Hi Lama. I’m a college student and I have a great fear that I will not succeed. I feel anxious all the time and constantly compare myself with my classmates and worry about my exams. When the feeling gets really bad, I smoke marijuana to relax. It works temporarily, but the anxiety always returns. My parents also push me to get top grades and really want me to succeed, and this gives me even more stress. I feel like I’m in pressure cooker. Help!

TP, Thimphu 

Hi TP, well first of all, I think you and your parents need to consider what they mean by success. Very often we blindly strive to achieve other people’s definition of success without considering what it actually means. In reality, are good grades and high positions really a mark of success?

From a Buddhist prospective, success is to recognize the illusory nature of samsara and nirvana. Without this kind of realization, any kind of achievement is like attaining a high status or good grades, but in a dream. In this respect, stepping on the path to success could perhaps be defined as recognizing the characteristics of samsaric existence (known as the ‘Four Seals of Buddhism’) and infusing this knowledge with our thoughts, words, and deeds. If we can recognize, for example, that everything in the universe is impermanent (one of the ‘Four Seals’) we will be less likely to get disturbed when a relationship breaks up or even when our health declines. Wealth and status can never offer us this kind of openness to life.

Even if you are talking purely about mundane success, there are many definitions that you should consider. In reality, academic achievements, status, and material wealth are neither very noble nor daring goals, and they would constitute an extremely shallow definition of success.

To give you some ideas to think over, here are some definitions of success by high profile people:

Dalai Lama: “Cultivating a close, warm hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life”

Nelson Mandela: “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do. Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

Albert Einstein: “Try not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”

Michelle Obama: “Success isn’t about how much money you make. It’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

In the context of your question, you need to seriously consider what you want to achieve in life. To put things in prospective, imagine that you are lying in a hospital bed dying. Now, think back over your life and honestly consider what brings you a sense of contentment and peace – is it the expensive cars you owned or your college exam results or is it the people that you helped and the wisdom you acquired? Only you can answer this question.

As for smoking up, I personally don’t think it’s a good idea. Here, I’m not discussing the legal or moral aspect of the drug, but the practical considerations of marijuana use. I know that it offers relief from stress and looks cool but, as you already have discovered, the effects are temporary. Furthermore, regular use actually makes people more anxious and prevents them from acquiring the skills they need to deal with life’s problems. In reality, it would be better to learn how to address the underlying causes of our stress. Obviously, there will be times when you feel totally overwhelmed by your problems. At such times, I suggest that rather than smoking up, you look for healthy options that will clear your mind, such as going for a long walk or embarking on a wild cycle ride.

In short, I recommend that you consider what is important in life. Then, once you are clearer about what success means to you personally, develop the courage to forge your own path and not merely follow one created by the mass media and imposed on you by peer pressure. Basically, be a lion, not a sheep.


 The Four Seals

1. All compounded things are impermanent.

2. All emotions are painful.

3.  All phenomena are empty.

4. Nirvana is beyond extremes.

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes. Email to for any queries


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