Friday, September 25, 2015

When Ambition Ends

"Beauty Breaks Through"
- Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday, in his speech to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis invoked the name of Thomas Merton as a Christian “hero” to be emulated by the people of this country. Merton was a 20th century Catholic Monk, a mystic, a great peace-maker and trail-blazer who was very influenced by Buddhism and Eastern religions.

Personally, my very first exposure to Buddhism and my commitment to what we can all learn on the spiritual path by sharing one another’s wisdom is a direct result of the influence Thomas Merton had on my life many years ago.

While Thomas Merton has been an iconic figure on the spiritual landscape of American history, until yesterday many people never heard of him. In his Address to Congress yesterday,  Pope Francis named Merton as one of four Americans whose notable lives might be emulated in walking a spiritual path - now everywhere I look I am seeing stories about the life and teaching of Thomas Merton, and I couldn’t be happier.

For me, Brother Merton was and is a great American hero who continues to teach us all as he helps point to the way of wisdom.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Thomas Merton today. While he said many things that have helped me enormously, one of his teachings has made a particular impact as I continue to walk  my own path:

When ambition ends, happiness begins.

This apparently simple little saying may indeed serve as the “core” teaching for finding deeper wisdom and greater peace for any one us on any sort of spiritual journey, and it is a teaching that speaks volumes to the popular culture of contemporary society.

Somehow we have been taught that we find happiness in life by advancing our own personal ego-agenda. From our very earliest days we begin making our plans for “getting ahead” in life and throughout our days we do our best to climb that proverbial ladder of success  - always looking for something more, the bigger, the better, the newer, the bigger job, the better career, more and more stuff to accumulate.

Of course, this constant march toward personal advancement demands that we must always “live in the future.” It also pushes us into almost constantly “performing” for others in order to be rewarded accordingly – following this path is a slippery slope that inevitably winds up in a dead end on any journey of wisdom.

Merton said:

The logic of worldly success lies on a major fallacy,
the strange error that our happiness depends upon
the thoughts, opinions and applause of others.
A weird life it is to be always living in someone else’s imagination.

When we devote our days to strategizing for the future, always living in the imagination of others, we inevitably miss what life has to offer in the present moment, and in the moment we have available to us all that life has to offer.

Toward the end of his life, Thomas Merton also said:

Finally I am coming to the conclusion that
my highest ambition is to be what I already am.

Once again I begin my day by sitting here in my desert garden as the sun rises over the eastern mountains – a glorious beauty breaks through into the moment.

I am paying attention to it all as it happens.


  1. Thomas Merton saw the common ground to different spiritual paths. And I like your point about appreciating the sun rising over the mountains here. There is nothing like morning in the desert.

  2. Do you have a citation for Merton's quote, "Finally I am coming to the conclusion that
    my highest ambition is to be what I already am"? Book? Public speech?

    1. According to my notes, it's from his "Journal" October 2, 1958.