Spiritual Ambition: Its Confusing Paradox and Limitations

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Spiritual Ambition

“Why would the ocean look for a cup of saltwater?” – anonymous spiritual teacher

There is a wonderful story of a Zen master that encountered a very motivated student who was brimming with spiritual ambition. When the student asked how to become enlightened, the master gave him some daily practices.

The student then asked, “how long will it take before I am enlightened?”

The master looked at him for a few moments and replied, “For you, 10 years.”

The student then replied, “But what if I do these exercises twice as long every day?”

The master paused and then replied, “Then it will take you 20 years.”

When I first heard this story, I couldn’t help but laugh. It seemed like me and the student had a lot in common.

I have always pursued the things I’ve wanted in life with a certain level of intensity and dedication. For most of my life, I thought this was my superpower.

The evolution of my consciousness was the first aspiration where I eventually came to the realization that my spiritual ambition was actually getting in the way of my growth. I think this is likely the case for a lot of seekers depending upon where you are at in your evolutionary journey.

Your Ego Is A Helpful Partner…For A Bit

The ego’s ambition and desire to accelerate spiritual growth is a natural part of evolution. There needs to be a strong concept that by focusing inward, you will get something in return in order to motivate you to begin to make changes and invest more in your spirituality.

For traditionally intense people like me, this often results in applying similar mindsets to how we were conditioned to achieve in the material world. The mental imprinting might look something like this:

“If I apply more effort and right practice, I will get results more rapidly.”

And for a while there is some truth to this. When I recognized that the path to the unconditional joy I had been seeking my entire life was more “in here” than “out there,” I applied the same hyper vigilance to my spiritual growth that I had to every other pursuit in my life.

It seemed to have served me based on how the world reacted to my accomplishments so why would I treat this undertaking anything differently?

I would meditate or do qigong for an hour a day. I was constantly reading spiritual books. Every time I was walking somewhere, I was consuming some type of podcast related to consciousness or spirituality.

At a certain point, I recognized that unconscious imprints were the driver of my life experience. With similar vigor to my practices and information intake, I became obsessed with unpacking my unconsciousness.

I was constantly seeing healers, bodyworkers, and going to spiritual classes to try to uncover and release things. If I was experiencing some somatic release which has been seemingly constant for four years since my Kundalini awakening, I’d “try to feel the shit out of it.”

For a period, I viewed psychedelics as an accelerant to my process because they allowed me to see the unseen. Paradoxically, I’d eventually see this spiritual ambition was holding me back.

During all of this, I also became a militant watcher of my thoughts. My awareness was like a sentinel trying to identify unsupportive thought forms that seemingly held the keys to some energetic imprint that needed to be unwound.

Truth be told, I did experience lots of rapid growth. And in classic ego fashion, there was some level of attribution to my devotion and doing. The good ol’ ego loves to take credit for things.

One day it dawned on me that all these things I was doing were the same old mastermind at work. All these behaviors were merely a strategy emanating from an ego that lacked trust and felt unsafe. It’s response was expressed by an intense desire to “do spirituality right” in order to achieve my spiritual ambition before negative consequences transpired.

During this phase of growth it was very hard to recognize this dynamic. Until it wasn’t.

The Untold Side of Spiritual Ambition

All this drivenness resulted in me extending myself beyond my body’s natural window of tolerance.

I had instigated so much energy movement behind the unresolved emotions and imprints in my energetic body, that my nervous system felt fried. I had done too much, too soon, too fast.

This left me feeling incredibly uncomfortable and for years it felt like my body had not caught up to shifts in consciousness. There has been many sleepless nights with pounding head pressure from all the energy.

I still deal with a lot of these symptoms today. Though they are becoming less frequent and the body discomfort has started to ease into more consistent bliss.

All this obsession with shadow work also often overshadowed enjoying the sweet nectars of life. It’s not that viewing life and reality as a teacher is wrong or not a good idea. In my experience, this is true and wonderful in that it creates meaning out of everything. But when you are vigilant about viewing life as your teacher, it’s very easy to lose sight of enjoying the process outside of peak experiences and moments of revelation.

I share this not in a remorseful way, but more to illuminate what can happen if you decide to apply a similar tact to your spiritual growth. It seems as though there may be a tradeoff between acceleration and rockiness of the path. I don’t know though and can only speak from my own experience.

If you see yourself in everything that I just described, there is no need to feel bad. It is a natural phase to have the ego covertly driving the bus trying to get somewhere. This can be very hard to spot. I’m pretty sure everyone has to go through this phase; the question just becomes what is the duration you of time you will spend fueled by spiritual drivenness?

Eventually, there comes a point in your spiritual journey where you realize to get to the next phase of evolution, you need to let go of this ambition and vigilance.

It dawns on you that all this fighting and need to overcome something is actually just the ego trying to control things and survive. All the effort is a form of resistance to fully letting go to life and the present moment.

For me, there were many mental formations that were eventually recognized. Here are some key ones:

  • I need to evolve quickly to escape something bad happening (body death)
  • I need to do spiritually perfectly or life/God will teach me a lesson (Christian programming)
  • If I bring awareness to something, I will avoid negative consequence
  • I need to evolve quickly before time runs out. I need to maximize the amount of time spent in higher states of this experience
  • If I practice restraint and “do spirituality right,” I will be rewarded (programming from many traditions)
  • If I just keep releasing/letting go/surrendering, I will eventually push pass and overcome this – paradoxically, this idea needs to be let go of.
  • I must understand how the nature of reality works in order to avoid negative consequence and use it for my gain

These concepts are emblematic of the human condition and the ego’s desire to control for the purpose of self-preservation and enhancement. It is natural to experience them. And in every case, there is an inherent lack of trust or faith. Read them again and you will see they are not the expression of an eternal, loving being.

If I were to sum them all up in one sentence that must be acknowledged and accepted, it is:

“If I don’t get enlightened, I’m not safe.”

This is what I call a master imprint. Master imprints or patterns are like the Nile river and all these other thought formations are the smaller tributaries that flow out of them into your consciousness.

Shit. Okay, What Can We Do About This Spiritual Ambition Predicament?

The attachment to spiritual growth and components of the human condition must first be recognized in order to transcend them. Why do you think I am writing this article!? : )

It is also the path to move into more embodied levels of being and I AM.

If you are ambitiously chasing enlightenment like I was, you will probably experience lots of spiritual growth, but eventually you will plateau.

You will get frustrated because you feel like you have worked so hard and done everything right, yet can’t figure out why you have stalled out.

How do I know this? Because I was the poster child! 🙋‍♂️

The way out of this is awareness of the entire dynamic mentioned above. Anytime you notice the drive, desire to overcome, and do more to get enlightened, you simply just need to acknowledge and accept it.

A common point of confusion at this juncture is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“Okay, so should I just stop doing all spiritual practices then? Do I just sit here?”

This type of polarized thinking must be dissolved. Though many great beings like Ram Daas said all you can do is “Bring your mind to one point and wait for grace,” I find this advice lacks clarity.

What has been most helpful for me is to continue to do practices or engage with spiritual things as I am drawn to them, while acknowledging the ego component that is trying to survive as it arises.

The answer is to integrate ego vs. repudiate it, pretend it’s not there, or throw your hands up and do nothing. Tactically, this means notice and accepting it and then continuing with the practice if you feel called to it.

To get here you must get comfortable with the idea that divinity reveals itself to those that call upon it in perfect timing. Eventually, you start to recognize that reality will bring you what you need for your evolution when you are ready for it. The drive and desire to control are not necessary. There is also no need to try to accelerate or speed up the process. 

Letting go of spiritual ambition and the need for it to happen quickly is usually something that happens pretty deep into this work.

If I had to chart it on the Life To Me/By Me/Through Me/As Me framework, I’d plot it somewhere around here.

Once you get to this point you can start to settle in and just begin to welcome growth as it comes while doing the best you can. I believe this is the state of grace many great beings talk about. 

This greater depth of trust allows you to enjoy life and the evolutionary process more because spirituality no longer feels like something you need to be good at. It also allows you to re-harmonize back into the world in a more engaged way since there is no longer such an obsession with shadow work. A permission to enjoy life emerges and life goes from a school for your growth, to a school for your growth, love, and joy.

This is the middle way.

I still catch my spiritual drivenness all the time. It’s part of my humanhood. As this happens, I just notice it and ask the stillness:

“Oh, who’s that one trying to overcome something?”

A long stretch of silence passes and it is recognized that there is no one there. 

Over time the ambition seems to poke its head out less and less which creates space for the more persistent peace that has always been there. 

Like a great teacher once told me, when you realize you are the ocean, the intense search for a cup of salt water is no longer needed : )

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