One of the very common games people can play with themselves on the spiritual path is to expect that they’re going to get something or somewhere. Even after awakening, this little game can continue on. We think that we’ll arrive at some end goal and that everyone will now love us, accept us, listen to us, or whatever it is we think we want to get. Yet even after a profound awakening and gradually transitioning into a deep and powerful place within, no one may really notice all that you’ve done. Or people may notice and now not like you. Or people notice and they just want to adore you. You may be like, “What kind of outcome is this and where is my merit badge?”

But there is no merit badge on the spiritual path.

The Ego: It’s Goals and Games

A lot of times a part of the ego goes along with this whole spiritual thing because it thinks it is going to end up at a better place than where it is. Better is defined in all sorts of ways, and really, the best definition would be to accept yourself as you are and the world as it is. This is a “better” way of living. But that’s not usually the ego’s game. The ego wants an award. It wants acknowledgement. It wants safety or a certain type of love like a soulmate or twin flame. So perhaps after years of dedicated spiritual work, someone will suddenly stop and say, “I’ve got nothing to show for any of this.” And right when the person may be getting ready to quit or just keep doing what they’re doing, there is an opening. There is now an opening to look at what you thought you were going to get and to see the games you’ve been playing with yourself.

Because the sad truth is that most people in this world do not see you as you are and never will no matter how spiritual or awakened you are. Most people don’t even see who they are. That’s why 99% of the work you will ever do will be related directly to yourself. If your entire body is broken, you have to heal before you can help anyone else go through rehab. Just as you had really cranky days going through rehab, others will too, so you better be really ready and done with your own healing and initial growth phases before you open yourself up to the darkness in others.

Finding the Endless Seas of Change

One of my awakened students asked about whether this shifting ever really stops. Ultimately, I’ve found that my internal growth cycles have dropped into a more steady rhythm versus when the floodgates of awareness first broke, but there is still change because life is change. We are not meant to be static beings; that’s an illusion of the ego. So another way that you see the ego acting up is in this attempt to reach land. The ego is like, “I want solid ground under my feet,” but we live in a water world. There will never be land beneath the ego’s feet because everything is change. We have to embrace the change if we want solidity, and while that seems paradoxical, it is the truth. Solidity comes through embracing the flow. In flowing with life, we find the most stable source of connection that is possible in this world. From that kind of stability, nothing can knock you off your center ever again.

But to go back to the seeking of that merit badge at the top of the solid stable mountain, you may find momentary experiences that give you the illusion that you’ve made it. You may even have the arising of the sense that you’ve made it. While the inner arising is a true place of resting in awakened awreness, that place of resting has always been here. To say you’ve achieved it, is like a fish saying that it’s finally achieved being a fish. The other way of having an experience in the world that makes you feel like you’ve arrived (a national best-selling book, a brand new spiritual center, an amazing romantic partner, etc.) are temporary. They may not actually be indicators of anything internal. You will find that the external world and its vagaries have much less to do with you than you had once thought.

Success on the Internal World

I always appreciated something that Eckhart Tolle once said. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially, he said that success on the internal world isn’t necessarily success in the external world, and success in the external world isn’t necessarily success on the internal world. It’s profoundly true. Just because you got a promotion at work doesn’t mean that you’re attracting inner abundance. You may suddenly have even less time for yourself and are being even less mindful in your life as a whole. Conversely, lying on your couch in deep healing and being unable to work while your home goes into foreclosure may look like a great failure to the external world. But on the inside, this is a tremendous success because of the healing that is going on. This doesn’t mean that inner and external successes are mutually exclusive, but it’s important to not associate them so closely together. That is ultimately what the ego is trying to do. It’s trying to use the external world as a kind of validation for what is changing on the inner world, but much of what ever happens within us is impossible to measure. Can you give me a quart or liter of awakened consciousness? I think not.

5 Tips for Giving Up Your Quest for a Merit Badge

Still, much of our ego programming has us caught up in achievements. Here are a couple ideas about ways to let go of your quest for goals, achievements, and merit badges.

  1. Stop doing what others tell you to do. This is a profound thing because we spend so much time looking to external sources and looking for others to give us acknowledgment and awards by which to measure our success. In my own work, I am constantly reminding students to go within and to listen to their inner knowing because I most certainly am still human and have no merit badges to give (unless I’m doing it as a joke because…well, I’ve got that kind of sense of humor).
  2. Go within and journal about why you want what you want. Most people have no idea why they are doing what they are doing. I often spend time taking apart students’ questions to help them understand how they are thinking. This is often much more profound work than if I’d given them my answer to a question. You can do the same with your journal by asking questions like, “Why do I want this?” “What am I trying to get?” “Why do I want to get that?”
  3. Go for a walk when you should do something else. I’m being a little metaphorical here. The idea is really about stepping away from something right when you’re starting to get really attached to it. For instance, you’re really getting into a relationship, and it’s become your sole focus. It’s time to step back, and see what’s really going on for you. The same applies with a spiritual practice, a new job, and so forth. This isn’t about giving up your obligations; it’s about seeing what obligations you have made and gaining a new perspective so you don’t get lost in them.
  4. Don’t focus on the teacher; focus on the inner listener. Specifically for the spiritual path, the tendency is to focus on the teacher. When I listen to other spiritual teachers , I am “listening” to the arising responses in me. I look at what triggers me. This is one way how I “listen” to my inner teacher all the time and find the inner work I need to do. This focus on my reactions keeps me from getting lost in any kind of idealization of others.
  5. Let go of the future. This will probably be the one where you ego screams the loudest, but ultimately we have no control over the future. And that’s usually what the merit badge is a part of–the future. The ego thinks that once it’s arrived to a certain point and had an awards ceremony, then you will be spiritually complete. But that arrival point is always in the future, and you can only ever be here and now. So be here and now. Let go of the future, and you will have already arrived (and probably no longer want the merit badge).

I'm a spiritual teacher who helps people find freedom from suffering.


  1. Jim,

    What a ton of wisdom you have condensed into such few words. A book could have been written (and many have been) about what you so elegantly summarize here… beautiful… I have my spiritual food for the day…


  2. Thank you for this post. On my path, I'm really struggling right now with feeling like I can't find any solid ground to stand on, as I've started to realize I really don't know or understand much of anything about my existence, how I got here, where I'm going, the world, or if I can be certain my soul is eternally and ultimately safe and loved. I was intrigued by what you wrote here about, in flowing with life, an inner stability emerges. How does one go about putting real trust in that possibility? How can someone who's used to approaching things so intellectually put trust in an inner stability that seems so mysterious and even spooky?

  3. Inner work.

    Inner work is about investigating the source of the fears that create mistrust. If you learn to find the source of the issue and resolve the unresolved emotions that feel fearful to you, you don't need to put your trust in to anything. You don't even need trust because you are not afraid in the first place.

    And you can just be.

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