Interconnection: Means and Ends

Photo by Todd Quackenbush

In the US we tend to have a highly developed sense of agency and admire people who find audacious and innovative ways of beating the odds, defying fate, or taming nature. Its been called hustle culture, bootstrap mentality, or wearing the honor badge of busyness. Here are some popular inspirational quotes that can be found in social media memes and meeting room posters:

  • If you can dream it, you can do it. – Walt Disney
  • Set your goals high, and don’t stop till you get there. – Bo Jackson
  • Infuse your life with action. Don’t wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. – Bradley Whitford
  • Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great. – John D. Rockefeller
  • I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have. – Thomas Jefferson
  • Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don’t wish it were easier; wish you were better. – Jim Rohn
  • When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on. – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Just reading these quotes stirs something in the chest and belly – something both compelling and gnawing. They imply that success is always within our reach if we just work hard enough. We love this idea – who wouldn’t! Unfortunately, the flip side of this coin is that failure is the result of inaction or incompetence. While these beliefs have undoubtedly driven many to push beyond perceived boundaries, the costs can be devastating both personally and to those around us. These attitudes can limit our vision by defining strength and success in very narrow ways. We may begin to value results over process and in our desperation for success, we may disregard other people and our values to get there. We may convince ourselves that the end justifies the means. 

There is a belief in some cultures that the means is inseparable from the end, because everything is interconnected. They posit that some element of our actions exists essentially within any outcome and that to deny this is to draw an artificial boundary. We might imagine actions as threads woven into the whole cloth of our experience – or as seeds that might bear fruit under the right conditions. In either case, some trace of the cause remains within the effect. In more modern terms, we understand that our thoughts and urges are functions of the neural pathways that form the “whole cloth” of the brain. In this way, the mind itself becomes imprinted with our actions – especially the ones we repeat.

As the means, so the end. The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. – Gandhi

…if we plant an apple seed, the tree that grows will bear apples, not mangoes. And once the apple seed is planted, no amount of manipulation or beseeching or complaining will induce the tree to yield a mango. The only meaningful action that will produce a mango is to plant a mango seed. – Joseph Goldstein

In practicing mindfulness, we can begin to observe the relationship between cause and effect and determine for ourselves whether the means justify the end. First we might notice, with a sense of curiosity, how certain intentions and actions impact our internal experience. Then we might observe how this ripples out into the external world of people and events, both short-term and longer term. When we act from a place of selfishness or anger, how does this play out? When our intentions are generous and compassionate, what arises from our actions? The insight we gain from the practice of mindfulness can help us choose our path more wisely in a way that considers the actual costs as well as the potential benefits.

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