“I have to live a glamorous life like all of my friends who graduated from law school with me!”, says your social self, leading you to feel guilty every weekend you’re not slaving away at your computer, responding to emails within minutes of their arrival in your inbox and feeling overwhelmed before you can even start your own agenda for the day.
Meanwhile, the small, childlike voice of your essential self says, “I want to create something I am proud to call my own, and sound like a human being again when I write. It’s like I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be me.”
How is it that we can end up with the demands of the outer trappings of our lives leading us one way, and our innermost desires – the thoughts and feelings we are hiding from – leading us in another?
From the moment we are born, we live in contact with a world of ideas being absorbed into our brains, becoming part of our habitual thinking. We also have an innate intelligence that is present inside us before, during, and after all the habituation. If you’re like me and have lived most of your life without consciously examining this innate layer of intelligence (which some call “intuition”, others call “heart”, and others call “soul”), at first it might seem downright outrageous to even consider that there might even be a distinction between what we’ve been taught to believe versus what we know in our hearts to be true.
All of the “learning” that we do in school is basically training the social self. If we were really lucky, we had one or two outlets in our childhood which allowed us to explore the expressions of our essential self – a sport, a musical instrument, dance, visual arts, collecting comic books, or staring at the sky. And when I say “if we were really lucky”, I mean that many of our essential self expressions are not easily accepted in social settings or approved of by parents, and not always encouraged in school.
The essential self speaks through passion, imagination, and hard-to-explain joy. Not all “extracurricular activities” allow kids to explore their passion, or connect with the real reason for doing the activity. This is why I’m more than a little amused by the current obsession among Harvard undergraduates to remain “as busy as possible”. At the highest level of our education system, we are perpetuating the myth that our self-worth is tied to how much activity we do.
But the essential self is about being. It speaks subtly and sometimes quietly. Especially when compared to the volume and frequency of signals that feed our social self’s neverending list of “have to…” and “should…” statements, the essential self speaks like a whisper, or like a cool breeze, which is felt long before it makes an audible sound.
Just as music is the silence between the notes, our essential self needs space to express itself between the fast-paced demands of the social self’s thoughts. The essential self is persistent. If you don’t create the space to feel what your essential self is trying to say, it will find a way to speak more loudly to you. It may even find a way to stop you in your tracks, through immobilization of your body by pain, forcing you to get still and listen.
Everyone’s essential self speaks in a unique way, discernible only to you. So how do you start to decode the language of YOUR essential self? What are some clues that your essential self is speaking to you?
Ways the Essential Self Says “YES”:
- You feel, in your heart, that you are OK, even though “Everybody Else” is telling you something different.
- Your body is in great physical shape – you are sleeping well, eating what you need, are pain-free and feeling energetic.
- You can’t explain in words why you feel good or why you are drawn to something that makes you happy. You just do it and it truly makes you feel good inside.
- Your mind is clear, your mood is not dependent on what other people do in response to you, and you are at peace.
Ways the Essential Self Says “NO”:
- Every time you drive to the job that you hate, your stomach starts to hurt.
- Your body feels stiff, immobilized by pain, or numb to any sensations at all.
- You have lengthy explanations – full of quotes from other people – about why you keep doing the thing you know you hate doing and secretly wish you could stop doing.
- You forget things associated with the work you hate doing, your mood is very susceptible to fluctuation based on how other people respond to you, and you feel a vague sense of discomfort that you can’t quite name.
Notice that the essential self speaks in a dialect that involves YOUR BODY as well as your mind. The social self is a PhD-level expert in THE MIND. It could care less about how the body feels, unless it serves one of its purposes as a symbol of something to the outside world. The social self teaches us to override internal signals in order to get what it thinks we need. The problem is, the social self on its own isn’t a reliable guide.
Any form of body movement helps us connect with our essential self more. If you’re avoiding exercise, chances are your social self is afraid of what the essential self might have to say if you tried. By the same token, if you’re an exercise “freak”, examine your body’s reaction when you give it rest and allow it to be totally still.
Making music – from a simple humming sound to clapping your hands or tapping a rhythm on a tabletop - connects us with the inner vibrations of our bodies. Sometimes simple music is best for this purpose. When you’re heavily involved with the mind in trying to control the sounds made by a musical instrument, especially if you’re a “trained” musician, sometimes you forget to feel your body. You are engrossed in “figuring out” how to make a sound, and how to make it sound “right”.
OK, this is all great in theory. But how have I personally experienced my essential self?
I’ll tell you three brief stories of life transitions that I have made and how. While I didn’t call it “my essential self” at the time, I now realize that I’ve been listening to my life in this way for many years, learning to trust more and more each time.
- I was standing in the Operating Room in January 2000, a third year medical student on vascular surgery rotation. With a patient’s leg open, I watched as our Fellow leave the O.R. to throw up in the sink outside, and return immediately afterward to finish the surgery because he “couldn’t” take the day off. I saw a fourth-year general surgery resident excuse herself from the same surgery, to lie down on a gurney outside the O.R., so she wouldn’t faint out of exhaustion on top of the patient. I watched these people and decided that my life was not going to be about this kind of self-sacrifice. I wanted to work with people in some other way. I didn’t know what, but I did know – without a doubt – that I would not be continuing in a residency after graduating from medical school. Everybody Else thought I was crazy.
- I was living in Cleveland in late 2003, and was on the phone with a fellow venture capitalist (who’d also opted out of a residency after medical school) about fifteen years my senior. He was living the dream I imagined in my head when I set out on that career path – he had all the material trappings of a “good life”, including the house in the hills, the many cars, the expensive man toys. I thought that anyone with his level of “success” must have gotten there through belief in his own dreams. I found out that his real dream was to be a musician, but he never got over his fear to really go for it. He was good. I heard him play. I asked him why he was a venture capitalist. He explained that everyone in this business had “a number”, some goal that they’ve set (in millions of dollars). Quite calmly and rationally he explained that once he got to his number, he would stop. THEN he could start doing his dream of playing music. I was stunned. I thought, “Really?? And what if you DON’T get to your number?” I even said out loud, “If I had twenty million dollars, I’d start a violin school.” And then it clicked. I didn’t need twenty million dollars to start a violin school! What was stopping me? Within two months of that conversation, I had given notice to my partners that I’d be leaving the firm. Within five months, I had moved across the country to California (with my house in Cleveland still on the market). Within three more months, I started teaching my first students.
- Fast forward to this past year, 2009. I had been sitting on top of another summit, having gotten to many of the goals I’d pictured in my mind when I started my violin school. I was financially self-sustaining, I had many students, I had my own studio space, I had built a performing group that was beloved by audiences, was able to play in tune and was disciplined. I had built “an institution”. But I was exhausted and confused by the feeling that my work, which had started out as my passion, had somehow become a spigot through which my life force was being drained. My social self was so frightened of what might happen if I listened to my body and took some time off. “Won’t people think I’m lazy?” my social self said. When I finally gave in to the immobilizing pain in my body and took one month off from teaching last June, doing yoga again and correcting my posture, I started noticing new opportunities arriving in my life, calling me to make the deep changes my essential self so craved. It was a slow process of discovery, but I knew from my teaching and learning to play the violin, that small steps taken consistently over time eventually lead to dramatic results. For me, it was a question of where my small steps were taking me. Was I still pointed in the right direction for my essential self?
In January of this year, I let go. I changed directions. I am still working on deciphering the language of my essential self, discovering it each day. When I get still and check in, I know that I am pointed in the right direction because it is where my essential self feels calm, at ease, at peace.
Ask me again in five years to make sense of this recent transition. I can’t wait to tell that story, because I’m already writing it with every step I take right now.
Next in this series: Mastering Your Mind (and Not Letting It Master You) – Part 4 of 4
**At my Free Sampler Evening this Thursday, I’ll teach you ways to hear YOUR essential self, and also HOW TO USE YOUR BODY’S KNOWLEDGE to bring each day more in alignment with your essential self. Hope you’ll join me!***
Photo credits (used through a Creative Commons license):
Girl in school: http://www.flickr.com/people/seeveeaar/
Baby joy: http://www.flickr.com/people/seandreilinger/
Jump for joy: http://www.flickr.com/people/cdell/
Pepper in mouth: http://www.flickr.com/people/wstryder/
Bed of nails: http://www.flickr.com/people/zawtowers/