Should you pursue success and happiness or let them find you?

In a recent seminar, someone asked me about a spiritual experience she often has during meditation and wondered why such beautiful experience repeatedly reaches a certain height and stops despite her longing for it to rise higher.

My response to her was along the lines that no one really knows, but I wonder why you want it to rise “higher”? Is there a value judgement here that the higher the experience the better? It would be worthwhile to explore where such belief comes from for within you.

Most of the time we have an idea of what is good or bad, right or wrong, pleasurable or painful; we then form life goals based on those ideas.

Hold your goals lightly not tightly

Depending on the level of our desire we might then get so attached to the outcome of our goals that we miss the beauty and wonder of the ever-changing reality along the way. By holding our goals tightly in this way; in other words being tightly attached to our desired outcome; we might not even make it because we can easily miss the new opportunities that arise outside of our focused and myopic view. Or if we do reach our goal with lots of hardship, it probably won’t fully satisfy us in the longer term.

In contrast, having a goal but not being too attached to the outcome, allows our experience to just be what it is in the unfolding reality that we experience as we work towards our goal. This way we are holding our goal lightly. We are more objective and deal with what comes our way in a natural manner. This may or may not take us closer to our original goal, but that’s fine because; firstly we usually end up becoming clearer about our true goals which will serve us better in the longer term; and secondly we will experience the wonder and joy of life in a fresh and lively manner along the way. Again who is to say our goals should remain fixed according to our fixations which are mostly rooted in our reactivity to others and to the world. The goals we are attached to; the ones we hold tightly; are not necessarily rooted in our own objective experience.
In the end what matters is to have flexibility about our desired outcomes and not to try too hard to bend the unfolding reality to fit what we set our mind to. We don’t want to be goalless, wandering aimlessly without any planning either, it is rather a matter of balance, perspective, flexibility and most importantly trust.

As mentioned above, our minds constantly make comparisons and judgements in pursuit of improvement, success or happiness. To this end, we continually categorise our experiences into painful or pleasurable, good or bad, fun or boring, nice or not so nice, high or low, acceptable or unacceptable and so on, yet:

This pursuit of happiness, this relentless comparison and hoping for something better, bigger, nicer … is the source of our unsettledness because by nature it distances us from that which is happening for and through us right now; it deprives us from simply being part of the ever-changing miracle of life unfolding moment by moment in our presence.

Then this beautiful poem by Rumi came to me. It describes our frustration along the journey so wonderfully and gives us sound advice in exquisite poetic language. (My translation does not do justice to Rumi’s masterful, powerful and magical choice of words.)

All your restlessness

is rooted in your seeking restfulness.

Be a restless seeker

of the truth.

Restfulness will find you.

All your lack of success

is rooted in your seeking success.

Otherwise, much success will be showered upon you. -Rumi

So, in cases similar to that of the person mentioned at the beginning, one can become restless and unsettled in seeking a higher spiritual experience which may not come about. However, if we seek the truth for the sake of the truth itself; not for attaining a higher spiritual state as a desired goal that we have an idea of; then restfulness and our unique expression of a higher spiritual state will come to us.

Let me also share with you a few related quotations from other well-known wise people.

This is an advice on a note written by Albert Einstein describing his theory of happiness which has sold for US$1.56 million:

A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness. -Einstein

Viktor Frankl, the famous Austrian psychiatrist who founded Logotherapy conveys the same timeless wisdom principle in his highly recommended book – Man’s Search for Meaning, in this way:

Don’t aim at success; the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen and the same holds for success: You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run; in the long run I say!; success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it. -Viktor Frankl

Socrates imparts that wisdom in another brilliant sense:

If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality. -Socrates

And here is a related pearl of wisdom from Tibetan Lama Thubten Yeshe:

Everybody’s mind, everybody’s basic nature is constantly changing, changing, changing. You have to accept that and bring some flexibility to your ideas of the way things should be.

Fixed ideas make life difficult. Why do we solidify ideas: “I want my life to be exactly like this”? Because “I like.” That’s the reason—because we like things that way.

None of us wants to die, but can we fix it so that we won’t? We would like to live forever, enjoying life on Earth. Can we fix it so that we will? No, it’s impossible. Your basic nature—your mind, your body, the world—is automatically changing. Wanting things to go exactly a certain way is only making trouble for yourself. –Lama Yeshe

If you are wondering how you should go about exploring your restlessness and your wanting to change your present experience, please revisit Get to know yourself, the Wonder Why Why method.

[Last updated September 2022]