A Battle With Ambition – Freedom From Outcome Part 1

Note: This is the first of three posts on a concept I refer to as “freedom from outcome.” This post will serve as an introduction, while the other two will go more in depth on the concept. 

To Strive, or Not to Strive…

I’ve struggled with the idea of ambition for a long time. When I was growing up it always had mixed connotations depending on who I was talking to. Sometimes people would call someone overly ambitious as an insult. Other times ambition was praised. More often than not, it seemed like people judged based on what someone was ambitious about, with some ambitions being superior to others.

This ambiguity towards ambition has stuck with me in my adult life. At times I see my own ambitions as a source of pride. During others I view them as chains that will ultimately lead me to an unfulfilled life.  I’ve usually just erred on the side of having little ambition.

Despite the occasional desire for extravagant things, I’ve been able to convince myself that I don’t want too much out of life. All I really need is the ability to travel and have new experiences. Things like wealth and extreme success (in any area) just seem superfluous, like things that will only distract me from what really matters in life.

But do I truly not want a ton of money or amazing levels of success? Do I not want to explore the heights of what I can accomplish? Because deep down I see the potential I have to do great things and live a really amazing life.

My lack of ambition is starting to reveal its true identity: fear. It’s the fear of trying to get get these things and failing. It’s the fear that I don’t have what it takes to succeed. It’s the fear that I will become miserable by going after things like money and success.

But isn’t not thinking big out of fear just as damaging as expecting money and success to make me happy? Aren’t both situations just two sides of the same coin?

As someone who loves to read, especially about self-development and spirituality, I see that I’ve fallen into a mental trap. I’ve read tons of books about how true happiness is purely internal and I’ve bought into that idea. That’s not necessarily a problem by itself, but I’ve been using it as an excuse to not take any real action in my life. I reason away my stagnation by saying, “What’s the point of pursuing any challenging goals if it won’t make me happy in the end?”

This is bullshit logic though. Sure, happiness does ultimately come from inside, but if I were to truly take that to heart I would give up all my possessions and go live in a cave. Yeah…that’s never going to happen.

The truth of the matter is that I want A LOT of things. I want success. I want money. I want passion. I want adventure. I want to have my cake and eat it to.

Lessons From the Past

This situation reminds me of a lesson from the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture that I read last summer.

The Gita takes the form of a narrative, with the young prince Arjuna as its protagonist. Arjuna is preparing for the Mahabharata war, in which he must fight against members of his own family. Unsure of how to proceed he asks his charioteer, Lord Krishna (an incarnated form of God), for guidance. The rest of the scripture offers wisdom in the form of Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjuna.

A large part of this advice centers around Arjuna’s conflicted feeling towards fighting his own family. In order to guide him toward the right course of action, Krishna introduces a few different concepts, namely the different paths to self-realization (enlightenment) and the role of dharma.

According to Krishna, there are three main paths to self-realization: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga. I’m going to focus on the first and last paths. Karma yoga is essentially liberation through action, specifically action without attachment to results. Jnana yoga is liberation through wisdom and contemplation. It means renouncing all desires and action (think living in a cave).

There is no exact translation of Dharma in the English language, but it roughly translates to one’s personal duty, or “right action”. I liken it to the different roles we play in our lives, like that of a parent, teacher, doctor, or even a member of a community. Fulfilling your dharma means performing that duty to the best of your ability.

One must follow his or her dharma in order to reach self-realization. This is how dharma and the different types of yoga tie into together. Whether you choose karma yoga or jnana yoga depends on your dharma. The dharma of of young man who wants to live an active life would be different than that of an old man who wants to live a quiet life. Thus, the young man would take the path of karma yoga in order to achieve self-realization. The old man may be best suited retiring away from the material world in order to gain self-realization through wisdom and contemplation.

Concluding his advice, Krishna tells Arjuna that the best way to self-realization is through following his dharma as a warrior and fighting in the upcoming battle. In other words, he must take the path of karma yoga, taking action without being attached to the outcome.

How does this relate to my struggle with ambition? While I don’t necessarily believe in self-realization in the way it’s described in the Bhagavad Gita, I think it can be interpreted as the highest degree of fulfillment you can experience in life. From this perspective, the concepts of dharma and the different types of yoga offer a kind of guide for living a truly fulfilling life.

The attitude I spoke of above, in which I claim that happiness can only be found internally, is similar to jnana yoga. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with it, yet as a young man who enjoys living in the material world – not secluded on a mountain – it would make very little sense for me to follow that path towards happiness. Instead, my dharma would be that of someone who has material desires and wants to achieve success.

Maybe when I’m old and broken down I’ll find happiness through inaction. But at 24 years old, taking action is the only way to go.

Freedom from Outcome: Balancing Action and Desire

I’m starting to realize that happiness doesn’t come from not pursuing my ambitions, but from taking action towards them and enjoying the process. It’s a balance between inner and outer fulfillment.

This has been a great realization, but how do I manage to go after the things I desire without falling into the trap of basing my happiness on them?

This is where freedom from outcome, the main theme of this series of posts, comes into play. Freedom from outcome (or detachment from outcome) is a concept that I first came across in the Bhagavad Gita. However, I’ve noticed that it’s a core principle taught in almost all of the spiritual, philosophical, and self-help resources I’ve come across.

So what does is mean to be free from outcome?  It means taking action while simultaneously being unattached to the result of that action. On a deeper level, it means finding satisfaction in the process of taking action instead of the result that comes from it.

I truly believe that, if applied even a little bit, freedom from outcome is the solution to my own dilemma regarding ambition, and also a myriad of other problems that most of us face in our daily lives. These problems include stress and anxiety, creative blocks, and extreme emotional ups and downs.

In my next post I will go into detail on freedom from outcome, examining what it looks like, some of my favorite sources that encourage it, and the benefits it can have in our lives.

 

Where Did the Beauty Go?

IMG_20160430_172414

 

“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

~

Lately my life has felt relatively void of beauty. Considering this is a blog about the quest for beauty in my life, I’m not overjoyed about this fact.

It would be easy for me to blame it on the recent changes in my life situation. When I started this blog I was living in San Sebastian, a beautiful beach city in Spain. I spent my days reading and writing in cafes, traveling around the country, and meeting new people. Then there was the architecture…How can there be so much beautiful architecture in one country?

Now I’m back home, and I spend most of my time in a routine, going to work in a small city and then coming back home. I may occasionally slip in some yoga on the beach or a game of basketball but that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have a bad living situation; but it’s a far cry from my life in Spain.

Yet in my heart I know my external situation is not to blame for the perceived lack of beauty in my life. I firmly believe that beauty can be found in any situation, as long as I’m willing to look for it.

So why have I been struggling so much then? Am I just not looking hard enough? Is this an issue of work ethic?

I don’t think so. But it’s possible I’m using the wrong strategy to find beauty in my life.

My normal approach to seeking beauty has been to wait for the inspiration to strike and ride the wave as long as I can. This was easy to do in Spain. The sense of adventure that came from moving across the world made everything seem magical. Not only was I surrounded by new and exciting things, I felt a sense of freedom being on my own out there.

Unfortunately, inspiration is a fickle thing, and since I’ve been back home it has rarely shown itself.

There have been recent glimmers of hope though. Since renewing my focus on mindfulness meditation and being present to the moment, glimpses of beauty have started to reemerge in my life.

It’s nothing like how it was when I was abroad; my rose-colored glasses rarely stay on for more than a few moments. But I’m starting to notice a trend: those glimpses of beauty last about as long as I’m able to stay present to the moment. Once my mind shifts back into thinking mode the beauty is gone.

I think part of my problem is that I’ve been looking at beauty the wrong way. This whole time I’ve thought of it as something that has to be sought out. But what if instead of going out of my way to search for it, I just need to change the lenses through which I’m seeing the world? And by that I simply mean becoming present to the moment.

One of the reasons I’m so enamored with being present to the moment is that I’ve experienced the power it has to instantly transform my life.

I can still recall those first few times I made an effort to observe my thoughts. It felt as if there was a dimmer switch in my head that I never knew about. For years I had been living in a dark haze of thoughts and emotions, believing that reality couldn’t get any brighter. But as soon as I took that mental step back and watched what was going on in my head….it was like I turned the brightness all the way up in my life. Everything around me – people, nature, even inanimate objects – became more vibrant.

In the brief moments I was present I started to notice new details in my surroundings. Music began to sound a little better. I could connect with people on a deeper level. When taking action I could get in a flow state much easier.

That’s the power of being present. And it’s only natural that in a state like that, seeing the beauty in the world becomes automatic.

So from here on out I’m shifting my focus.

Instead of worrying so much about looking for beauty, I’m going to first start cultivating a state of mind that can perceive it. This means focusing on being present in each moment. Because how could I possibly expect to find beauty in the moment if my full attention isn’t even on it?

Stillness

To the mind that is still,the whole universe surrenders.

I’ve always loved the analogy of the mind being like an ocean. The surface – our everyday stream of consciousness – is often rocky and unpredictable. Our thoughts, emotions, and desires are continuously buffeted along by strong winds. These winds are the external forces in our lives – things like our jobs, our family situations, social conditioning.

But what lies beneath the surface? Is there a deeper level to our minds, an equivalent to the dark and mysterious depths of the ocean? This is a question I’ve spent a lot of time trying to answer when it comes to my own mind. And what I’ve found, in those rare moments when I’ve been able to calm the mental storm in my head, is that there is an incredible stillness to be found beneath the surface.

At first that stillness was detectable only in my most peaceful moments. I recall my almost nightly drives to Seal Beach during the summer of 2013, my first conscious attempts to escape all of the noise in my head. I would walk out to the edge of the pier and just stare at the ocean for an hour or so, letting the sounds of the waves and the surrounding darkness calm me.

After a while I would feel a shift inside. It was like all of my worries and superficial desires would just float away. My mind was finally just…still. It was in those moments that my desire for a life filled with adventure and beauty started to come to the surface.

For the first time in my life I could see that I wanted so much more for my life than the textbook version of success I had been chasing. It was clear that  typical things like finding a nice job, chasing after money, and searching for comfort and security just weren’t for me. It was as if the call of my heart was finally louder than the chatter in my brain.

To this day the contents of my brain are just as scattered as they were three years ago. When I wake up in the morning, seeking out the beauty in my life is the last thing on my mind. When someone is rude to me or I make a stupid mistake at work, I don’t think about adventure and romance, I just get pissed off. I wrestle with a myriad of fears, anxieties, and petty emotions every single day.

Yet the knowledge of what I’ve felt in those moments of stillness has stayed with me. I know that the tumultuousness of my thoughts and emotions only represents the very surface of who I am and what I want. I know that deep inside me, at the very core of my soul, exists a vision for my life that is so much greater than my everyday concerns and superficial desires.

Knowing all of this, when I feel myself getting caught up in life’s frenzied current, all I can do is pause and get in touch with that stillness. It’s in that state that I’m able to see clearly what I want out of life. It’s in the stillness that I derive my energy. And it’s in the stillness that I’m fully consumed by an appetite for beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

A Choice

30437_1527713434525_7763201_n

 

In the past three years I’ve “experimented” with quite a few different ways of looking at the world. I’ve been angry at everything, caught up in romance, completely focused on inner peace, and most recently, obsessed with self-improvement. While I would never advise anyone else to be so inconsistent with their state of mind, my own inconsistency has helped me get to the core of what I really desire: a life filled with beauty, romance, passion, and adventure. I want to be inspired, and nothing inspires quite like beauty.

What is beauty? Who defines it? Is it purely aesthetic, or something deeper? Is it an objective quality or is it, like the old expression tells us, merely found in the eye of the beholder? Can you actively pursue it, or can you only open yourself up to experience it?

I don’t have an answer to these questions and that’s okay with me. In a way, the mystery itself is beautiful. All I know is that I’ve seen glimpses of this mystical quality – most of them stumbled upon by accident – in the people, places, and things I’ve encountered in my life. Those glimpses have shown me that there is something more to life than the mundane, everyday concerns that normally fill my mind. There are things in this world that make my heart sing and my imagination run wild. And those things are what I want to spend my life seeking out.

How does one do this? To be honest I’m still figuring that out. Sometimes I look at the world around me and beauty is the last thing I see. But as Confucius once said, “everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Maybe trying to find the beauty in everything is overly romantic, a futile attempt to view the world with rose-colored glasses. But of course, life is really just a game of perception. We can choose to see the good or the bad in anything.

So I ask myself, why settle for the good when I can choose to see the beautiful?