Just lately I've had several conversations about ambition: what it is, whether or not the various people I'm speaking with have it, whether I have it. I don't know about you, but in the circles I lope (or, currently, limp) in, ambition is pretty uncool. It's not done. Or if it's done, it's practiced out of sight, like the friends I had in college who turned out to be graduating summa cum laude, even though the whole four years, I swear they seemed way less nerdy and preoccupied with their work than I did, and in the end I had scattershot grades that averaged out to basically OK, but let's not make a big fuss about it.
While I will happily tool around at the bottom end of various socioeconomic scales (income, institutional achievement), I am ambitious about waking up. There's an Anne Lamott story I love: she's out with a dying friend, shopping to please some mean boyfriend who's into slutty clothes. She comes out of the dressing room in this tight purple woo-woo dress, and asks her friend whether it makes her butt look big. Her friend says, You don't have that kind of time, Annie. I love that. That's the kind of ambition I want to keep coming back to, because it says there are definitely worthwhile things that we can do with our lives. There are also a lot of pointless distracting things that lead nowhere, and it is important to cultivate the former and let go of the latter.
Which all sounds clear and decisive, but in practice is complex. Take right now, for instance. I am sitting on the kitchen floor, eating my friend Margery's spicy cashews from the jar, writing with my laptop toasting my upper thighs, while Chloe-the-dog hyperventilates gently, trying to remember not to bite the fuck out of her leg. I am not feeling especially stern about sorting out the waste-of-time components of this situation from the wholesome ones, though I'm pretty sure ceasing and desisting on the cashews soon would be smart.
Here is an example of persistence: over centuries, countless pilgrims chipped 100,000 Buddhas and bodhisattvas into rock at the Longmen Caves in China. (I visited the caves & carvings on my 24th birthday, traveling solo overland from Hong Kong to Switzerland, and they are still one of my favorite places on earth.) Is 3D Buddha wallpaper ambitious? The sculptures range from 1 inch to 57 feet high, so I guess it varies is a reasonable response, but who knows? is even better. You can eat cashews with a heart of pure gratitude. You can carve Buddhas feeling like, that guy over there is doing it all wrong, and when can I quit with this chip-chip-chipping already, and eat cashews?
So it's good to ask again and again during the course of a day, what am I doing, here? In the monastery, we used to chant, the days and nights are relentlessly passing, how well am I spending my time? And what do I mean by well, these days? Profitably? Kindly? Enjoyably? With an eye to liberation? In this moment, what action, speech or thought would be in line with kindness? That is a kind of ambition I want to keep cultivating.