You may be asking yourself, why would I want to go through such a process? (For the first part of this discussion, see Holding Patterns.)
Well, in the simplest of terms, habits, patterns, and psychologies become the bars of a prison of our own making in this life. They limit our freedom, limit our possibilities, and, sometimes, make us not very nice people.
For example, we all have fears or psychologies about certain things. This could be a fear of looking foolish or vulnerable, so we stop trying new things. It could be a fear of intimacy, so we push away the people who love us most. It could be a sense of inferiority, so we don’t ask for that raise or promotion or, if we are in a position of authority, we are abusive of our position and people come to fear or hate us.
Emotional patterns can arise in simple conversations, when someone uses a certain phrase or tone of voice that causes an overreaction in us. We may say something that creates a rift that cannot be mended, or that just causes us pain and anguish for days or weeks. All of us do it all the days of our lives, and negative emotional patterns operate on the same principle in our system as the skills to be a concert pianist: we have done them so often they have become second nature to us.
We could say, these patterns, habits, and psychologies are the tunes we dance to in our lives. When the right music begins to play, we get up and dance – we can’t help it. We no longer think about where they originated, or why we do them, we just do them repetitively. And again, we make the mistake of thinking they are “us,” when they are not. Depending on circumstances, our habits and patterns could have all been positive, beneficial ones, if we’d had the proper kind of upbringing and education (which very few on this planet receive).
And that brings us back to personal development. The first thing to consider in this is: who and what do I want to be? By that I mean really sitting down and asking what I am passionate about and why. Then the question becomes: what prevents me from attaining that?
What prevents us will have many levels and degrees of subtlety, so they won’t be discovered all at once. That’s why we need to find a way to become aware of them when they arise. When we get a flood of emotion, we should ask ourselves, where does it come from? Then try to recognize it in all the ways it creeps into our lives. In doing this, we are basically shining a light into the attics of our life, and using our awareness to clean out what’s no longer worth saving.
It takes patience and time. And it requires that we forgive ourselves all along the way, because we had little or no say in the way we were raised, or about the world we were born into. We can’t help the past, we can only try and take control of the present and help shape our own future.
The benefits to this are enormous, and include decreased stress and anxiety, increased joy and happiness, and a greater understanding of how our systems work, so we can be the guide and orchestrator of our lives. But the beautiful part is that we can start today to change our lives for the better, and when we do it will also have a wonderful effect on those around us.
It’s not a process of fixing everything, it’s about minimizing what doesn’t serve our purposes, and maximizing what does. Once we get the hang of it, our systems will pick it up and begin to help us. That’s when we can really begin to dance our own dance.
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Personal development is always a struggle and, at times, can seem downright painful. That shouldn’t be surprising, because almost anything of importance that we undertake can entail the same kinds of challenges.
It can be seen in our daily lives, as simply as by trying to have the discipline to get up early and go to the gym, or to learn an instrument or a new language, or to become proficient at any task we currently aren’t familiar with. We always have to overcome our fears, doubts, and weaknesses to arrive at our stated goals. As they say, nothing comes for free.
So it is with personal development. For clarity sake, I define personal development to be the journey toward acting and living in greater accord with our human design. In other words, personal development is a growth toward becoming more human.
But much of the pain and struggle of personal development is about unlearning what has been trained in us since birth, and untangling ourselves from the trappings of our environment and culture. That means the patterns, habits, and psychologies we have accrued by our very act of living. And, of course, these will be individual to each of us.
That’s why personal development (or spiritual development, or religious quest – I use these interchangeably because they all point to the same end, if understood correctly), can only be undertaken by each of us, in our own way. No one can do it for us, and no religious, spiritual, or mentor figure can bestow it upon us. We earn it for our selves, or not at all.
And as we all know, unlearning something can be extremely difficult. Why? Because our physical systems (the human brain and body) are designed to take up processes that we do repetitively. That’s how painters become great artists. They repetitively practice the basic skills of drawing until their hands and eyes know the shapes of things. Once the body has learned those patterns and skills, then the creative aspect of the artist can be freed up to provide the individual insights and feelings that seek portrayal.
It’s the same with a great dancer or musician, or stock trader or carpenter. Once the fundamentals are learned, the creativity is all the artist or craftsman needs to think about to execute their work. So it’s a fantastic system – it has enabled all of the achievements we have made as a species. In fact, we wouldn’t get far in our lives if our systems didn’t take up these processes for us. If we had to think about all the motions that go into driving a stick shift every time we got in the car, we’d all still be stuck in our driveways.
So that way of learning is basic to the human design. Unfortunately it works the same for bad habits and patterns as it does for good ones. We only need to learn how to ride a bike once, and it’s very hard to quit smoking. We’ll never forget how to tie our shoelaces, and it’s very difficult to stop being judgmental toward others (if that’s a pattern we have written to ourselves, thinking, at some point, that it was normal, or okay, to do so).
But our development requires that we become aware of the patterns we have written to ourselves. The human story is a quest for continual refinement. When we become aware of patterns in ourselves, we then have two choices: we can decide they are useful for our journey, and keep them, or we can decide they are detrimental to our journey (excess baggage) and they need to be let go of, or rewritten in us.
Rewriting patterns requires that we establish new patterns in place of the old ones that we no longer want. That’s where the struggle comes in. Because we have to gain awareness of them – we have to face them – before we can change them.
That’s not always easy, because it means we have to admit to ourselves that we’re not perfect just the way we are and, as importantly, we have to admit that those patterns are not necessarily “us.” If we don’t break these patterns, we condemn ourselves to endlessly going around in circles.
Continue to Part II of this discussion
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In trying to narrow this gap between what we think we are and what we truly are, here is some food for thought: We are everything we need.
Of course, that statement doesn’t include the basics for survival such as food, water, and shelter, etc. But it is said to point out that we often seek outside ourselves for what we need. If we feel lonely, we seek to share our time with another. If we want compassion, we seek it from another. If we want fulfillment, we expect it to come from something we do, or something we are involved in, like a family, a career, or a hobby.
But the truth of it is, external people or things can only soothe those longings for a short time; the true satisfaction of them comes from within. We may think an alarm system and money in the bank make us secure, but real security comes from establishing who we are and what we will and won’t do.
I mean, look at the news on any given day. We all have locks on our doors, alarms on our cars, password protection for everything we do, yet the news is filled with stories of people doing things they didn’t know they were capable of doing. Security systems protect us from everything but ourselves and, until we are challenged by any given situation, we don’t really know how we will act, or react.
That’s why I think that real security is a result of what we are decided upon in ourselves. It comes from within. But it’s not just security, it’s many other important aspects of life. Happiness, for example. That comes from how we feel about ourselves and what we do, and only fleetingly from the things we possess or whatever we may accomplish. It’s a truism that money won’t buy happiness, and that’s because we are still stuck with ourselves (whatever that may mean) whether we are rich or poor.
It’s true of freedom, compassion, kindness, charity, love: they all must come from within to truly be a part of our lives. When we rely on external things to bring these qualities into our lives, we risk great hurt and disappointment. Why? Because we can’t control anything in this life besides ourselves. We don’t know what a loved one may do tomorrow, or what may happen to the stock market, or what may happen at work, or even on this planet.
We can’t control anything outside of our own skin, so if we base our happiness and security outside of ourselves, it can all be taken from us in a moment by the winds of change. That’s why we also hear the phrase, when people are in times of great upheaval, “My life is over!” Of course that’s true only if a person allows it.
It doesn’t make any sense for us to put such fundamental aspects of our lives into the hands of others, sometimes even strangers, yet we do it all the time. That is true instability. We can see today that governments are not stable, economies are not stable, jobs are not stable, and people are not (always) stable. Even we are not always stable.
But this all points to putting an even greater importance on our own stability in these times – and on basing that stability on something that we can fully control, like ourselves. We won’t be perfect in it, but we’re the best we’ve got and, we can improve daily. It will require answering some questions about ourselves like, “Why do we do the things we do?” And, “What are our intentions?”
Part of being human is in using the freedom of choice we have been granted for defining and refining who we are, and what we want to become, and why? I’m not talking about “discovering” who we are, I’m speaking about becoming what we choose to become, consciously. That is the journey of our lives. And for that work, that process, we have been given all the tools we need. We just need to rediscover them in ourselves and learn to use them.
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We are such a bunch of know-it-alls, we humans. I know him, I know her, I know what you’re saying. We give great importance to those who seem to “know” more about any particular subject. I’m not sure, but I think all this “knowing” is killing us.
Because really, what do we know? Do we know what we are as humans? No. Do we know what we are supposed to be doing? No. Do we understand the way this planet works, or the moon, or the solar system we orbit around in? No. Do we know the effect we have on others? No. Do we even really know other people? No. Do we really know ourselves? No.
Yet all day every day we act and speak like we know what we are doing. And when we don’t really know what we are doing, we pretend that we do. It’s a disease – a dis-ease. Because we think we are supposed to know things, we don’t want to appear “at less.” We are trained from an early age to compete with others, so we are always making comparisons. And of course, we can’t be the best and brightest at everything, so a game of comparison can only make us feel inferior more often than not.
The problem with all this knowing is that it violates the first premise of being human – we are imperfect. We are designed that way to keep us open and growing. A cat knows exactly what it is and can’t be anything else. It is fixed. A flower knows exactly what it is and can’t be anything else. It too is fixed.
A human doesn’t know what it is because its life has so many possibilities – it is not fixed. Of course it will always be human, but within that framework the options are virtually infinite. The problem is, we think we know what and who we are, and that fixes us. We’ve stopped searching. We’ve stopped wondering what we, as humans, are.
When we “know” something, we stop learning and stop exploring. Our minds become closed to it. When someone is telling us an idea or a story, the moment we say “I know,” we have cut ourselves off. We even limit the possibilities of our friends and loved ones by thinking we know them. When we do that, we stop seeing their subtle growth and changes – we lock our perception of them in our minds.
This is why it’s so commonly stated, “First impressions are the most important.” Almost everyone believes this to be true, but it’s only true because we fix our ideas of people. The truth is, we never meet the same person twice. We, personally, are changing every moment, and so is everyone else. The only thing that isn’t changing is our impression, because we have become fixed in an earlier impression.
All this “knowing” has a stranglehold on our lives. Let’s face it: we don’t know who we are or what we are doing! Now we can get on with the process of living. It’s an unfinished business this life, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I want to be learning new things every day, but I’ll never know it all – that’s not within human capability.
It’s an open and ongoing process that is never meant to be fixed. We we become fixed, we stop growing. When we stop growing, we begin to die – because a law of the universe is: grow or die. That’s an easy choice for me. I prefer everything to be unknown to me – I prefer the process to the result. And anyway, if I love the process, the results will always come.
Try, for a day, or an hour, to listen to all the times you say “I know.” You’ll quickly lose count. Think of a new way to respond that keeps you open rather than closed – ask a question, perhaps, or say “Tell me more.” And then see if you can feel the difference in the interaction, and in you. Unless, of course, you already know what will happen.
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If we look at the way the world and universe around us unfolds, we can see that it does so according to certain laws. We can see the way galaxies spiral, the way a solar system orbits, the way planets spin, and the way seasons change. Not two things are exactly alike, but the processes that determine their possibility are predetermined by the laws that govern them.
We can see it in a human life as well. An egg and a sperm enjoin, and a baby develops according to DNA and genetic coding. We can also see that all newborns eventually grow and develop through the phases of childhood and eventually become adults. We can see that adults are programmed to procreate and continue the species. And we also know that at some point, every human life will come to an end. These are some of the automatic processes that govern our lives.
But the human also has aspects to it that are not automatic, such as consciousness and freedom of choice. These two attributes alone separate us from everything else on this planet. And they also offer the greatest gift available for a living thing: freedom from automation.
That’s why it’s interesting to see how we, as a species, try to do things in repetition, as if we are automating ourselves. We like to live in the same place for long periods of time – maybe even generations. We like to wake or sleep at the same times each day. We eat the same meals in some sort of loose rotation. We got to an office and work for most of our adult lives.
These are all ways that we automate ourselves. But that is a cultural training, it’s not really us. Most us dream about freedom, whether it is freedom from worry, or limitations, or freedom to go where we please when we please. Those are much more natural inclinations for us.
We aren’t meant to do things repetitively, except in the way that repetition allows us to automate certain skills in us, like riding a bike or driving a car. That’s a kind of automation that actually frees our minds up to do other things – new things. Automation is meant to give us freedom.
And yet all the technological advances we produce only serve to enslave us more deeply. Doesn’t that seem odd? Computers can do more, robots can do more, machines of all kinds can do things we used to have to do for ourselves. That should be great. Every new invention should be a way to free ourselves even more.
Only the narrowest view of human life – only the greatest of misunderstandings – would allow us to settle for a life of automation and repetition instead of freedom and exploration. And yet, as a species, we have. What is happening here on earth might just be the saddest story ever written. We have so much potential.
And that is why I say that the first order of business for the human today is to close the gap between what we think we are: cubicle-sitting wage earners, and what we really are: glorious beings designed to explore and experience life – consciously and freely – for the purposes of helping improve the possibilities of the whole universe.
Which job description would you apply for? Which job do you currently have?
Somewhere deep inside us, we understand these truths. But it is up to us to make it so. No corporation or government leader is going to tell us these things – it runs against their agenda which requires keeping everyone on automatic pilot.
But the purposes of human life are here for us to discover. We can still write the ending of this human story, if we freely choose to, because the end doesn’t have to be determined automatically.
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Last time, I expressed the idea that spirituality has to do with narrowing the gap between what we think we are, and what we truly are (see A New New Age). The more I thought about that description, the more it resonated with me – I think there’s some truth in it.
Even so, today I want to replace the word “spirituality.” It’s a word that’s used so casually it has lost all meaning. I want to take it and set it aside. In fact, let’s add the word “religion” to the pile for the moment. Both those words have too much baggage for an exploratory discussion.
So let’s take a different word to cover those two territories, and let’s make that word “human.” Human is the right word here because it includes every one of this species who has ever lived, and every one of this species who will ever live – because what I am writing about applies to all of them.
We are all human beings, and we either are thinking, acting, and living according to our design and purpose, or we are not. Mostly, in today’s world, we are not. And that’s because there is a huge gap between what we think we are and what we truly are. The concepts of religion and spirituality are just names for different types of attempts to bridge that gap.
We could just as easily say: Religious or non-religious = spiritual or non-spiritual = aligned with purpose or not aligned with purpose. They each point to exactly the same thing. Everyone’s life can be charted somewhere between these two extremes.
Personally, I never considered myself particularly religious or spiritual, but I will spend the rest of my life trying to close the distance between where I am today and coming into greater alignment with the purpose of human life.
Why? Because that’s what I am, a human, and that’s what I have been brilliantly designed to do. There aren’t seven billion purposes to human life on this planet, there are seven billion ways to serve one purpose. It’s something we are all meant to explore and discover, individually and together, all of our days.
In today’s culture it is easy to think that religious / spiritual / human purpose pursuits are designer options that we can pick and choose, and add to our “ensemble” like a fashion accessory: we just need to find the right fit and the best match. But the choice is much more critical than that – for each of us individually, and for us as a species.
Have you ever tried something new in your life and discovered you were really good at it? The desire to become more human has just such a feeling. We’re naturals at it. And when we do something we have a natural facility for, our bodies and our minds feel the joy of it.
Part of becoming human means that we will always be imperfect, which is a great relief to me. We are unfinished, and meant to refine ourselves as we go. Right now, for me, that means that although I’m still not expressing what I really want to express to you – not in the way I want to express it – it’s okay because I can keep trying. That’s another thing we are designed to do.
So I’m going to leave it here for now, not sure what I have accomplished, but knowing that I struggled toward it. It takes a struggle to change the ways we have been going on, but that is a most valiant struggle. Sometimes the greatest wisdom is in realizing that what we are doing is not working, and being willing to make a change in course.
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It has seemed harder to write this blog lately. Part of the resistance comes from my feeling that I’m merely adding my few cents worth to the mountains of thought and opinion that already exist on spirituality, religion, and philosophy. That has never been my intention.
The reason I say that is because I’ve read a lifetime’s worth of those books myself, and though they all may have given me some small insight, or broadened my perspective or understanding, none of them contained what I was looking for, and worse, the rare ones that did weren’t recognizable to me at the time.
That’s a problem. Life is too short to spend sorting out the theories of others. I’m only interested in getting at the truth of things – then I’ll know the next thing I have to do. Until then, it’s just drifting from one type of brain candy to another.
So how does one become a spiritual person today? After all, in today’s culture, spirituality is seen as the antidote for organized religion. Spirituality is definitely not organized. Do we read Deepak Chopra and do yoga and meditation three times a week? Does that make us spiritual? Do we go to spa retreats and put hot stones along our spine? Do we spend a month on an ashram in India?
Do we study the ancient Eastern arts of healing? Do we ponder what the secret societies and the ancient mystery schools and the alchemists were up to? And how did the movements toward eating local food and saving the environment become intertwined with the pursuit of spirituality?
Part of this urge may lie in the deep sense that many people have that there has to be more to life than 50-hour work weeks at jobs we don’t love just to be able to go into debt by purchasing things we don’t need. It may be the unnerving feeling that there really is no way to win this game of life – at least not in the way the rules have been explained to us. It may have something to do with the feeling that celebrity worship and gross consumerism aren’t the answers to one’s problems – in fact, they just might be perpetuating those problems.
Depression, alienation, stress, psychosis, neurosis, ill-health, dis-ease, violence, rage, cruelty, abuse, destruction – these are the true products of our civilization. And as long as those things exist in this world, it’s not going to matter one bit how nice our car looks or who designed our clothes. In fact, a strong case could be made that everything we are obsessed by merely distracts us from the truth we know is lurking in the shadows. We are all fiddling, and the human race is burning.
Somewhere deep inside, don’t we all know this? Don’t we think we are better, as individuals and as a species, than the world we have created? And perhaps we are all just starting to understand that change only comes when when take responsibility for our actions. Anyone following the news can see how quickly things can change when people get passionate and demand something better.
And, of course, it’s time for “something better” to mean “not just another group getting rich off corruption and exploitation.” It has to mean something new, something that deals in human purpose and compassion, something that can help us all heal.
I didn’t set out to write about this today, but that’s what has turned up. Perhaps I needed to vent a little.
So what about this thing called spirituality? Right now I think it has to do with narrowing the gap between who we think we are and what we truly are, by design and ordainment. But the truth of that will require further inquiry.
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