I am someone who has always been driven to accomplish something, whether it’s in my work, my hobbies, or within my family. And it both frustrates me, because I rarely am able to accomplish what I set out to, and it tires me. Whenever I try to tell myself that I don’t “need” to do these things, my mind shoots back at me, “So, you just want to be a failure and do nothing?” I am so tired.
How to Stop Striving?
Dear How to Stop Striving,
The bottom line to freeing yourself from the compulsion to succeed at something is to understand that you’ve nothing to prove ... to yourself or anyone else. This of course, as with most lessons in the Buddha dharma, runs counter to all of our learned experience, the messages we get from our family, peers, and the culture we live in. So freeing yourself from this compulsion is no easy matter. But it can be done, and in an incremental way.
The first step is to believe, as the Buddha taught, that you were born with the true Buddha nature inside you, essentially perfect, and that it is now and will always be there. It may not be apparent or visible to you because it has gotten buried under the weight of years of learned experience, but it is still there, waiting and available to support you. Your learned experience is like the clouds that hide the blue sky that is always there, your true Buddha nature.
The second step is to understand, at first intellectually, that your desire to succeed is in fact a function of your learned experience. And that as such it has no intrinsic existence, it is not inherent within you ... it is learned, it is dependent. It is your ego-mind, your thinking mind, talking; it is not you. This provides the key to start breaking through the clouds.
The third step is, armed with this understanding, to begin to accept yourself as you are. Knowing that the your compulsions are learned and have no inherent value should make it easier for you to gain some distance between yourself and these compulsions. As the saying goes, “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. If I am disturbed it is because something out there is not the way I want it to be and I will find no peace until I am able to accept that things are the way they are because it’s just the way they are.”
The fourth step, now that you’ve begun to discriminate between the what your ego-mind, your thinking mind is telling you and what your true Buddha nature is telling you, is to start the practice of being present free of the intervention of thought and not engaging your thoughts when they arise.
As you meditate on these steps, you will feel progress in an incremental way. Do not expect that you will all of a sudden feel free of your compulsions. But you will start to get glimpses of your true Buddha nature in your acts of kindness and in other ways. Your understanding that these “needs” are not inherent within you will deepen. You will find it easier to accept yourself and love yourself unconditionally as you are. And you will find it easier to to be present, to not be pulled this way and that by your thinking mind.
This process, which is so central to walking the Buddhist path, is elaborated on in many of my blog and advice posts as well as my books. I encourage you to read more deeply about the process in order to support your efforts to free yourself from your ego-mind. Do not underestimate its power.
Finally, one day after you’ve been working this practice ... it may be months or years ... you will come to know directly, from your gut or your heart, that you have nothing to prove. That indeed you have never had anything to prove. Then you will be free of the compulsion to succeed. You will still work and do the things that you find real value in, but it will be because of their intrinsic value, not because of some end-point that you are trying to reach.