When I grew up, the message I got was that I should become a good person. The way this goal would be attained was by getting high grades, diplomas, an academic title, and a high paying job. Being good meant being better than others, and this would eventually be reflected by my income. I should always “do my best” and “do things I liked.” Also it was quite clear that there were many things I should not do, like becoming dishonest, dropping out of school, or being lazy and unreliable, to name a few. The focus was on achieving. And — subconsciously — on hiding all the things I wasn’t supposed to be, according to my family, society, and culture.
What nobody told me was that there was something as an inner development, an inner growth. I found out by accident (or by the intervention of grace, whatever you want to call it). In the spring of 2004, my ego was under so much pressure from trying to be “a good guy” that it collapsed. I “woke up” and learned that our identity is an illusion, but a very sticky one. We are much more than we think we are and the point is to realize that. One of the first things I thought when I discovered this deeper and more profound reality was, why did nobody tell me this?
I will give you a list of things that I wish somebody had told me 25 years ago in a non-patronizing manner. I wish that somebody had been living by these rules himself, and thus, made it believable that they worked for him. I wish somebody who knew initiated me into the secrets of life.
1. Life is a journey.
The way we choose our metaphors is of big influence on our lives. I used to think that life is a battle and you go from fight to fight, from obstacle to obstacle and just never give up. Some people think that life is unfair and others think that life is hard or difficult or a jungle. I would have given myself more permission to explore if I had learned that life is a journey — a journey with challenges but also filled with dancing, laughter, and adventure. We have to pick our metaphors wisely.
2. You are not who you think you are.
The identity we create in childhood and puberty is only the first level. The person we think we are is actually a pretty loose set of beliefs, shaped by conditioning. Our beliefs about ourselves are limiting us; letting go of our beliefs opens the door towards the realization of our true potential. Peeling off layers and realizing our true self more and more is a lifelong process. It is a cool and amazing ride.
3. Learn to listen.
Listening does not necessarily mean being obedient. Listening means being aware of your inner voice, your emotions, sensations in your body and subtle signals in your environment. Our inner being is speaking to us all the time and it is important to understand the language.
4. Follow your heart (and face your fears).
The majority of humanity wants you to conform to their rules. If you give in to the pressure, you betray your soul. It takes courage to keep your back straight. If you don’t have the freedom to make your own choices at least keep the inner flame of desire and passion alive. If you want to be an dancer and nobody let’s you, at least never forget that your are a dancer deep down. Don’t let fear control your life and don’t let others project their fear on you.
5. Education is secondary.
Learning is cool, and developing your brain (and body) is amazing and rewarding. But a diploma or a degree is no guarantee for happiness or success. Your education should assist you in your liberation, not condition you into conformity.
6. You have the right (and the obligation) to change your mind.
Never changing your mind doesn’t show strength, it show that you are stuck. Changing your mind does not show weakness, it shows evolution. Everything in the Universe is ever-changing and your mind should be, too.
7. It is okay to make mistakes (and you will get hurt, that’s okay, too).
Don’t organize your life around avoiding of pain and failure. You are here to learn many lessons and you need to take some risks. Failure and mistakes are great teachers; they will make your grow. Living through painful episodes can teach you compassion.
8. Travel (alone).
Leave your comfort zone, leave your hometown, explore the world and yourself. Traveling will teach you about different perspectives on life, different cultures and different problems. For a while you can maintain that your way is the right way but it will change. Traveling will teach you flexibility, autonomy, compassion, and understanding.
9. You can’t skip stages (but you can move through faster if you are willing to learn).
Somewhere during childhood we start to believe that being young and immature is inferior to being an adult and mature. But life happens in cycles and every time we start something new we are beginners all over again. There is no escaping that and it is not the point, either. We make it very hard on ourselves if we become ashamed of our immaturity in this or that. It keeps us from leaving our comfort zones and thus we deny ourselves exploration of life. But if you are open to new things, if you cultivate your beginner’s mind, you will rewarded with initiations into new stages of development.
10. Actively search for role models and inspiration.
Many cool people walked around this planet before you, and their stories are known. Search for them and have the courage to follow their examples (don’t assume it is out of your reach). Find a mentor that inspires you. Most adults like to pass on their knowledge and experience, and many will even feel honored.
11. Dream big and selfless.
Aim for greatness and don’t let yourself be limited by ideas about fame and wealth. Mother Theresa wasn’t a genius and Nelson Mandela didn’t have the best chances as a young black man in segregated and unjust South Africa. It is okay to live out your ego for a while, but be prepared to transcend it once you meet its limitations. Your heart will guide you.
12. Appreciate little things.
That doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be happy with a crappy gift because being modest is good. It means that you train your awareness and acknowledge how good it feels to eat a sandwich in the sun, play sports with friends or to smell the spring in the air. Actually, just breathing is already beautiful and you will agree if you pay attention to your breath. By learning to pay attention to little things you will find gifts, gems and miracles everywhere for the rest of your life.
Your life is your practice. It is not just about getting better in sports, math or dancing, or working your way up the corporate ladder. It is not just about practicing achieving; it is about practicing being. You can practice your communication skills, your breathing, your lovemaking, your sensitivity, your honesty and your courageousness too, to name a few. The idea is that you do not walk away from life and it’s challenges but that you explore, refine and share. The idea is that life is a journey and that you give yourself fully to that journey. So practice giving yourself to life.