I am an ambition addict.
For ambition addicts like myself, growth is not enough. Accomplishment will not suffice. We addicts need to distinguish ourselves from the herd. We desire domination. We ache for adoration. We want to win. And we will move mountains to make every dizzying dream come true.
All ambition addicts, no matter the activity, venue, or great and glorious goal, have at least one behavior in common—we are running for our lives. We sprint through e-mails and meetings. We speed through bedtime with the kids. We bump carts with an old friend in the produce aisle, and, when they ask how we’re doing, we open our eyes wide, feign a great sigh, and answer, “BUSY!” Then we do everything possible to wrap up the reunion before it begins. We just don’t have time!
This race to the finish line comes at the expense of both physical health and emotional well-being. The perpetual stress of our high-stakes, up-tempo lives, the invariable fight-or-flight, thickens our arteries, frays our nerves, and dramatically increases our risk of a heart attack or stroke. The more savage our drive to succeed, the more willing we also are to undercut or abandon those who dare slow us down. Colleagues become competitors. Family and friends—dead weight. For the sake of success, we deafen our ears and burn our bridges.
To break the cycle of ambition addiction before it breaks us, we must make space in our lives for breath and balance, patience and perspective. We need to learn how to reach for new heights without losing the ground beneath our feet. We ambition addicts need to slow down.
One powerful technique for slowing down, a technique we can practice anywhere, anytime, is called Breath, Word, and Deed. To practice Breath, Word, and Deed, we begin by noticing the breath. No matter where we are, no matter what we’re doing, we simply observe each inhalation as it inflates our chest. We feel each exhalation escape through our nose and mouth. We don’t need to manipulate the breath. We don’t try to breathe faster or slower. We simply watch the breath. Like a driver on a coastal highway who’s pulled off to enjoy the ocean view, we momentarily detour from our usual fixations, paying homage to the ever-present, yet rarely accentuated, tide of our breath.
Once we’ve wedded consciousness with breath, we move on to the next stage of Breath, Word, and Deed. Paired with each inhalation and exhalation, we begin to recite a succinct play-by-play of each action we perform. When I practice Breath, Word, and Deed during a typically red-faced, vein-popping workout at the gym, I inhale and think to myself, “I am lowering the bench-press bar.” I then exhale and think to myself, “I am raising the bench-press bar.” Again, inhaling, I think, “I am lowering the bench-press bar.” Exhaling, I think, “I am raising the bench-press bar.” If, after a few repetitions, I change activities, if I put down the bar and grab a drink of water, I simply adjust my narration. Inhaling, I think, “I am putting down the bench-press bar.” Exhaling, I think, “I am sitting up.” Inhaling, “I am grabbing my water bottle.” Exhaling, “I am drinking water.”
This simple act of weaving breath, narration, and action can transform us physiologically, psychologically, and spiritually. Physiologically, Breath, Word, and Deed reverses our fight-or-flight feedback loop. When we addicts amp ourselves up on ambition, we trigger a regularly scheduled release of cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones give us a better buzz than a hipster-brewed latte. They inspire us to accelerate our speed, increase our output, boost our confidence, enlarge our dreams, and then send these juiced-up dreams once more through our nervous system, triggering an even greater surge of fight-or-flight.
With the introduction of Breath, Word, and Deed, however, we reverse the cycle. As long we focus on the present moment, providing a play-by-play of our actions, we refrain from sending stressful messages like “I must keep pumping weight until I look like a shirtless Matthew McConaughey” to our already flustered nervous system. We give our body the time it needs to reabsorb any lingering stress hormones floating through the bloodstream. This absorption of old hormones combined with the absence of new hormones will, eventually, shift us from hyper-drive to easy does it, not only in our outlook, but beneath our skin as well.
Slowing down provides psychological and spiritual benefits, too. Breath, Word, and Deed yanks our minds back from future fantasy to present reality. We’re so busy juggling breaths, words, and deeds, we can’t spare much bandwidth for dreams of all-encompassing dominance and glory. The practice peels away the thin veneer of fantasy from before our eyes, revealing the richness of the present moment. The bench-press bar hovering above my chest, for instance, I notice the crisscross indentations along the bar’s grips. I hear that crappy pop song blaring through the gym’s speakers. I feel a subtle ache that’s developed in my right shoulder. The obstacle of ambition momentarily removed, my mind and body unite, allowing the sensations of the moment to flood my consciousness. As consciousness merges with moment, I feel less anxious and agitated. I’m relaxed even in the midst of exertion. I break a sweat but my eyes stay soft; my jaw stays loose. My ambitious activity transforms from a task hurriedly endured, from a painful means to a glorious end, into an experience to engage, a moment to behold, nice and slow, breath by breath.
As we begin to explore this practice of Breath, Word, and Deed, as we start to go slow, we may find ourselves asking, “How long do I have to do this?” The practice can feel tedious, frustrating, or downright boring. We don’t really want to pour ourselves a bowl of cereal each morning and think, “I am pouring a bowl of cereal.” Wedding the mundane actions of our routine lives to a golf-announcer-style narration in our head may, at times, feel like a punishment—a little like watching paint dry, right?
So, pun very much intended, we take it slow. We don’t practice all the time. With sanity as our objective, why drive ourselves nuts? We can start the practice with a reasonable, realistic goal, something like: Every time I feel like I need to go faster and faster, to get it all done before the world undoes me, I’ll practice slowing down for five minutes. The technique is a tool. When we need the tool, we use it. When we don’t need it, we put it down.
Slowing down is hard work. For ambition addicts, however, deceleration is the fundamental first step toward recovery. By modulating our tempo from hyper-drive to easy does it, by shifting our attention from fantasized future to present reality, we allow our bodies to rest. We invite our minds to engage. We make space for our hearts to open.
Benjamin Shalva is a writer, rabbi, meditation teacher, yoga instructor, and musician, living and working in Washington D.C. This article is adapted from his second book, “Ambition Addiction: How to Go Slow, Give Thanks, and Discover Joy Within,” which will be published in November 2016 by Grand Harbor Press. For more information, visit www.benjaminshalva.com.
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