When people imagine brain growth, or personal growth, they generally picture it expanding outward, like the growth of a tree or bush. From that perspective, we imagine that things like education or other striving are what make our branches grow. And to an extent, that is a valid metaphor.
Another useful way to think about our development is in the reverse, which is more like evolution. Evolution isn’t seeking our ‘best self.’ Evolution means that nature buys as many lottery tickets as possible, but since other parts of nature will kill 99.9% of all living things, what’s left is what we call ‘life.’ It’s more a subtractive process than an additive one.
Now let’s take those ideas and consider two people. Let’s name them Sara and Michael. And let’s imagine they both love listening to the guitar and both have aspirations to play. And let’s also have them want to be engineers, like their Mom.
In the first metaphor, things like guitar lessons or university classes are what make us grow. So both Sara and Michael sign up for university and they both earnestly sign up for guitar lessons and both do attend –at least in body if not in spirit.
For the first while, they are both enthused with the idea of playing, or being an engineer, and so both are happy. But, over time, Sara might find it very difficult to stay committed to her guitar practice. She’d rather go out, or even study for engineering. She loves the idea of playing, but she does not want to pay the prices to be a player.
Meanwhile, Michael is doing the opposite. While in his thoughts he really does like the idea of being an engineer like his Mom; the fact is he’ll happily skip class to practice guitar instead. He’ll practice until he bleeds, but he can’t find a way to his textbooks and his grades are suffering.
Over time Sara builds up a lot of guilt about not practicing and she hates when others ask her to play. When she compares herself to Michael it hurts because she knows they started at the same time and yet he is so much better. So she keeps trying and trying, but she just keeps hating herself for not being ‘dedicated enough.’
Likewise, Michael starts failing classes and it’s stressful trying to hide that from his parents. He’s also in trouble with his teachers. And it’s stressing him because he wants to move out of his parent’s home and he’ll need a job and money to do that. But those things are tied to engineering.
When he compares himself to Sara he feels like a failure. And like she does, he starts to hate himself for what he sees as his ‘shortcomings.’ Amazingly, Sara can spend the rest of her life regretting she never learned to play guitar. And it’s possible for Michael to hate every day at a clerk’s job, wishing he was an engineer.
That is how most people approach most things. But what if we saw it more like the second metaphor instead of the first?
What if the reason that Sara can’t practice is because in her soul she is not a guitar player? In her thoughts she can like that identity. But in reality she is not be willing to pay the prices necessary to be that person. Guitar lessons have no ‘sunshine’ in them for Sara and so she does not grow in that direction and her dream dies.
For his part, Michael is doing the same thing with engineering. He likes the thought of being an engineer, and having an engineer’s pay. But like Sara, there is no ‘sunshine’ for him to grow towards in engineering. It’s all blazing down on the guitar, while his engineering identity withers in the shadows.
Neither of these people have a problem other than the fact that they have thoughts that they do not want to be who they are. But those are just resistant thoughts. If Sara and Michael took the resistance as defining their path, they would realize that they are guided as much by what they don’t like as what they do like.
Don’t fight against your nature. If you earnestly try something but cannot find your ‘sunshine’ there, then none of the accolades, prestige, or success will help a person enjoy that life. Real happiness doesn’t come from money or external success. It only comes from finding our sunshine, whether that is a job, a relationship, or a place to live.
‘Failures’ aren’t failures. They are guidance. If we get angry about the failure and re-double our efforts until we succeed, then that is our path. If we simply wallow in ‘want,’ with a desire to be who we are not, then we will suffer for our thoughts. But the other option that too-often goes unconsidered is to just accept ourselves and stop all of our painful thinking so we can get on with being who we really are, whether that’s being an engineer, a guitar player, or anything else.
Sara’s problem is not that she is not a guitar player, it’s that she wants to be one but is not. Michael’s problem is not that he’s failing engineering. It’s that he’s failing to notice he has no real internal drive to be an engineer.
Now let’s look at our lives. We need to ask ourselves, what do we really want? And what do we just like the idea of? Because entertaining an appealing idea is a pleasant experience. But just because we like an idea does not mean that those thoughts are a map to our path through life. Only our feelings in the present moment can help us find that.
The good news is that if we are sincerely dedicated to the moment we are in, we can literally feel who we really are. And if we’re prepared to respect that, then almost any life can be a good one.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.