It is December. As I take stock of my life over past 12 months, I realize that I have learnt an invaluable lesson this year.
All of us grow up with and manage our lives using some assumptions and guidelines. These could range from ‘I must never waste time’ to ‘Clean laundry must arrive from the dryer to closets, all folded and ironed, in less than 16 minutes.’ In addition to these life-management guideposts, we also have a set of beliefs that define us, ‘All Democrats are lazy,’ or, ‘All Republicans are cruel.’ Sometimes we have long-term goals like ‘I must have X million in my bank accounts by the time I am Y years of age’ or ‘ I need to make sure that my child graduates from ‘A’ institution before she becomes the CEO of Y sized organization AND after she singlehandedly stops global warming.’ I know… I know… some of these examples are extreme. But seriously, we all have these hidden assumptions buried in our head that dictate our daily activities, shape our choices, define our ideologies and influence our worldview.
Some of these preferences develop over time as we filter what we are told though our real life experiences. But not always! Sometimes we just inherit some of our beliefs from our parents, our churches/temples/mosques, our teachers, or other thought leaders. Our worldview is also influenced by the society we live in, the media we consume and the people we hang out with. As we go about our life every day, these statements do not explicitly pop-up in our brains at all times but they are definitely lurking in our psyches. What I have learnt in this past one year is that, unbeknownst to us, these innocent statements can be the main source of our stresses and worries. They can cause unnecessary complications in our lives without us being aware of them.
Let’s take a simple example of a friend who has a very busy weekend ahead of her. She is freaking out as she needs to be mindful of her kids’ exams, needs to wind up holiday shopping and meal planning, manage work commitments that will spill over into her weekend AND she wants to bond with her own friends before everybody disappears to spend the holidays with their families. She still has not recovered from many holiday parties, kids’ school pageants and late nights working on the1000th revision of budget plans at work. You get the picture. Her body is begging for a two-hour nap on Saturday afternoon but she cannot DO THAT! There is too much to do after she is done driving around her kids’ to their sports activities. She is STRESSED! Lurking at the bottom of her psyche’s ocean is the mantra ‘I must never waste time.’ So she soldiers on and does everything else but take a nap. At the end of her weekend, she is exhausted and unhappy but she does not even know why. She made her choices intelligently but that has not made her happy. It is because she never questioned her underlying thought – ‘WHY must I never waste time?’ or ‘What exactly does wasting time look like?’ or ‘Is napping a waste of time?’
This whole year, I have been playing this game. I start to peel the layers of my underlying assumptions every time I encounter a doubt, a stress, a conflict, a fear or an anxiety. It has been an eye-opening experience as I have come face-to-face with my hidden beliefs, values or what I have started to call as my ‘sacred mantras’. As a next step, I start to question my sacred mantras. This is the hard part. These mantras calcify into our neurological pathways and when we start to question them, our brain comes to a complete halt. It stubbornly refuses to step away from these assumptions. My first experience with this game was when I came across my sacred mantra ‘I want to do my best.’ When faced with the follow-up question ‘Why’, my brain literally froze. I could not comprehend the question ‘Why do I want to do my best?’ My brain was stuck at ‘I just do.’ And I am not even a perfectionist. Not even close. It took me some time to even contemplate that, at times, it is OK to NOT to do your best. It is OK to just do. It is exhausting to always do your best. And the reality is that I don’t always do my best, not even close. My family and friends can vouch for that. But the stress was coming from clinging to that mantra.
I have to admit that as I started to unearth a whole trove of my sacred mantras and started to question them, I started to feel very unstable. I didn’t want all of my mantras to disappear. I felt the need for something to hang on to. Don’t I have anything that I truly believe in? Aren’t there expectations and norms of behavior that all of us should adhere to? The answer is yes… but what I have learnt is that that does not mean that it will always happen. And it is OK for it to not happen. It is OK to know that real life will not happen according to my sacred mantra and everybody in the world, including myself, will not and cannot behave according to my mantra or even our collective mantras. It is OK for a colleague to interrupt me in yet another meeting or it is OK for my son to forget his sports kit once again. I know that some of you are wondering if this is passivism? With this philosophy, will we ever strive for anything better? Will we ever reach a goal? Will there be any achievements to go after? Hear me out! I don’t want to throw out our aspirations and desires to be better or better our world. I don’t want to throw away our dreams and squelch our hopes. All I am saying is that maybe we should not get knotted up about it. Maybe, we should just lighten up.
As I started to get a hang of my relatively unstable world, I realized that I was enjoying the fruits of my relaxed attitude. Irritants or annoyances started to lose their punch and my own reactions to others’ behaviors as well as to my own failures and imperfections started to surprise me. I really started to enjoy non-stressed me who is not wedded to the way things ‘SHOULD’ be.
On another dimension, as I opened the door of the room of my strongly held beliefs and stepped away from my political or ideological stands, I liked the feeling of being genuinely open and curious. I liked returning to the neutral vantage point. However, this does not mean that I have changed my opinion on everything. But it does mean that I have started to see the concerns and fears behind the opposing view with much more clarity. I am beginning to see the wisdom behind Aristotle’s words, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Distancing myself from my sacred mantras, even sporadically, has not only felt liberating, it has had a tangible effect on my every day wellbeing and behavior. Of course, it does not mean that I am a fully reformed person now. Far from it… decades of behavioral patterns will take decades to change, but the start of the journey has been beautiful. I know that serious stress-triggers or high-stake fears will catapult me back into my old ways but at least I know that there is an alternate route.
So, as I embark on the new calendar year, I hope to continue to put down the weight of many of my sacred mantras (life-management guideposts or behavioral preferences or dearly held stands on issues) and aspire to live lightly. I would like to invite you to play this game as well, unload your unnecessary weight, and see where it takes you!
Let’s Live Lightly!