Making your own acquaintance

This piece featured in the second edition of the brilliant Southwester newspaper. Thank you to Hannah and team!

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman, author, educator and civil rights leader.

Something has been bothering me. The more I feel it, the more I see it. The more I see it, the more I feel it. We increasingly digital and social media; TV shows, films, memes and reams upon reams of posts and stories and videos and reels. Sure, these mediums all provide us with entertainment, and may even give us escapism, or some respite from boredom or the stress of daily life and work. But for an increasing number, the prospect of sitting quietly, waiting for an appointment or even going to the toilet without using those additional snatched minutes to consume more content now feels ludicrous.

So much of our waking lives is spent engaging in digital and social consumption, that I fear we may end up losing ourselves along the way.Whether intentionally or not, this content – particularly the social content – sends us messages about what is interesting, what is exciting, and what is desirable. If something is trending, it’s because people have found it to be more engaging than other content. And if it is more engaged with, we place a higher social value on it.

But what does all this consumption mean for how we feel about ourselves, how we choose to be, or at the most fundamental level, the knowledge of who we actually are? If we spend an increasing amount of time consuming other people’s content, what happens to the opportunities for us to meet with ourselves?

That space and time where we connect with our inner voice and where the pearls of self-knowledge and creativity are formed. Increasingly, I feel we owe it to ourselves to counteract this consumption by looking inward as well as outwards.

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson

When I sit quietly to meditate, I have the internal sensation of sinking down and drawing inward. It doesn’t always happen, which I have learned to accept is just part of the deal, but when it does I really enjoy it. When I give myself the space, the time, and the lack of external input to reach this state, it feels so natural. It feels like taking a mental breather. It feels like a little adventure, for what will I find down there this time? But most of all, it feels like wandering slowly home.

When we meditate, we are moving away from our ‘functioning’ and ‘doing’ mode to our ‘being’ mode. Meditation, when we let go of all the fallacies about ‘clearing the mind’ or sitting in a fancy lotus pose, allows us to connect with the deepest and truest part of ourselves. It provides a simple, natural and effective way to understand what it is we are feeling, what we are longing for, and who is in there. It gets us to the middle of the stick of rock that makes us who we are.

So who are you and I? Who is the one that is unchanged by promotions, let-downs, break-ups and babies? Unchanged by exhaustion, elation, and extremes of emotion?

There is a me in there that has the same core set of hopes and wishes and desires no matter the situation or the time of day or month. I’m not talking about my hopes of what to eat for dinner (though these do dominate a lot of my waking life!), the wishes I have for the shape of my body (ditto), or what I desire my work-life balance to be like that week. I mean the ones that speak to the yearning I have for my soul and my life.

A little while ago, having just returned home after a weekend retreat, I read a book called The Invitation. The book, and the poem from which it was derived are beautifully written, but they are also challenging in their offer: do you know who you are and what you truly want, and are you bold enough to find out? One of the things which I was invited to try was a ‘meditation for desire’.

I took a quiet ten minutes to sit, breathe into my belly and then to work through the exercise, essentially a series of sentence openers I would brainstorm answers to whilst running a five minute timer; “I want…”, “I need…”, “I desire…”. Answers bubbled up from my gut, to the surface of my thinking brain and out onto the page. I was surprised at what came up. About halfway through, I wrote “the ability to disappoint others in order to be true to myself”.

When I sat back afterwards to look at what I had noted down, I was surprised I had written it. It simultaneously made complete sense but was also something I hadn’t consciously realised I wanted; I had written it in the context of being able to say no to things socially. Working on this and the other things which came up, holding them in my mind and taking action in accordance with them feels empowering. Turns out it feels good listening to me!

This served as a great discovery of something which aligned with me, that was buried beneath social conformity and wanting to please the people I love and like. So instead of behaving like I think I should, or how the movie-Lauren would, I’m simply trying now to act in accordance with what I actually want. This doesn’t mean selfishly abandoning time helping others or avoiding cleaning the bathroom, but more an assessment of whether I am largely spending my time doing the things that actually make me light up.

It’s hard to know what these things are unless we take the time to ask ourselves. In day to day life, the proportions might be tipped way in favour of looking at others via the content we absorb, as opposed to looking inwards at ourselves. Maybe we even end up using the multitude of media streams, especially social media, to shape what we think we should be like, or look like, in order to be happy. Using other people’s content, opinions or success as the primary way to shape our own hopes and resulting behaviours is unlikely to lead us to actual, sustainable happiness.

So let’s redress the balance. Abandoning social media altogether is unrealistic for most of us, but simply carving out some time to be can be enough to remind us of who we are underneath all the labels and roles we wear, and all the expectations we hold based on what we see around us.

Getting to know this one, this part of you, is the single most valuable thing I believe a person can do. The world needs us to be us, to be individual and probably a bit weird and odd in our own delightful ways. The evolution of our planet has resulted in a breathtaking complexity and diversity of life, no less so than in each of us, holding a uniqueness that we didn’t need to ask for but that we only need to listen to. We can honour that uniqueness by allowing ourselves to know who we are and let our light shine even more brightly because of it.

I am starting to see that if you make your own acquaintance, you can start to shape your life in a way that will truly make you come alive.

Never apologise for burning too brightly, or collapsing into yourself every night. That is how galaxies are made.” – Tyler Kent White, writer and poet.

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