“A Buddha is a Buddha, a Krishna is a Krishna, and you are you. And you are not in any way less than anybody else. Respect yourself, respect your own inner voice and follow it.” — Osho
According to Bronnie Ware, a hospice nurse and author of “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing”, the number one most common regret expressed by the dying is: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”.
Wow. Just think about that for a moment. A heartbreaking proportion of us end up wishing we’d spent our time on this Earth being our authentic selves, rather than conforming to the expectations of others.
It sounds very simple, doesn’t it? “Just be yourself.” Probably most of us have heard that piece of advice more than once. But it’s easier said than done.
By the time we start asking ourselves the deep questions about who we are and what we are here for – typically in our late thirties or early forties – we have so many layers of social conditioning accreted upon us that it is impossible to remember who we are.
Yet it is vital that we do.
Being yourself is the only way to find your life purpose, and aligning with your life purpose is the only way to thrive and find fulfilment. If you’re not being honestly and authentically yourself, you won’t know what things you care about enough to make them worth being courageous for. You need to know yourself, your values, priorities, hopes and dreams, to know what matters enough to you for you to overcome your fears and step up to be your best self.
That isn’t to say that there is just one single path that is in alignment – it’s more about the way you do what you do, rather than the actual thing that you do. There is a whole spectrum of options open to you, some of which are closely aligned, radiating all the way out to not aligned at all.
Once we wake up and start peeling back the layers, it can be a bewildering experience. Having spent more time alone with my own thoughts and my own self than most twenty-first century people get the chance to do, I know it can get quite strange when we are no longer seeing ourselves in relation to other people. I found myself narrating my own story, describing my actions and feelings in the third person, as if I needed an observer, and in the absence of one I had to create one.
Who are we when there is nobody looking? When we are not somebody’s child, sibling, student, friend, lover, parent? As we peel away these identities, what is left? What is at the centre of the Russian doll?
I found myself suspecting that there might be nothing there at all, or at least, nothing that was uniquely me, but rather, a dollop of vital essence that connected me to everybody and everything else.
How, then, was I to find me? In a way, we are so familiar with ourselves that we can’t even see ourselves because we assume that everybody is like that, feels that way, has those qualities.
So how do we find our unique expression?
In my experience, it is a process of trial and error. It isn’t a cerebral exercise that you can do with pen and paper from the safety and privacy of your home. It’s a messy and haphazard process of getting out there and trying new things, and figuring out which bits work for you and which bits don’t. It’s at least as much a process of elimination as it is of inclusion. You have to try before you buy, actively seeking out new experiences and seeing how they feel to you. Just do it, and then decide which bits to accept or reject.
Some people seem to know their path from an early age – musicians, artists, sportspeople. But we also see people who muddled around, trying on different lives for size. Vera Wang didn’t start designing clothes until she was 40. Julia Child wrote her first cookbook at 50. Mary Wesley published her first novel when she was 70. As George Eliot said, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been”.
The point is to keep on looking, because this is the most important work you will ever do. And you will learn to recognise the signs when you are getting warmer – the feeling of excitement, or heightened senses, or tears of emotion. Watch out for those. Pay attention. Take note.
We know it when we see other people who have found their calling. As Caroline McHugh says in her TED Talk on “The Art of Being Yourself”:
“Life is large. But most of us don’t take up nearly the space the universe intended for us. We take up this wee space around our toes, which is why when you see somebody in the full flow of their humanity, it’s remarkable. They’re at least a foot bigger in every direction than normal human beings, and they shine…
…They gleam, they glow. It’s like they’ve swallowed the moon.”
When we see those people, we may think to ourselves that we want some of what they’ve got. And we can have it. But there are no shortcuts. There is no point in comparing or envying or copying. Be inspired, by all means, but know that imitating someone else’s path won’t work for you. Following the path of another won’t produce the results you wish for. Mix and match and combine, by all means, but your point of reference must always be internal, not external.
Yes, it can be hard work. But can also be fun, a joy to follow your natural curiosity and see where it takes you. Treat it like a video game where you have to collect gems of wisdom along the path in order to find the hidden treasure. Or picture it like connecting with your inner compass and sensing when you are getting closer to your lodestone. Allow the journey to be as enjoyable as reaching the destination.
This is what it truly means to step into the river of life, to be carried along by its momentum, to relax into its flow.
To quote Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
Sit down with your journal (or a piece of paper, or an iPad, or whatever your preferred mode of recording your deepest thoughts may be) and think of the times when you felt yourself to be in a state of flow. You may need to go all the way back to childhood days – go back as far as you need to.
When did you feel you couldn’t not do something that you love?
When did you feel most happy, and graceful, and grateful, and at one with the world?
If you’ve never felt quite like that, don’t worry. Has there ever been a time when you simply felt happier than usual? What was going on? Break down the experience.
What was it that was meaningful? The people? The physical sensations? The emotions? The surroundings? Something else?
Feel your way back into the memory, and describe as many aspects as you can remember. See which aspects of the memory make you smile. Follow that path, explore that direction.
Think of at least three similar activities that you could try in order to home in on what aspect of the experience it was that really made you come alive.
Then make a plan to try them – and do the plan. Awaken your curiosity! Get excited about finding out who YOU are!
After all, you don’t want to end up as one of those dying people wishing “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me” – do you?