I recently did a meditation retreat (at Spirit Rock, a wonderful place, including for workshops). One evening as we walked out of the hall after the last sit, I was feeling rattled and discombobulated. (One of the benefits of a retreat -- though it can be uncomfortable -- is that it stirs up of the sediments of your psyche, which can muddy your mental waters for awhile.)
I looked up at the stars shining brightly in the cold clear night and soon noticed the Big Dipper. My eyes followed its pointing to Polaris, the North Star, and a wave of easing came over me. The star felt steady and reassuring, something you could count on. It connected I think with a young part of me who loved the outdoors and learned to believe that as long as he could locate the North Star, he could find his way out of the tangled woods and back to safety.
Gazing at Polaris, I asked myself, "What's my North Star?" One answer came to me immediately, and another just seconds later. Immediately I felt better, calmer and more resolved.
I'll tell you what came to me in the "How" section below. Right here I want to make the points that it's the question that matters most and that the answer(s) will be different for different people.
When you find your North Star, you know where you're headed. That alone feels good. Plus, your North Star is (presumably) wholesome and vital, so aiming toward it will bring more and more happiness and benefit to yourself and others. And you can dream bigger dreams and take more chances in life since if you lose your way, you've got a beacon to hone in on.
Everyday life is entangling. It's so easy to get caught up in routines and obligations that gradually take over to set the course of your life. It may look goal-directed -- make breakfast, get the kids to school, go to work, return home, make dinner, go to bed, repeat the next day -- but we know inside that there is no deep purpose to it, no fundamental aim that gives clarity, meaning, and richness. Then life starts to feel hollow, more about getting through than getting to.
What's the light that will guide you out of your own tangled woods -- both the woods "out there" in the world and the ones "in here," inside your own mind?
Find a time and a place that's meaningful to you. Perhaps sitting quietly at home with a cup of tea, in a house of prayer, or -- like me -- under the night sky. Help your mind settle and grow quieter. Then simply ask, wordlessly or out loud, "What's my North Star?" Perhaps try other ways of asking this question, such as: "What's the most important thing?" "By what should I set my life's course?"
You could also just hold the question in the back of your mind over the course of a day and see what comes to you. Or while doing a pleasant task with your hands (like gardening, knitting, or stroking a cat), ask the question and see what arises.
The answer may be soft; you may have to listen closely to hear it. It may come with the voice of an inner child, or a teacher, or with a simple viscerally-persuasive clarity. The answer that came to me was the single word "truth" followed by "love," but your own answer(s) may come in the form of a wordless knowing, an image, a body sensation, or a memory.
Some people (including me) have several North Stars, though usually they are lined up in the same direction so there is no conflict among them. And sometimes a person has a single North Star, one aim, one principle, that draws together all the threads of his or her life.
It's OK for your North Star(s) to change over time. But whatever it is right now, let it guide you. This means keeping it in mind -- perhaps with a yellow sticky on the refrigerator, or by jotting it down (maybe in a coded way, for your privacy) at the top of your "to do" list for the day. Or you could (as I do) often recommit to your guiding light(s) when you first wake up.
Notice or imagine the rewards that do or will come to you and others from following your North Star. What trouble will it keep you out of? What joys and gains will it bring to you and others? Keep letting these good feelings and knowings sink in to you, linked in your mind to your star.
When troubled or tangled, ask yourself: "How could my North Star guide me with this? In its light, what's the priority here and now?" Try to accept this guidance; give yourself over to it.
Moment after moment, we are always headed in one direction or another. As these add up, they become the course, for better or worse, of a person's life.
May the course of your life be aimed at your own North Star.
For more by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 22 languages) and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (in 9 languages). Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he's been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, FoxBusiness, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter -- Just One Thing -- has over 40,000 subscribers, and also appears on The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites.