Off-Leash Writing

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Does Ego Get A Seat At The Table?

Twenty-odd years ago, I raised my hand in the large hall at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and asked the renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield a question.


“Is there a role for ambition in the Buddhist cosmology?” 


“That’s a good question,” said Jack, and silly as it sounds, the memory of that compliment warms me to this day. Jack said I asked a good question!


He had been talking, as Buddhist teachers do, about the fact that according to the Buddha’s teachings, desire—alternately translated as grasping or clinging—causes suffering. This concept, one of the Four Noble Truths at the core of Buddhist philosophy, had resonated with me ever since I picked up Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness in my early thirties and plunged headlong into Buddhist teachings. Desire or grasping as the root cause of suffering spoke directly to my experience. 

At the time, I was working as a regional theatre actor in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the West Coast. I related intimately to the pain of desiring to snag a particular role or work with a particular company. The desire itself was painful—I could feel it in my body as a visceral ache. Often the waiting period following an audition—the days, weeks, or even months when I didn’t know if I’d gotten the job—was worse than the disappointment on the occasions when I didn’t.  And the feeling never stopped. Even when I had an acting job that I loved going to every day, I would hear about roles others were playing and feel a stab of envious longing. I felt it even when the shows they were in conflicted with my own. I wanted to be every place at the same time, and because I couldn’t, I was never satisfied. 


When I discovered the Buddha’s teachings, I immediately recognized myself in the image of the Hungry Ghost, a voracious apparition with an enormous belly and a tiny pinhole mouth, who eats and eats but is never full.

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