A very counter-intuitive concept –yet present in many major religions–is the idea that we have to stop wanting. This is at the heart of Buddhism, the elimination of craving, either for good stuff to come or bad stuff to go away. The Bhagavad-Gita (one of Hindu culture’s greatest texts) says, “When he gives up desires in his mind / is content with the self within himself / then he is said to be a man / whose insight is sure. (55)” Christian monks and nuns spend their lifetimes trying to tame their desires and live simply.
But should this be our goal? Can we really live like this–not wanting? Don’t people need to get up in the morning and want to make and do things? What if innovators never “wanted” to make things better, to change things? What would have come of democracy, the steam engine, the polio vaccine?
I see clearly how craving causes suffering in my own life. I want good things all the time–good meals and good beers and fun nights with my wife and kids. I want my novel to get published and my band to make it big. I want my students to do well on tests. I want to get promoted to department chair at school. I want a hot tub and good health. I want to be happy. It’s in the constitution, the elusive right to pursue happiness. And a lot of my own unhappiness comes from not getting what I want, or getting too much of stuff I don’t want (bills, bad weather, and angry coworkers). But what is wrong with wanting good things to come and bad things to go away? Don’t we all want good things? What’s wrong with wanting to make more money in order to provide a better life for my kids? What’s wrong with a bigger house for a bigger family? If I did not have drive or desire or ambition, I may have not finished college, and grad school, and all those time consuming internships.
Give Up and Die is by design an exaggerated philosophy. I’m actually a rather ambitious person, and I need constant reminders to keep my life in check. But many people are much more ambitious, and perhaps the world would be a better place if those with great ambitions were held back some. Many “grand visionaries” of the past have caused the grand headaches of the present (nuclear war and Reality TV). But then there are others with no ambition who could use a good kick in the ass. As a high school teacher, I spend most of my energy trying to motivate students who “want” nothing.
So we need ambition. We need artists who want to create and businessmen who want to make deals. If everybody decided to be a monk or a nun and live totally in the present and skip through the fields of flowers not worrying about tomorrow, the world would shut down.
So how to find the balance between ambition and ambitionlessness? Desire, craving, and remaining detached?
The first step is taking the time to separate the action, the desire, or the ambition from the fruits of that action in order to determine which energy is in charge–the energy of creation or the desire for praise and notoriety. Do I want to make good music or be famous? That’s the difference. I’ve spent years trying to separate my need to write stories and songs from my desire for those stories and songs to be praised by others. Nobody writes a song and wants it never heard. Same with a novel or a blog. There has to be some sense of ambition behind the product. But that said, I do believe a pure artist creates for the mere joy of creating, just as a great mother or doctor or banker does what they do for the pure energy of that moment of work. But if you want to make a living as an artist or writer or musician, you have to market yourself. If you want to be a financial advisor, you have to network and get good at predicting the market. You need desire and ambition.
The irony, though, is that most people do better work when they are detached from the results of their work. So how can you be passionate and detached?
The Bhagavad-Gita is such an interesting religious text because of its delicate look at this problem of ambition, enlightenment, detachment, and the fruits of our actions. Arjuna is set to go to battle against his own cousins. He is totally conflicted. He does not want to fight. Krishna urges him to fulfill his duty and look beyond the immediate causes and consequences of the battle. He wants him to separate himself from the causes and potential results (past and future) and embrace the pure energy of the immediate duty of fighting.
So we need to think the same. In our day to day lives, we need to let go of the past that brought us to where we are and forget the future that will come. We need to place ourselves in the pure energy of the moment. What is good or bad often changes and is very open to interpretation.
So to give up wanting does not mean to give up trying.
“When he renounces all desire and acts without craving…he finds peace (71).”
That’s what Give Up and Die is all about. Ambition-less action.