The Prison of Achievement
“The secrets to living are these: First, the past cannot be improved upon. Acknowledge what was and move on. Next, the future cannot be molded. Then, why bother? Last, nothing can ultimately be controlled; Not the past, nor the future, nor the present. Accept this moment as it is. Honoring these three, One lives without shackles.”
— Wu Hsin
Where does anxiety come from? Barring examples that come from chemical imbalances or mental illness, most of our internal strife is caused by the tension between past and future. The faster our mental pendulum swings between thinking about the past and thinking about the future, the more discord we feel in daily life.
The person who is so obsessed with a goal that they neglect the present moment screws themselves over twofold. First, they cannot devote their attention fully to the present, which prevents them from achieving true contentment. Secondly, the act of fixation on some goal or achievement is deluded because these “anchors of salvation” are outside of the self. If you bet your happiness on the achievement of something that is impossible in the present moment, you begin a pattern of yearning that never ceases, regardless of how much you end up achieving.
Lastly, obsessing over the future is a fantasy. When we fantasize, we deny harsh reality in favor of something that seems more suited to our inherent drives and desires. The problem is that all fantasies are desire driven, and all desire produces some sort of suffering. When we are fully entrenched in trying to microscopically achieve a distant future fantasy, we end up behaving in ways so far removed from our true self that we feed profound amounts of alienation, anxiety, and despair. We channel them in creative ways, since they need to express themselves somehow. This is why people do things they know are against their better judgment and then have to numb themselves with mindless vices and ideologies.
I’ve never spoken to a wise person or read a great book that says that the path of life is a straight line. And yet, for some reason, we treat life as if it is full of plottable points on a graph. We have the X axis of time and the Y axis of “success”. We think if we maximize success or goodness over time we will some day achieve the state called “happiness”. But have you ever heard of anyone suddenly proclaiming that they are happy and then staying happy? No. All of life is change and flux. Every being experiences a variety of emotions and thoughts, none of which can be controlled. The more we try to control them, the more they hold us prisoner.