Friday, May 30, 2014

Climbing the Ladder of Success

"Surprise Me!"

Every once in a while I will come across a poem, a picture, or phrase in a book that will just sort of leap out at me, begging to catch my attention. Yesterday I had such an experience while reading one of the journals of the priest and monk, Thomas Merton.  One simple phrase literally stopped me in my tracks. 

When ambition ends, happiness begins.

I had seen this quote many times before but never paid much attention to it in the past.  I think maybe I just didn't understand it, or maybe I didn't believe it.  After all, what's wrong with setting goals in life and having dreams?  But it struck me yesterday that to be ambitious is quite different from having dreams and hopes for the future. 

Thomas Merton was a Christian Monk but he was also a Buddhist practitioner, and I think the Buddhist teaching about "craving" best explains why you can't be happy until you give up being ambitious. 

The Buddha taught that "craving" is a poison  - a great (perhaps the greatest) cause of human suffering. Craving is purely an act of a bloated ego and it stems from a sense of exaggerated self- importance. I "crave" when I am consumed with plotting and planning to get the bigger and better - the more prestigious job, the more exalted promotion, a house in that better neighborhood.  

Consumed by craving, people will often do whatever is necessary to get what they want, even if it involves crushing and stepping on other people who might be getting in their way. 

Another word for "craving" is "ambition."

When I am infected with the poison of ambition,  I cannot possibly live in the present moment and experience the joy of life as it "is," because I am always geared toward making life become what I want it to be.  Ambition is the fuel of narcissism - the food that feeds a bloated ego.

In another passage, Thomas Merton also pointed out:

People may spend their whole life climbing the ladder of success,
only to find out that when they get to the top,
their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

I know many very unhappy people who have finally "made it." They have reached the pinnacle of success. They have become the envy of everyone at the lower rungs of the ladder. And yet, when they finally get to the top, they find themselves asking, "Is that all there is?"   All the carefully planned ambitious strategies, the life-long climbing up the ladder, stepping over and sometimes stepping on those on the lower rungs, and there at the top rung, they discover that their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

I think I may actually be somewhat of an expert when it comes to talking about "ambition." Throughout much of my life I was one of the most ambitious people I knew.  Now in my later years I realize how ambition was always a cause of ultimate suffering for me. Merton was right

When ambition ends, happiness begins. 

I sit in my garden and greet the morning sun, "happy" to be paying attention to the glorious revelations of the moment, awake to life as it "is" not as I want it to be.  

I begin my day as I begin everyday - opening my arms, I call out to the Universe:

Surprise  me! 

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