The Joy of No Ambition

James Shaheen

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stopped by the publisher Chronicle Books to visit a friend. I was early, so I popped into their street-level bookstore to browse. Chronicle is known for its high production standards, so I always look forward to seeing their new titles. This time, one in particular caught my eye—“The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great,” by Ray Bennett, M.D.

Like most people I know these days, I work too much. So I welcomed Dr. Bennett’s call to underachievement and paid ten dollars to find out more. The book is a brief eighty-one pages, after which several pages follow under the heading “Some Blank Pages” (ten, to be exact, and they really are blank). The good doctor takes his underachieving seriously. But, he points out, underachieving is no cakewalk:

The pleasures of underachievement are many, but they are all too often lost in the pressure for success…. The achievement lobby is powerful, and underachievement is, surprisingly, not as easy as it should be. Our world is so full of unrelenting messages about being the best you can be that it may not have even occurred to you to try anything less. We’ve been brainwashed over many years to believe that striving for success is essential to our wellbeing…. It’s an endless exhausting litany, thanks to advertising stars and corporate executives busy cashing in our inadequacies for their overpriced sneakers and shiny BMWs.

I read Dr. Bennet’s ten tips to a happier, less productive life, and took to heart his advice to “discover the laziness that has so far eluded you.” I did the latter, in fact, for about five minutes before I realized I was late and left in a hurry.

What to do? Well, it’s pretty simple: Do nothing. That’s the “essential technique” taught in Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s guided meditation. He advises us:

If we have ambitions—even if our aim is enlightenment—then there is no meditation…. This is why an important characteristic of shamatha [calm abiding] meditation is to let go of any goal and simply sit for the sake of sitting. We breathe in and out, and we just watch that. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter if we get enlightenment or not. It doesn’t matter if our friends get enlightened faster. Who cares? We are just breathing…. Nothing else. We let go of our ambitions. This includes trying to do a perfect shamatha meditation.

If you’re a Type A like me, follow this guided meditation before you move on to B. Alan Wallace’s “Within You Without You." That way you’ll take Wallace’s profound challenge with a light heart: Like underachieving, shamatha meditation is no cakewalk. As you’ll read, you’ll have to sit around doing nothing for a very, very long time before you get anywhere. But keep in mind that if you forget about getting there you’ll fare much better. It’s the kind of paradox that will drive any Type A crazy. (I should mention, though, that if you’re a Type B—alas, the tanking economy has put you on the endangered-species list—read Wallace’s article first; otherwise you’ll sink into a lifelong torpor.) The two articles together, in whatever order, will help you to achieve—I know, I know—a healthy balance.

Now, a brief note on multitasking: It will make you stupid. Or at least ignorant, according to Andrew Olendzki, whose column cautions against divided attention. And he’s in good company. According to Pablo Picasso (hat tip to Dr. Bennett):

You must always work not just within, but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two. If you can handle ten, then handle only five. In that way, the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery, and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.

Dr. Bennett may have hit a subversive note in our driven society. But for Buddhists, it’s the same ol’ same ol’: Find a cushion, focus on your breath, and just sit.

James Shaheen
James Shaheen, Editor & Publisher

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