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  • D.J. McKay

The Trouble with Ambition

Next up I want to take a look at ambition. This is a tricky topic for me because this is something I regularly struggle with. I think I’ll just dive in and see where we end up.

In our culture, generally, ambition is regarded as a good thing. Hard-core religious types over time and across traditions, however, have tended to look upon tradition with disfavor. Why is that? What is the trouble with ambition from a spiritual point of view?

A Christian desires to be united with God. A Buddhist works to let go of conditioned mind and be in the moment. In practice these two are identical. They both require that we relinquish our self-centered orientation in order to be present with what truly IS.

Why is this so difficult? Because we are conditioned to believe that the self-centered orientation is who we truly are. We are socialized as children to assume autonomy, to imagine we are individual entities independent from everything else. To give this up feels like death. It’s the most difficult thing in the world for a human to do.

This ‘illusion of a separate self”, as my teacher liked to call it, is made out of wants. It’s not made out of needs. All creatures have needs, and that is not a problem. A little while ago a road-runner was hustling through my campsite, foraging for scraps of food. He (or she?) needs to eat, but it’s doubtful the bird has wants beyond those that Life has equipped it with, and so does not experience itself as separate. As humans we have the unique capacity to want what we do not need. This wanting is grounded in our capacity to experience ourselves as a “someone” separate from life: it’s the someone who wants, not our authentic nature. This is the reason why the Buddha is reported to have said that the way to end suffering is to let go of desire. A separate self cannot function without desire, because it’s essence is to want what is not here.

As separate selves, what do we want? On one level we want stuff—status and power, money and sex, toys and shiny things of all kinds. That’s not what a separate self really wants, however. A separate self wants to be itself; to have its imaginary self reflected in a way that seems real. That’s what the stuff does: it allows a separate self to say, “That’s mine!” and so be a someone who has something.

Even deeper, a separate self wants to want and be dissatisfied. Why? Because that’s the best way of all to be a “someone”. Consider all the drama we go through when we don’t get what we think we want: all the angst and unhappiness, all the anger and self-righteousness, the pity and self- blame. What do all these experiences have in common? They require a someone to have them. A separate self will moan and complain when things don’t go its way, but deep down there is an unholy sort of satisfaction in it. To want and be deprived is better than ice cream with chocolate sauce to conditioned mind.

What is ambition, then, within this context? The promises of ambition are tantalizing things to want, and devastating to be deprived of. It is a species of greed, as all wanting is. It pledges all sorts of things that ego loves: you might have power over other people; you might get to appear to be better, more deserving, cleverer, and so on than others; you might get more money than others and so acquire the means to get even more stuff. If I succeed at something or other then I really get to feel like an “I”, like a someone who is separate from Life and has the power to control it. People throughout history with extreme ambition, in fact, seem to have sought an almost god-like stature—a fortress for “I” to live in that is unassailable.

The trouble is there is no real thing that is separate from Life: no “self”, no “someone”, no “I”. These are just illusions designed to cause us unhappiness. I feel sad when I see someone driven to acquire status as an end because I know that will bring the direct opposite of the happiness it promises. I feel alarmed when I see the desire within my mind to be looked up to and admired, for the same reason.

That road only leads to suffering.

I think the actual nature of ambition is seen through contrast with those who have worked selflessly for the common good. There is no way to know, but when I look at the lives of people like Mother Theresa or Gandhi I don’t detect ambition, despite the fact that they achieved great things. It seems that they worked for the common good rather than for the advancement of their individual egos. Ironically, ambition does not accomplish great things. It accomplishes petty things (though those things might be seen as great by others who believe in ambition). Most fundamentally it accomplishes the loss of our connection with our true selves and with the Life that inhabits all form.