It's common to think of the words vain and ambition together. Vain ambition is often the culprit behind the downfall of people who accomplish amazing things- only to eventually "fall from grace" or to sacrifice their standards in order to maintain their status or their reputation as someone famous or well regarded by many. The annals of history are full of such examples and the plot of many a great tragedy is based on the eventual pitfalls of unbridled and vain ambition.

But what about another "a" word that is even more common than ambition: anxiety. Could it be that anxiety might also be a form of vanity? To understand this better- let's first establish a working definition for vanity.

VANITY: Believing that what I want is all that really matters- often to the exclusion of what others want or what God wants.

When we are vain we place our self-will above all else. What we want is more important to us than what God wants or worse yet, we believe that what we want is what God wants and use that belief to justify acts that are dishonest or even evil. Some of the worst evil that has ever been done has been done by people who have convinced themselves that their self-will is God's will and anyone who stands in the way of that must be intimidated or even eliminated.

Another way to look at this is self-will (small s) vs. Self-will (capital s) where the self is the ego and the Self is the Spirit. This is how traditional Hindu scripture describes the structure of life, the interplay between the self and the Self. We can also understand vanity by looking at it's opposite: humility. When we are humble we recognize that we don't know. We are open, we are teachable. When we are vain, we think we know, we are closed minded an un-teachable

There is a great verse from the Lao Tzu's Tao te Ching that teaches this concept:

"When they think that they know the answers,

People are difficult to guide.

When they know that they don't know,

People can find their own way"

The Bible too is full of cautions against vanity. The story of Moses and Pharaoh is one of the great stories that illustrates the difference between vanity and humility. Jesus Christ taught his entire ministry about the importance of humility and sealed his teachings with his own example when he cried in agony before the Father in Gethsemane just before being betrayed by Judas:

"Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." (Matt 26:39)

So it's easy to see how vanity applies to ambition- but let's come back to that other state of mind we all know: anxiety. Can anxiety be another form of vanity? I had never really considered this to be the case until I read the following passage from the Bhagavad Gita:

"Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable

For they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.

When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind

There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill."

There is so much meaning packed in those few words. But for purposes of this article, I want to draw two key points from this passage. First is that one of life's great lessons to learn is doing good for goodness' sake- without expectation of external "fruits" or rewards- like praise, attention, or even the satisfaction of knowing who you helped and how they were helped. The second is the understanding of anxiety as a form of vanity. That was a revelation to me when I first read this. Wanting things to turn out the way we want them to and feeling anxious that they aren't or don't seem to be heading that direction is actually a form of vanity! Wow! Sit with that for a while, let it sink in. Here's what I have begun to understand as I've pondered this principle:

While I may have the best of intentions for undertaking actions- when I attach conditions of desired outcomes to those actions before I can feel happy, I have now become vain- I have placed my will above God's will. Instead of making an offering of service to God and giving all the glory to God, I have held back the best part by harboring a desire for receiving some or all of the glory of my actions for myself- in the form of desired external or even internal rewards. I have made Cain's offering instead of Abel's. The placement of my will above God's is exactly how we have defined vanity. And ultimately the fruit of all vanity is misery as the Bhagavad Gita teaches us in this passage. Now misery itself is not necessarily bad- it is simply a consequence- and consequences are the best teachers. Misery is life's way of softening us up to learn what we need to learn so we can grow spiritually.

How much of your life has been lived in misery in the form of being constantly anxious about the results of what you do? Believing that things should turn out a certain way and when they don't, feeling miserable. And even when things do turn out the way we wanted them to, we are all too often not really grateful, because we only got what we expected and there isn't lasting satisfaction in that. And even if we are somewhat grateful when things do turn out the way we want them to- it never lasts- things are always changing- mostly out of our control, so any happiness is fleeting at best because before long we start getting things we don't want or not getting things we want and we're miserable again.

So how do we break out of this self-imposed misery trap? The answer is also given in the passage. We strive to unify our consciousness with God. We strive to unify our will with God's will. Not in the self-deceiving way of vain ambition where we convince ourselves that our will is God's will, but in the humble and truthful way of Jesus Christ- the way of "not my will by thy will be done."

As we move in that direction, we begin to understand that all our worry and anxiety over how things turn out has really been unnecessary. It's not our job to know the ultimate effects of our contribution- it is just our job to contribute as we feel inspired to contribute. All we need to do is offer our service to God and others, and not worry ourselves about whether things go "well or ill"

Does this mean we shouldn't try to make a difference? We shouldn't try our best to do good things and want good results from what we do? Is there something wrong with striving for an outcome we want? Not at all. I believe it is fine to desire certain outcomes and to undertake planning and execution (action) in order to bring about that desired outcome. It's even a good idea to make adjustments to our plans and actions if they don't appear to be bringing us closer to our desired outcome. The main difference I am proposing is that we do not condition our happiness on actually achieving the specific outcome we envision. Let our desires for certain outcomes be preferences, not fixed conditions that have to be met before we can feel happy or satisfied or fulfilled. Instead we should do good simply for the sake of doing good- let the doing be it's own reward and not wait for some other reward for our actions that may or may not come. Why should we condition our joy and happiness on things outside of our control? If it takes receiving results that we desire from our actions and efforts in order to make us happy then like Esau, we've sold our happiness birthright for a pot of stew to feed our temporary hunger. We've put a "middle man" between our actions and our happiness. I say cut out the middleman and find joy in the effort itself regardless of the outcome. I believe that is the practical meaning of the quoted passage from the Bhagavad Gita- as well as from Jesus' "Thy will not my will be done" teaching. Here are a few practical examples:

1- We do our best in our jobs- we contribute to our company or our customers the best we know how to contribute and we let the giving of each days' honest effort be it's own reward rather than trying to jockey for position or promotion or the favor and attention of bosses. As we take this worry-free attitude to work, work will become more enjoyable whether or not promotions and raises come. And chances are that kind of honest giving without expectations will be noticed by bosses and rewarded- but if it's not, there is still no cause for worry or anxiety.

2- We love and serve our spouse whether or not they reciprocate. We let the act of being kind, showing compassion, serving their needs be it's own reward and we don't let ingratitude on their part have anything to do with our happiness because we are not motivated by "the fruits of action." Chances are when our actions become pure like this- even if there are years of built-up resentments and emotional distance built up in a marriage, they will start to melt down. But even if they don't you can still derive happiness out of the very act of giving regardless of the outcome.

3- We do our best to raise our children and give them love, support and boundaries. We impart our values and do our best to set a good example and we derive joy out of the very act of sacrificing and serving our children- grateful for the very opportunity to have children to sacrifice for and serve. And we don't tie our happiness to how our children "turn out." The truth is they (like us) are never done "tuning out"- we are all here to grow spiritually, and spiritual growth is eternal. So even if we think our children aren't "turning out" how we want them to, we no longer have to be anxious and miserable about it. We can just continue to love them and encourage them and take the attitude of "not my will but thy will be done." And one thing we know for sure about God's will is that it holds as sacred the individual freedom of choice of each individual. So if our children are making choices we wish they wouldn't, we can be like God and allow them to make those choices and learn from the consequences of those choices while also doing what we can within our power to help them or to help others that are affected by the choices of our children.

These examples are just a few- and are more on the "big" end of the scale. The principle applies equally in "little" things- like:

1- Exercising for the joy of exercising unattached to whether we loose the weight we want to or not.

2- Praying for the joy of praying- whether or not we think our prayers are answered in the way we want them to be.

3- Cleaning the kitchen for the sake of having a clean kitchen for a few hours- even if it's a mess again the next day or even later that day.

So if you're feeling anxious or worried about something- investigate why that is? Inevitably, if you inquire deeply, you will find that it is because you are desiring a certain result that is really out of your control and quite frankly none of your business! When you see that, you can relax and say "not my will by Thy will be done" and just enjoy doing what you can do- and offering it as Abel's unconditional offering of the best you have to give instead of Cain's conditional offering of the second best. You can recapture all the energy of your imagination that was being sucked up by imagining the worst thing that could happen and living as though it had already happened. Worry is actually just a misuse of imagination. It's taking the creative power of our imagination and using it against ourselves.

Breaking our anxiety habit isn't easy- it wasn't created overnight and it won't be cured overnight. But as we become more aware of the actual thoughts that are causing us to feel anxious and question those thoughts- asking ourselves if we are too attached to our own self-will to our desired outcome and conditioning our offering and our happiness on the "fruits of work" instead of the work itself. Little by little we can re-learn to detach our joy from things outside our control.

I don't believe the point is to try to reach some "desireless" state where we just don't care what happens in our life. I think it's fine to PREFER a certain outcome- just let it remain a preference and not a condition of our happiness. If things turn out differently than we preferred, we can then look for the blessing in that- the opportunity to grow spiritually.

DISCLAIMER: I wish to acknowledge that there are chemical and physiological imbalances that can cause heightened anxiety or "panic attacks." This is a medical condition that needs to be treated in order to help bring the chemical and hormonal levels back into balance. The anxiety I am addressing in this article is the common variety that we can all fall into- good old "worry." Even those who do need to receive medical treatment for panic attacks, once brought back into proper balance still need to deal with the common anxiety and worry mindsets that all have to deal with and this article hopefully will help us to deal with more effectively.

Author's Bio: 

John Groberg writes on a wide variety of topics related to personal and spiritual growth. His slogan is Grow. By Choice™. His articles draw out principles of personal and spiritual growth common to the world’s ancient wisdom and spiritual texts as well as many of the great philosophers, poets, and writers of ancient and modern times. These principles are then put to the test in his own life with an emphasis on simple, sustainable practices we can apply in our daily lives to more effectively deal with the stresses and struggles of modern life and to more fully realize the benefits of deliberate growth. John developed a model called the Divine-Align-Shine model as a way of visually organizing the principles, practices and the overall process of personal and spiritual growth. His writings are cataloged and organized on his website, where contact information is available.