When I was young, I wanted to change in major ways. I wanted to be as thin as my sister, as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, as creative as Einstein and Picasso combined, as trail-blazing as Madame Curie, as loving as Jesus, as natural as Lao Tzu, and as still as a Buddha statue. These wants were sins of my youth. Why?
Ambition is good as long as it helps us experience our participation in the stream of life as opposed to survive in it only. This important distinction is laid out in Chapter Four of my book (www.AUnifiedTheoryofHappiness.com). I am with Mark Twain who wrote,
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
And, believe it or not, I was not ambitious in this grand way because I felt the need to be somebody. I knew deep down, I was somebody already. No outside goal, however noble, can ever make us feel complete. I knew this to be true from my early experiences of stillness. In stillness we realize that we are complete and that on the deepest level, there is no reason to strive for anything at all.
The reason why my ambition was destructive is that I aimed at a result instead of a path. I pictured the perfect me and was pretty disgusted with myself for being so terribly far away from that ideal. Many current self-help gurus tell us that picturing exactly what we want, gives us what we want. Our intention would make our wish a done-deal. Not in my experience! And not according to scientific studies either, as noted by psychologist Richard Wiseman. http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/books/59-seconds-think-a-little-change-a-lot/. Pursuing a high goal can leave us stifled and thoroughly unprepared for inevitable fallbacks.
Therefore the first order of business is to direct our ambition away from an ideal goal and towards a doable path, especially a first step, and possibly a second and third. In other words, what we need is a strategy. To become as thin as my sister or as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, I needed to forget about their bodies and think of a first step, such as “Stop eating refined sugar” or “Learn to apply make-up.” Just this one thing in each category caused me to lose pounds and look a lot more like Marilyn than previously thought possible. In the long run, I even gave up the silly notion of wanting to look like somebody else. It is so much fun to change for the better, why ruin it with a culturally imposed fantasy? When we focus on our path and actually walk it, we start to love the path. When I started to read books on science, draw charcoal portraits, go for nature walks, and learn about stillness more formally with Zen, I lost the desire to be anybody else but me. It has become a pleasure to see myself grow. And it is quite possible to realize, I assure you, that mistakes are wonderful growth experiences, instead of obstacles to the goal. Indeed, by walking the path instead of chasing our goals we learn that pretty much everything is a glorious mistake. As Dogen Zenji put it,
“A Zen master’s life is one continuous mistake.”
After identifying the first step of our path, the second order of business is to be really wise about how to take it. I, of course, tried to be my own woman, like a wise sage, who I wasn’t. A recent study of psychologist Bonnie Spring et al. shows the importance of social support and incentives http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22636824?dopt=Abstract. Almost all 204 adults in her study group were able to improve their lifestyle after first having been supported by $175 and regular contact with the researchers. After a while, most adults continued to live more healthily without these incentives. Unfortunately, I did not know this study way back then. It took some painful autodidactic years before I asked for support. You, of course, are in a much better position now.
Maybe the most wonderful thing I have learned is that I did not have to do something amazing to initiate growth. A small thing can go a long way. It doesn’t take a boulder to create a ripple effect in the water; a toe is enough. Bonnie Spring explained in an interview with ABC news how it was so much easier to make further lifestyle changes after having implemented the first ones. http://abcnewsradioonline.com/health-news/study-spend-less-time-on-the-couch-and-youll-eat-less-junk-f.html. As everything is interconnected in life, we only have to be brave enough to take the first, maybe very small step. This may be ten minutes of exercise. Feeling the wonderful effect, we may soon want to exercise for twenty minutes. Or maybe we start being still for one minute a day until we like to be still for five minutes. The possibilities are endless. Before we know it, we might just realize that we are a ripple effect, initiating change not only in us, but in the ocean of our most wonderful, wonderful world.