Aspiration connects us with a sense of what is possible. It is a key that opens the door to healing, spiritual cultivation, and social transformation. Without aspiration—without the sense that things can be different—we don’t bring forth the energy required for change.
Aspiration is not an attribute we either possess or lack. To aspire is a verb; it’s something we do. To aspire is to connect with spirit, with the energy that animates our life. Indeed, the root of aspire, spirare in Latin, means “to breathe.” Aspiration takes many forms, and it has both active and receptive aspects. The active component of aspiration brings us face-to-face with our responsibilities as individuals and members of our society. Aspiration calls us to question what’s most important. How do you want to spend the time you’ve been granted on earth? What aspects of our world do you wish you could use your time, energy, or resources to change? What kind of world do you long to leave for your children and future generations?\
Notice this longing. This is aspiration: a stirring of the heart that yearns for and trusts in something deeper, more fulfilling, just, or good in life. We can also have more than one aspiration. It can be a calling to one or more vocations, an expression of our values, or an articulation of broad goals. Here are a few examples of aspirations:
I want to parent with deep care, attention, and respect for my children.
I wish to build and strengthen community wherever I go.
I long to treat everyone I meet with love, dignity, and kindness.
I aspire to stand against oppression and injustice, even when doing so may threaten my own comfort and safety.
Aspiration also can be more of a feeling than a specific goal—an uplifting glimmer that emerges when we feel moved, touched, or inspired. We witness this natural aspiration in small children whose faces light up and bodies thrill with energy as they encounter new possibilities in themselves and the world. I often feel the stir of aspiration, sensing the greatness of human possibility, when listening to a brilliant musician perform or seeing an Olympic athlete compete. But aspiration doesn’t need to be so grand to lead us forward. If you feel sick, depressed, or overwhelmed, a skillful aspiration may simply be to eat a healthy meal, take a shower, or walk outside.
We may need to lean on others before finding our aspirations, borrowing their faith in us. For example, parents’ and teachers’ expectations support our academic achievement. Others’ belief in us helps us believe in our own possibilities. Long-term, caring relationships with adults during our childhood give us the resilience to successfully face the societal, interpersonal, and physical challenges of life. Their care manifests as our aspirations, even when our external resources are strained.
Other times, aspiration is forged in the crucible of pain. When hardship strikes, how do you react? Do you grit your teeth, resist, or bear down, steeling yourself against the hurt? Do you collapse into numbness? Do you get stuck in anger, lashing out, passing your pain onto others? Do you turn anger inward, bitterly punishing yourself? If you can slow things down and find the inner or outer support you need to make space for your hurt and heartbreak, your rage and fear, then you have a choice. Rather than compounding pain into suffering, you can aspire to heal and grow. Aspiration is the seed of the lotus that grows in the muck of our suffering.
Aspiration is distinct from fantasy, expectation, and ordinary hope. Early in the pandemic, grappling with being in lockdown, I read about Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In prison he noticed that overly optimistic prison-mates broke down as their imagined deadlines for freedom passed. Stockdale got through those painful years and came out more resilient through more realistic hopes. He spoke of “the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail… [and] the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.”
Ordinary hope places our fulfillment and well-being in an imagined future, beyond our control. It ignores our agency and feeds craving. When our wished-for outcome isn’t realized, we are crushed. The endless world of fantasy can provide temporary relief in an unbearable situation, but it ultimately leaves us hollow. Aspiration is a kind of practical hope that opens the heart to possibility. Aspiration becomes expectation when it fixates on a certain outcome. Expectation contracts around what we believe should be, attempting to control things. Aspiration expands into what could be, steering in a particular direction.
Aspiration can galvanize entire populations to place bodies on the line for change. In 1776, during an era of enslavement, servitude, and disenfranchisement for vast portions of the population, the US Declaration of Independence articulated an aspiration that for centuries has inspired citizens to hold their nation accountable to its values and has even sparked movements around the world for sovereignty, self-determination, and democracy. From the refrain of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, to the rallying cry of the United Farm Workers labor union—“¡Si se puede!”—to the Movement for Black Lives’ comprehensive and radical blueprint for a transformed nation, collective aspiration waters the seeds of change in society.
From where does this active form of aspiration arise? It arises in part from a more receptive aspect of aspiration: the trust upon which our vision is founded. Allowing ourselves to feel held and supported by trust is essential for the arduous work of healing and transformation at all levels. For some, this may be the simple yet powerful faith that actions have effects. For others, it may be faith in the divine or the inherent goodness of life—an underlying sense of love, order, or moral justice in the universe. Cultivating connection with ancestors through ritual, prayer, reflection, culture, or research can create an abiding sense trust and confidence. In her book Faith, the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg writes of this quality as “trusting your own deepest experience.” What do you know to be true that you can rely on? What upholds you in difficult times? This trust relaxes the heart, which in turn allows us to orient toward the healthy longing of aspiration.
The author and educator Patrick Overton expresses this receptive aspect of aspiration beautifully in his poem titled “Faith”:
When you walk to the edge of all the light you have
and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown,
you must believe that one of two things will happen—
There will be something solid for you to stand upon,
Or, you will be taught how to fly.
Sometimes connecting with our aspiration just means taking the next step and trusting that the ground will appear beneath us or that we will discover new resources we didn’t know we had. I struggled with Lyme disease for three years before fully recovering. There were many times—not knowing if the disease would ever resolve—when all I could do was take the next step.
The willingness to lean on our aspiration, to connect with a sense of possibility and walk into the unknown, sustains movements for nonviolent social transformation. When the Indian nationalist and spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi began his famous march to the sea in defiance of the British salt tax, he had a clear aspiration for India’s independence, supported by a deep trust in the power of what he called satyagraha, the force of truth rooted in nonviolence. Taking his first step, he could not know that the march would grow so large that more than sixty thousand people would be arrested, nor could he foresee that the journey to independence would take another seventeen long years. He walked into the unknown with aspiration and resolve, one step at a time.
Thirty-five years later, hundreds of demonstrators led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams set out across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma toward Montgomery, Alabama, in a march to demand equal voting rights for African Americans. Faith in the justice of their goal and training in the strength of nonviolence prepared them for adversity. As they set foot on the bridge, they did not know what violence they might encounter, who might live or die, or how pivotal their actions would become in the larger movement for freedom. Yet they walked.
When I speak with students and activists, they report the crushing effect of despair and hopelessness—the loss of aspiration. Seeing the deepening climate crisis, compromised politicians, ongoing structural violence, it is difficult to believe another world is possible. In these moments, we must call upon the receptive aspect of our aspiration. Perhaps we find trust in the innate goodness of the human heart. Perhaps we find it in our commitment to act with integrity helping others. As Paulo Freire famously wrote, “We make the road by walking.” In the face of despair and hopelessness, if we take one step at a time and remain open to life, we will hear the call of our aspiration.
Find a quiet place where you can feel centered and still inside. The process of reflection is one of listening more than actively thinking. Silently ask yourself, “Where in my life have I felt connected to aspiration, to the possibility that things could be better or different?” Ask the question, then allow different memories, thoughts, or images to come and go. Be open to whatever comes, however grand or mundane—an idea in a lecture or article, a moment in nature, a painting, a poem, a song. What uplifts you? What gives you a sense of possibility? Give yourself time to dwell with this memory, image, or feeling. If your focus drifts, come back to a stable center by feeling your body or breathing, then ask the question again.
Sit or recline comfortably and let your eyes close. Do whatever helps you quiet your mind and come to a place of receptivity and relative stillness inside. This might be feeling the sensations of your body sitting, the rhythm of your breathing, or noticing the sounds around you. (Remember to choose an anchor that feels pleasant or neutral.) As you become more aware of your sensory experience, reflect on being alive. Right here and now, this is the only moment you have to experience life. Take this in as you sit quietly.
Now ask, “What is most important to me? What is my aspiration?” Listen deeply to what comes, being open to different forms of your heart’s intelligence. Welcome any images, thoughts, emotions, sensations, or memories that arise. Listen quietly and allow an aspiration to form. Aspiration doesn’t need to be articulated verbally; it can be represented by an image, a phrase, a melody, or a feeling. Allow yourself to linger with whatever arises. When you’re ready, open your eyes and shift your attention to the space around you. Repeat this practice periodically as you feel called to explore your aspirations in life.
Nourishing an aspiration takes time and effort. In order to stay connected to your aspiration, renew your commitment regularly. After doing the reflection and meditation above, journal about your aspiration(s), or write one down on a small piece of paper. Alternatively, choose an image or object that represents your aspiration or aspirations. It can be anything that makes sense to you: a stone, a flower, a picture, a toy—anything at all that signifies your aspiration(s). Place this object in a special place: perhaps on a fine piece of cloth or in a little clearing on a shelf. For a week or longer, spend some time with this object daily. As you do, reconnect with your aspiration, repeating it silently, reading it aloud, or calling it to mind.
IF YOU HAVE DIFFICULTIES
You may struggle to sense your aspiration. If you feel stuck, blank, or discouraged, try to scale things back. Remember to start small and be patient. What’s a reasonable aspiration for this afternoon? Work with aspiration in small steps, giving yourself time to hear a deeper aspiration inside. The more patient you are, listening and waiting, the more opportunity you will have to connect with genuine aspiration.
If this doesn’t help, reflect on hardships you’ve endured. Notice how they eventually shifted. What got you through those times? Think of those who have faced similar struggles or worse. If you could offer something to others who are struggling, what would that be? Last, try reflecting on impermanence. Recall that everything changes—including the feelings and state of mind you’re experiencing now. Can you trust the natural law of change as a reassurance that something else is possible?
If you notice clinging, striving, or tightness inside; if you feel a sense of brittleness, pressure, or grasping—check to see if your aspiration is being colored by expectation. Notice how the contraction feels in your body or mind and see if you can allow some softening there. Imagine that the breath can slowly dissolve any tightness or contraction. Recall that you can’t control the outcome of things, but you can steer your life.
From Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love © 2023 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com