Ambition travels with disappointment.
It is the suspicion that keeps me from trusting things are as they should be. The poison to the present moment.
Because of you, Ambition, I shoot up to my head and think about what this should be, rather than what it is—what I should be, rather than what I am—and that’s where the present dies to the future.
It’s so easy to instrumentalize.
It’s the easiest and most ubiquitous way of making meaning—exercise to be healthy, take on extra hours or extra projects for the promotion—and life becomes a treadmill. This has always scared me—the way the future hijacks time and makes it a circle. The future is supposed to fix the past, it’s supposed to be better than the past, and if you’re not on your way—you’re stuck, or stagnating, or complacent, or vegetating.
Is there another way to look at life than a success paradigm?
This is what I’m working with: curiosity instead of criticism, growth instead of success.
This is not the same as giving up, but contentment really can replace ambition. Why should it?
Because we can endlessly regret the choices we’ve made that have led to us to being where we are compared to where we want to be. We can always fail with respect to that imagined self, because it is a shadow of our current self that thrives on criticism—a moving target that will always be just beyond where we are, living where we think we want to be.
Why should I feed that?
I’ve made the choices I’ve made, and could not have done otherwise. More importantly, I made them in good faith. And even if I was at times self-destructive there are no grounds for judgment—it’s a fantasy of control to think that if only I had done everything right, I’d be that imagined self. What’s better about it anyway? It causes pain, it’s a mirage that keeps us hungry, keeps us striving. How sad to be so alienated from my self.
An ideal self will always be an extension, a magnification, or a reaction to a current self. It will always pull awareness into the future, into dissatisfaction. So I am working on putting it down.
Is it that easy? Of course not.
I don’t believe that the force of recognition is enough to dismantle accumulated patterns. Old beliefs are sticky—they live in your shoulders, your neck, your squint. They don’t dissolve like so many arrows of Mara in the heat of your attention.
I need to confront the phantom of self over and over again, I meditate on it—whenever I have the vague sense of unease that comes with should instead of is—I look, and I ask myself, what exactly am I afraid of?
Contentment doesn’t follow directly from awareness, it needs to be cultivated. And by this I don’t mean the death of ambition, but something more like dropping consciousness down from the head and into the heart.
For me this takes continual practice, continual attention. It’s not a logical process, but a bodily one. As an academic, it is deeply unfamiliar territory for me, but I am coming to see that the mind is best at planning how to get something done, not at all for determining what you should be doing—that’s for the heart and the gut.
In my practice, I close my eyes and focus on those places. First, a great nervousness blooms, but when I stay with it, something ripples out to my limbs dissolving some of the get-up-and-go anxiety. It doesn’t work every time—sometimes my heart pounds and I need to take child’s pose or go for a run—but other times simply being with the feeling is the best answer I can find to the phantom “better self” that lives in my head—not direct confrontation, but dropping down from past-future into now. From head to body.
Author: Irene SanPietro
Editor: Sarah Kolkka