By Nandini Murali
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.”
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 explains the premium society places on “adjustment” and following the crowd. “We far too often compromise… Compromise… until we “eventually lose the real “us” and become a simulated version of us: looks like you and me—but isn’t,” writes Craig Harper in Take Back Your Personal Power.
Dr T.S. Radhakrishnan, Chennai-based Transactional Analysis (TA) Therapist underscores the importance of social conditioning that dwarfs and minimises us. “This conditioning arises out of either complying or rebelling against parental systems. Either way they form part of our conditioning which limits us in later life and makes us self-centered. Therefore if we want to evolve with life, we need to come out of these limitations, into what is called liberation in scriptures or autonomy in TA,” he says. According to him, living life on one’s own terms is all about being autonomous, which can be understood as discovering our own sense of freedom within our sense of mutuality. “When we arrive there we become holistic.” Not surprisingly, such people are hard to find. “By and large, people are on the other side of harmony, that is self-centered—either aggressive and self-aggrandising tramplers or submissive and self-effacing doormats,” he adds.
Therefore, for Dr Radhakrishnan, living life on one’s own terms is all about living with mutual respect. “This means I allow myself to be affected/influenced by the world and the world in turn allows me to affect/influence it.
Thereby, as time passes, the world and I grow and evolve together,” he says. In such a state, we are our own selves and do what is right regardless of what others may so or do but our motivation is never to hurt others. Rather we interact with society based on free will; we care for others and secure their happiness not because we must, but because we want to.
A follower of Sri Ramana Maharishi, Dr Radhakrishnan says that the life of the great sage embodied these timeless truths. “As my guru, Ramana Maharishi, says, right or wrong, good or bad is immaterial. What matters is the answer to the question, ‘Am I living with, for, by and through my self and with, for, by, and through others?’ As long as this process is on, evolution is guaranteed. He beautifully sums it up when he says, ‘All effort is towards effortlessness.”
Personally, the ongoing struggle to live life on my own terms has been all about excavating my authentic self from the accumulated debris of inauthentic ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. I was saddened to discover my abject abdication of personal power. I had completely negated and destroyed my authentic self mistaking the internalised self of external validation and approval for my true self. My hunger for approval was ravenous. Perfection was my mantra. I would drive myself to score a perfect 10 – as a wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and a professional — with a tenacity that would shame Olympic gymnasts! I was an inveterate people pleaser who could never say “No!” The praise and adulation that I received was the pay-off that trapped me in the psychological game that I was orchestrating. Often, I felt I was masked — both from myself as well as from others. It was a double-edged weapon. As long as I was unaware of it, I was conflict-free.
Yet, at some point, cracks began to appear. That was when I became aware that I was not living an authentic life. Never having rebelled openly even as a child, the notion of adult rebellion was shocking! A turning point was when my career as a journalist and writer was poised for a take-off — this meant I would have to undertake extensive work-related travel. I was in a dilemma. How would I explain to my spouse and family about the changing work equation? The easy option, of course, would have been to give it all up.
My hunger for approval was so powerful that to do so seemed attractive as I wanted my ‘perfect’ image to be untarnished. The trade-off, however, was my tendency to lapse into victim mode and blame my immediate environment for my inability to pursue my aspirations.
A friend and colleague reminded me, “No decision is consequence-free” and told me that if I needed to pursue my dreams I must do so and not resort to blame games. For the first time I stood up for what I believed in. Through a process of impasse-ridden negotiations I explained to my family some of my work demands and my need to do what was important for me. The process was far from easy. But today, I experience a sense of empowerment and fulfillment because I had the courage to live by what I believed. To me, that was a classic instance of living life on my own terms.
This, however, does not mean that one does not respect and honour family commitments. In my own case, I’ve made it clear to my family that while they are priority, so are my needs and aspirations. It took considerable dialogue and patience. Of course, temporarily it upset the status quo and jolted everyone, including me, out of our comfort zones. This expulsion from the comfort zone was particularly agonising for me. I often felt tempted to give it all up. Thankfully, I did not. It was the first instance when I drew my boundaries. Earlier, I let the others in my life draw my boundaries and I would then resent that my personal space was being encroached upon!
A woman’s journey
The need to define one’s personal boundaries is a key aspect in living life on one’s own terms. Author and social scientist, Bhanumathy Vasudevan, based in Hosur, Tamil Nadu, also agrees. According to her, to do so is particularly significant for women.
“For me, living life on my own terms means I decide what my boundaries are, I do things that I want to and not ‘have to’ – in my personal and professional lives. At the same time, I also respect others’ role expectations where I am in relationships and negotiate through dialogue when I sense anger, disappointment, and frustration, said or unsaid. It is a new skill for us –women do not have too many role models. Of course, we see women at both ends of the spectrum: completely sacrificing and self-effacing women on one hand, and belligerent, rebellious women on the other who are viewed as deviants by society,” says Bhanumathy.
According to her, for centuries, women have lived life by taking so many things as ‘given,’ ‘sacrosanct’ and ‘unquestionable’ that it hardly strikes them that there is scope to “renegotiate and redefine relationships. As women our values and identity has been built on how well we compromise in relationships and how willing we are to give up anything despite all hardships and indignity,” Bhanumanthy says.
There are several challenges in living life on one’s terms. For Bhanumathy, one of the biggest challenges is that one’s intimate relationships within the family may experience temporary discord. Another challenge is that dialogue and consensual decision-making may not be the norm, and hence opening the gates for dialogue could be a road block as others are not used to it.
“The biggest challenge is that ‘I am ready for change’ but others in the relationship are not and therefore preparing them requires diligence, patience, good strategies, and handling personal authority with compassion,” says Bhanumathy Vasudevan. “I am acutely aware of the travails of the woman’s journey when she attempts to carve out her own identity at her terms and pace in life. Therefore I take up a supportive role for any woman who wants to start or is in the journey of finding herself. I consider it my life’s mission,” she adds.
One of the hallmarks of living life on one’s own terms is that it requires us to reframe what we think about ourselves, our lives and the people around us. “Be the change you want them to see,” says Lynne Forrest in Beyond Victim Consciousness. Yet for many, especially women, the challenge is to zero in on that elusive goal in search of which we spend most of our lives, only to realise that we had stacked our ladder up against the wrong wall! Media professional and author (Bollywood Cookbook) Bulbul Mankhani exemplifies such a predicament. “It’s much easier to live life on your own terms if you know what they are,” she says.
Bulbul, who just turned 50, says that it is only recently that she has begun living closer to her natural self. Like most people, her journey towards living life on her own terms began as an open rebellion against parental authority and the “urge to always run away from strong, dominant authority figures. My only parent was one, and of course, I continue to attract people in a similar mould, especially bosses.” Being shy and unable to express her needs, she chose to escape by being financially independent, which, together with being single and in her 20s, gave her “a sense of self-discovery.” She also admits that at that point in her life, men were an obstacle to living life on her own terms. “The need to have relationships became a reason to adapt and adjust. I really found hard to do that,” she admits.
Gradually, she began to discover what made life meaningful and fulfilling for her. “I learnt very slowly that you can set boundaries for relationships; that you can ask and get what you need, that adapting to others consistently is demeaning to your own self. In my 40s, I began an acute observation of the city of Mumbai and felt free knowing that there are options that may match my internal beat. Like moving to Madh Island, proximity to nature, and changing my friends to more artistic and spiritual ones. Eventually, I recognised the pleasure of getting off the rat race, the pleasures of simple everyday stuff, and being alone with myself in a new accepting way,” says Bulbul. The impact, she says, is all too evident in her calm inner life, absence of stress, fewer needs and more enduring and deeper relationships. She also concedes that being simple makes it easier for her to live life on her own terms.
Indeed, the need to free oneself from external validation and opinions is the essence of living life on one’s own terms. Age is also a factor.
“I would say now, and maybe it is a factor of age, that I am beginning to set my own self-worth internally and not on the opinions of others. Even though I usually did what I felt I needed to do I was always aware of the judgments of others. This is hard on two fronts: one, not wanting to be disliked, and secondly, not wanting to cause pain to others. I also found it difficult to express my own needs and not have the consequences be drastic. For example, once my parents disowned me because I upset my mother,” says Katherine Keefer.
While chafing at such parental diktats seems universal, there are people like Mumbai-based spiritual teacher and life coach Najoo Sohonie who aver that not all parental control is coercive and a trigger for rebelliousness. She recalls growing up in an extended family whose shared values laid down a strong and stable foundation for character building.
“I guess that’s why as a child I never felt the need to rebel against it. I now realise in hindsight, that kids don’t rebel against discipline per se, but against double standards of discipline — one for the children and the other for the parents,” says Najoo Sohonie.
For Najoo Sohonie, the maturity that enables us to discover our value system ‘comes from being allowed to make mistakes, taking responsibility for them and learning from the experience. As I reached my teens, I broke away from the cocooned protection of my extended family. By this time I had been nourished on a diet of daily satsangs in the divine presence of Rajneesh, who was my dad’s guru. This opened my mind to a whole new horizon of possibilities and experiences,” says Najoo Sohonie.
These included exploring religions (and questioning the rationale of all rituals only to break away from all practices much to the concern of some family members), exploring relationships (falling in love at the age of 15 with a boy from another community whom she later married!) and exploring the self.
“After almost a decade of marital responsibilities, raising a family, earning a living and riding the waves of an often tumultuous life, the ‘seeker’ within once again peeped through layers and layers of worldly conditioning, waiting to begin the journey for which it was born. “ The journey that literally changed her life was a trek to Kailash Mansarovar. “Inner cleansing, ‘surrenderfulness’, humility, determination, hope, faith—all this and much more—were the outcome of this inner and outer journey,” she adds. For Najoo Sohonie, this stage was a catalyst. “A natural outcome of the churning or manthan of thoughts, desires, hopes and a questioning of the futility and injustice of life and all it has to offer was that it led to a clearing out.” It led her to shut down her lucrative business (a personal and fitness training centre), an “effortless spontaneous decision” and devote herself to spiritual growth.
It certainly was a leap of faith. “ I had spent a couple of months renovating and updating the facility, and one fine day, while I was showering, I had this life-transforming thought, ‘Did I take birth only to make people more thin, more physically fit? Or is there a higher purpose for my life?’ I realised that instead of spending 15 hours a day for my business, I could devote that time to finding out who I was and what was the purpose of my life. I wound up the business in the next two months and incurred huge losses, much to the chagrin of clients, trainers, family and friends. But then I figured, what is the cost of peace of mind?”
A similar trajectory is also obvious in the life of therapist and spiritual counsellor, Chitra Jha. She candidly admits that she never followed any value systems or codes blindly, nor was there any pressure to do so. But for her, the struggle to live life on her terms began when she questioned “success as seen by the world and success as understood by me.” Despite being married to a successful army officer and raising a family, she felt that “something was missing” in her life. A chance encounter with reiki in 2000 was a turning point.
“It completely resonated with me and with that my cleansing began. With that also began my struggle with the world I lived in… the hypocrisy, sycophancy, the masks… started jarring my senses like never before and I rebelled, initially in subtle ways and later openly. This took a toll on my relationship with my husband who still believed in ‘we are a part of military society and we have to follow its ways. This is done, so we shall do it.’ I started feeling stifled and oppressed… like a bird in a golden cage… just wanted to run away and find my Utopia,” says Chitra Jha.
It takes courage to live a life of resonance with one’s deepest desires. Chitra discovered Utopia within herself through books, and spiritual teachers, who helped awaken the “guru within. Today I am completely at peace with myself and my world. All the resistance and resentment has been washed away … and even if something comes up I meditate upon it and receive guidance.”
Living life on one’s own terms is being a free person. We were so when we were born and we need to reclaim that sense of purity and simplicity. A free person is fluid. She flows like water and takes the shape of the container. Free from the compulsive need to conform to rules and regulations, she instead is guided by an inner knowing from deep within. Such a dynamic state, in contrast to the static structures of societal codes, takes us towards the Universal principles of order, harmony, compassion, and congruence. We thus transcend our fear of not belonging and drift into a realm of belonging in a sense of totality.
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