Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (from Random House in October ...Read More
Did you truly choose this path?
Find your own way.
The human body has about 100 trillion cells (plus another ten quadrillion microscopic critters hitching a ride, most of them beneficial or harmless). Each one of your cells has aims – goals, in a sense – controlled by its DNA: cells conduct processes aimed at particular functions, like building bones or gobbling up harmful invaders. Cells also work together in larger and larger assemblies in pursuit of broader goals, such as the 100 billion neurons in your brain that run the nervous system, which as a whole is itself the master regulator of the body.
In effect, there are layers, hierarchies, of goals in the body – and a similar architecture of aims in the mind. For example, operating right now is the goal of moving your eyes over these words, which serves the goal of understanding them, which serves larger goals such as desires to learn new things, new skills, and to be truly happy.
In short, whether in the body or the mind, there is no life without goals. Trying to “transcend” goals is itself a goal. The only question is: Are your goals good ones? In other words, do they lead to happiness and benefits for you and others rather than suffering and harms?
To choose good goals we must balance the influences of the world and the murmurings of the heart. Some counsel from others is good; I wish I’d listened to my parents’ advice to start saving in my 20?s (rather than in my 50?s when I finally got around to it).
But often we get nudged, cowed, persuaded, bullied, seduced, enveloped, swept along, or otherwise drawn into values, priorities, gender or culture roles, perspectives on life, assumptions, addictions, career choices, marriages, spiritual practices or orientations, etc. etc. etc. that in ways large or small are not really, not deeply, right for us. And sometimes we are an active participant in this process. For example, it was a combination of external hype and internal laziness that led me to try to take a shortcut in my early 30?s with my training as a psychologist, which then cost me a couple years of effort to get back on the right path.
In effect, a thousand little threads tug at us this way and that, many of them originating from within, internalized voices and faces from the past and “shoulds” and “musts” from the present. When these threads pull you from your true course – the one that is authentic, at the intersection of your talents and joys and values, appropriate to your temperament and nature, and filled with heart – you end up feeling sidetracked, caught in a backwater, unfulfilled, unused, adrift, trapped, even alienated from your own life. Do you have any sense of this, yourself?
So it’s important to find your own way.
As a frame, know that you can follow your course while also fulfilling your responsibilities. With intention and practice, an inner freedom is available while being externally engaged. You make these responsibilities part of your course, an honorable expression of it, informed by it, an opportunity for growth in your own way.
Consider how you are not living your own life as much as you could. In relationships, do you make more room for the other person’s needs than your own? What aren’t you saying? Whose shoulds or plans or taboos are you living out? (Especially the ones from childhood.) How might you be conforming, even in subtle ways, to scripts or teachings or group-think or cultural programs? When you get those other voices out of your head, what’s left that’s true? What silence might be speaking to you?
Take a look at parts of your life, such as family or career or a particular relationship. Have you drifted from your own truth in any of these situations? What specific course corrections could you make? What would help you stick with them?
Open to guidance outside the box. Draw on (for most people) the right side of your brain for images of your current path and where it could be better to go. Listen to your heart: What in your life is truly working for you that you could strengthen, and what is calling to you to lean more toward? Step out of your normal routine for an hour or longer: go for a long drive or walk, take a workshop, spend a day with a dear friend – and look at your life from a bird’s-eye view, with a sense of possibility and freedom: Alright, no praise or blame, but where to head from here?
The shift in course could be tiny. It could be simply a matter of adjusting an attitude, or spending 20 minutes a day in a new way. But extended forward over the rest of your life, and meanwhile knowing in your heart that it is true for you, will make all the difference in the world.
We make a life a minute at a time. In this minute, you can lean as much as possible toward your own true way.
As they say in Tibet, if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.