I propose we separate these two words clearly out in order to understand ourselves better. I think we should change their definitions in the dictionary so that they are distinctly different.
From now on, let’s say that to obtain is to get ahold of something concrete. One obtains an item or object. One obtains a thing. And let’s say that to attain is to arrive in a conceptual space — emotionally or psychologically. One attains a state or trait. One attains a sense or a quality.
For example, you might obtain a promotion and new title at your job. Yet this does not mean that you will attain more respect from others or yourself, or more happiness or a greater sense of purpose or a reduction in your procrastinatory habits. Obtaining a new car does not mean you will attain greater self-worth. Obtaining a new meditation practice does not mean you will attain more clarity in your perceptions.
Obtaining, looked at in this light, is more a matter of public record. People often know the things that you have and do. Attainment, however, is personal. It’s inner work. One cannot know what someone else has attained without gaining a level of intimacy. A person climbs Everest and obtains the summit. But what has this person attained? Was she looking for attainment as well as obtainment? Aren’t we almost always? We know this person has obtained Everest, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe she hasn’t attained anything. Or maybe obtaining Everest has opened a door for future attainment. To attain can be funny like that — it can come unexpectedly or for no reason at all. While the things we obtain are often in our control, well-thought-out, planned, strategically pursued.
Habitually, I think, we try to control, think through, plan and pursue what we would like to attain, as well as what we want to obtain. Or, as I put forth in the first paragraph of this essay, we confuse the two and think obtaining will equal attainment.
One obtains a meditation practice, meditates for an hour per day, in hopes of attaining great calmness and peace. Through the practice, this calmness and peace will probably come. Yet it probably won’t come any faster if she meditates for two or three hours a day, and it might come anyway if she doesn’t meditate at all. And the calmness and peace won’t be as steadfast as the meditation practice — in other words, the practice is concrete and can be purposefully done every day, yet calm and peace are states that come and go, like any quality. Wax and wane. More calm and more peace, overall, yes, quite possible. Constant calm and peace, however, are perhaps not to be expected. And expecting them to be constant may lead to frustration and bitterness and a sense of failure — in other words, less calm and less peace overall.
And it might be here, at the point in the discussion when the topic of expectation arises, that we get to the pith of the matter. Because to expect attainment from what we obtain seems, to me, to lead to frustration and bitterness, anger and vexation. We think what we obtain will make us feel happy or safe or satisfied or mature or like a good person or like a smart person. And it doesn’t. We attain these attributes through direct inner work, over inestimable time, and with no shortage of incalculable mystery. Not that obtaining can’t help or is completely unrelated. Everything mixes together in the cauldron of our lives. Yet it often seems like the more we obtain without a sense of proportional attainment, the less attainment we perceive in ourselves. So we keep throwing whatever we obtain into this black hole that eats all the light, and attainment just doesn’t arrive for us.
Or we’re lucky, and attainment comes in through the side door, through love or chance or happenstance, and we recognize it and move forward in a more clairvoyant, more balanced way. We discover we already are quite good and quite smart. We already have access to quite a bit of happiness, quite a helping of satisfaction, which swim along, shiny fishes in our sea that we simply didn’t notice and appreciate much before. We allow these fishes to come and go, as they will, without worrying that they have left us forever, which they haven’t and can’t.
And we learn to stop conflating what we obtain with what we might attain. We learn to stop conflating having with being. Stuff is just stuff. Things are just things. And our sense of self-worth and satisfaction needn’t be related at all.
And we find there is more calm.
There is more peace.