The GuideBook to Life
Ever felt like everyone else has it figured out? One of the best books I have ever read that empathized with this fear is Sarah Wilson’s First, We Make the Beast Beautiful. I would never have happened on this book or read it except at the recommendation of a friend and recent events in my life.
What I love about this book, which is about the author’s journey with anxiety, is that she says very early on she has no answer. She admits she doesn’t know but that she is sharing her explorations. And to begin, she asks, is fixing your anxiety the answer? She even asks the Dalai Lama how to get the mind to shut up, to which he acknowledges there is no use. Even the Dalai Lama cannot still his mind.
The New Question
So if there is no need to completely fix/get rid of many of the things we think are wrong with us, we should ask ourselves a new question: How do we keep living with these things while still having a great life?
I have gone about many of my days with the “don’t think about it” attitude. I am no longer an advocate of this, because I strongly believe that those things we try not to think about will only boil up again when we least want them to. Having studied ancient Chinese texts in college, I understand that way of thinking: the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, said when you stop thinking, your problems will end. I boldly disagree. I just don’t think it works long-term.
The reason is because as the Dalai Lama said to Sarah Wilson, it is impossible to stop thinking. We are constantly thinking, perceiving, and feeling. So maybe a less simplistic quote fit for our world is when we stop thinking there is always something wrong with us, a good portion of our problems end. That is different from saying we should not seek to improve ourselves.
It means we love who we are now and still choose to strive for more.
There are both good and bad things about who we are right now. To tear ourselves up about the seemingly bad things is to tear ourselves up about our own identity. When we feel ourselves attacking our own identity, we naturally feel nervous and less motivated. Furthermore, not all the qualities we find bad we should completely rid ourselves of. For example, selfishness. Being selfish is probably bad in many occasions but not always. It can help in setting boundaries. We should still seek to be more selfless, but we should not slap ourselves silly trying to get rid of our selfishness.
A New Lens
All these thoughts are nothing new. But I always felt hollow with the rainbow, blue-sky phrases like “Love yourself!” and “Embrace who you are!” What does loving yourself even really look like?
I recently started meditating every day. I admired all those famous thought leaders who touted its benefits and had this image in my head of me sitting quietly, legs crossed for 30 minutes every day, clear of all thoughts. I will be free and happy! Wow, Oprah Winfrey and her entire office meditate! She says it will make me sleep better and live a better life. My soul will be replenished. When I was unable to for a year reach that image and ideal self, I quit meditating. I quit trying. It’s just not for me.
I started to question my ability to sit still. Why could everyone else do it except me? What secret power did they have that I did not? Should I also go on a 10-day retreat where I get no internet? (Yes, I seriously thought about that last one.)
That fear that I was missing something huge turned me off from now what I consider a very simple habit that I imperfectly practice every day but still love. I constantly think while I meditate, sometimes anxiously. Sometimes I think about when it will end. What’s great about being okay with that is that I get some of my best ideas and realizations during it. I even open my eyes in the middle when I’m not “supposed” to. An interesting thing I learned was that habits are just a series of thoughts, and we build good habits by feeding them to be stronger than bad habits. Bad habits can’t be deleted.
We all make assumptions about ourselves, because it’s helpful to know what makes us who we are. I once wrote down all the things I “knew” about myself. An example was “I am self-aware.” But I also wrote down many bad things I assumed about myself, because I really believed them. Things like “I can’t…” The thing is we are always changing, yet I stuck to these assumptions about myself even as everything around me and about me changed. I had unknowingly put constraints on myself. Now, the only underlying assumption I make about myself is constant change.
Back to the Guidebook. We assume everyone else knows who they are and what they’re doing, so we also have to. That’s a lot of pressure. It makes us unhappy with who we are and what we have right now. If we think others have it figured out and are happy, we try to follow their path, often through following their individual achievements. However, The Journal of Happiness Studies found in 2019 that the higher the value placed on happiness, the lower a person’s well-being.
I do not claim to have it figured out at all, but I do know that letting myself feel my emotions in each situation has helped me. I accept every feeling as being part of that moment and that all moments are meaningful. We want answers, especially to our existentialist questions, and when the answer is that we won’t ever know, it does not seem comforting. But don’t fear that existentialism. What I have found comforting is that despite my assumption that most people don’t understand what I am going through, there is something beautiful and genuine when I realize many do. I am now working to seek out those moments.
Sometimes I realize it through podcasts, articles, music, or books, like Sarah Wilson’s. Sometimes I realize it when friends reach out to me. Sometimes I realize it by myself. I know I am in one of these moments when I suddenly feel inspired, curious, and awed once again by the world.
I don’t believe in any guidebook to life. I’ve talked to enough people to realize everyone’s always figuring things out, changing, and being imperfect. I do like what Sarah Wilson intended though which is to just make better journeys for ourselves.