Forty years ago, when I was setting out on the path of practice, there was a lot of confusion, but my goal was clear: enlightenment or bust! I was vague about what enlightenment was, but I understood it as the possibility of knowing everything and never suffering again. I believed that by putting all my effort into this project, I could finish it quickly, much as a five-year-old believes if she runs flat out, she’ll be faster than any other living person. Partly this naivety was caused by the blindness of youth, and partly it was a matter of not getting good information in the early days.
Ambition was a primary obstacle in my practice for a decade, and it played into my impatience with everything, especially with myself. I was on the fast track to “god”, although what I mainly encountered were my own flaws.
I confess this now in hopes of saving someone the time it took for me to realize my mistake. I was trying to acquire enlightenment so that I (I/me/my self) could live without discomfort. After years, the truth started to come into focus: there is no escape for ME, for the ego-identified self that was propelled by ambition. By tracing back the eagerness to the ego behind it, it dawned on me that here was the problem. Such a paradox! The thing I wanted more than anything was unavailable to my ego-identified self.
Even after the situation became apparent, a total shift in world-view was required to move in the desired direction. The emptiness I felt was not a hole that could be filled, it needed to be accepted and understood, and it was possible to dissolve the surrounding framework that made the emptiness feel like a problem.
Each of us is unique, but there are some important truths that we share with all living beings. (1) Everyone who is born must die, and we don’t choose the timing or the manner of our death. (2) All of our actions, for good or ill, have an impact on other living beings. (3) Of all the things we acquire over a lifetime, nothing material will last or can be taken with us. Our actions are our only significant legacy.
Those of us brought up with competition as a primary mode may have difficulty altering how we view the world and our place in it. In my experience it’s a terrific relief to be nobody special, at least for periods of time. It makes me feel secure to remember that each action matters, and that now is the only time we have. The Buddha’s teachings point the way to living with an understanding of impermanence, dukkha, and ownerlessness (or not-self). It’s not an understanding that can be reached conceptually, we have to re-train our minds, our words and the actions of our bodies. The good news is that we don’t have to do this alone.