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.

 

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Resistance is Futile

Happiness can only exist in acceptance.” 

– George Orwell

I get angry a lot. Well…I wouldn’t call it anger exactly. It’s more like a consistent, low-level irritation. I feel it while driving, while doing customer service at work, while waiting in line for pretty much anything. Sometimes this irritation grows into real anger. Other times it just kind of stays there, humming beneath the surface, waiting for something to tip it over the edge.

I recently wrote a post on mindfulness meditation and how the only thing it requires is that you become aware of the present moment. I’ve started to put this awareness into practice, especially during times when I’m feeling irritated. Part of what that entails is looking closely at what’s causing my irritation in the first place. Initially, the answer seems obvious. It’s the slow driver in front of me or the rude customer I’m dealing with. But when I look deeper at these situations, I can start to see that it isn’t the driver or the customer that’s causing my irritation, it’s my resistance to the present moment.

Resistance: The Root of Our Suffering

Life can be full of unpleasantness. This is an undeniable fact. Every day we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, dealing with events and emotions that we would rather not experience. Unfortunately, most of us have a tendency to make those already unpleasant circumstances even worse by adding resistance into the mix.

Resistance is simply the refusal to accept what is happening in the present moment. Some have argued that it is the root of all our suffering. I first heard that assertion when I read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. The book is about becoming present to the moment, and it goes into detail about the different ways that we resist the present. Feelings like anger, boredom, anxiety; these are all symptoms of our resistance to what IS.

This means that resistance is so entrenched in our daily lives that we usually don’t even realize we’re resisting.

Let’s take a very common example: waking up in the morning. If you’re anything like me, getting up (especially on weekdays) is rarely a pleasant experience. As soon as the alarm goes off you’re faced with uncomfortable feelings like disorientation and sleepiness. They can make actually getting out of bed a terrible challenge.

But what is it about those feelings that makes them intrinsically bad? Shakespeare once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What this really means is that it’s purely our judgment of something that determines its effect on us, and resistance pretty much always takes the form of a negative judgement. You feel tired and you tell yourself, “This is bad.” You’re stuck in traffic and you think, “Why do there have to be so many damn cars on the road?” From there, emotional and physical forms of resistance start to set in. You clench your jaw and fists. Your breathing becomes more constricted. Before you know it, you’re lost in a tailspin of negativity.

Eckhart Tolle wasn’t the first person to realize how much of our pain is actually caused by resistance. This lesson can be seen in religions and philosophies such as Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, and Christianity. It’s based on the wisdom that life is constantly changing and mostly outside of our control.

Lao Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who created the Tao Te Ching, wrote, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” If we can really understand that life will change with or without our consent, this “letting things flow” becomes a lot easier.

The Buddha said, “The root of suffering is attachment.” While he used attachment instead of resistance, his message was the same. Resistance is really a form of attachment: an attachment to how we want things to be. We cling to a fictional image of how we think the world should be, and when reality conflicts with that image we suffer.

The irony of resistance is that it’s, at best, ineffective at creating positive changes. Let’s go back to the example of waking up feeling tired and disoriented. In that situation, no amount of internal resisting – and this includes complaining as well – will make those feelings go away. All resistance will do is add some serious grumpiness on top of them.

This applies to any situation that you might judge as negative, like doing an overnight shift at work or being stuck in traffic. While the natural tendency is to get frustrated, no amount of complaining to coworkers or cursing at other drivers will change your situation. But it might very well lead to high blood pressure or a car accident.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “what you resists, persists.”  I’ve found this to be especially true when it comes to uncomfortable emotions. When dealing with feelings like anger, what usually causes me the most suffering isn’t the anger itself, but my resistance to the fact that I’m angry. In my head I judge being angry as “negative,” and I want it to stop. But this just feeds the anger, making it last much longer than it probably would have had I not resisted it.

In this sense resistance is like adding fuel to a fire. It takes whatever you’re feeling and amplifies it.

Acceptance

The opposite of resistance is acceptance. That seems like a simple concept, but practicing it is truly a challenge. There are a couple of reasons so many of us might struggle with acceptance.

Firstly, our egos don’t want us to accept things the way they are. Ego is a term with a lot of different interpretations, but for the sake of this post I’m going to define it as the thinking mind. It’s the voice in our heads that judges each moment. It’s always stuck in the past or the future, never in the present moment. Any resistance we feel is because of our identification with our egos (minds).

Eckhart Tolle explains it best:

“The pain that you create now is always some form of non acceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment. On the emotional level, it is some form of negativity. The intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment, and this in turn depends on how strongly you are identified with your mind.”

The second reason is a little less esoteric. It seems as though the idea of acceptance may have negative connotations, especially in American society. We live in a culture that encourages blasting through obstacles in order to get the results we want. We are a society of problem solvers. So when a situation or feeling that isn’t agreeable comes our way, the natural instinct is to fight back. Unfortunately, this usually creates more problems than solutions.

What it really comes down to is a misinterpretation of what acceptance means.

Accepting the present moment means understanding that you can’t control what’s already in front of you. Whether you’re stuck in traffic or just simply in a bad mood, those are your current circumstances and mentally resisting them won’t change that.

However, accepting doesn’t mean you can’t respond to what’s in front of you or take action to improve things. But taking action is not synonymous with resistance. In fact, the only way to take truly effective action is to fully accept your circumstances. Any kind of resistance you have, such as anger or complaining mentally, will only hinder your attempts at taking action. It’s like the Serenity Prayer says, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

So let’s say you’re faced with a rude customer at work. No matter how much you resist the situation internally (by getting angry or impatient), it won’t change the fact that that customer is in front of you. Instead, that resistance might lead you to start arguing with the customer, making the situation even worse. At the very least it puts you in a worse mood than before. But if you simply accept the present moment, you can then put all your focus on changing the situation in a positive way.

Action Steps

This is all easy to talk about, but much harder to put into action. So here are a couple reminders that help me whenever I notice myself resisting the present moment.

1) Awareness is Key

“The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.”                                      – Nathaniel Branden

Before we can begin to solve any kind of problem in our lives, we must become aware the problem even exists. This is especially true when it comes to learning how to accept the present moment. It’s so easy to fall into negative moods and thought patterns without even realizing it. And for many of us, that negativity is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that it feels normal.

Getting out of this negative cycle requires us to start paying attention to our thoughts and emotions. Practices like mindfulness meditation (check out my last post) are extremely helpful for this. But I’ve found that, just by setting the intention each day to observe my mind, my awareness increases tenfold.

Of course, being aware of something doesn’t mean it will automatically change. But that awareness creates the internal space that will allow us to eventually make changes.

Whenever you find yourself in a bad mood, take a mental step back and look at what exactly you’re feeling and why. There’s no need to judge or try to change anything.  If you can manage to just be aware of what’s going on inside you, it will make a world of difference in your life.

2) “What You Resist, Persists”

I’ve found that keeping this old adage in mind keeps me from getting consumed by resistance. I see it almost as leveraging resistance against itself. I know that the best way to get something to change is to first accept it. It comes down to choosing the long term over the short term. By accepting an unpleasant situation in the short term, it is more likely to change in the long term.

One situation where I’ve applied this quite a bit is when I’m having trouble falling asleep. My instinctual reaction is to get increasingly frustrated as the night goes on. This usually only results in me not being able to fall asleep for even longer. But when I remind myself that what I resist will only persist, I can make the conscious decision to just relax into the moment.

Instead of mentally bemoaning my inability to fall asleep, I embrace it fully. I say to myself, “Okay, I guess I’m not falling asleep tonight.” Then maybe I close my eyes and focus on my breath for a while. Or I use that time to review my day or mull over a problem I’ve been dealing with. More often than not, I’ll end up falling asleep shortly after.

Of course, sometimes I don’t. In that case the same advice still applies. I constantly remind myself that resisting will only add emotional turmoil on top of whatever physical pain I might feel from lack of sleep.

Whenever you become aware of your inner resistance to something, just remind yourself that resisting it will only make things worse.

 

I’ll leave you with this quote from Eckhart Tolle. I think it perfectly sums up the futility of resistance and the benefits that come from acceptance.

“Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”                                                       

5 Books That Helped Change My Life

Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and chartwhich other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life.” –Jesse Lee Bennett

Ahhh….the joy of reading. There are few things more pleasurable to me than sitting down with a cup of coffee and getting lost in a good book.

A latte and a "libro". Oh, did I forget to mention the chocolate filled napolitana? That's a necessary part of the equation.
A “libro” and a latte. Oh, did I forget to mention the chocolate filled napolitana? Those go quite well with books too.

Many people are often surprised when they see me reading a book during my lunch breaks or in my free time. “You like to read???” they always ask.

I’m never completely sure if the emphasis is on ‘read’ or on ‘you’, but I get the impression that a lot of people view reading as a chore. Maybe school is to blame for that. God knows nothing takes the fun out of something like being forced to do it. Yet, outside of the occasional required reading for class, sitting down and putting my nose in a book has never been something I’ve had to force myself to do.

Reading always came easy to me, even in my early childhood, but I think my true passion for it started with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Ironically enough, my mom actually had to force me to read past the first few pages (thanks Mom!), but after a chapter or two I was addicted.

Since then, reading has been one the most important parts of my life. I try to spend at least 30 minutes doing it every day. Up until the end of high school my reading preferences consisted purely of fiction. I read everything from fantasy novels about dragons to some pretty disturbing stories by Stephen King. You could say that reading fiction was my greatest escape.

In the past few years my interest in fiction has waned quite a bit. Maybe it’s just a result of getting older, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to fully engage with those kinds of books, the only exception being more classical literature (Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway are two of my favorites).

However, that doesn’t mean my love for reading has dampened in the slightest. Lately I’ve found myself most captivated by books on spirituality, mindfulness, philosophy, and self-improvement. Anything I feel can help me live a more fulfilling life. It’s those types of books that will be topic of this post.

So without further ado, here is a list of the 5 books that have had the biggest impact on my life so far. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books from a literary standpoint (I’ll save that for another post), but they have contributed the most to who I am today and what I want out of life.

1. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

I can honestly say this book is the most important thing I’ve ever read. Prior to finding it in 2013, I felt completely at the whim of my very erratic thoughts and emotions. The information I found in this book helped me achieve whole new levels of self-awareness and inner peace that have continued to grow in the years since.

What is The Power of Now about? In essence, it’s about learning how to be completely present to the moment. Eckhart Tolle, who I guess many would describe as a spiritual guru of sorts, lays out very clearly an idea that Eastern religions have talked about for centuries: the distinction between the “self” and the “ego.” To put it in less esoteric terms, he basically challenges you to start observing your thoughts as opposed to letting them control you.

I understand that this can sound a little too New-Agey  for a lot of people. I’d be lying if I said I bought into everything that Eckhart Tolle talks about.  However, what I did resonate with added a ton of value to my life and I always encourage people to at least give the book a shot.

2. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This amazing allegorical novel is a super easy read that packs a powerful message. If you’re having doubts about your purpose in life or just need some extra motivation to follow your passion, definitely check this book out. It always seems to give me inspiration when I need it the most.

The Alchemist
On a side note, this is only book I’ve ever read in both English and Spanish. I love it that much.

3. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I think of this book as my introduction to minimalism. While it was published way back in 1854, Thoreau’s account of his two years living alone in a forest still feels relevant today. What I loved most about this book was how Thoreau was able to perfectly capture a sentiment that many of us still feel today: the feeling that our possessions control our lives. Walden has helped me gain a lot insight into what is truly essential in my life.

4. The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Hindu scripture. No, I’m not a follower of Hinduism. I’m not even religious. But I do think there is enormous wisdom to be found in this book, and many of the other ancient religious texts. This wisdom often comes in the form of “universal principles.” These are basic principles that pretty much govern our lives; things like “treat others how you want to be treated” and “you reap what you sow.”

The Gita emphasizes a ton of these principles. One of the biggest insight I’ve gained from it has been the principle of detachment from outcome, something it talks about quite a bit.  If you’re able to look past the surface layer of religious names and concepts, you might find something in it that resonates with you as well.

Bhagavad Gita
This specific translation by Eknath Easwaran is great. Each chapter comes with an in-depth, but easy to understand summary.

5. The Alabaster Girl by Zan Perrion

A book about beauty, romance, adventure, and seduction. While entirely about one man’s perspective on life, love, and women, this book is the spark that ignited an appetite for beauty in my life. Everything  from the way it’s written to the message it contains inspires me each time I read it (I think I’m at four times now).

Let me know what you think of these books! Also, I’d love to hear about any books that have impacted your own lives.