By Nandini Murali June 2011 One of the key tasks of the spiritual journey is to discover what matters; what we stand for; and to live according to the promptings of our soul I remember this incident as if it just happened. Despite more than a decade having passed, it still evokes freshness; much like the just fallen rain as it whips up the scent of the earth. At a personal growth workshop, the facilitator asked what would be most important for each of us in our lives. “To live life on my own terms,” I blurted. Everyone, including the facilitator, was startled. And so was I. Neither the words nor the energy behind them felt as if it belonged to me. The facilitator, a wise person, did not explore or analyse further, but gently reminded me that there were no formulaic or easy answers and I had to decipher how to crack the cryptic code of living life on my own terms! In retrospect, it was epiphanic. Yet I was not given an instruction manual on how to live life on my own terms. As the events of the next decade were to reiterate, it was an arduous process; a journey and a destination. I was tested and challenged innumerable times along the long and winding path. Living life on one’s own terms is one of the basic challenges in the soul’s journey. Ironically, most of us tend to live life on others’ terms, and are blissfully unaware of it. Why is it so difficult for us to live life on our own terms? What’s stopping us? If I am unable to live life on my own terms it is because I identify with a false or pseudo me—an identity conferred and shaped by society. Culture, through parenting and other societal institutions such as formal education and religion, has created this counterfeit or imitation self. Indeed, this is the psychological burden that we carry like the proverbial albatross around the mariner’s neck. Although, at birth each of us is a “genetically unique individual,” the process of socialisation causes us to internalise our early environment. Thus even when we grow up we are not fully individuated or differentiated selves but still carry parental or other authority voices in our head. A friend once told me, “I don’t know where my mother ends and I begin.” “In many ways we are reliving rather than living. This dichotomy can influence us to act in ways we don’t even like or say things we don’t even mean,’ writes US-based psychotherapist Lisa Firestone. She adds, ‘We are especially susceptible to these feelings in times of stress and in situations that trigger primal feelings, in our intimate relationships, at work or as parents. When triggered, these overlays influence how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. We engage in behavior that is not our own, which can be destructive to our own best interest.” Conformity I am certainly not discounting the need for rules and regulations in our lives. Certain rules need to be observed to the letter. For example, traffic rules and other rules that regulate civic life. To flout these rules would be detrimental both to the individual and to society. The problem, however, arises when we conform and obey rules even when we don’t have to, just because we fear social reprisals and social threats and hanker after psycho social rewards that serve to maintain a false identity. Think of the many words that hem us in and make us feel that others are pulling our strings: ought, must, should, need… all these words define our world and our self in terms of the things we are compelled to do. And is there choice and personal freedom embodied in these words? Much of our unhappiness stems from the limitations we are boxed in and the resultant feeling that we have no control over our lives, and instead have abdicated it to external circumstances, events and people. Steve Jobs, Co-founder of Apple, brilliantly summed up the importance of living the life we want. “Your life is limited. So don’t waste it by living some one else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma which is the result of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the voice of others drown out your own inner voice.” A sensitive and lyrical short story, Ramblings on a Beach, by Kabir Bedi comes to my mind. The author paints three vignettes on the beach: school girls running a race; a pair of lovers; and his children building sandcastles. As he builds sandcastles with his children, Pooja and Siddharth, “All I really wanted was to try and live the life that was spontaneously welling up within me. Why was that so very difficult?” - From Demian by Herman Hesse he tells them that both he and their mother had raised them to be children “free in spirit” and had kept “don’ts down to survival level.” Yet he is dismayed to discover that his daughter, who was unafraid of the dark, has now begun to manifest a range of fears of the unknown including of the dark. He is now resigned to the fact that society will smother differences that make each child unique and impose homogeneity to make them blend as a faceless entity with the rest. “The human spirit looks for excitement, for beauty, for newness, for adventure. But the mind is full of walls, endless walls, a maze from which the human spirit finds no escape. As long as that spirit struggles to be free, there is hope. If not for us, then for our children. For the spirit always seeks a mind without walls: open, wind-blown, carefree—like the beaches we love to walk on,” writes Bedi. The road to freedom For many people, the classic route to living life on one’s own terms is cyclical: living by subscribing to parental value systems, rebellion against and repudiation of parental authority, which causes us to clash with people around us, and hurt them, and finally, the stage of maturity. Here we decide for ourselves what our value system is and what we stand for. We do it because it reflects who we are and what we aspire to be; not because we do not like what the system or our parents or what institutionalised religion stands for. In this place, we are not overly influenced by others but at the same time do not want to put them down either. We are our own selves and do what is right regardless of what others may say or do but our motivation is never to hurt anyone or flout society’s rules. Katherine Keefer, 64, US-based artist, writer and sculptor agrees. “Maybe I could say I began living my life with my parents’ values, then I rebelled, and then attempted to take charge of my life, and now I let be.” Katherine Keefer was in college when the flower children/hippie movement began. According to her, she was part of that and embraced its values and lifestyle, a decision that was certainly difficult for her parents to accept. But what upset her parents even further was her decision to leave her husband when she was in her late 20s. “I felt as if I would die if I stayed, that there was no room for my self. I really felt I had no choice internally. It was a struggle emotionally and financially. I raised two children by myself. The biggest change in my life came in my early 40s when I had a transformative spiritual experience. That truly did upset everyone. I was different and while I have reconnected, my gaze remains largely towards God. In the US, where I live, this is suspect and makes people uncomfortable,” says Keefer. For Keefer, life is clearly about living one’s choices. “I was hugely affected by my second divorce after 20 years of partnership. But in the end it was my choice and it was because of conflicting values and lifestyle. I think as women it is sometimes an impossible question to ask what I do want. We are so used to thinking of others that it is an alien concept,” says Katherine Keefer. Rebellion, however, can be a catalyst. K Anandh, a psychotherapist in Chennai, recalls that as a teenager he was saddened to see that almost all the relationships around him were riddled in conflict. What hurt him even more was that no one was looking at himself/herself but indulging in casting aspersions on others, and hurting them. In addition, the fact that no one meant anything they said created a deep mistrust of what others said. “I then started rebelling. But very soon I realised that rebellion is not the solution as rebellion and the thing rebelled against both operated at the same level. What was needed was a radical change in the way of looking at things,” recalls Anandh. Around the same time a series of synchronous happenings such as stumbling on the right books at the right time guided him through the “labyrinth of the human mind and the first opening up, the beginning of a great journey, happened.” According to Anandh, there were certain clearly identifiable stages in his journey towards living life on his own terms. “The first stage was the sudden, frightening realisation that all I know is invalid; and that what I had been told by others is false (at least most of it!). And that the map given by society is drawn by those who have no idea of the layout of the land. The scary thing was “I don’t know anything’ and that knowledge by itself has no intrinsic value.” Anandh also says that although he read (and still does) voraciously, he took on the role of being his own teacher and disciple, a relationship that still endures. “The Path, I would say, consists of letting go, and not accumulating. It is more living on life’s terms and not on socio-cultural terms.” Me – and you Living life on your own terms is riddled with popular negative stereotypes. People who dare to do so are viewed as mavericks, rebels, eccentrics, or just plain “selfish.” Perhaps this exp
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