How to Own Your Life: 3 Guiding Principles
Becoming a Firsthand Person, Knowing My Self, and Joining the Dance
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This weekend I begin a 5-day darkness retreat in total isolation at a friend’s beautiful property here in Oregon. Until now, I’ve only told a few people about it.
As it approaches, some friends have asked a reasonable question: “Why would you do such a thing to yourself?”
Over the past twenty-five years, my journey of spiritual exploration has led me down paths my much younger, conservatively Midwestern self would have never believed if he knew what adventures lay ahead for him.
My path has always been inevitable, though. I’ve always naturally and irresistibly been guided toward Ultimate Questions in the same way birds are pulled home by Earth’s magnetic field.
This journey I’m on was always inevitable. Along the way I learned that I’m naturally bent toward exploration, wandering, and asking questions. I can’t not do it.
It’s a shared connection between you and me, I think. The very fact you’re reading a newsletter called The Rewilded Soul says many things about you. Things the average person might not understand, but which are obvious and important to us both. We’re a strange lot, you and me.
As I thought about my friends’ question—Why?—3 answers came to me, which are guiding principles all seekers, wanderers, and pilgrims seem to share. Perhaps you’ll see yourself in these three. I suspect you will. 👇
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I want to know the truth directly.
One summer in college, I traveled through Turkey for two months. One day, in the coastal town of Izmir, I spoke with a man whose name I have forgotten. What I do remember is that his eyebrows reminded me of fat, black caterpillars and he made perfect scrambled eggs, which I ordered every morning.
I also recall our last conversation before I returned home.
“You’re Muslim, yes?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Yes.”
With a shrug, he said, “I was born Muslim like my father, and his father, and all their fathers all the way back to the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
I said, “That’s how it is where I’m from, too.”
“You’re Christian,” he said, stretching Christian into three syllables.
“Yes, like my parents are, and their parents. I was born into it, too.”
“If you had been born here,” he said, “you would be a Muslim, I think.”
I thought for a second. “You’re probably right.”
It was just a moment, but in hindsight that experience planted an idea that lay dormant for awhile. Not long after that trip, I started the lifelong process of turning my beliefs inside out so I can discover what is truly mine, what I inherited, and what belongs to others.
Jiddu Krishnamurti said it well:
We are second-hand people.
We have lived on what we have been told, either guided by our inclinations, our tendencies, or compelled to accept by circumstances and environment. We are the result of all kinds of influences, and there is nothing new in us, nothing that we have discovered for ourselves: nothing original, pristine, clear.
Our worldview is, at least at its start, a byproduct of when, where, and to whom we were born. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just the way things are.
At some point, though, we all come to the fork in the road and must either accept the answers we inherited from our family, leaders, and culture or we must set out to discover our own.
As I examine my own life, I recognize that I am both a secondhand person who has beliefs, and I’m also a firsthand person who knows. Some things I assume are true, and other things I know to be so.
To believe is to put your faith in others’ experiences. Beliefs are hearsay. They are a rumor of the truth, something someone once said is true and trustworthy. You hope they are true, but you don’t truly know until you experience it for yourself. Believing that falling in love is possible is very different than actually experiencing it yourself.
Knowing is firsthand, direct experience. In the light of knowing, beliefs become irrelevant. When I know love, belief about it is unnecessary. As long as my life is based on beliefs instead of direct knowing, my life doesn’t truly belong to me.
That’s why I want to know directly. I want to be a firsthand person.
I want my life to belong to me.
I want to know my Self/self.
“Who am I, really?”
This has been the driving question of my life. After many years of coaching and working with people from all walks of life, I’ve come to believe this is a universal or primal question every human asks.
Know thyself, Socrates admonished his students. His words are inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in the ancient city of Delphi as a lasting directive. But what does that actually mean?
What is my “self”?
The Paradox of Identity
I am not who I think I am. I existed quite naturally and effortlessly for a few years before I learned language or that my name is Kevin. This Absolute Self, or True Self as many traditions call it, is my essential identity, which cannot be defined beyond the simple statement, “I am.”
On the other hand, you might say I am only who I think I am (and who I think others think I am)—a conditioned persona, which is a bundle of memories held together by an ever-changing flow stories and emotions that only exist in relation to others. Most people call this the Ego.
Both identities are true in their own right. I experience both. I am both. I spent many years seeking what many call “ego death”, but I’ve come to see that knowing and harmonizing the two is the great experiment of my life.
This is what I’m looking for, ultimately: my Self. And that is a complex matter.
I see my identity as an “idea-entity” which, like a musical chord, consists of multiple notes that, when played together, create a deeper more wonderful resonance that either note could accomplish on their own.
I am not only one thing. I am not just a soul, and I am also not just a human. The secret to a joyful and fulfilled life, it seems is the full embrace of both my True Self and my Persona. It is the knowing of my Self and my self (little “s”) in full creative expression.
Nothing exposes the apparent boundary between the two like exploring the edges of my experiences, assumptions, and beliefs. Until I venture beyond the edges of the map into the uncharted places, I’ll never truly discover anything.
I want to feel alive.
The purpose of life is living.
It’s plunging into and giving yourself over to the vast, unending experience of being human with all of its messiness, beauty, misadventures, joys, absurdities, frustrations, pleasures and pains. It’s joining the dance, however elegantly or awkwardly you move.
This perspective is at odds with culture’s perspective of a structured, climate-controlled existence that is focused on climbing the First Mountain of achievement, success, and (ultimately) disillusionment.
To feel alive, I’m discovering, requires seeing life as play, as Alan Watts so elegantly points out:
Existence, the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn't going anywhere. That is to say, it doesn't have some destination that it ought to arrive at.
But it is best understood by analogy with music. Because music as an art form is essentially playful. We say you play the piano. You don't work the piano.
Why? Music differs from, say, travel. When you travel, you are trying to get somewhere. One doesn't make the end of a composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who wrote only finales. People go to concert just to hear one crashing chord because that's the end.
Say, we are dancing. You don't aim at a particular spot in the room. That's where you should arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.
But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.
Ultimately, I suppose that’s really why I seek out unusual experiences like sitting in the dark, disappearing into the forest, or any number of “unproductive” activities.
It’s also why I suspect you ask the questions you ask and dare to venture beyond the map you inherited, too. It’s because that’s where the dance gets truly interesting.
I hope to write about my darkness retreat experience and share it with you. I plan to, though I don’t know what awaits me there or if what I experience will be fit for public consumption. We’ll know soon enough.
What I do know is that I’m grateful for this life. I’m grateful for you and how you generously share your time and attention with me. I hope my words encourage you on your journey.
I’ll see you on the other side.
Are you planning any of your own unusual adventures this year? If so, and you’re willing to share, let me know in the comments.
Much love to you all.