aspiration side of the equation.
The Enemies to the Aspiration-Driven Life
Before we talk about how to find or articulate your aspirations, you need to understand the obstacles that are likely in your way.
The first obstacle to finding your aspiration is busy-ness. When your time is fully occupied from morning to night, and your mind is busy processing information moment after moment, it is hard to get in touch with what matters most to you.
To find what you want—what you really want—you need to create empty space in your life. Space for self-reflection, for walking in nature without listening to a podcast, for sitting on your couch without turning on the TV, for staring at the wall instead of your phone. Space for getting bored!
In these times you can start thinking deeply about how you want your life to be, and who you want to be. You need to make space so the dots begin to connect for you.
The second obstacle is comfort. When your life is too comfortable, your brain lacks the fuel needed to ask deeper questions, take bolder risks, and embrace a bigger life.
This is the biggest harm that distractions are causing you: they making you numb. They are distracting you away from your purpose. They are training you to forget about meaning and fulfillment, and instead engage in an endless stream of pleasure and stimulation that leads you nowhere.
The third obstacle is fear. It can take many forms.
- Fear that you may not like what you discover
- Fear that your aspiration may require sacrifices that you are not ready to make
- Fear that you may try something big, and fail
- Fear that you may actually succeed, and your life might change too much
- Fear about what others may think of you
- Fear that you may give up everything, and end up with nothing
- Fear that discovering your greater calling might make your current life path unbearable
Oftentimes, fear is the real obstacle. It’s what makes you stay busy, and get distracted with comfort—so you don’t need to look further. It’s what makes you sabotage yourself.
At the other side of your fear is a brighter life, and a more empowered version of yourself. But you will never know it unless you dare to take a step, and accept uncertainty as a small price to pay for self-actualization.
If you have trouble getting in touch with your real wants (aspirations), or focusing your life around them, it is likely that one or more of these three obstacles are present. Or it could also be that you are too enmeshed in social conditioning.
Untangling Social Conditioning
According to social scientist René Girard, desires are mimetic in nature. This means that, unlike physiological needs like food and shelter, our desires are influenced by what we perceive other people value.
In other words, what you think you should pursue is influenced by your upbringing and the social structures around you. What your parents told you was valuable, what your best friends desired to achieve, the goals your peers pursue—all of this influences what you think you should aspire to.
In Mindful Self-Discipline, we call these have-to goals. They are born out of conditioning, and their motivation is extrinsic.
To find your true aspirations and want-to goals, you need to untangle yourself from the influence of everybody else. You need to turn off the voice of other people’s desires in you. Spending some time alone is important for this. Traveling abroad, exposing yourself to influences outside your natural circle, and reading great books can also greatly help this.
To break free from conditioning, you will need to identify the people and models that are influencing what you want. By becoming fully aware of them, you can escape their pull. Once you see clearly, then you can choose to break free from those models, take ownership of your wants, and live inside out.
Do we have an innate sense of purpose that is not influenced from outside, but engraved in our own nature? Most spiritual traditions will say yes—and that is my belief and experience. The seed of an oak tree must become an oak tree; the caterpillar must become a butterfly. “What must I become?” is the koan of purpose.
Whether you agree with this or not, one thing is certain: you will only find fulfillment if you discover and embrace your heart’s longings. And they are likely not what your parents and society pushed you to pursue.
Before starting on any path, it’s a good idea to first remove the obstacles in the way. Otherwise, you may feel frustrated that you are not making much progress. It’s like trying to move forward with the handbrake on: it will take a lot of effort, and you may not go very far.
Think about which of the four obstacles—business, comfort, fear, and social conditioning—is strongest for you. How can you take a step, today, to remove it?
In Part 2 of this series, we will cover methods for finding your aspirations.
To help you get in touch with your deeper wants and aspirations, beyond social conditioning and fears, try the”Deep Longing Meditation” in the Mindful Self-Discipline app.