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10 Steps to Finding Your Essential Self

by Gary Null, PhD

10 Steps to Finding Your Essential Self

One day you wake up and realize that you're thirty years old, or forty or fifty or sixty or seventy, and you ask yourself: What am I doing? Usually we only reexamine our lives at the start of these decades, almost like New Year's. At the New Year, we make our resolutions. Along about May, we realize we haven't accomplished a thing. We've started and stopped, and we're back in the same old patterns.

Now I'm going to ask you to do something different. We're going to explore the medium in which you exist: your beliefs, your attitudes, your actions, and your emotions. I'm going to ask you to start by emptying your life, so you can understand who you are and what your life could be. Think of all the mistakes you've made. Think of all the things that have blocked you. You're going to find out what you can put in their place.

Usually, instead of emptying, what we try to do is add. We're almost afraid to accept that if we got quiet, faced our problems, and tried to understand their lessons, we would have to surrender some of our beliefs. Almost everything we do is based on our beliefs. What if our beliefs, or parts of them, are simply wrong? What if we changed our belief systems?

Let's begin our journey. Let's empty ourselves. Let's take everything out and see what works and what doesn't. Imagine you've taken all your socks out of your sock drawer to see which ones match and which don't. You find all these socks that don't match. Maybe you throw them away-but maybe you don't. A part of you doesn't want to throw anything away. Look in your closets. Look in your garage and attic and basement. Look at all the stuff we accumulate that serves no useful purpose.

We have a hard time surrendering things because so much of our identity is based on collecting things. We collect degrees and money and possessions and friends because that's how we create an identity. We become an extension of everything we collect. We rarely get quiet and ask ourselves, What is the meaning of my world in relation to what I've collected? On the basis of my collection of things, am I better, or wiser, or more humane, or kinder, or more empathetic?

What if you emptied yourself and then only put back what would serve the essential self? And how do we know what's essential when part of what we collect is our identity? Right now I'm helping a group of individuals, both men and women, who are facing a new decade of life, from thirty to seventy. I'm asking them a series of questions to help them focus on some life issues and make some changes in their lives. I'm going to do the same for you.

Step 1. Clean Out and Start Over

Think of your wardrobe. What would change if you cleaned it out and told yourself that you wanted all new clothes? I used to drive my friends to despair because every two years I would completely redo my apartment in a different style. My friends would say, "You're changing your apartment again, Gary? Why are you going through all this effort?" And I would answer, "Because I'm bored with the old decor and part of the excitement of life is creating something new." Of course it's an effort. But do you know what takes more effort? Trying to adapt to something that is boring. Another day, another dollar, and we eat the same things and go to the same places and have the same conversations. We adapt to boredom or mediocrity in our day-to-day lives.

I know many men, from forty on up, who are going through andropause. They are losing their sense of energy, enthusiasm, and passion, as well as their muscle mass. Ask such a guy, "What kind of body do you want?" The answer is usually, "How much effort is it going to take? If it's too hard, disruptive, and uncomfortable, I can't do it." So your comfort level determines your reality. You've adapted everything to a low level of discomfort. The moment a conversation becomes uncomfortable, you become defensive. The moment you could take action for change, you back off.

As each decade approaches, we focus less on what we need to do to change. We tell ourselves we're never going to be like we were, never again as young or as attractive or as accepted or as passionate. We squeeze our lives into an ever-narrower frame of existence; we hang out with people who are like us and we exclude everyone who is not. We just adapt.

Let's start over. It's a brand new day. In every aspect of your life, select something fresh and vital, from the color of your clothes, to the type of friends you choose, to what you do with those friends, to what you do with yourself, even your body.

Step 2. Examine How You Compensate for Feelings of Inadequacy

Some of the ways we compensate are by never fully relaxing, never wanting to let go, never truly being in the moment, always planning, and having to control everything. When we feel inadequate, what we're really feeling is vulnerable, and we don't want anyone to know, so we protect our vulnerabilities by disguising them. The older we get, the more layers of insulation we throw up around our deficiencies. Then we only focus on what we know will not embarrass us, what we can do with some sense of completeness. We can hide there. We can keep anyone from finding out that we're inadequate. Some people feel so vulnerable because of their inadequacies that they overeat or drink or gamble or distract themselves constantly. They even stop trying to hide it. Others are very good at hiding their deficiencies.

Everyone has mastered something, whether it's shining shoes or cutting hair or making clothes or broadcasting the news. But can we really grow by repeating what we do well and eliminating the very thought of what we can't, just to avoid feeling inadequate? What about the rest of life? Where is the balance? Without balance, your life will be distorted.

Step 3. Explore What's Missing from Your Life and How That Lack Affects You

To know what's missing from your life, you have to take the time to go into that conscious focus called mindful meditation. Be present in the moment and be mindful of what you would ideally like in your life. Find out for yourself: This is the kind of friend I want, the kind of body, the health, the career, the quality of time for self or others, and where I'd like to live.

Write down everything that is viscerally important to you-what comes straight from your heart chakra so you feel connected to your essential energy. Identify by name what you want and then honor it. Sometimes there's a discrepancy between our desires and our circumstances, which creates conflict: Everyone who has a desire for A but is living at C is going to feel the rub. Every day you're going to be reminded that you're not living your ideal. You can do one of two things in response. You can either a) change so you can at least have a chance of manifesting your ideal; or b) adapt to the pain of not living your ideal. It's going to be one or the other, and I'm hoping it will be number one. That's how we have a life. We don't allow others to tell us what we should be doing to be happy. We tell ourselves: This is what I want. This is what I'm going to do. Here are the tools I need. Here is my plan of action. Then don't let anything distract you.

Step 4. Ask Yourself Whether You Possess All the Resources and Openness to Change and Grow

Slow down to the speed of life. Focus with a sense of complete attention and appreciation and give yourself however much time it takes to get where you need to go; learn to accept that change cannot be rushed, nor can it be delayed. Delaying is procrastination. It is diversion. Notice how clever your mind is in distracting yourself from what you need to be doing. Look at how ingenious the excuses are. Do you say, I don't have the tools, so I can't do it instead of saying, Let me get the tools I need?

You're either going to move forward or you're going to stand still. If you stand still, watch how you react to this negative adaptation: You'll feel bitter, angry, and self-righteously indignant at the world because you're not happy. You'll blame everything on circumstances. If only-if only what? If only you were rich, or black, or white, or taller or shorter, or smarter? No. These are immaterial to a happy life. I know a group of people running a radio station who feel they are victims and therefore entitled to their anger. I know others who have chosen not to be victims, who have chosen to be free to create their own lives and sense of happiness and completeness. So find the attitude and the tools you need to create your own change instead of making excuses for staying stuck.

Step 5. Recognize That Distraction Diminishes the Present Moment

Eliminate distractions. The average person is now watching television for almost six hours a day. How much time do you use up in a day distracting yourself? Think of all the phone calls and chores that are meaningless. Why not just say, I am not going to engage in anything that distracts me from what 1 need to balance my life. Take all the distractions away and what are you left with? Just you. What would happen with just you? Are you afraid to find out? A lot of people can't talk about themselves because they don't know who they are. That's the result of the distraction factor.

Some people may he uncomfortable even with the idea of watching someone meditate, let alone doing it ourselves. What do they think about? How can they sit there that long? I couldn't sit there that long. I'd get fidgety. Maybe I could sit there if I had a headset on so I could listen to music; then I could do it. But that's not meditation. Meditation involves being present and saying: No more distractions. We've created all our distractions because they're such useful tools to keep us from making transitions.

Step 6. Confront the Fears That Come with Change

Change cannot come without risk. Think of how many times you wanted to do something different but first you had to get the approval of others. Why do we think we have to get approval? What is it we think someone will say? They might say, Yes, go ahead and take that class. Take that vacation. But what if we wanted to do something unexpected? What if you were a successful lawyer and you said, I'd like to go out to New Mexico and spend time with nature. To do what? Nothing. You're a three-hundred-dollars-an-hour lawyer! I know, but I want some hours to do nothing, to charge nothing, just to commune with nature. This step will be so radical that you're going to think you need help from others.

First ask yourself which you are more afraid of: the change itself or the oppositions and confrontations that arise when you're seeking another's approval. If you want to be healthy, why should there be an argument about it? If you're sick and seeking an alternative therapy, why should your doctor say: No, you can't have a second opinion or a third opinion or an alternative opinion. Why should the doctor be concerned? Why shouldn't you search out different opinions so you can look at your options and grow? Usually we play it safe and only ask those authority figures who assure us that we can make a decision on their say-so. Think of how many times people vote or eat or dress or work on the basis of what others say is best for them.

When it comes to change, the risks have to be faced. We need to see a situation for what it is. Only then are we ready for true healthy change. If we keep looking and distorting and repackaging and refraining and refocusing because the change is not acceptable, then all we're doing is playing the game of manipulating illusions. When we feel uncomfortable about making a change, we avoid it or put a pretty face on it. Hopefully, one day we will wake up and say: Why am I doing this?

Step 7. Learn the Lessons of Your Crises

We need to see ourselves in a different way. The way we do that is to learn the lessons of our crises. Every crisis carries its lesson. Let me give you an example. I know a woman approaching forty (let's call her Cynthia) who invited a troubled friend (let's call him Joe) to stay with her. Cynthia is an activist in the peace movement. The situation with Joe is stressful, and she frequently blows up: "This guy

gives me no privacy and is very jealous. He wants to know every place I go. But I can't ask him to leave-where would he go? What would he do?" I suggested she ask Joe what he intended to do with his life (which had nothing to do with her life). Then I asked her what she intended to do with her own life. She wasn't having a relationship with Joe. He was the man who came to dinner and never left. She said, "I know, but-."

Then I started to realize that Cynthia was getting much of her sense of self from taking people home so she could rescue them. She needed to he needed. Why? Because she believed that her value as a human being lay in saving people. But was Joe growing and changing? If you have someone staying with you for a year and you're taking him to yoga and meditation and nature outings and he's no different, then it's time to reassess. He hadn't changed. He had just gotten a year of free room and board and hanging-out time. Joe needs to get out and support himself. Cynthia is caught between two worlds: anger at her loss of freedom and autonomy and the need to show that she's caring and nurturing. What are the results for her? Refortification of an old belief system. And Joe? He hasn't been truly helped, and he hasn't changed.

When we learn the lessons contained in our crises, then we can grow. Any lesson you don't learn you will repeat over and over again. The universe is good about giving us many lessons. Sometimes divorce, bankruptcy, separation, or toss is the lesson we've been given. We get angry when these things happen, and we don't look for the how and the why. We just think: Get me out of here! But along with the pain and suffering, we have something to learn. When we can pass the test because we've learned from a lesson, we probably will not have to experience the same pain again.

Step 8. Appreciate Your Life Now: Don't Wait for Loss

I know people who start anticipating their losses as they approach cer­tain decades. I'm hitting fifty and I can never think of myself as young again. I'm hitting forty, and the gray hair is coming in. I just talked with a woman of forty-nine. She said that her libido had been nonexistent for the last year. I asked her why. She said: Because I'm forty-nine, Gary. What guy gets up in the morning and thinks wow, I really want an aging out-of-shape forty-nine-year-old? No. They want young women. They want what I was when I was twenty-five and sexy and fun. I'm accepting it.

Accepting what? Accepting that because you're forty-nine you should no longer have a libido? You should no longer be passionate? You should no longer allow that chi to flow? You should forget everything you can still do? She said yes. I told her that by cutting off these energies she was going to manifest a limited life. She said she was not alone. I said, no, you're not, but what if I showed you a woman of forty-nine or fifty-nine or sixty-nine or seventy-nine still actively enjoying her sexuality? Still seeking ways to explore it and expand it and enjoy it? She said they were just being immature. Her belief system told her that at a certain decade she had to adapt to a preconceived social notion, "act her age," and close down her sexuality.

When we do this, we're honoring everyone else's beliefs about ourselves. How positive is it to think that when you hit fifty you're going to be less than you were at forty or forty-five? That's not a healthy mindset. So enjoy what you have every day because if you took away the calendar and no one knew how old you were, then age would just be a number. What if you lived your life as if age were only an insignificant number? Then you wouldn't adapt to preconceived notions of what you should or shouldn't be doing at a certain age.

Where I grew up, by the time you were thirty you were already supposed to have a family and be well along in the job that you would have until you retired. Not too much new was supposed to happen. Maybe by thirty-five you could upgrade a hit because you could afford more. You were looked on as a mature part of society. It was expected that you would join the Kiwanis or the Jaycees. You'd go through the usual transitions. At forty you'd start to slow down and take it easy. You'd be a coach, but not a player. You'd expect to have the potbelly and the high blood pressure and the diabetes and the heart disease. By fifty you would he looking at retirement places. You'd feel satisfaction because you'd gone to the Grand Canyon five times. Where was your life in all that? Oh, we're solid as a rock and about as exciting.

We have a whole nation of senior citizens acting like senior citizens: We'll go putt golf now, but not too strenuously. We'll exercise just a little because we're senior citizens now. No libido for us. Society minimizes a whole culture, saying: You're no longer relevant. You don't have to accept the rules of this game. Break the rules. Just be a living human being who does not care what age you are.

Step 9 . Consider What You Have in Abundance

Think of the things we all have in abundance. We have an abundance of people we can share positive energy with. We have an abundance of nature to enjoy, an abundance of love to give and receive from our companions. We have dogs, cats, birds, and fish for pets. We have an abundance of energy to focus on what we can bring into our lives-hobbies, skills, new tools. We have the wonderment of how many things we don't know. Even the knowledge of all the PhDs at a major university is like one grain of sand at the bottom of the ocean floor.

If all this abundance of things to learn and to experience is there for us, why do we act as if we're paupers-emotionally, intellectually, and physically? It is possible for us to live in the abundance of everything that we can embrace. Think on that the next time you start feeling insufficient and incomplete. It's like a person saying: I'm starving. You say: Here's a buffet of three thousand foods that are all healthy. But I'm starving. Well, dig in. But I'm starving. Pick it up. Try it. I can't. Why? My belief system won't let me. It's our belief system. Our belief system is our reality. We'd rather starve emotionally and spiritually than connect with the abundance of energy around us.

Step 10. How Can I Go from Here to There?

How can I go from where I'm at to where I need to be? By realizing that you already have everything you need to take a step. If you're approaching or are sixty and you want to feel sixty, then you'll feel old. You'll feel less. You'll feel loss. You'll feel that a whole lot of life is behind you, only to be remembered by scrapbooks and occasional flashes of inspiration. Or you can say: I don't care how old I am and I don't care about the circumstances I've accepted. Today I am focusing my energy in this moment on what I want to experience and I will seek out the tools. For every tool I seek out I will surrender a tool that no longer works. Surrendering the tools that no longer work releases the energy that goes along with them.

When you sacrifice to find meaning, the meaning will have purpose. The fear of sacrificing what you now have means that all you will have is what you've accumulated up to this point. Ask yourself whether the sum total of all you've accumulated represents the blissful peace of mind that you are seeking. Look at all you've accumulated and ask yourself what you would surrender to change the energy. When you surrender what no longer works for you, you automatically empty out that energy field to bring new energy in, whether it's people or ideas. That becomes your new energy. That becomes the new medium.

Don't allow your truth to be distorted by the bias of another. My truth works for me. Throughout my life I've never felt that I fit in anywhere. So instead of trying to remold myself to fit into the narrow confines of society, I've chosen instead to expand my consciousness to wherever it would take me. Although there were risks, sacrifices, and pain, I know what is possible because my freedom took me to the top of the mountain and I saw the future. People's fear so often keeps them in the valley, and all they see is what's right in front of them. Think of the difference. I know you want a fully realized life, and this is what you can say to yourself:

I am more than my beliefs. I am present for my own creation. Every day I choose to re-create myself over again in the eyes of myself and not the world. I do not get my view of life through the eyes of others. I can see myself for who I am and what I want to be. It's through my own eyes-my spiritual eyes-that I see my journey ahead. It's society that sees my journey from behind.

I'm either going to look ahead or look behind; I'm going to look with my eyes or theirs. Their eyes are going to be aligned and unified, and their strength will become my weakness because their strength allows me no independence and no autonomy. If I choose to look at life as a medium to which I can surrender by emptying out the negative and filling it with the new and the positive, then I'm taking a step that they're not going to take. They will hit forty, fifty, sixty, and seventy and be angry or depressed or look in a mirror and consider woefully what is no longer present. I will look in the mirror and say: See the potential of what still is.

Dr. Gary Null is the host of the nation’s longest running public radio program on nutrition and natural health and a multi-award-winning director of progressive documentary films, including Seeds of Death (2012) and Silent Epidemic: The Untold Story of Vaccines (2013).

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Sue Miller Art
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