We live in an age of incredible freedom. We know how to determine the direction our lives will take. The truth of who we are lies within us. These statements are false.
Instead we are living in a state of constant flux, we don’t have full control of the reaction to our actions and who we are is not yet known. This is the starting point for “The Path” a book by Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, exploring how the philosophies of the ancient eastern thinkers, Confucius among them, can be brought to bear on our modern western thoughts and behaviours.
I am sure we have all been told to be true to ourselves at some point. As a parent in life and on stage as Polonius I have expounded the value of “To thine own self be true.” But what if we don’t really know who that self is? What if that self is in fact not discoverable as an absolute by searching within but alterable and malleable depending on what we do and how we choose to behave? What freedom is there in that? And what about our shifting environment? Nothing is certain, anything can change at any moment, our world is capricious and guarantees no set outcomes, the results of our labours are not within our control.
These are things I know to be true in reality. While I can see the story of my life stretching back to my mother’s stories of my birth, who I am and what I want or need has changed depending on my environment, my health and my stage of life. My self has not been absolute. And here and now I do not know what I may become.
There is comfort given to us in our modern way of thinking that as we become older we understand ourselves and our needs better but what if that is not the case, what if instead of greater self-knowledge what we actually have is a greater addiction to our habits and it is in those habits that we define ourselves. We may be in the habit of being kind, polite and gentle or we may be in the habit of being pessimistic, angry or anxious. Or, like me, a combination of these depending on the stimulus, my general mood and the weather (my mother blames the weather for pretty much everything.)
What if we didn’t have to define ourselves that way? When we are born we are a mass of potentiality, neurone pathways as yet unbuilt and billions of possibilities of how our thinking may unfurl. What if that was still the case however old we were? Science suggests that it might be but ancient wisdom can guide us as to how we live with that and what it means for us as humans.
There is a tendency to celebrate the “natural”, whether it is birth, skincare or food. But in the world we now inhabit everything is both unnatural and made of the natural things we discovered around us. We have found ways to fight infection and disease, ways to guard ourselves against the extremes of weather and the means to produce enough food for a burgeoning population. To do this we had to manipulate the given materials and make them work for us. Can we do the same for ourselves?
The eastern thinkers would say that we can but there is no blinding flash of light, no sudden change from one state of being to another, rather there is a crafting of ourselves that is possible through perseverance and practice. The practice is not complicated, it is not based on extreme situations but on small everyday actions. Our conflict as humans comes from the fact that our rational and emotional responses are misaligned. Our thinking brain believes one course of action to be proper while our gut instinct proposes the opposite and we are left trying to choose between the two. But what if we didn’t have to choose? What if our heart and mind were integrated, working together to help us determine the best course of action in any specific moment?
If you are anything like me that sounds very attractive, but unlikely given the strength of my emotional response at times, not to mention the endless chatter that fills most of my waking moments, and a fair few of my sleeping ones. But working toward that is possible and the tools are at our fingertips, in fact even closer. The main tool we have is our breath, the life force that moves in and out of our bodies, powering our every move and connecting us with the energy that flows through everything, from the smallest speck of dirt to the sun and beyond. By connecting with our breath we can temper our emotional response and quiet our bleating minds until we can hear that still small voice of calm that will guide us what to do now, in this moment, faced with this problem.
Perhaps it is no accident that yoga and meditation have become a central part of my life in my work to become the person I want to be. I see who I am and how I respond now, the quick anger that flashes when I am tired or frustrated, the gentleness of which I am capable when I am calmer and well rested. I see that to be a better person with stronger relationships and a wiser response pattern I need to sleep well, look after my body and take care of my mind. These actions are simple rituals that I build into my life. I wake early to meditate and write my journal, I practice yoga as much as I can and I walk outside, breathing, filling myself with the energy that is all around, reconnecting myself to everything there is, has ever been or ever will be.
In this view of a universe in flux we may not always affect the outcome but we can affect our own input and that is exceptionally powerful and liberating. Change in ourselves comes incrementally through our practice, through the rituals we make part of our lives, one breath at a time. And in changing ourselves we alter the way we look at the world, the way we respond to those around us. Instead of trying to control our world we can stand back and analyse what lies behind a conflict, giving us a chance to approach a resolution more gently, with more compassion. We have altered the environment in which the conflict is occurring and the outcome will be different as a result.
At first effecting these changes in ourselves will be challenging, we will have to concentrate on them, act consciously, but eventually the changes will become part of us, integrated into our being. When I first started voice training I had to think carefully about releasing my abdomen, allowing a breath in and not pushing at my vocal chords but with time and attention these things have become natural to me. And if I can alter a habit of breathing built up over many years what else can I change? To me, that is an exhilarating thought, one which means my inquisitiveness need never end, my potential for discovery remains infinite and my journey to become a better person is a truly liberating one.