During the midst of agonising depression, I was an expert at facades. Years ago, I remember lying in bed with my then-girlfriend, riddled with anxiety and despair before a social event. She was one of my sole confidents, one of the only people I’d managed to sidestep the shame and stigma of mental illness. Feeling free to express my emotions, I’d explain the unbearable sense of being unable to cope; “I can’t do this,” I’d tell her, as my world trembled on the brink collapse. She’d respond in love and support, gently urging me to be open and honest with my friends. I’d give her a look. “I can’t dothat.”
She’d be amazed as, when it was time, I’d transform. I’d stand up, walk to the wardrobe, and slip on my deliberately sewn cloak of illusion. I’d walk out of my room, smile on face, bounce in step, and the stage was set — it was time for me to act carefree, not a worry in the world, the joker, confident, sociable. During interactions, I’d expel great energy to hide any loose stitching in the illusion, any signs of anxiety or sadness would be covered up by a joke or a deflection or more shots or a cheeky line.
Our Personas Hide Who We Truly Are
For anyone experience mental illness, this carefree, happy garment will be familiar. We’re so afraid of sharing our true selves to the world, a self we truly believe is flawed, damaged and unwelcome, we’d rather act out a persona. It’s win-win, right? If the persona is rejected, you can bask in the glory of a job well done. “Muahaha, my persona has been rejected, but little do they know it isn’t the real me.” Carl Jung identified the persona as follows:
“A kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.”
To varying degrees, we all hide behind personas. Though it’s more evident for those trying to “hide” mental illness or a perceived imperfect self, we all chop and change the way we act depending on environment or the people we are surrounded by. Though Jung highlights the importance of a flexible persona in adapting to society, for most of us, our personas lead to use acting in ways that aren’t true to ourselves.
A huge step for me was becoming aware (during therapy) of how my carefree persona was making things worse. Stepping into the carefree garment was an attempt to protect myself against the emotions I was feeling. This barrier between myself and my emotions turned into denial of those emotions. This lack of acceptance added inner-tension — and a heap extra suffering.
It affected my behaviour, too. If feeling in a low mood or low on energy, instead of thinking: “It’s okay, I won’t be anything I’m not and that’s fine,” I’d stress about how challenging it’d be to appear energetic, friendly, carefree. That’d convince me often to avoid social events. Curiously, I’ve also noticed that embracing these so-called “negative” states actually leads me to entering social situations and having a much better time; I don’t waste energy hiding myself, so I can connect with people in whichever way is relevant at the time.
The Importance Of Congruence And Self-Actualisation
Humanistic psychologist and all-round hero Carl Rogers notes the importance of congruence and self-actualisation. In a nutshell, Rogers believes our main purpose is to become the person we are truly meant to be. In his words:
“The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualise, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism.”
The experiencing organism is who we truly are in any given moment, not who we feel we need to be, or should be, in any given moment. During my own personal and spiritual growth my personas have begun to melt away. Of course, they are still there, but I’m getting closer and closer to being at ease, and in tune, with who I am. If I feel low on energy, I accept it. I don’t try and be the life and soul if my life and soul are in need of some downtime. I don’t try to please others by being upbeat if in doing so, I overextend myself.
Most of us tend to have an idea of how we should act. The beliefs of how we should act are formed during our upbringing. Generally speaking, they don’t serve us as they encourage us to act in a way incongruent to our inner world. Maybe it’s the belief you should always appear happy as you don’t want to bring others down. Or the belief you should always be nice.
A significant belief I had exacerbating depression and anxiety was closely linked to the concept of masculinity. Big boys don’t cry, and strength is always remaining emotionally “stable.” Thus, the facade attempted to mould my emotions to fit this concept. I was then judging myself based on how accurately I lived up to this concept. Obviously, I never did.
You Don’t Have To Be Anything For Anyone
As I’ve moved from a facade which was essentially a survival tactic, I’ve noticed the multitude of facades I’ve easily slipped into in many situations. They’ve caused my anxiety, stress, and depleted my energy. As per Rogers belief all humans have immense potential to blossom and be in our own individual ways, having the courage to remove the mask doesn’t make you selfish, or uncaring. It enable us to channel our humanistic traits, authentically. It allows us to connect with others. It allows us to embrace part of the contract of being human is being flawed, imperfect.
Remember: You don’t have to be funny. You don’t have to be happy all of the time. You don’t have to be full of energy. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to always get things right. You don’t have to always be nice. You don’t have to know what you want. You don’t have to always have the courage to seek the things you do want. You don’t have to always be thinking of others. You don’t have to always say yes. You don’t have to spend time with people who bring you down. You don’t need to always be loving. You don’t have to do what your parents want. You don’t have to do what your peers expect of you. You don’t have to do what culture expects of you. You don’t always have to be strong. You don’t have to “man up.” You don’t have to “stop being so sensitive.” You don’t have to be perfect.
As Don Miguel Ruiz writes in The Four Agreements:
“Just do your best — in any circumstance in your life. It doesn’t matter if you are sick or tired, if you always do your best there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don’t judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame, and self-punishment.”
Removing facades take immense courage. But in doing so, you self-actualise. You live in congruence with who it is you really are. In taking this courageous step, you’ll realise instead of unveiling something hideous and undeserving, you’ll blossom.
They say familiarity breeds contempt. But as the net ripples and those celebrating wear the wrong colours, there’s a lack of animosity. I’m sat in the middle of a disused airport in Berlin, on an evening that promised storms but had yet to deliver. A cloak of darkness covers Templhofer Feld, pierced only by the occasional chant of “It’s Coming Home” and the illumination of a giant screen. As I lift my head for the final few minutes, luminous pixels form an inescapable reality, lighting the sky in an unforgiving and familiar reminder of the harshness of football. Croatia 2-1 England.
Then the storm. The response was a collective groan, louder than the response to Mario Mandzukic’s 109th minute strike. Plastic cups diluted and refilled as clouds turn mixologists. Many run for cover. Me and my mates stay put, brave it out, embracing the rain’s impeccable, mood-matching arrival. Sod’s law in action.
We’d dared to dream of history made and immortality and bank holidays and restored pride. Now, back to reality. I’ve got to cycle home and it’s pissing down. The sun’s gone, international tournament football has disappeared for another two years and my football fix will consist of the Bristol Rovers fan’s forum and Whatsapp exchanges with my dad and my mum or watching Match of the Day if I remember I have a VPN.
As the dust settles and waistcoat sells return to normal, the daydreams piercing bus journeys or queues at Lidl will be full of what could have been. What if England won the World Cup? Well, everything would be okay then, wouldn’t it? Penalty shootout demons will’ve been exercised, Brexit forgotten, pride restored. Shankly said football isn’t a matter of life and death but it’s much more serious than that. Not quite. But still, reflecting on the past month’s gorge at the buffet of football’s finest, there’s no escaping it — World Cup fever was palpable. It got us talking. And it got me thinking.
You Gave Us Something To Believe In
Ultimately, football is a few blokes kicking a bit of plastic around a field. One of these blokes, Cristiano Ronaldo, has completed a move from Real Madrid to Juventus in a deal worth close to 105 million euros. He’s 33-years-old. Taking my love of Rovers and entire childhood and adolescence out of the picture, the level of emotional involvement in said kicking-a-ball-about is ludicrous. There’s no escaping it. Attempting to justify this to non-football-adoring friends usually results in a shrug of the shoulders, a knowing smile, and a response of “well, it’s football, isn’t it?” A justified response.
Streaming the Beeb, I accidentally tuned-in to the post-match news for the first time in yonks, bemused by the format: death, death, political deception, death, football, the weather. Football’s a part of our culture, a welcome distraction. “You gave us something to believe in,” Tweeted Prince William, and therein lies the answer — it’s not about football at all. One hundred yards and the 4-4-fucking-2 provide the canvas for us to project, to emote, to dream, to decry, to believe. It might not be life or death but football, in its simplistic, chaotic brilliance, epitomises the fundamental narratives of humanity.
As Trippier curls it in the top right or Lovren elbows Kane in the sternum, heroes and villains are made. The just and unjust. Storytelling, our imagination’s most intoxicating outlet, unfolds at lightening speed as stats are read and omens recited. Individually we prey, collectively we build narratives as our mind’s eye transcends the beer soaked bars and outdoor screens, rising to form a collective community of hope, built in the hive mind of hopeful expectations. This process, too, breaks down barriers. Blokes kicking balls brings us together. The “come on’s!” and the backslaps and the “what did you think of the match?” unifying us, one VAR decision at a time.
The Green Canvas Projects Our Human Needs
And yes, it gives us something to believe in, an outlet for a society that does its best to make us feel disconnected. Nationalism and tribalism are on display and have negative connotations, but there’s good and bad. For every drunken Brit invading IKEA there’s a sense of community built, a meeting ground for expats in Berlin, a reason to reach out and message and ask and share. Football is the area chosen, the object of unbridled passion, a unifying force bringing people together. It’s better than nothing, of course, but what lies beneath?
We all want something to believe in. We all want connection. Tribalism as exclusion is deplorable but as social animals, we build our own tribes and our own communities throughout our attempt to navigate life. It might not be coming home, maybe it never will, but the World Cup fervour proves football is far from fruitless. It’s a reflection of our deepest needs. A reminder that, if we dare to believe, we’re better together than we are apart.
Let’s begin with a simple truth: the mainstream media, particularly the advertising industry, defines beauty standards. These definitions are deliberately unattainable and perfect, because they fit an agenda. Making us feel bad about how we look works in the favour of profit-making corporations. With multiple billions at stake, it’s unlikely we’ll witness diverse, attainable and imperfect definitions of beauty in the mainstream media, at least in our lifetime.
If power structures won’t change, there’s no choice; the onus is on us to reshape and redefine beauty, by our realistic standards, improving negative body image in the process. But how do we redefine and change our mindsets? How do we reverse and unlearn conditioning that has been drilled into us, our entire lives?
Ideas presented here include: reframing ideas of beauty; becoming aware of (and accepting) ways we instinctively judge others and compare; body shaming vigilance; understanding body image psychology; accepting impermanence; and understanding the illusion of fixed concepts, such as appearance.
This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.
Redefining Beauty And Celebrating Individuality
The cultural concept of beauty is forcefully promoted billboards, TV screens, webpages, beauty products and everywhere since forever, like a cynical, slow-dripping serum of deceit, disguising itself as truth. But it isn’t truth, and the more we actively and consciously reject these images, the more we redefine beauty. A key principle behind this approach is redefining from aesthetic perfection to individuality.
How? We retrain our minds to look at others, and ourselves, the way we look at nature. Because as much as we may see ourselves as separate entities, cut off from the world around us, we are nature, too. Instinctively we embrace the untamed uniqueness of a landscape, sunset, forest, mountain, whatever it may be, and we see beauty. Imagine if we did the same with people? Discussing self-judgement, spiritual guru Ram Dass writes:
“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is.
“The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
Ram Dass references the totality of a person, but his words are easily applied to body image. Just as every tree in the forest is beautiful in its own way, so is every person. Training our eyes to discover beauty — away from a narrow template of physical traits and towards appreciation of uniqueness — is a powerful shift. Once we see non-discriminatory beauty in others, the next step is seeing it in ourselves. But first, we must move away from the mindset of judgement and comparison.
Stop Judging Others, Stop Judging Ourselves
Judgement is comparison with a gavel (that’s a judge’s mallet, by the way — yeah, I Googled it). Evaluating others with a discriminatory eye is the opposite of appreciate the beauty of uniqueness. There’s a reason non-judgement is at the core of spiritual philosophy; the way we perceive the world is reflected in the way we perceive ourselves. Evaluating and judging others frames the human body as an object to be observed. As explained in Instagram’s Influence on Negative Body Image, objectification leads to self-objectification. It’s a vicious cycle.
This isn’t specific to conscious, mean-hearted judgement, either. It applies to the habitual, instantaneous thoughts arising when encountering the rich variety of bodies throughout each day. Think you’re immune? I promise you, we all have this inner-judge to some extent. Living in this world, it’s impossible to avoid it completely. Unless you’ve spent your life under a rock, or living in the Big Brother house, you’ll likely have internalised a number of these biases, probably without consciously registering this process.
The next step is a difficult one — it’s time to put your ego aside and dig deep into yourself to discover these unfriendly thought-processes. I’ll go first…
I’m A Judgemental Body-Shamer
I like to think I’m a non-judgemental, caring-kinda-guy. But when actively tuning in to my inner-dialogue, I notice how quickly I react to bodies around me — too fat, not muscular enough, too hairy, too hairless. Noticing this unsavoury thinking loop is disconcerting, because let’s be honest, it comes across as mean and not very pleasant, and I don’t like to think of myself as a mean person.
However, to overcome the dark crevices of a conditioned brain, we must actively accept them by applying a mindful approach — let thoughts arise without indulgence (“Maybe these thoughts are the truth, after all, that person doesn’t fit the definition of beauty I have in mind”) resistance (“I don’t want these thoughts!”) or judgement (“I’m a horrible person”).
Such thoughts spring into our minds, outside of our control. Where do they come from? Jungian psychology suggests the “shadow,” an unconscious dark side of the psyche. I’d argue the shadow is the source of unsavoury, judgemental thoughts. Word of caution on practicing this step: having these thoughts does not make you a bad person. They are your thoughts, they aren’t you. We may not control the thoughts entering our minds, be we can control our reaction.
“We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are,” the brilliant psychologist, Carl Rogers, writes in On Becoming A Person. “Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” In my experience, this is absolutely true. Accepting dark thoughts with compassion and non-judgement allows them to be processed adequately.
Imagine your subconscious as water in a saucepan, below the conscious mind. Difficult thoughts and emotions occasionally bubble to the surface. Repressing or rejecting this process is the equivalent of placing a lid on top the saucepan. What happens? The water boils quicker, the bubbles increase. In acceptance we surrender and allow the water to evaporate. The temperature lowers, the bubbles calm.
The Importance Of Creating Communities
“It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.” — Fabienne, Pulp Fiction
Call me a deluded optimist, but I have a vision of self-aware utopia where we support each other’s wellness, and frame our own definitions of worth, beauty and success. Imagine how incredible it would be if we formed communities that actively promote equality, kindness and universal acceptance. Community, in this sense, doesn’t have to be a city, or even a district. We all have spheres of influence.
A challenging aspect of taking steps towards this utopia is calling out body shaming or objectification, when we can. Screaming obscenities won’t help, but attempting to educate the oblivious or ignorant will. This includes rejecting established structures and damaging stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes and hetero-centric stereotypes.
There are actions we can take, today, to forming such communities. In terms of body image issues, it’s imperative we are open and honest in discussing its significance. It’s imperative we take the challenging step of sharing vulnerability. Scary it may be, but in doing so, we can connect with others and create spaces where we can each thrive.
“In the last year or two I’ve accepted my body more and feel more comfortable about it — mainly owing to the people I spend time with, my friends and partner, and also just knowing myself better as I get older.” — M
In a world where more and more of us are connected in cyberspace but crave real connection, I urge you to have an open, honest and challenging conversation with those close to you about your feelings on this subject. You’ll be surprised how universal these issues are, as I was when asking friends to share their experiences.
The Way We Feel About Our Bodies Is A Reflection Of The Mind
“Our perceptions of outer appearances are profoundly affected by the inner conditioning of our minds.” — Master Hsing Yun, Lotus in a Stream: Essays in Basic Buddhism.
Psychologist Elizabeth Halsted advocates increasing self-esteem as a catalyst in improving body image. Frequently, negative body images form due to low self-esteem. As Halstead writes on Psychology Today, someone experiencing low self-esteem has self-critical perception of their personality. Consequently, someone may believe people don’t like them, or they have nothing to contribute in social situations. This lead to over-reliance physical appearance “to create a positive effect on others.”
Halstead identifies the importance of acceptance, instead of self-criticism. In particular, there are three thinking processes commonly associated with body image issues: perfectionism, comparison, and judgement. When I experience a bout of depression and self-critical thoughts swirl around my head in a mind-storm of self-loathing, my appearance gets caught in the crossfire and I begin to pay more attention to it. Increasing concern over my appearance is often the first warning sign for an oncoming bout of low-mood.
“When I decided to stop fighting how my body naturally looks, I managed to let go of a lot of stress.” — F
There’s no question body image is a mental health issue, yet often the first attempt at a solution is changing the way or bodies look, in an outward-in attempt at fixing perception. Which leads on to…
Exercise, Impermanence And Body Composition
“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta
Many people who have a negative body image will attempt to change their body composition, whether through diet, exercise, or even surgery — it’s the reason I initially started to lift weights. Attempting to overcome negative body image purely by changing the body, without an attempt to confront issues of self-esteem, comparison and judgement, is often the precursor to eating disorders, steroid use and body dysmorphia. This comes from the mistaken belief:
“I am unhappy with my body, so I will change it. I want to fit beauty standards I see in the media. Once I reach this standard, I will be worthy. My self-esteem will increase, my body image will be positive, I will be happy.”
Moulding our bodies to fit idealised perfection is near impossible, because all bodies are different. If not genetically predisposed, it’s incredibly difficult to shape our bodies a certain way, whether dramatically slimming down or bulking up. Changing body composition for this reason has the opposite affect by strengthening self-objectification.
Even if “aesthetic perfection” is reached, you’ll be no better off. Why? Because the external is the ego’s playground, and the ego is never satisfied. Don’t believe me? Check out this quote:
“When I look in the mirror, I throw up. I was already so critical of myself, even when I was in top physical shape. I’d look in the mirror after I won one Mr. Olympia after another and think, ‘How did this pile of (bleep) win?’ I never saw perfection. There was always something lacking.”
Those words are from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is idolised by the bodybuilding community to this day, a beacon of physical “perfection” in his prime, validated by seven Mr. Olympia titles. But he’s never been happy with his body, and at 70-years-old, hates his reflection so much it makes him physically sick.
Ego, Craving And “I’ll Be Happy When… I’m Ripped”
If we identify the body as a source of worth and social status or crave desirability by becoming more “attractive,” the act of sculpting the perfect physique becomes another “I’ll be happy when.” Not that I’m going to psychoanalyse the Terminator, but… if I were going to speculate on his thinking process during his peak years, it’d go like this:
“I have reached physical perfection in the eyes of others, the promised land. But I am still unhappy. I don’t feel worthy of praise. There’s more I can change before I’m fully happy, I will keep striving.”
This is an important point: if you don’t address low self-esteem, changing the way your body looks won’t make one iota of difference to your body image. It’s the ego’s nature to constantly seek and crave. It will always perceive itself lacking. Conversely, the ego takes hold and identifies with physical appearance, undesired changes will cause significant stress, as Arnie discovered. This ranges from the mundane (bad hair days, pimples) to the unavoidable yet significant (ageing, illness).
Improving Body Image With Buddhism And The Middle Way
I’d initially planned one article on body image, related to Instagram. But the topic has taken on a life of its own. The more I explore, research and talk to others, the more I’m convinced this a key issue facing this generation — male and female. So, I’m not done yet. I want to guide you along a path I find never fails to offer insight and solace. I’ll apply the time-tested Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way to body image, in a bid to find a balanced approach to our relationship with our bodies. Until then, I hope this article contains meaningful, applicable solutions for you to try.
The aim of January’s theme is to shift the mental perspective on goal setting. First by highlighting the importance of separating fulfilment from the attainment of goals. Second, by highlighting the distinction between inner purpose and outer purpose.
Understanding the difference between being and doing is crucial in helping to prioritise goals, to set goals that follow your heart’s desire and focus your attention on each step, not just the end of the journey.
If you need a refresher, follow the links above. But now, on to the nitty gritty. How do you prioritise goals? There are a few factors to explore: making sure your goals are in sync with your inner purpose, working on self-compassion as you follow your goals, and understanding the most important priority of all — you.
Two Horizons And The Ultimate Goal
I mention Martin Amor’s and Alex Pellew’s Two Horizons model in The Liberating Distinction Between Hopes And Dreams. When used in the right way, this model can become a valuable tool in goal setting.
The concept of the near horizon and far-off horizon is fundamental in prioritising goals. As well as helping keep a clear understanding of what your ultimate dream is, it also helps bring your immediate goals into focus. This, in turn, is great for motivation.
The beauty is, the Two Horizons model can be transformed, turning far-off dreams into manageable tasks that you can begin, today. This transformation is straightforward. Start by dreaming. Then boil the essence of the dream into multiple goals. Finally, break those goals into smaller, manageable tasks.
This way of organising goals can be represented by the “pyramid of goals.”
The Pyramid Of Goals
Your dream is the ultimate goal. It’s the top of the “pyramid of goals.” Working back requires looking at the structure of the pyramid. At the top, the dream is a combination mid-term goals. Each mid-term goals is a combination of short-term goals. Each short-term goal is a combination of tasks that can be acted upon directly.
Applying this on a basic level to Mind That Ego looks like:
Top of the pyramid (ultimate goal): My own Life Coaching business.
Middle of the pyramid (mid-term goals): Establish Mind That Ego as a brand, fronted by yours truly, consisting of written and video-based content. Learn coaching practices.
Bottom of the pyramid (short-term goals): Complete Life Coaching courses. Work on video editing skills. Improve writing. Read. Think of ideas for blog posts and videos. Produce content.
All levels of the pyramid need each other. You can’t achieve the ultimate goal without mid-term and short-term goals. At the same time, short-term goals are dictated by mid-term and ultimate goals.
The different levels of the pyramid also help goals remain manageable. Setting one goal (start a Life Coaching business) with a deadline is a recipe for stress and lack of direction. But by fragmenting the ultimate goal into mid-term and short-term goals, day-to-day priorities begin to order themselves. These small steps can have realistic deadlines attached to them.
For example: this articles belongs to January’s theme and it’s the 31st of January today, so I MUSTFINISH THIS BLOG POST TODAY!!…
But if I gave myself the task of building a brand in a few months time, the size of the goal would seem daunting, I’d struggle knowing where to start, and I’d struggle to set realistic deadlines. Writing a blog post today wouldn’t necessarily appear to be a priority.
Prioritise Goals In Different Life Categories
This ultimate goal example above is linked to career, but the Two Horizons model applies to all area of your life. So dream big.
By having dreams in different areas — such as financial, self-improvement, relationships, fitness, hobbies, and so on — you’ll eventually have multiple pyramids, each with their own ultimate goal, mid-term goals and short-term goals.
This where prioritising day-to-day tasks is required. Sometimes this is self-explanatory; if I receive a bill in the post that requires immediate payment, this financial goal takes priority over a blog post that can be written another day (career goal). Other times there may be multiple goals that appear to have the same urgency and the same importance. What then?
This is where you can take a step back and look at the bigger picture. How long will the goal take? Are there areas of your life that currently feel neglected? Does the goal include other people? Is there a goal playing on your mind more than others, causing you to procrastinate? Which goal will be most fulfilling to begin? Which goal are you putting off the most, and why?
Psst: Once you’ve established your ultimate dream and whittled down the short-term goals, use Mind That Ego’s motivation model to keep you moving ahead on days where motivation is sparse.
Self-Care, Self-Compassion, And Prioritising You
It can be easy to get swept up in our goals, of feeling we aren’t good enough, or that achieving goals and improving ourselves is the only way we’ll find happiness.
Self-care and self-compassion are vital while pursuing our dreams. If we see our goals as something we simply have to get done, then we’ll end up feeling stressed as we desperately try to achieve them, despondent if we aren’t, or hopeless if mid-term goals appear too daunting.
To combat this, make self-care an important aspect of your goal setting. Set yourself a goal of taking more time to relax. Set goals from a place of self-compassion. Make sure you put enough time aside to follow your passions, to do things you enjoy or help you relax. Which leads me on to my final point…
If you can’t make yourself a priority, you’re going to struggle to prioritise goals. Why? Because if you see yourself as secondary to those around you, why would put your goals ahead of other’s needs and desires?
Prioritising yourself requires self-care, self-compassion, and a healthy dose of discipline. It’ll mean saying no, sometimes more than yes. But this is far from selfish. In fact, it has the opposite effect; by investing in yourself, you’ll be in a much better place to offer yourself to others. And you’ll be working towards your dream in the process.
All of us want a purpose in life. The biggest challenge of goal setting is aligning our overall purpose with the actions we take. Finding this alignment can be a painstaking, lifelong process. If we feel our actions aren’t purposeful enough, this search for meaning can be the cause of great stress and despair; perhaps we prioritise the wrong goals, or we feel stuck in a career that, deep down, we don’t enjoy.
So how do we discover our life’s purpose? How can we unearth the chosen career or pursuit that’ll give us meaning? Do you want the good news first, or the good news? The good? Okay…
The good news is that you don’t have to do anything to find your purpose. It is already within you. It doesn’t lie with the career you choose or the city you live in or your hobbies or creative pursuits. This is far from an empty platitude. Changing your outlook and realising this truth is crucial in finding your purpose and following your heart’s desire. Why?
Most of us seek purpose in the outside world. But in doing so, we confuse purpose with attainment, and any sense of reward from things attained is fleeting and temporary. That’s where our inner purpose plays an important role. The importance of inner purpose is highlighted by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth. Tolle explains how lasting fulfilment comes from the perfect alignment of inner purpose and outer purpose.
But how on earth do we find it?
Finding Your Inner Purpose
“Most people treat the present moment as if it were an obstacle that they need to overcome. Since the present moment is Life itself, it is an insane way to live.” — Eckhart Tolle.
According to Tolle, our inner purpose is to be “absolutely present,” to avoid the insanity outlined in the above quote. By being fully aware, our actions become empowered by present-awareness, by pure being. Being fully mindful of every step of our life’s journey, as and when it unfolds, is the purpose of life itself.
It sounds so simple that it’s hard to believe the profound impact uncovering this purpose can have. By going beyond the thinking mind and its incessant clinging to a perceived better future, we bring clarity into our lives. Life has new meaning.
An important caveat of this way of living is that it also uncovers the human traits that we all have in abundance — of compassion, love, empathy, creativity, and so on. This is what Tolle means by empowered present-awareness. When seeing beyond the mind’s constant future-projection and accompany fear, our actions are underpinned by a sense of fullness.
Now, I’m aware I may be losing those of you who aren’t spirituality inclined. It’s true, if we follow the notion of inner purpose to the extreme, well, we’d stand still, wouldn’t we? There’d be no need to progress. It doesn’t really fit for most of us. As an ambitious 27-year old, it doesn’t really fit for me, either. A huge part of life is the desire to grow, to mature, to gain insight and understanding.
So how do we balance the apparent blissful paralysis of present-moment awareness with the desire to move forwards? That’s where our outer purpose comes in.
Outer Purpose Is Important, But It’s Secondary
It’s easy to misinterpret our inner purpose. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that at certain points of my spiritual journey, I’ve thought: “What’s the point in having a career or progressing if an ‘enlightened’ way to live is to be fully in the here and now, not striving to the future?” Clearly, there’s a problem with this way of thinking.
Like it or not, unless ordained and living in a monastery, this state of pure being isn’t beneficial to the demands of the outer world. Fortunately, Tolle isn’t blind to this. He separates inner purpose and outer purpose into being and doing, respectively. The beauty is the symbiotic relationship between them. Once aware of your inner purpose, you can act in coherence with it. Your inner purpose moulds your outer purpose. Being is aligned with doing.
“At first there may be no noticeable change in what you do – only the how changes. your primary purpose is now to enable consciousness to flow into what you do.” — Eckhart Tolle
Once we understand that life is a consistent series of present moments, our awareness of being begins to change the way we interact in the world. In the moments we are free from fear, anxiety and stress, we bring direct awareness into what we do. We channel the abundant human traits. We live fully from the heart, not from the head.
It’s Okay If You Don’t Have A Life Goal
If this sounds elaborate, far-reaching and inconceivable, I promise you it isn’t. Aligning your inner and outer purpose doesn’t have to result in a significant change in direction in what you do with your life. As Tolle highlights, the importance is the how, and not the what. Our society puts immense pressure on the what (see: the American dream), but the beauty of aligning inner and outer purpose is that it’s okay if you don’t have a life goal. Your true purpose is with being and not doing.
I define life goal as an ultimate goal linked with attainment, such as making a six figure income, becoming a famous jazz singer, publishing a best selling novel, having 2.3 children and a white picket fence. Many people struggle with a bucket list mentality — the belief that because our time on Earth is finite, our purpose it to attain, to achieve, all that we can before we die. This is why the distinction between hopes and dreams is so important. Instead of hoping to find outer purpose by what you do, you dream of ways your inner purpose can manifest in the outside world.
I fully support Tolle’s definition of success as being a successfully present moment. Tolle’s rhetoric is best on a best-case-scenario; in reality, this journey will have ups and downs. Personally, I have moments where I feel such alignment, and plenty of moments where I feel completely out of touch. I need to regularly “bring myself back,” to remind myself of what inner purpose is. To simply be. As you continually bring yourself back and enjoy successful present moments, your outer purpose begins to fall into place.
That’s because inner purpose is intertwined with our outer purpose. Awareness frees space for our heart’s desire to rise to the surface of our consciousness. Impulses we may have long ignored take on a new veracity. We begin to follow our intuition. We begin to live in tune with our heart’s desire.
Finding Your Heart’s Desire
But what is our heart’s desire? Within us, there is an intelligence far more powerful than the mind. There is a part of us that knows what we want, before we realise we want it. We can call this our heart’s desire, our intuition, or our subconscious desire. Where this intelligence comes from is anyone’s guess. But if you’ve ever faced a big life decision and instinctively knew the choice to make thanks to an overwhelming “gut feeling,” you know the power of this intelligence.
You understand the difference between the heart’s desire and the mind’s logical reasoning.
The trouble is these desires are often buried deep under the fears and anxieties of the ego ((how bizarre that we often make decisions that we know contradict what we feel or desire). To listen to them is to quieten the mind. It’s to feel what it is we want, to let the images, emotions and fully-formed answers rise to the surface of our consciousness.
There are clues in the activities you enjoyed as a child, before the ego fully matures and takes control. What did you always dream of doing, of being? Are there impulsive thoughts that arise at times of relaxation, that you easily dismiss as a pipe dream or unreasonable?
It’s easy to ignore these impulses through fear of the outcome. But when you are aware of your inner purpose and you are committed to aligning it with your outer world, you will begin to look beyond fear and acknowledge those impulses. Listen to them. They know what you want. And when you know what you want, you can set meaningful goals.
Flow: When Mind And Spirit Merge
In 1975 psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow” to describe the psychological state of being completely at one with a given task. Csíkszentmihályi discovered this theory while investigating optimal experience.
Flow, also known as being in the zone, is common in elite performers — think a top-level athlete competing at the Olympics, a Broadway actor reciting lines like they were born for the role or a musical composer effortlessly conducting an orchestra. It’s performance beyond mind, a joyful alignment of mind, body and soul.
The state of flow is a perfect combination of cognition and spirit. Just take a look at the six factors of flow:
Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
Merging of action and awareness.
A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.
A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience.
Focused on the present moment? A merging of action and awareness? Sounds a lot like Tolle’s inner and outer purpose, doesn’t it?! And that’s because it is. It’s the sweet spot of enacting your inner purpose (to be) and outer purpose (to do). And it’s not restricted to elite performers, but available to all of us.
Find The Clues Of Your Heart’s Desire In Flow
We can use flow to find clues in what action creates the perfect alignment of inner and outer purpose. Think of a time now when you experienced flow. Were you absorbed in the immediacy of the task? Did your sense of time disappear? Did you stop worrying about whether you were performing the task rightly or wrongly, and instead just act? Did everything just click? Did you lose yourself?
It can be anything. It’s important you don’t dismiss it as silly or irrelevant. Just find clues. Go with the flow. Whatever the action producing that state of mind, break it down to its essence and meditate on what this means for you. And congratulate yourself — you’ve just started to listen to your heart’s desire.