Work hard in school so you can earn good grades. Practice consistently so you can win on the sports field. Out think your competitors so you can make more money. These were important foundations of my education. I was taught that we live in a competitive world with limited resources so if I wanted something I needed to go get it. Taking it one step further, I was taught to fight for what I believed in, fight for my own safety, and fight for what’s right. I bought into most of these things because intellectually is was the arrangement of the world that made the most sense. I even learned from my own experience that the best way to motivate and educate someone is to out compete them. There’s something inside us, or at least inside of me, that doesn’t like losing so I compete.
Vipassana has challenged me to think about what I’m competing for and what the consequences of a competitive system are. My first observation is that as long as there is a winner, there must be at least one loser, and as long as there are losers there will always be discontent. Now I was taught that this wasn’t a bad thing. Losing and discontent could lead to motivation. Everyone got what they deserved or earned. Now I’m not so sure this is true.
What’s so great about being at the top. When you’re successful you’re promoted to a new peer group with stronger skills and higher expectations. If again you’re successful you continue to be promoted. Eventually you reach a level where you just aren’t good enough any more. As a Ph.D. candidate the most common weakness I see is the lack of self-confidence. I talk to individual who have graduated from top schools and received top honors and scholarships but they still regularly wonder if their work is good enough. These games of ego and competition are endless and I’m not sure you can ever really win but until now I’ve never really discovered an alternative besides unplugging from society and living in the woods somewhere. Even then, you’re never fully disconnected.
As a biology major I’ve witnessed the competitive nature of being pre med and continuing on to medical school and have wondered the same thing that everyone else has wondered. Why do we need to tear each other down and be miserable through competition so we can learn to help people for a living. Medical school is just like business. The students with the best grades get into the best school and get the best residencies. Again, competition driven by a limited supply.
There are two event that really impacted my life and drove me away from competing at the highest level before Vipassana. I worked in Harlem, NY and became good friends with a 50-year-old ex-con who had been involved in a large number of illegal activities and didn’t have the skills to enter the workforce yet he was trying to get on the right track. What inspired me was that even with the deck stacked against him he brought a smile and an optimistic outlook with him everyday. He had nothing that I was taught was essential to be successful but he was happier than many of my friends from affluent families. The second event cam from working at a restaurant. I was a manager and had a latino cook with 3 children. She didn’t have any prospect of being promoted and was “stuck” in this dead-end low paying job and she started telling me that she was excited to get off work because is was family night and she was taking her family out to Burger King. Now I’ve been to fast food before but I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated it as a place to share a special occasion. These two experiences taught me the importance of attitude and that there were things more valuable than societal pecking order but I still didn’t really know what to do with it.
Vipassana is challenging me to look at the system from a whole new prospective. We work hard for the benefit of society. If our occupation isn’t beneficial to society it’s not a good livelihood. If we have poor intentions even when working a noble job it’s not the right livelihood. And amazingly, that’s it. No games. No jockeying for status or salary. Just have an occupation and an intention that is contributing to society as a whole and let the rest work itself out. I’m a long way from being able to function in this way but if I could, I can only imagine how peaceful and simple life could be. I’m still a bit trapped because I’m afraid that if I try to live this way I will be eaten up and spit out by our competitive work environment. I’m not sure if this is true but it’s enough to keep me from trusting in this new path. I do fantasize about how wonderful it would be to live in a world where everyone in society was simply contributing in the best way that they could. It’s a dream that motivates me to continue my meditation practice.