We generally view ambition to be a good thing. If someone says, “I want to write a book in my free time”, or “I’m going to ride a bicycle across Alaska”, you typically respond by saying something like, “Go fucking get ‘em, Tiger”.
The thing is…It really takes a lot of specific conditions arising to accomplish ambitions like that. It’s great to have goals. But it’s a fine line between a goal and a desire. When Saturday morning rolls around, the conditions might not be right for you to go sit in a coffee shop and write that chapter about the time you ran into the Wu-Tang Clan while shopping for bean sprouts at the asian grocery store. How can you really know ahead of time that Saturday is the right day for you to do such a specific thing?
You could get to the coffeeshop and realize that you forgot your laptop charger. If that happens, maybe you happen to have a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in your bag. If so, you should be completely fine accepting that you will read a great book instead of writing your amateurish chapter. You should feel good about it.
I think that example is pretty easy for most people to pull off. They can let go of what they planned to do that afternoon and enjoy something else. But there’s other twists on the same idea that I think we often have much more trouble with. Well, I have much more trouble with them, if no one else.
What about when someone you care about is having a hard day. You can make their day a bit better by skipping the coffee shop and going with them to get nachos. If we’re really living in the now, it should be obvious and enjoyable to let go of what you had planned.
I once saw compassion defined as ‘doing the right thing in each individual moment’. Probably in a Brad Warner book, but I don’t remember exactly. I do remember it taking me a long time to understand why that makes any sense as a definition for ‘compassion’.
But our coffeeshop example is why it makes sense.
- If we are existing in the present moment
- We will be aware that we can do more good by going to get nachos
- And we’ll do it. Without much internal conflict at all.
It might take some of the fluffy nuance out of the word, but that’s compassion. Real compassion is an action. Let’s compare that to a different way that I’m just as likely to react.
- Spend the morning daydreaming about what I’m going to do that afternoon.
- Notice the friend having a tough time.
- Cling to my fantasy (or desire) about what my afternoon was going to be like.
- Cause a fight about the friend being too demanding.
- Not end up with anything like what I had in mind anyway.
That all comes back to just not really listening to the moment. Compassion can only happen right now. Feeling bad for the friend after you leave them is not compassion. That’s just another fantasy. In order to be compassionate, you MUST be willing to let your current moment become whatever is best.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have ambitions. It just means that you should decided, “I’m going to study karate whenever I can, and maybe that will lead to having a black belt”, instead of “I’m going to plan for and fantasize about having a black belt in karate all the time, instead of living my real life in the now”.
And the real kicker to it all is that there might be all kinds of subtle things that you should do instead of what you planned. And, all of those little spontaneous choices, made with complete awareness and real compassion, might add up to the life you're really looking for. Without ever even having to decide what you want to do with your life… :)