When Ambition Creeps Into Spirituality

Shrinking (not feeding) the ego in yoga

Posted Dec 14, 2016

I’m lying on my yoga mat, arms and legs splayed to the side, beneath kind, gentle lights, with about fifty other men and women. Nag champ incense wafts through the air. Sitar music seeps through the sound system.  Our instructor, Deva-ananda, who looks like a “good witch” dressed in an outfit comprised of an assortment of white silk scarves, guides us through a meditation. In warm dulcet tones, she asks us to follow our breath; the cool inhale through our nostrils, the warm exhale over our lips. 

This is good. I like watching my breath and even more, I like being instructed to watch my breath by someone with a pretty voice.  Deva-ananda asks us to watch our thoughts come and go, like trains rolling down the tracks. This is good. And Deva-ananda’s voice really is nice. I feel my body releasing into the ground beneath me.

Deva-ananda walks around the room as she instructs us, “Imagine with each exhale you are sending a healing breath first to yourself. Then to a friend or loved one and finally out to the whole world. Big loving breaths.” Great. I like this too. I like practice in empathy, training my mind to open to a loving, embracing attitude towards others. I sink more deeply into my mat.

Then Deva-ananda asks us to journey ten years ahead in time to a time when all of our dreams have been manifested. She asks us to imagine floating above our future lives, looking down and observing our better, shinier future selves.  “What is your state of employment?” Deva-ananda asks. “Are you happy and fulfilled?” “What do you look like doing the job you have manifested? Are you contributing to the world while satisfying our personal ambition?” The term “personal ambition” immediately puts me off. It feels like finding a sliver of onion in my ice cream.  There’s nothing wrong with a sliver of onion, but I don’t want it in my ice cream.

Deva-ananda continues, “Where are you living? What does your residence look like? Check out all the different rooms. Do you have more than one residence?”Do I have more than one residence?

“Why would you ask me that?,” I want to scream above the soft sitar strains.  Now suddenly a single residence seems unsatisfactory.  I am being encouraged to want more, to fan my desire, to nurture and feed dissatisfaction. I came here seeking the opposite.

I find this happens a lot in spiritual circles. A session begins with lovely things, like breathing and centering and caring…. And then someone asks if you have more than one residence.

Maggie Rowe
Source: Maggie Rowe

I know career motivation and encouragement up the ladder of success have their place in the world. But I don’t want them anywhere near my spirituality.  In these small, quiet incense-permeated rooms, I want encouragement releasing my ego instead of bolstering it. I want to be reminded of my smallness before something vast.  I want to have my desperate need for personal success shrunk, not enlarged.

It makes me think of David Brooks’ writing on the distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues: “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

I want to foster eulogy virtues when I’m in a yoga class or meditation session or any spiritual gathering.

Especially if I’m lying in corpse pose. It just makes sense.