Instead, decide who you want to be
The deepest secret is that life is not a process of discovery, but a process of creation. You are not discovering yourself but creating yourself anew. Seek therefore not to find out who you are but seek to determine who you want to be.
- Neale Donald Walsch
A catchphrase in today’s world is find yourself. For the longest time I bought into this idea. I thought that if I could just be exposed to the things that I would love and be passionate about, then life would start to have a profound sense of meaning to me. But, that never happened. I learned new ideas and had new experiences, and none of them brought me any closer to finding meaning or fulfillment. In my heart of hearts, I knew something was wrong.
So, I did the most extreme form of “finding” I could think of. I quit my job and went backpacking in Asia, taking all my life-savings with me. I figured that if I couldn’t find myself there, then it just wasn’t going to happen for me.
In retrospect, it was a little ridiculous: I went looking for my identity as if it was playing a game of hide-and-go-seek with me and the entire world was the playing field. The problem was that I didn’t know what else to do to figure out who I was, and I was desperate to do so.
While I didn’t find my identity on the other side of the world, I did find perspective. I found myself in places where nothing was familiar and I had no choice but to look at everything with a fresh set of eyes. Eventually, my gaze turned inward.
Have you ever wondered how you came to be the way you are? Before my trip to Asia, I had never asked myself this question. I had never really second-guessed my thoughts or behaviors. In fact, even though I didn’t like some of them, they mostly seemed perfectly in line with the person I believed myself to be.
With my newfound set of eyes, I began to delve into what made me me. The first thing I noticed was very interesting: I saw myself resist ideas and experiences that were unfamiliar and I saw myself drawn to ideas and experiences that were familiar.
So, I decided to put myself in an unfamiliar situation. Because I noticed I had a resolute desire to eat three square meals at precisely the same time each day, I decided to try fasting for 24 hours. To say this was extremely difficult for me is a massive understatement: at the time, hunger for me meant I had to eat, no exceptions!
In the days following the fast, I noticed a couple things. First, I did, in fact, survive. Second, there were moments during the fast when I felt hungry and there were moments when I was oblivious to my hunger. Third, when I woke up the following morning, I wasn’t hungry at all.
That last point really struck me. I had imagined that I would be frantically shoving small children and the elderly out of my way to get to breakfast. What did it mean that I wasn’t hungry after not eating for an entire day?
This question sat with me for several weeks, unanswered. Obviously, I need to eat, I thought, but why would hunger come and go in the way I had experienced?
Then, it hit me: my sensation of hunger was a habit. Just like any habit, there were expectations. In this case, those expectations were of when and what I should be eating. My body, I realized, was asking for food, not because it needed it, but because it was expecting it.
But, if that’s true of such a basic sensation as hunger, I wondered, what else is just a habit of mind?
The consequence of this experience is that it inserted a little bit of doubt into my everyday lived experiences. Where I had once completely trusted my thoughts, I now wondered whether there was a more fundamental truth lying beneath them.
Over the next couple of months, I began to see habits everywhere. From what I thought about when things didn’t go as planned to how I felt when talking to someone I didn’t know, the same thoughts and feelings erupted into my consciousness again and again. It was then that I began to wonder, if I could change how I thought about hunger, can I change how I think about those other things, too?
Amazingly, it turned out, I could.
Aristotle is said to have expressed the idea “we are what we repeatedly do.” My experience tells me that he was right, that who we are does arise out of the things we repeat: good, bad, or ugly. I now know that who we are isn’t as fixed or permanent as it feels and that our minds can be molded far more than we realize.
By the time I returned home, my life had been turned on its head. Beliefs that had once felt so familiar now felt foreign. Feelings that had once felt so comfortable now felt disconnected. Behaviours that had once felt so normal now felt wrong. It was the first time in my life that my everyday inclination to be a certain way didn’t jive with me.
As I pondered why this might be the case, I had an “ah-ha” moment: if who I am today is based on habits that were formed in the past, it is also true that those habits were informed by previous habits, which were themselves informed by even earlier habits, and so on and so forth. Taking this reasoning to its ultimate conclusion, it occurred to me that it must be true that aspects of my current “self” are influenced by things that I learned as a child.
Why is this a problem? Because back then I believed in things like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. I took it for granted that what people told me was true. I couldn’t tell the difference someone spouting complete bullshit versus the most profound and truthful sentence ever spoken. And, all that information I mindlessly absorbed as a child formed the foundation of what I believed as an adult.
The most insidious part? I had never even noticed. I believed that I had sound reasoning for my beliefs, but in reality, the true reasoning behind most of them had been hidden from me.
In other words, I saw the disconnect between my everyday inclinations and the person I wanted to be. And the minute I saw this, there was no going back. This was my “waking up” moment. And from this moment forward, when I felt that disconnect I had to act to fix it.
Distrusting my thoughts opened up a new way to probe my own mind, and I began to question thoughts that I had never before questioned. In turn, I came to reject certain beliefs (some fundamental) that didn’t serve me.
This was a profound and emotional process that lasted the better part of two years. At one particularly terrifying moment during this process, when I had thrown out so much of who I was that it felt like there was nothing left, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know who I was anymore. When I said as much to my partner at the time, she assured me that there were things that I did know. This gave me great comfort because she was right.
She was right because I knew who I wanted to be. At least in part. It was then that I finally understood: there is no finding myself or finding what I will love or be passionate about or finding fulfillment. There is only choosing the person I want to be and then building that person from the foundation up.
Before my trip to Asia, I had played a minor part in the story of my life. I had become the person I was, not by choice, but from whatever habits of mind I happened to pick up along the way. I didn’t have the wisdom to understand that just because something feels familiar, comfortable, or true, doesn’t mean it’s in my best interest or actually true.
Those eight months away from home helped me realize that my identity wasn’t hiding in any closet or under any stone. And it certainly wasn’t on the other side of the world waiting to be found. I finally understood, it wasn’t anywhere at all.
In an unexpected twist, the worldly journey I took to find my identity kick-started the most exciting and fulfilling adventure of my life — the path inward. And it was on this path I learned that my mind is more malleable than I ever imagined possible, which in turn has allowed me to choose the person I am and will be.
And this simple, yet profound, choice has filled me with the greatest sense of wholeness and peace I have ever known.