Exploring attachment to outcomes

Mt. St. Helens as seen from from the former McBride Lake

This blog is much more philosophy (though it could be said to devolve into self help at times) than natural history, so if that’s not your jam you may want to pass. As I mentioned in ‘Refocusing in Retirement’ I have noticed since my retirement how goal oriented I am. I wasn’t as aware of this in my working life because it seemed to serve me well. But now I notice that it doesn’t really matter what I’m doing. I never do anything for itself. It is always with a goal. I don’t just go out and walk the neighborhood, I’m always trying to get my steps. I don’t just go stroll through the woods, I’m always searching for blog fodder. I don’t just go fishing, I go to catch fish. This attitude is not in my best interests. It’s not even necessarily productive because at times I get so caught up in focusing upon a goal that may be futile, trying to catch a fish, trying to find a particular bug or a particular plant, that I fail to see the other things that are around me. I always have expectations, even though I’ve been saying for years that expectation is the death of joy. 

Libellula quadrimaculata (4-spotted Skimmer)

I recently developed an interest in studying the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (or the collective calling itself Lao Tzu, since the actual origins of something possibly written 2500 years ago are lost behind the veils of time). I used to carry a copy of this book when I was hitchhiking around the continent back in the 80s, and found that it was useful in helping me to go with the flow of the situations I found myself in without having expectations, just allowing the journey to be the important part rather than the destination. I couldn’t tell you which version I carried back in the day, since I had no idea at that time that there were a multiplicity of versions, but it was probably the cheapest paperback I could find. But I know better now and have gathered 15 versions, none of which really agree with each other (since each one is filtered through the lens of the beliefs and assumptions of the one who wrote it), two of which are supposed to be literal translations (although even those two don’t match) and I compare them to see which is most useful in the light of the life I lead today. Which is all a rather long winded way of saying that I am really trying to be less emotionally invested in outcomes and less attached to my desires. 

Trimerotropis sp. grasshopper, possibly T. verruculata (crackling forest grasshopper)

I tell myself the story that with gas at five bucks a gallon I need to make it worth my while to drive someplace. But that isn’t true. What will make it worth my while is if the trip brings me joy. Not if I find this bug or that plant or catch some fish. None of those things have monetary value anyway, and they only bring a limited period of satisfaction, which is eclipsed by the amount of non-joy that I incur by specifically targeting them. Joy only comes from being open to whatever occurs. It does not come from satisfying egoic desires. Really, what are these goals but rather arbitrary lines in the sand? Why should there be lines in the sand? And how much choice do I have in whether or not I achieve them? What am I doing with my ‘one wild and precious life’?

Unnamed creek where McBride Lake used to be

The reality is that what is going to happen is going to happen. It is what it is. I don’t mean to be too deterministic about this but it’s obvious that neither I nor anyone else actually has free will, since most, if not all, of the circumstances of our life are beyond our control. And if we have any will whatsoever (which I do believe) it must primarily manifest itself in choosing our attitude towards the events that are happening of their own accord. There is nothing wrong with trying to make a particular outcome occur, but it’s entirely possible that, despite one’s best efforts, that outcome is simply not in the cards. The more that I accept that the more joy I get out of any situation I find myself in. 

The bee fly Anthrax georgicus

Even when it comes to preferences I can’t see where we choose what we prefer. I have no idea why it is that I love bugs when so many people find them disgusting. I have no idea why I’d prefer to be out in nature when so many people prefer to be in the city. I really have no idea even why it is that I feel compelled to share the things that I find in nature with like-minded people. Many people wander the woods all day long without feeling any urge whatsoever to post about it on a website. 

The monkeyflower Erythranthe guttata

So last Saturday I just headed into the hills without any preconceived goals. I did have a list of possible destinations, because I seem to require something as a focal point, and I gave coordinates for each to Pam before I left, because I’m not a kid anymore, sometimes things go wrong, and if possible I’d prefer to be rescued before I bleed to death from tripping over my own feet and impaling myself in the abdomen on a sharp stick. But the real idea was just to wander around and see what there is to see. I wasn’t trying to find cool stuff (by which I would’ve meant finding lifeforms I hadn’t yet profiled, while ignoring one’s I had) or to catch fish, even though I took a net, a camera, and a fishing rod with me. I am well aware that having the goal of not being goal oriented is a contradiction in terms, so all I was hoping for was to catch myself when I started investing in outcomes, and drop them before they gave me tunnel vision and started to negatively impact the possibility of just being in nature and grokking in the fullness of it all. 

Unnamed creek where McBride Lake used to be

My first thought was to go to what used to be McBride Lake, until the combination of ash from the eruption of Mount Saint Helens and its concomitant silting in of the former lake turned it into a wide creek. But as I was trying to share with Pam the coordinates of the former McBride Lake, a tiny unnamed body of water a couple of miles north of there caught my eye. The more I looked at it on the satellite map the more intriguing it became. So as an original destinations/focus for this adventure I headed to that unnamed lake first. I had no idea what I’d find there, which seemed appropriate for this excursion, since I had no idea what the day was for. 

Satyrium sylvinus (sylvan hairstreak)

The first goal oriented behavior that reared its head was that I felt that I needed to walk at least 6 miles that day, due to a self imposed goal of walking at least 25 miles a week (roughly 50,000 steps, as recorded by the Fitbit god), a goal I had fallen short on because of getting so caught up in research and writing that I hardly left my office/lab/study/bedroom (we live in an apartment, which necessitates some multi-purposing) for two days. Because of calendars and the pay periods from forty some years of jobs, I have bought into the idea that the week begins on Sunday and ends at midnight Saturday. And because our numerical system is based on 10, rather than 8 or 12 or 67, I’ve bought into the idea that 25 miles or 50,000 steps are ‘round numbers’. Thus my frame of reference is arbitrary for the arbitrary setting of fitness goals. 

An unidentified sweat bee

If it seems I’m railing against the system, I’m really not. What I’m railing against is my weakness in accepting beliefs that are arbitrary conventions, and then molding my goals to fit them. And, while I didn’t take off my Fitbit, since I’m apparently still a slave to my goals, I did at least talk myself out of stopping and ‘cracking off a quick thousand steps’, all of which would’ve been taken with my head down, power walking to get through them as quickly as possible. 

Unnamed creek where McBride Lake used to be

Having said all of this with such great conviction you may wonder why I struggle with releasing the idea of setting goals. I wonder this too! How does one hold conflicting ideas about, for example, the efficacy of having goals and expectations? Is it just wishful thinking, the idea that if I want something badly enough, and sacrifice enough and focus enough that then I’ll deserve to have it? Is it some sort of Orwellian doublethink? Or is the problem merely that I attach to desires that arise spontaneously, floating in from the aether so to speak, and that that emotional attachment is stronger than my intellectual concepts about the futility of such desires?

Purplish copper butterfly (Lycaena helloides)

Of course my desire to not be invested in outcomes was soon tested again. I had pulled over to let a gentleman get down the narrow, rocky, rutted road, and he stopped when he had cleared the dangerous parts and warned me that if I was headed to Blue Lake they were having a cross country trail race of some sort, that there were a ton of people there and cars parked for a half a mile along the road leading up to it. After finally understanding that my unnamed lake was actually the named and known Blue Lake, I thanked him for the information and turned my van around, since I prefer my nature to be unpeopled. I’d be lying if I said I did this completely without rancor, but, after all of the philosophizing I’d done on the way up there, it was pretty easy to simply change my mind about what I’d thought was going to happen. And really, what did I expect on a Saturday?

Taricha granulosa (rough-skinned newt)

So I drove to the former lake known as McBride. As I was gathering my accoutrements I suddenly flashed on the implications of being in the Mt. St. Helens National Monument, the primary one being that for an unaccredited and unpermitted recreational naturalist, collecting was out of the question and even possessing a net outside my vehicle was probably a federal crime. But I noticed the frustration as it arose and was able to move through it before it really sunk hooks into me by telling myself that visual observation and maybe a photo were all the documentation that a ‘recreational’ naturalist required, and that the bugs deserved a refuge from collectors. Although, if I’m honest, I have to admit that there were at least a dozen times over the next 4 hours when that frustration over netlessness reared it’s head again. 

Pretty sure this is a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)

And that frustration was particularly ridiculous because having a net would’ve been yet another distraction, and I was already at cross purposes with a rod in one hand and a camera around my neck. Speaking of the rod, the fishing was good, the catching nonexistent. I’m not a particularly skilled fisherman, and I usually assume that a lack of catching is my fault, but I was having success at just playing the game without investment in outcomes. And it is a gorgeous creek, almost turquoise in the deeper sections, which contrasts nicely with the greens of willows, reeds, grasses, and sedges along its banks, punctuated by bursts of vibrant yellow from the monkeyflowers (Erythranthe guttata) But I was still tunnel visioned, and it wasn’t until I’d been there for well over an hour that I remembered that Mt. St. Helens was clearly visible from this former lakebed, and finally raised my eyes enough to take in its magnificence. 

Unidentified bumble bee departing an unidentified lupine

The next time I crossed the creek something that had been floating around the edges of my mind suddenly crystallized; there were no aquatic bugs in the riffles. I don’t mean nothing was emerging, I mean there was nothing to emerge. And while I was hunting for evidence of some kind of aquatic bugs in the riffles and backwaters I realized there were no little fish, either. I don’t know for sure why this section of stream would be so sterile, but my guess is that the creek bottom, which is mostly pumice, pumice sand, and ash in that section, is too unstable for aquatic insect larvae to find purchase, that except for during the low flows of late summer it is constantly shifting, and any insect eggs laid in it are simply flushed downstream. But I don’t know anything, and would be interested to find out what was really happening there. 

Boykinia major (mountain boykinia)

After this I quit fishing, mostly because I felt like any fish that might be present had enough to deal with without getting jerked around by the lip. It was noticeable how much freer I felt as soon as I put down the rod, and almost immediately I spotted a hitherto unnoticed mountain boykinia (Boykinia major). I happily spent the next few hours wandering around, keeping my eyes open, periodically turning to scan the horizons, and snapping photos of anything that caught my eye. And yes, as mentioned, I was frustrated at times by my lack of net, especially when trying to identify small, flighty insects through the viewfinder, as well as being irritated with myself for being too slow on the trigger when a bug did land within good photographic range and I failed to get the shot. 

Campanula scouleri (Scouler’s harebells)

But, because I was alert for disturbances in my peace, I was mostly able to let them go before they’d caused more than a minor ripple. And, for one of the few times since I’ve started writing these profiles, I became more or less okay with the idea that I didn’t need to identify and document everything I saw, that I could simply watch mosaic darners (which are almost impossible to identify to species while in flight) patrol their territory, and appreciate it without having to apply a label or get a photo. Which isn’t to say I didn’t take way too many photos of the tiger beetles, or the bee flies, or the spotted sandpiper that I saw. I just (and in all honesty I have to qualify this by saying ‘relative to the way I usually am’) didn’t have an agenda. 

Cicindela oregona (Western Tiger Beetle)

What I did eventually have was hunger, so I made my way  back to the van. While munching my homemade trail mix (peanuts, sunflower seeds, and crushed chili cheese fritos, with extra garlic, chili powder and pepper) and washing it down with powerade, I checked the ol’ fitbit (no, these are not product placements) and discovered that all of my slow motion wandering around the old lakebed had only netted me about 3 miles. In the spirit of the day I was tempted to just blow off my fitness goal, but since I often don’t actually travel far while fishing or bugging (I once spent about 7 hours looking for myriapods, isopods, and myxos in a woodland up the Gorge, and my fitbit only credited me with 1200 steps) I had planned for this eventuality by making my last destination Goat Marsh Lake, which requires about a 3 mile round trip hike, and was someplace I’d never been. 

An Aquarius remigis water strider preparing to battle an unidentified fly over the corpse of a snakefly

The trail starts out fairly steep, on rough ground with poor footing in pumice soil, but after about a half mile it becomes much easier going, for which I was very glad. It travels through a mostly pine forest (I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know what kind of pines they were, although they didn’t seem right for either ponderosa or lodgepole pines) without a lot of diversity, but it was mossy and cool and lovely. After about a mile you come to the trail to Goat Marsh, and a half mile later you’re there. This is a large open area that is at least a mile long by a half mile wide. By mid August the water has retreated into a pair of ponds butted up against the southern range of hills. I was expecting wet meadow wildflowers, but it’s mostly willows, spirea,  and huckleberries around the perimeter, and grasses, sedges, and rushes everywhere else. 

Mt. St. Helens from Goat Marsh

This is a wonderful place, quiet, open, with a fantastic view of the west side of Mt. St. Helens, and some impressive cliffs to the east. I wandered around taking scenic photos for awhile, and then the battery died on my camera. Which should have been no problem, except that I’d left the spares in my fishing vest. At first I was filled with recriminations against myself. And then I started laughing. What a perfect lesson in the futility of attaching to outcomes! And I felt a freedom I hadn’t felt all day. It didn’t matter what I found, or if I found anything at all, since I couldn’t document any of it. I just stood in that broad meadow, as the shadows lengthened and the day cooled, and soaked it all in, unmediated by devices, or goals, or agendas. 

Cliffs bordering the west side of Goat Marsh

I then drifted around aimlessly, being startled delightedly by grouse bursting into flight, seemingly almost from beneath my feet. I admired the seed heads of Juncus and Carex, with no way to know what species they were, and, at least temporarily, no desire to learn. I half expected to see a bear, or even a cougar (I didn’t), since I had no way to document it, and that made me deliciously alert. And then I left, wanting to be back to my van by dark, but the time at Goat Marsh had so refreshed me (plus, I have to admit, the fact that it was mostly downhill) that what had taken me an hour on the way in only took half that long on the way out. And I noticed, sitting in the van, that I had exceeded my weekly mileage goal by over a mile. 

The eastern arm of Goat Marsh Lake

So, what did I learn on this day? Well, I learned photography and fishing, much like photography and collecting, and probably like collecting and fishing, do not mix well. Each comes from a different perspective, and those perspectives tend to conflict. I learned that goals and desires are going to arise whenever I view situations in terms of ‘for myself’ (myself being any of my agendas or the uses to which I wish to put the situation), but that I can choose not to attach to them if I’m intolerant of egoic mind wandering so that I catch it quickly, and then shift the focus to ‘for itself’. I also learned that ‘catching it quickly’ is best accomplished in the preliminary stages of planning to do something, even something as simple as going for a walk around the neighborhood, since making openness and joy the ‘goal’ allows a quick fallback option when other desires start clamoring for investment. And I learned I have a very long way to go in learning to stay out of my way, but that freedom and lightheartedness can be found when I quit thinking that I know how things should go.

Mt. St. Helens from the trail to Goat Marsh


25 thoughts on “Exploring attachment to outcomes”

  1. You should get a SPOT satellite personal locating device. My brother and I (before he died) would tell my wife we were going hunting near Lake of the Woods. Well we didn’t see any deer so we would end up on the Umpqua, a hundred miles north. Now with Spot, with tracking turned on, she can see where I am with GPS coordinates and I can also summon help if I should need it. It’s really worth it!

  2. Wonderful ruminations! And appropriate. I was on Guemes Island with my hubby, whose main goal is to walk the beach and look for agates. At some point I convinced him to stop looking down, and to sit on a rock and look around at the beautiful surroundings of the Salish Sea, and there in front of us on a rock was a seal, sunning itself. Probably watching us looking for agates. 🙂 The seal was not the goal, not something one could put in a pocket and bring home, but a treasure to see, nevertheless. These moments are delightful gifts.

  3. Wonderful musings! Becoming full-time RVers has sure taught me not to get attached to outcomes, as so much *stuff* happens when you travel all the time, you get used to things not turning out as planned 🙂

  4. Well, I must say I loved this. It struck me as very Zen … free of attachment, loving the moment, not looking but seeing. I’ve recently had a camera “crash” and without my attachment to that zoom, I see the world differently. My focus is on what is in front of me. And I’m less obsessive about “the perfect shot”. John Cage wrote: “Everyone is in the best seat”. Yep. Exactly right. I finally get it.

  5. I enjoyed reading this so much, could relate to alot of it…letting go… as Samuel Beckett said ‘Selon le vent’ …. you are a sharer, and we benefit from your observations and ponderings! thank you Dan

    1. Thank you Amanda! It’s a process, and one I’ve only just begun, but it seems to be worthwhile. ‘According to the wind’- I love it. It’s like the Taoist idea of flowing like water.

  6. Thank you for taking us along on your “aimless” wandering this day. I found the exploration of your mind as fascinating and welcome as your discoveries and documentation of plants and animals. What a treat!

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. After dealing with two bouts of cancer, I have thrown a majority of goals and purpose out the window and have been learning to live in the “Here” and the “Now”. Instead of trying to tame the day into taking me where I want to go, I try and let it take me where it’s going to go… and it’s going to go with or without me so I sit back and enjoy the ride with all the marvelous views along the way. As a hobby photographer (my therapy), I sometimes walk around looking for something to take pics of…something new and exciting, only to get frustrated and disappointed in walking around seeing anything. Then I find that when I go out for a walk without my camera I see everything! The unexpected always seems to happen when I’m not looking and only rarely does it happen when there is a camera around my neck. I have since then learned to put the camera down sometimes and just take in the moments that come without it…enjoying the here and the now with no distraction of goal or purpose. A favorite quote of mine from the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was when he was with the photographer Sean O’Connell… “Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it? Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it. Walter Mitty: Stay in it? Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here. Anyhoots, enough of my rambling… Your Blog is a wonderful read and a breath of fresh air. Keep on keepin’ on and I very much look forward to reading more form you.

    1. Thank you for sharing all of that, Laura! Glad to hear you made it through the cancer, and I can only imagine how that would change one’s perspective. And thank you for your kind words!

  8. A thoughtful essay and one that I intimately related to. I, too, am stubbornly goal-oriented and too often, multi-tasking in all areas of my life. But it is my insatiable curiosity that drives my goals; I am compelled to stop and count the number of petals on flowers not out of simple appreciation but for identification purposes.

    Once, when I was half-heartedly fly-fishing on the Grande Ronde river, in rapidly moving spring water up to my knees, I looked up to see a bird that I didn’t recognize. All of my attention focused on trying to identify it, and then I slipped on a rock, and fell into the river, waders quickly filling with water. My partner rushed over and helped me up, and held my rod while I emptied the river water from my waders. A few moments later, he sternly said, “You have to decide why you are here and then devote your attention to that purpose. Stop multitasking. Just fish.”

    Biographies of naturalists expose the shared affliction of curiosity. Thank goodness for people like us.

    I enjoy your writing and value your curiosity.

  9. Holding and making space for seemingly contradictory ideas without resorting to “either/or” can be hard to do, but it looks like it’s beginning to happen. I can see where fishing and making photos might always be at cross purposes but maybe at some point it’ll be possible to take the camera and feel light enough about it that it doesn’t get in the way of just experiencing what’s in front of you. All those years of conditioning make us so goal-oriented! Retirement comes with lots of lessons, doesn’t it?

    1. I managed to take the camera when I went fishing the last couple days, and when walking between spots I looked for things to photograph, but when I was fishing I just fished. It worked out ok. Thanks for your appreciation!

  10. This was such a thoughtful post to stumble upon. I originally landed here because I was trying to identify a strange caterpillar all morning. Learning about the caterpillar brought me joy, but my obsessive search for knowledge about it was also a way of avoiding my feelings.

    Earlier this week I’d been feeling depressed because I had spent so much time making a video to apply for a job I really wanted but in the end I didn’t get it. My therapist said I should focus on the intrinsic rewards of making the video, rather than make it all about the extrinsic reward of potentially getting the job. I guess that’s another way of saying I shouldn’t attach expectations to what I’m getting done and just experience the joys of doing it.

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