Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Buddhist Mindfulness and Ambition

Recently, I’ve been stuck and frustrated with a book project—a nonfiction account of the months my husband and I lived in Vietnam with our two small children. A full draft of the book, Viet*Mom, is already written, but after getting comments from my agent and another trusted reader, I’ve come to agree that much of the book needs to be rewritten with a lighter tone and a more irreverent spirit. In its present version, it’s too fact-heavy, sequential, and (it hurts to say this) plodding. What I came to realize was that even an “exotic” locale such as Vietnam could become dull when presented in expository prose. As my agent (who is a terrific editor) put it, “The problem with travel memoirs is that they can be a little bit like looking at someone else’s vacation photos: pretty but unessential. In order to make this work, I think you have to show readers that they will be in for a good ride.”

Indeed. She was right and I knew it.

For weeks I sat with the 300-page manuscript hovering nearby, causing me no end of anxiety, self-loathing, panic, and eventually, dread. Since I’ve spent most of my adult life writing something or other, and having never before experienced this kind of artistic black hole, I knew this was unhealthy—for both me and the book—so I decided to take a “vacation” from it. For two weeks I would not think about it, work on it, touch it, tinker with it, read it, or mess with it in any way. Viet*Mom was off the table. I even announced it to my husband and a few friends to make it official.

Here’s where the Buddhism comes in. Around this same time I was talking to a writer friend of mine who’s recently experienced a very painful divorce she didn’t see coming after 30+ years of marriage. She began telling me about a Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, she’d been listening to who had helped her tremendously. “She’s a real person,” my friend said. “She’s from New Jersey, and laughs, and is a grandma. She doesn’t take herself too seriously.” At first, I could feel myself disregarding it all. Anything spiritual or religious always got my guard up, but something, thankfully, made me truly listen. “The fact is,” my friend said, “she saved my life.”

Hmm, I thought. That’s pretty dramatic. We paid for our lunches, parted ways, but I found myself later that day searching out Pema Chodron on She used simple words like “stay” and try not to get “hooked” and I went so far out on a limb that I actually ordered one of her CDs from Amazon.

Fast-forward to the present. My decision to take a vacation from my difficult book project has been one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done for myself. Simultaneously, it seems I’ve become calmer, less worried, more centered. I’ve been trying, however slowly, to live my life in the moment and realize that this is it; this is my life. I've found myself taking long walks, listening more attentively to my daughter who comes home from school full of stories and chatter, enjoying a quiet stretch of a random afternoon without the constant pushing, pulsing pressure to be or do something great and worthy and ambitious. I am learning to “stay.”

But something else has happened: nothing.

Workwise, except for my teaching duties, nothing gets done. I am so “in the moment” that I've extended my Viet*Mom vacation—happily—beyond the two weeks. Of course it’s more pleasant not to work hard at something difficult! Of course it’s more pleasant to drink tea and nap and look out the window. Of course it’s more pleasant to ignore the big brooding difficult book project.

And so I'm left with a question: how do the wonderful, peaceful teachings of Buddhism and living in the present moment and practicing mindfulness and learning to “stay” accommodate ambition? Or, as is my fear, do they kill it?


  1. i don't have the answer to this, maybe no one has. but one thing i've realized lately that maybe it isn't about putting off the hard and/or ambitious things, but about prioritizing them. i.e. taking the vacations, focusing on the kids or yourself when needed, but still coming back to those big things, like your book, with a new perspective.


  2. I think that Buddhist philosophy asks us to try to shed our ambitions for material success. That doesn't have to be a negative thing, nor does it have to get in the way of writing. It may even help by shifting the focus from the unknowable goal of publication to the knowable act of writing--writing as part of the now.

  3. What you both say is true. One of the things I do know about Buddhism is that it tries to avoid such binary thinking. I was also listening to a Pema Chodron CD yesterday that spoke of avoiding "overwhelm" by taking on things that feel manageable and reasonable and doable instead of a huge, whole mountain. It's like Anne Lamott's book on writing: Bird by Bird. One little thing at a time, which then, of course, accumulates into something larger.