By Tanya Shaffer
20 odd years ago, I raised my hand in the large hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and asked the renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield a question.
“Is there a role for ambition in the Buddhist cosmology?”
“That’s a good question,” said Jack, and silly as it sounds, the memory of that compliment warms me to this day. Jack said I asked a good question!
He had been talking, as Buddhist teachers do, about the fact that according to the Buddha’s teachings, desire—alternately translated as grasping or clinging—causes suffering. This concept, one of the Four Noble Truths at the core of Buddhist philosophy, had resonated with me ever since I picked up Sharon Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness in my early 30’s and plunged headlong into Buddhist teachings.
Desire or grasping as the root cause of suffering spoke directly to my experience.
At the time, I was working as a regional theatre actor in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the West Coast. I related intimately to the pain of desiring to snag a particular role or work with a particular company. The desire itself was painful—I could feel it in my body as a visceral ache.
Often the waiting period following an audition—the days, weeks, or even months when I didn’t know if I’d gotten the job—was worse than the disappointment on the occasions when I didn’t. And the feeling never stopped. Even when I had an acting job that I loved going to every day, I would hear about roles others were playing and feel a stab of envious longing.
I felt it even when the shows they were in conflicted with my own. I wanted to be every place at the same time, and because I couldn’t, I was never satisfied.
When I discovered the Buddha’s teachings, I immediately recognized myself in the image of the Hungry Ghost, a voracious apparition with an enormous belly and a tiny pinhole mouth, who eats and eats but is never full.
Yet even as I saw the pain my desire caused me, I wondered: If I didn’t have that craving to play those roles and work with those companies, what would motivate me to get out of bed every day and keep trying?
So I raised my hand that night in the crowded meditation hall, and Jack said something I’ve thought about countless times since.
In Buddhism, he said, there’s a distinction between a grasping kind of ambition, which causes suffering in yourself and others, and something that translates as the ‘will to do,’ which is a kind of positive energetic mobilization that occurs almost of its own accord. When you are moved by the ‘will to do,’ you are not suffering. You are acting out of a wholesome impulse to act, to create, to make something happen.
This kind of ambition, the naturally arising will to do, not only doesn’t cause suffering, but can be deeply enjoyable to you and beneficial to the world. So if you notice ambition within yourself, he said, examine it with a curious eye, as you do all things.
How does it feel in your body? Is it tight or loose? Does it produce a feeling of energy or a feeling of weariness? If it produces energy, what kind is it? A motivating energy or an angry energy? The quality of feeling will tell you something important about the quality of your ambition, and allow you to work with it accordingly.
I’m paraphrasing up the wazoo, of course, but that’s the essence of his words as I remember them all these years later.
They shine a light on the tension between ego and the creative impulse. The ego’s need to be seen and acknowledged is painful. The desire to create is exciting. And yet when it comes to acting, there’s a complicating factor. I may have a pure, creative drive to play a particular role, but unless I’m planning to self-produce every play I want to act in, I’m dependent on someone else to give it to me. So my ‘will to do’ can be stymied by external forces, and although the pain of that may be part ego, it may also be simple grief over the inability to express the creative urges welling up within me.
Since in the intervening years the focus of my work has shifted from acting to writing, I’ve often grappled with how this question of ambition vs. the will to do relates to the act of writing.
Writing is hard. Not in the sense of physical danger or life and death stakes, but still…hard.
Because when you write—a play or an essay or anything, really—you’re making something out of nothing. It all has to come from you, which means that it demands a high level of self-motivation and psychic energy. There’s no road map—in fact there’s no road—so you can never switch to autopilot, not even for a moment.
The impulse that drives you may spring from imagination, memory, existing source material or a nameless emotional tug that you’re trying to give voice. However you begin, if you’re anything like me, there will be moments along the way when you lose touch with the initial impetus and you want nothing more than to throw it all away and never look back.
If there’s no aching desire or attachment to outcome, what will carry you through?
External deadlines help. Actors lined up for rehearsal, audience members planning to attend—those are powerful motivators. Money makes a difference too, of course: if you or others have invested in your project, or if your basic income depends on it, that can go a long way toward keeping you engaged with the task at hand.
But what of the times when no one is keeping tabs? When the only one urging you to complete the damn thing is yourself?
For many, the moment in which the initial motivation flags marks the end of the road. Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” So the question is, what keeps you at the table when the original will to do feels like a distant memory?
You can try reminding yourself of why you began. While writing the musical The Fourth Messenger, based on the Buddha legend, I often conjured the moment on a long-ago retreat when I first sensed how powerful the story could be in a theatrical context. I reminded myself, too, of my passion for the Buddha’s wisdom and my eagerness to share it with others.
There’s also habit and discipline. The novelist Jonathan Lethem once said, “You show up, and the muse will keep the appointment.” Another way to put that is that getting your body to the table at a certain time each day can help your brain follow suit.
I believe that in those moments when motivation flags, our much maligned sidekick the ego may have a role to play.
Take the example of external deadlines. If someone expects something of you, the desire not to let them down has multiple components, some of which are ego-driven. You don’t want to shame yourself. You don’t want to destroy their image of you, and thereby your image of yourself.
When there’s no external arbiter, ego-related inner feedback such as, Who am I if I don’t complete this work? can be useful in getting oneself to the table. It doesn’t always feel good, but it can help get the job done.
So as with so many things in life, when it comes to ambition vs. the will to do, there are gray areas.
For many of us, on the way to creation, an element of ego-driven grasping is almost inevitable. The Buddha did give us a tool, however, to alleviate this suffering, even if we have not yet reached an enlightened, desire-free state. That tool is awareness. Having the clarity and spaciousness to see when we need a bit of an ego-kick to pull us through a sluggish moment in our creative process can go a long way to mitigate suffering.
In the words of John Lennon—a more modern sage—when it comes to the creative process I believe there are times when, “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right, it’s all right.”
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Tanya Shaffer is a writer, a writing workshop leader, a mom, a wanderer, a nature photographer, and a long-time meditator in the Vipassana tradition. Her plays have been produced by theatres large and small in the U.S., Canada and Taiwan, and she’s the author of the travel memoir Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa. She leads joyful, liberating workshops in a practice she calls Off-Leash Writing, hosts the podcast Off-Leash Arts: Conversations on Creativity, and writes Tanya’s Off-Leash Blog. The Off-Leash name has nothing in particular to do with dogs—though she has three of them!—but seeks to evoke the freedom that comes when the tether is cut and you find yourself completely in the present, alive to your senses, following your intuition whichever way it leads. Learn more about her antics at tanyashaffer.com.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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