A few years ago, I went trekking in the Himalayas. The path started out broad with abundant sunshine, lots of small villages tied together by a placid and gentle stream. Abundant wildlife, too. Many trees, birds, lizards, cows. Farmers on the path greeting me with exuberant Namastes. Day tripping families, delightful meadows, peaceful rice paddies. Up and down hills I went, gradually climbing, fording ever wilder streams. With fewer people on the path, the path itself became more narrow, more adapted to its surroundings. Clouds drifted in more quickly and morning sunshine all too often turned into rainy afternoons. Entering a steep gorge, trees started to give way to stark rock faces and glimpses of 7km and 8km peaks. While there was still birdsong in the mornings, wildlife generally vanished with increasing altitude. The air became more difficult to breathe and, little by little, the path itself started to disintegrate. Here, it became a collection of rocks perched atop a bigger rock. A little bit further, an inkling of what might be a way through reeds along the stream. The sun was more punishing up here and so were the winds and the rains. Weather conditions changed by the hour while the gentle stream from below had now turned into a raging torrent of water, turning everything including the narrowing rock face slightly damp. And then the gorge opened up into a glacial plain where all wildlife had seemingly vanished except for a few vultures. No trees were left and the elements had taken on an overpowering aspect. The air heavy and the path steep, it took me onto the glacier; with sun, rain and sky beating down. Every step needed more effort. No permanent human habitation, just base camps designed for the scaling of some high peak or other. The goal at the end of my journey, the farthest of the basecamps, was perched gorgeously beneath an arena of such giants, standing there silently, fingers outstretched toward space.
This journey is an image that springs to mind often when I think about meditation. A few sprinkles of meditation here and there in your life aid you in finding out more about yourself and your goals. It's like a tiny, sane, vacation; a day out to a beautiful mountain meadow, where the light and shadow plays are slightly different but still wholly recognizable. As your mind becomes slightly detached from the things it spends most of its life superglued to, you may start to wonder about the infinite possibilities you intuited as a child. You may have a sense that the blinders have fallen off and that new opportunities are possible, maybe even desirable. You may even assess your own habitual reactions in this new light and decide that things can be done differently in future.
Accelerate your meditation practice and you may gain real insights into the nature of your habitual tendencies, their origins and feasible alternatives for them. But there is also a danger here. Linger too long and you may find yourself detached from the life you've built. There is a true sense of adventure and exploration attached to plumbing the depths of your mind in this way and it may even feel like you don't want to return to your "regular" life. Pretty soon, it could be you up there on that glacier, snow blind and gasping for air. Hear me well, there is nothing inherently wrong with exploring your mind through meditation - even in an intensive setting. As the "rabbit hole" can go rather deep, it is important that you decide what you want to use the tool of meditation for.
Clarity of purpose is needed. This has been called yoga, or the reflection of the empty mind in Karate's empty hand. It is a yoking of goal-oriented pursuits with the tool of looking inward through meditation. If you want to be more successful as a person mainly in your current constellation, make sure your meditation practice generally keeps to the broad lower stretches of the path. Make for the upper reaches of the path if you want to be a mystic, an explorer of the inner universe (and, by some accounts, the outer as well), or a teacher of meditation. Perhaps even scale one of these space-grabbing fingers. Keep in mind that it is hard - but not impossible! - to be both at the same time.
At any rate. Once you have this clarity of purpose (or an inkling of it) and apply meditation where applicable, this process appears to be self-sustaining. Clarity of purpose then develops ever further, in tandem with your ability to stay mindfully concentrated longer, feeding back upon itself, spiralling upwards. Mindfulness without intentionality is like a flower - a very pretty thing, mindfulness coupled with clear intention becomes a powerful tool for change, exploration or healing.
There is a well-known and often repeated orthodoxy that exhorts meditation practitioners to abandon goal-oriented behaviour and thought. Being goal-oriented is seen as "desire", which refers to the notion that an organism either moves toward something desirable or away from something aversive, a process that meditation seeks to transcend. I for one don't subscribe to this idea, as it would have us be perfect in advance of perfection. In reality, many people come to meditation with a deeply felt wish, only to be told to deny that wish and "just do the meditation". I don't think this is particularly helpful. I think a person's motivation for starting meditation practice is actually a very good starting point for them to gauge the effectiveness of their practice, to gauge progress and to learn more about their motivation. Being free from desire and aversion, however lofty a goal, is definitely not at the top of most of my meditating friends' wish lists. And even for those for whom it does apply, denying yourself desire only breeds aversion and the other way around. The goal of freedom from desire and aversion is to transcend these base states of mind in favour of a larger, more inclusive sense of equanimity.
I therefore say embrace these goals. Hold them near to heart and let them inform your personal style of meditation. Don't take anything as gospel, especially from other meditators or those that would call themselves teachers. Meditation is challenging enough for us busy-minded people to be concerned with perfection avant la lettre. Goals hold your practice impeachable. They keep you on the straight and narrow. The strange and wonderful thing about meditation is that some kind of internal change is usually effected, anyhow. If not in every single meditation on a linear path to enlightened glory (I've never heard of a linear process when it comes to matters of the mind), then at least in the hanging out with other meditators after sitting together. So choose the part of the path that best suits your motivation, whether it be the broad, sunlight-drenched, well-worn parts of it or the thorny, burning-by-day, freezing-by-night, hypoxic upper reaches. You can always elect to change your path due to changing circumstances; just snap your fingers and you're there.