Hours move by at a speed impossible to keep up with. The acceleration of the world disguised behind our timesaving devices and the onslaught of information that entices us to try to do it all. Hours, days and even lifetimes can pass us by unnoticed, while we wade, knee deep, through the murky waters of distraction.
There is simply too much within this complex, contradictory reality we inhabit. And the assault of information on our senses can be so overwhelming, so disorienting that we completely lose the ability to hear our own voice. The options, information and distraction are so all-consuming that they leave little room for meaningful communication with anyone, least of all ourselves. Unsure of what we really want, the allure of following others becomes irresistible. Unsure of where to go next, the safest place appears to be the place where everyone else is headed.
Without a clear feeling of the self, it’s easy to sway aimlessly from one trend to the next. But riding this perpetual pendulum often leaves us feeling dissatisfied and hollow. Without a clear sense for what matters to us and why, in the end, breathless and vulnerable, we find ourselves increasingly at risk of defining ourselves in terms of all that doesn’t matter.
To truly know oneself takes time. Not just because we need time to learn how to listen to ourselves. But more so because that deep sense of self is something we build up throughout the course of our lifetime. The self is not ready-formed hidden within us. Instead it is like an untended garden: with just a few seeds in the palm of our hand, at first, we find ourselves walking through unknown and untamed grounds. We have to start at the beginning. We need to rake the weeds, plant the few small seeds we have been given and tend to them as they grow and multiply, taking the time to get to know their changing needs with every new season of life.
To become familiar with the self requires that we are able to sit still enough to discover what moves us most. Slowing down is not just about speed. It is about taking time to become aware, to process what is happening in our lives, how we feel and why. Through actively cultivating a contemplative practice we slowly become familiar with the fabric of our soul. And this familiarity, honest and reality-based, aware of the bad as well as the good, that neither judges nor gloats, is the key to living a life true to ourselves.
Building a contemplative practice is about thinking deeply. When our minds or feelings or the world don’t make sense, we need the endurance to follow facts, thoughts and feelings through to a point where we understand why they don’t make sense. We need to cultivate a distance from the ego big enough to be able to observe our reactions and question why we react the way we do. We need to practice stillness: to learn to tolerate being alone without distraction and to sit with our own thoughts but not let them consume us. We need to listen to the stories we tell ourselves. We need to listen as we would to the stories our friends tell us: with kindness and compassion but with a critical ear able to recognise the points of confusion and distortion. And finally, we need to immerse ourselves fully in as many experiences of daily life as possible. We need to lose ourselves in our work, not self-rumination, in the conversations we have with others, not ourselves, in the natural world, not the digital and in the full spectrum of emotion while cultivating the skill to find our way back to stability. We need to know the self well enough to increasingly allow it to dissolve. And when we do we’ll notice how the self that comes back to us is always a little more winsome than the self we left behind.
Building a contemplative practice allows us to become familiar with the rhythms of our soul. And with time we will begin to discover that part of ourselves that is in fact beyond ourselves and out of time, connected to something greater than all that is our own limited existence.
During her time spent caring for people in their final weeks of life, Bronnie Ware, who at the time was a palliative care nurse, had the rare opportunity to hear the regrets of the dying. She heard many of the same regrets repeated time and time again. But the most common one of all was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” The speed of life, distraction and the pressure to conform can make it hard to even know what a life true to ourselves would look like. If we weren’t bound by the duties and obligations of real life, what would we do with our time? Cultivating a contemplative practice, one where we slow down enough to witness our reactions and process their meaning, one where we allow ourselves to become immersed in life in a deep and meaningful way, creates a strong familiarity with self. A deep ability to hear our own voice, guiding us through life like a north star. That voice doesn’t need to be certain, in fact, in my opinion, it almost never should be, but it needs to be clear enough to cut through all the noise and distraction. This is the only way to ensure we give ourselves the chance to lead a life more true to ourselves.
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