We’ve all heard of the term “vain ambition”- it’s the stuff of great stories- from Greek tragedies to stories from The Bible and many other books of scripture throughout the world. It usually makes for a great plot line in a novel or movie.
But what about “vain anxiety”? What? How can anxiety be a form of vanity? Well first let’s look at my definition of vanity:
VANITY: Believing that what I want is more important than what others want or what God wants.
It’s easy to see how this applies to ambition- but what about anxiety? I had never really considered anxiety to be a form of vanity until I read the following passage from the Bhagavad Gita:
“Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable
For they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.
When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind
There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill.”
For me, there are two great lessons in this passage. One is that of doing good for goodness’ sake- without expectation of external “fruits” or rewards- like praise, attention, or even the satisfaction of knowing who you helped and how they were helped.
The other is realizing that wanting things to turn out the way we want them to and feeling anxious that they aren’t or don’t seem to be heading that direction is actually a form of vanity!
Here’s what I have begun to understand as I’ve pondered this principle:
While I may have the best of intentions for undertaking actions- when I allow my sense of happiness to be dependent upon how things appear to “turn out”, I’ve now become vain- I have placed my will above God’s will. Instead of making an offering of service to God and giving all the glory to God, I have held back the best part by harboring a desire for receiving some or all of the glory of my actions for myself- in the form of desired external or even internal rewards. I have made Cain’s offering instead of Abel’s.
So how do we break out of this self-imposed misery trap of being motivated by desire for the fruits of action? (doing things because we want things to turn out how we want them to turn out)? The answer is also given in the passage. We strive to “unify our consciousness”. What does this mean? To me it means we strive to unify our will with God’s will. Going back to our protective personality vs. Soul concept- we unify (or align) the will of our protective personality with the Will of our Soul (which is the same as the will of God- because our Soul is already aligned with the will of God). Jesus Christ was a great example here. How often did he say “I am here to do the will of the Father” and even on the night before the crucifixion in the garden of Gethsemene – “Nevertheless, not my will by Thy will be done.”
It’s not our job to know the ultimate effects of our contribution- it is just our job to contribute as we feel inspired to contribute. All we need to do is offer our service to God and others, and not worry ourselves about whether things go “well or ill”. In other words, find joy in the doing and don’t tie your happiness to how things do or don’t “turn out”.
Here are a few examples:
- Exercising for the joy of exercising unattached to whether we loose the weight we want to or not.
- Praying for the joy of praying- whether or not we think our prayers are answered in the way we want them to be.
- Cleaning the kitchen for the sake of having a clean kitchen for a few hours- even if it’s a mess again the next day or even later that day.
I’m not suggesting we try to reach some “desireless” state where we just don’t care what happens in our life. I think it’s fine to PREFER a certain outcome and work towards it- just let it remain a preference and not a condition of our happiness. If things turn out differently than we preferred, we can then look for the blessing in that- the opportunity to grow spiritually.
We give our diligent effort while staying open to outcomes, not attached to certain ones our protective personality thinks are best or deserved. That’s the balance that keeps us aligned with a greater will than the myopic will of our personality and that keeps us from falling into the vanity trap of either anxiety or ambition.
Questions to Ponder
When I’m anxious about something- can I see how that might be a form of vanity on my part?
Have there been times in my life when I’ve felt miserable about how something turned out- only later to see it as a blessing in disguise?
Is my happiness tied to getting certain desired outcomes or is it tied only to contributing my service to others regardless of the outcome?