Martha Beck did a fabulous column in the 10th anniversary issue of O Magazine, listing the 10 rules she's glad she unlearned. I will replace her past tense with my ongoing "unlearnings", as I find my life these days to be a daily practice of retraining my brain after years of being wired to believe certain thoughts that just aren’t absolutely true.
1. Mistakes are bad.
The only thing bad about mistakes is thinking there is something bad about making them. Being afraid of making a mistake is one of the most paralyzing, unconscious drivers of inactivity, discontent, and generalized resentment among people I've seen. Becoming impervious to what is considered a “mistake”, being open to admitting it, observing that there are no true mistakes in life, and maintaining a cheerful lighthearted ability to keep going, is what I'm learning to do now.
2. It's wrong to be wrong.
Sometimes, you'll be wrong about something. That's fine, and my experience is usually you survive it. But you inflict another layer of pain to deal with when you make it wrong to be wrong. It's like the double whammy that prolongs, amplifies, and propagates the original pain of just being wrong.
3. You need to be "musical" to make music.
Labels - often the ones that were mentioned in passing during our childhood by a single person who made an impact at that time - can stay with us as beliefs about ourselves long after the fact. They can serve as reasons or excuses that we never try for something we really long to do. I've seen this in countless conversations with people when I tell them that I teach music. Grown adults - some in their 70s - carry around the shame (or pride) of being "tone deaf" or "unmusical". Some actually believe that there's an absolute truth to their label, and want to start arguing with me about the possibility of their claims. I’ve seen from experience with people from 2 years old through 82, that anyone can make music. It is innate to our being, and I want to remind as many people as I can of this.
4. Old means wise.
The number of years of your life does not necessarily correlate with the level of wisdom or quality of your life. People tend to give advice based on what they have done themselves, or what they regret not doing. I've met both cheerful, free-spirited people in their 70s who are learning and active in their bodies, and people in their 30s who have such a resigned attitude and closed sense of possibilities that they have no joy. I’m not convinced that we will all learn to be wise with the mere passage of time. I believe we need to choose learning, choose mentors, choose influences in order to continuously create peace, freedom, and joy as we grow younger toward death.
5. Status and power make life easier.
I've met people with great resumes, high-paying executive positions, at the top of their industries for decades, but who feel a hollow sense of purpose and connection to their lives. At one point in my life, I was fascinated by people who had attained these high positions of status and power. Now, I wouldn't trade places with one of them for anything. On the other hand, spending time with people who are genuinely gentle with themselves through crises, catastrophic losses, and myriad apparent “failures” has been an eye-opening view into the real joy of being able to face the full range of human experience with acceptance and peace.
6. Building means never destroying what you’ve created.
I used to see life as a linear path of continuous building to some peak, followed by a steady decline or stagnation toward death. I was afraid of taking “steps backward” and therefore felt guilty when I faced loss or departure. Now I realize that creativity and change require SPACE, and often there is something occupying the space that needs to be let go. Realizing that the “letting go” step is as important as - or perhaps more than - the “putting in” is a huge shift in thinking for me. But I've found it to be true!
7. Starting over is a bad thing.
Similar to above, being afraid to abandon one path in order to start over is such a killer to creativity. There is a freshness and freedom that comes with starting over. Constantly abandoning what's not working, and starting over with renewed energy, is the cycle of life for any living thing, down to the cellular level. I'm practicing being gentler with myself when it's time to start over, beginning with the way I wake up and greet each morning…with gratitude.
8. Having qualifications makes you better at what you do.
There was an obsession in my Harvard and medical school days with the number and types of qualifications people had. I was led to believe that this list of qualifications actually meant something about the person. However in meeting people who liberated themselves from systems that valued qualifications (therefore appearance) over substance, and learning from their generosity of spirit, I've come to trust myself and others more. I don’t jump to quick conclusions based on the number of letters after a person’s name or the number of framed pieces of paper on their office walls. And this is such a peaceful, loving place to be.
9. Relaxation is for the weak.
I have had to learn how to relax, and I have a newfound respect for actually being able to do it. I also recognize that relaxation is powerful! Truly allowing my entire body and mind to relax actually takes new skills that are not easily practiced in our day-to-day lives. We have to create space in order to relax, and it takes conscious intention to do this. Ever notice that when we take vacations, it’s not until the sixth or seventh day that we completely settle into the sensations of our bodies, and connect with our surroundings? Or that by the time we get home, we may finally feel ready to begin our vacation? I have a newfound respect for the art of relaxation, and I’m noticing that time passes, life happens, whether we are fighting it every step of the way, or relaxing into it with the ease and peace of a yogi. It’s up to us how we want to live. I’ve decided to choose peace.
10. Working harder leads to better results.
This is a huge unlearning for me, and one my brain wants to resist with all its will. In other words, my brain wants me to work hard at everything. Even relaxing takes on epic proportions if I let my brain do the directing. I’m beginning to see that meeting each challenge with minimal resistance, greeting each part of myself with curiosity rather than shame, and allowing life to unfold, in all its mystery, leads to a better experience than any goal I could ever work myself toward.