We grow up in a society that places a great emphasis on ambition and accomplishment. We’re told to go out and make something of ourselves, to strive for success, to accomplish something great, to leave behind some legacy. Many people grow up carrying upon them the expectations of their parents, of the society, their whole life planned out before them. And they may follow that path to the letter. They may go to the best schools, graduate with honors, and secure a high paying career. They do everything that is expected of them. But often there comes a point where they realize that there’s no real satisfaction in any of it. They aren’t truly happy. They aren’t living a life that feels authentic. And it may be that they don’t even know who they are.
Often the spiritual awakening begins with disillusion. It begins when we recognize that the life we’ve been living isn’t ours. We’ve been living according to other people’s standards, other people’s expectations. Even if we achieve everything we set out to achieve, making lots of money, becoming famous, having all the things we’re supposed to have, we may find ourselves feeling deeply empty.
We begin to lose interest in material pursuits. Our sense of what is valuable, what is important, begins to shift. We begin to realize that there’s something greater than all of this material accomplishment. But we’re not quite certain what it is or where to go from here.
Those beginning to awaken often find themselves in a strange place between material ambition and spiritual fulfillment. It’s a place of limbo, a place of stand-still, a place of confusion and disorientation. We feel lost, without any clear sense of direction. We find our ambitions dissolving. We lack motivation. We feel stuck. And we don’t know what to do with ourselves.
I know this feeling well. I’ve been in that place for most of my life. The truth is that I’ve never been ambitious. I’ve never had any lofty goals. I’ve never had a clear sense of direction. I’ve watched as others around me have striven for material success, honor and recognition. And I’ve never had any interest in any of it.
But even so, I have felt as though I should be striving for something. I should be trying to achieve something. I should have some goal and some plan. The only problem is, I have no idea what it is I should be striving for. I hear the world talking about purpose and passion. But my purpose has never been clear to me. And my passion is always shifting and changing. And yet there is all this pressure to do something, to be something, to accomplish something. Or at the very least, to discover one’s purpose.
I don’t know what it’s like to be ambitious or successful. But I do know what it’s like to feel lost, to feel stuck, to feel as though I might be wasting my life and getting nowhere. And I have made attempts to strive for something, to achieve something, but those attempts have failed. People tell me, if you really want something in life, you have to strive for it. And you can’t give up. If you fail, try again. But the truth is that I’ve never wanted any of those things with any great enthusiasm. There was never some thing that I wanted so badly that I was willing to do anything. The fact that I have often given up so easily only shows that I never had much ambition in the first place. There was never a time when I felt certain that this thing or the other was my purpose and I must fulfill it. I was just trying out different things to see what stuck. And I was doing it only because I had some sense that I must be doing something, I must strive for some goal, I must accomplish something, I must find my place in this world. I gave up so many times, not because I was defeated, but because my striving never felt authentic.
One thing is certain. All of my striving, all of my seeking to understand my place and my purpose, has lead me to feelings of frustration and deep discontent. Much of my life has been spend in depression, in a sense of not fulfilling my purpose, in not having accomplished anything of great significance.
For a long time it seemed that my depression was the result of my circumstances being undesirable and unfulfilling. And so it seemed that the way to overcome it was to accomplish something, or at the very least, to change my circumstances. But I had no success in that, which only caused me to sink deeper into despair. I struggled with depression for much of my life before I came to a profound realization. It was my struggling which gave it power over me.
I decided I was going to stop trying to defeat those feelings of frustration and hopelessness. I was simply going to sit with them and observe them without any sort of resistance. This meant fully accepting them, allowing them to be there. No fighting, no struggling. And almost immediately I began to notice their strength diminishing.
Every time I began to feel myself sinking into depression, I would surrender to it. I would drop all my defenses and allow myself to go into it. And I would pay close attention to my thoughts. And what I saw was that there was a pattern of thinking behind it. Every time I felt depressed, there were those same thoughts beneath it, feeding it. And as I observed my thinking I began to question it.
I began to notice how many of my thoughts were not my own, but the opinions and judgments of others, of society in general. And I found that many of these thoughts revolved around the notions of success and failure, validation and approval. But it wasn’t simply material success. There was also the sense that I was not fulfilling my spiritual purpose.
I had pretty much come to a place where I had no interest in material success. But that idea of being something, of accomplishing something, was still very strong, only it was in regard to some vague spiritual accomplishment. I noticed that even within the spiritual culture there was such a strong emphasis on success and accomplishment. It was fine if you were no longer motivated by material fame and fortune, but you should still be doing something. You should be fulfilling your purpose. So still the pressure is there.
But so many people are in that space between, where material ambition has dropped away but there is still no clear sense of what to do. And what I want to suggest is that this is okay. It’s okay to be in that space of unknowing and uncertainty, with no direction. It’s okay. Because the spiritual life isn’t about getting somewhere else. It’s about being in the here and now. And as long as we’re striving for some goal, trying to fulfill some purpose, trying to accomplish something, we’re resisting this moment.
All of our seeking is resistance, because what we’re looking for is right here. Somehow we’ve confused our material ambition with our spiritual ideals, and so we think that we still have to strive for something, to become something, to get somewhere. If it feels like you’re going nowhere, can you be at peace with that? Can you embrace this moment? Can you accept what is? Can you find that quiet space in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of now here?
I still hear people around me talking about finding and fulfilling our life purpose. But what I really hear is this idea that we have to escape the present moment. The present moment isn’t good enough. I’m not good enough. Nothing is good enough. So we have to go somewhere else, become something else. We have to strive toward some future goal. Peace is in the future. Contentment is in the future. Enlightenment is in the future. Don’t stay here. Keep moving. Never be satisfied. Resist the moment.
But the future is an illusion. There’s only this eternal moment. And as long as were striving for some other moment, for some other circumstance, we miss it. As long as we’re seeking, our mind is elsewhere. So the real question is, can we be here now? Because this is it. No goals. No ambition. Just presence.
Can we let go of the need to be anywhere else? Can we let go of the need to become something other than what we are? Can we let go of the need for the approval and validation of others, the need to achieve and accomplish? And can we simply surrender to this moment, as it is, as we are, with acceptance and gratitude?