When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. – Shunryu Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind”
Like many people, when I was younger I focused much of my life on achievement. Excelling in school, graduating from college, starting a business, speaking at professional conferences – these were the things I thought to be important to a life well-lived. I spent many a waking hour studying, working and planning for the future. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve started to move away from this type of “goal-oriented” living. I am not opposed to achievement and I still work hard, but I no longer pursue it with that singular point of focus I once had. I think that this, too, is a common pattern for many of us as we get older. If we pay close attention, we start to really see what life is all about outside of our conditioning.
Today, I still achieve things. But I see my achievements not so much as something “I” do; instead I see them instead as the by-products of acts of reciprocal giving. Everything “I” achieve is a gift to the world, built upon the gifts of myriad others. This is not forced humility; it is simply radical honesty. I could not do anything were it not for my parents and their achievements in their careers, in building a loving home, in earning enough money to provide for me and my brother, in supporting our health and our education, and so on. Similarly, they could not have done what they did for us without their parents – or their parents' parents – doing likewise. Furthermore, I would not be writing this today if it were not for the achievements of all those people who grew my food, built my home, maintained my city's infrastructure, designed my computer, programmed its software, kept me alive in times of illness, and on and on and on and on. This has been something of a liberating realization. “I” do not achieve anything. Together, ”we“ achieve everything. This is Indra's net reflected in its infinite jewels.
In Zen practice, we are often told to have no thought of attainment. Suzuki Roshi said: “… as long as you think ‘I am doing this’ or ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I must attain something special,’ you are actually not doing anything.” In the Heart Sutra we read: “There is no attainment of wisdom, and no wisdom to attain.” On the surface, this is very paradoxical. On the one hand, in Buddhism we strive for enlightenment. On the other hand, we should have no thought of striving. Looking deeper, I think this is simply a suggestion to “let go“ and trust that Indra’s net will “catch you.” That is to say, “you” do not achieve enlightenment. Rather, just like every other achievement in life, we all do it … together.