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What Does Success Look Like?

“What is essential is invisible to the eye. The irony of fitness is that we do these things to perform better, to live longer, to feel stronger. And yet, so often we measure our success by the outward appearance, the veneer of health. As above, so below; as within, so without. What we cannot see determines our quality of life. Let beauty radiate from inside.” – Scott Sonnon

Scott Sonnon is speaking of physical exercise, but he could be speaking of any kind of fitness: emotional, mental, creative… fitness in love, in spiritual practice, in life.

What do we want? What do we need? What do we desire? And in considering these questions, let us go one further: What does success look like? I think success looks different for each of us, yet we often cultivate big assumptions solidified by the overculture that tell us over and over, “You are not successful, because success looks like x, y, or z.” Success looks like this particular body type, or income bracket, or notoriety, or level of happiness. But Sonnon is right: Success, like beauty, radiates from the inside. It is how we move in the world. Success is often made up of several tiny things: the way light plays on the plant growing on our fire escape; the way our body stretches toward the sky upon waking; the way a child smiles up at us; the way we feel after an intensive meditation session; the way we finally figure out the way the puzzle pieces interlock, at least for now; the way our breath comes after a great run; the satisfaction of putting that final period on the piece of writing, for now.

What does success look like? Some days it feels like strength. Some days it looks like kindness.

I’m teaching a class right now on “Courting Desire” and posted some writing based on this piece. A class participant responded with great questions along the lines of, “What does success look like if someone doesn’t have a privileged life? What happens when it is such a struggle to get through the day job that to save enough pennies to record a CD is a monumental task? Or what happens when physical health is a struggle? How do we manifest our desires then?”

Here is my response: Some of you know I was raised working class, dropped out of high school, then dropped out of college. I could barely afford ramen noodles half the time, worked a lot of weird jobs to pay my rent, ended up with fatigue and chronic illness for many years – exacerbated by chronic pain and trying to heal from first a motorcycle accident and second whiplash from riding in a car – all of which made working on anything very very hard. What did I do? What you do, I expect. I kept trying to practice. I kept trying to show up. I rested when I needed to. I stopped doing things I thought I should be doing and started doing things I wanted to do. That last was a big one. I’m not necessarily talking about quitting my job. I’m talking about ceasing to work on committees that no longer fed me just because they were a good idea. Or stopping working on or even going to the huge community ritual just because everyone put effort toward it even though I no longer liked it. I’m also talking about choosing to work part time and going into student loan debt to finish my BA in Philosophy and Religion, which actually did mean quitting working full time at the soup kitchen and in hospice where I was constantly exhausted, noble work though it was.

That, plus a blessed homeopath that treated me for almost nothing, because I had no money, turned my life around. I started choosing more and more often what I wanted to do, even when it was hard, even when two long term relationships crumbled because of it, even when, once again, I barely had the money to pay my rent. I increased my practice and I figured out how to best take care of my body so that my energy flow could match the work I wanted to do.

Each of our stories will be different. Resistance comes up in many different guises, too. How do we keep showing up toward self-love and face our resistance? How do we keep asking our God Soul/Holy Guardian Angel/Inner Wisdom for help?

Part of what helped me, of course, was looking at my stories: were they true? Did they serve me? Could I drop those stories or learn new ones? Part of what helped me was choosing to practice, to meditate, to align daily. Part of what helped me was learning to listen better, to shift my responses to conflict, to integrate more of my parts. I also learned to accept the help offered in strange and wondrous ways.

There are always challenges on the Path, – that is part of how we learn – but my current story is this: I feel grateful for my fortune. Fortune is the combination of personal effort and the gift of grace. My books don’t sell huge numbers, but they seem to find their way into the right hands. I don’t teach thousands, but I teach those who have a keen interest. My good health takes steady attention, but wow, am I healthy, especially compared to my chronic fatigue days!

I am committed to service work, to my physical health and spiritual practice, to my partners, and to the flow of God Herself. I honor my Gods, my students, and my friends as best I can. I’ll count this as success.

What is the substance beneath the veneer? What does success look like to you? Where can you look for inspiration? How can you inspire someone else?

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