Often people’s biggest regret, when they are dying, is that they did not live true to themselves. They lived up to other people’s expectations, not really what truly mattered to them. The problem is that we speed through life, not giving ourselves a chance to feel our hearts. We don’t create space to truly see ourselves until the rug gets pulled out from under us.
When the rug gets pulled out from under us, we are in darkness. Remember that darkness doesn’t last forever. Night turns to morning, cloudy, foggy skies turn sunny. If we can recognize and allow the darkness, by slowing down and paying attention, we will eventually see the light.
Over the years, society has pulled us away from our true selves. We pile on layer after layer of roles we need to play, expectations we need to meet, how we need to look, and how we should feel. When we don’t shed the expectations that no longer work, our authentic self gets buried deeper and deeper. We are so accustomed to the identities thrust upon us that we don’t even realize we are wearing layers of masks. We begin to think that is who we are. But it’s not who we are; it’s who we were needed to be at some point in time. It is who we think we need to be to fit in and belong.
“True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” Brene Brown
Sometimes it feels more comfortable to live the roles expected of me. Often on the path to discovering my authentic self, I have questioned why I am doing this. It is hard to strip away the layers of defenses I have built up to keep myself safe. But as DH Lawrence said, I need to dig deep to get there. Then I remember that I am plagued by feelings of unworthiness and self-doubt when I am not living authentically. Those feelings drain my energy and keep me from living the life I want to live.
If I look back to my first marriage, I spent years trying to be who I thought he wanted me to be. But after having kids, that got to be too exhausting. I couldn’t be who I thought I was supposed to be. And I was not even right about what he wanted me to be. Today with each of us living more our authentic selves, my daughter-in-law said she could not picture us ever being married; we are so different.
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we actually are.” Brene Brown
When I am not living authentically, I feel like I have a hole in my soul, and chocolate doesn’t help fill it. I feel the need to keep striving for something more. When I can live with who I am at my core, not who the world told me to be, that hole doesn’t feel so large. And life is not so exhausting.
In my meditation teacher training, I was given the gift of space to honestly look at myself, set my heart’s direction, and how I wanted to live my life. Something my authentic self could commit to regardless of external circumstances. It allowed me to see that what once seemed critical was not really important, but it was still a driving force in my life. In 2017 I re-defined my North Star, and it remains my North star today.
“Take off the mask of doing and knowing. Have the courage to open myself to uncertainty, suffering, and impermanence. In doing so, I will find true intimacy. Know that I have loving awareness in me that I can draw on.” Gloria Green
I think five steps helped me uncover my authentic self.
- Defining My North Star
- Recognizing and Allowing My Feelings
- Balancing my Energy and Effort
- Listening to My Inner Nurturer
- Deciding on the Next Best Step
Defining My North Star
The first step was defining my North Star, setting the compass of my life. We often think we see clearly, but our perceptions are distorted by who we think we are. So even when we want to change, we hold onto that image and unconsciously work against the changes we want to make in our lives. It is pretty easy for us to fall into unconscious patterns to soothe ourselves, even when we know those habits are pulling us off the path to our authentic self.
“Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.” DH Lawrence
Even if we have charted our North Star, we won’t see reality if we are moving too fast in life. To map our route, we need to find time to reflect on our aspirations regularly. Remember where attention goes, energy flows. And we will need the energy to get there.
Another way to increase our energy is to resource ourselves by taking in the good. Our minds were developed with a negativity bias. Our view defaults to seeing the negative. We can train our brains to see the positive. When our perspective is contracted, we don’t see all the possibilities for our lives. We are too busy being focused on what we can’t do or don’t have to see what we can do or do have.
We need to see how we suffer, how our life is out of kilter, and that we can do something about it. Mindfulness enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass.
Recognizing and Allowing My Feelings
Once we have found our North Star, our thinking can become more proficient. We can see how our old stories limit us and hold us back. It is being aware of our habits and avoiding thoughts of clinging, hatred, and harmful intent. We may see where our intentions are marbled with wanting and fear.
Recognition is seeing what is true in your inner life. It starts the minute you focus your attention on whatever thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations are arising right here and now. As your attention settles and opens, you will discover that some parts of your experience are easier to connect with than others. For example, you might recognize anxiety right away, but if you focus on your worried thoughts, you might not notice the actual sensations of squeezing, pressure or tightness arising in the body. On the other hand, if your body is gripped by jittery nervousness, you might not recognize that this physical response is being triggered by your underlying belief that you are about to fail. You can awaken recognition simply by asking yourself: “What is happening inside me right now?” Call on your natural curiosity as you focus inward. Try to let go of any preconceived ideas and instead listen in a kind, receptive way to your body and heart.
Allowing means “letting be” the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations you discover. You may feel a natural sense of aversion, of wishing that unpleasant feelings would go away, but as you become more willing to be present with “what is,” a different quality of attention will emerge. Allowing is intrinsic to healing, and realizing this can give rise to a conscious intention to “let be.”
“Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” The Beatles
It is really hard to just let unpleasant sensations or thoughts be. You may want to whisper an encouraging phrase. You may say, “Yes, this is happening.” Or “this to” or “I can be with this.” At first you might feel you’re just “putting up” with unpleasant emotions or sensations. In reality, we have to consent again and again. Yet even the first gesture of allowing, simply whispering a phrase like “yes” or “I can be with this” begins to soften the harsh edges of your pain. Your entire being is not so resistant. Offer the phrase gently and patiently, and in time your defenses will relax, and you may feel a physical sense of yielding or opening to waves of experience.
“People often swerve away from their dreams to avoid risking experiences they dread…The edges of the experiences we fear form a kind of invisible force that limits the life we allow ourselves to have.” Rick Hanson
Balancing My Energy and Effort
Too much effort can be as detrimental to change as not enough effort.If we are doing too much, we are moving too fast to see the view. When we try too hard, we lose the energy we need to keep moving forward. The path towards our North Star is a marathon, not a sprint. When we are meditating, we are using just the effort needed to bring ourselves back to the present moment. In life, it is just the effort required to pause so we can respond rather than react.
“The energy we send out in the world is the energy we get back. If you want kindness and love, send out kindness and love. If you wonder why there are so many angry people in your life, look no further than the resentment you hold in your own heart.” Oprah Winfrey
Listening to My Inner Nurturer
Our speech can move us along on our path, or it can derail us. To go in the right direction, we need to stop and listen. We listen not just to whoever is talking but also to our inner nurturer instead of our inner critic. Our inner nurturer speaks very softly, sending subtle guidance via the gut, the heart, or a more profound knowing.
Our inner critic encourages imposter syndrome, that sense of feeling fake, with an accompanying worry that people will find out we are not really that good. Our inner critic would make Einstein look dumb and Mother Theresa look selfish. For most of us, our inner critic has lived past its sell-by date, we no longer need that harsh voice haranguing us at every turn. We can employ reason, reflection, and compassion to navigate the challenges of our lives.
Your inner nurturer is the part of you that acts like a best friend. It accepts that you are an imperfect human being, and that it is normal to make mistakes. It speaks to you in a soft, compassionate way, unlike the harsh, belittling tone of the inner critic. It may be helpful to create a response that your inner nurturer says to your inner critic when it begins to get out of control. Something like, “I know you are trying to help, but it’s not working.”
The inner nurturer will remind you that you can pause and calm your body by breathing. It will let you know that you are not alone, you are a part of the imperfect human race. Then you can reword the observations made by your inner critic in a kinder, more positive way which is more likely to get the change you are looking for in your life.
Your inner nurturer will guide you when you reflect on these questions:
- What is my highest goal?
- What is my best intention for myself and for others?
- What matters to me in this response?
- Do I want to be right, understand differently, or connect?
Deciding on the Best Next Step
If we have slowed down enough to see reality and think about our options, we will choose actions and situations that align us with our North Star. We will act in ways that reduce suffering rather than increase it. Oprah’s advice for skillful action is:
“Before you agree to do anything that might add even the smallest amount of stress to your life, ask yourself: What is my truest intention? Give yourself time to let a yes resound within you. When it’s right, I guarantee that your entire body will feel it.” Oprah
Before acting, we take a mindful pause in which we consider whether that action will move us along our path or pull us away from the course. There are many activities we can incorporate into our daily lives. Commit to one thing, that you are not already doing, that you will do for at least 1 minute a day for the next two weeks.
- Take in the good
- Practice gratitude
- Make and keep a small promise to yourself
- Commit to one self-care (not self-indulgence) activity
- Question the truth of your inner critic’s chatter
- Take a mindful pause before reacting
- Ask yourself “What can I do in this moment to move in the direction of my North Star?”
- Acknowledge your suffering
- Talk to yourself as you would a good friend
- Tell yourself “I am worthy.” Or “I am enough.”
- Watch your thoughts as you meditate
- Meditate by sending kindness to yourself and others
Being your authentic self means that you are using all your skills, talents, and wisdom. It’s doing things that are uniquely you. Your actions arise from who you are, not what you believe you are supposed to do. You may ask yourself:
- What choice will create peace within me?
- What action is the most loving to me and others?
“Being authentic means loving who you love, pursuing the stuff you’re interested in, laughing at the shit you find funny, and fighting for what you think is right. Being authentic also means giving yourself permission to change your mind, to make mistakes, to be a jerk, to beg forgiveness, to be sad, lonely, stupid, and lazy.” Jen Sincero