A teacher of mine once asked me, "If you were locked away in a prison, would you be able to find inner freedom?"
Like most people I know would, I answered, "Yes, I'm certain that is achievable."
"Well, here you are, free to roam the whole world and choose between all these alternatives before you," he replied. "Why don't you believe inner freedom is achievable right now?"
Teachers can be so tricky. They've already walked the road we're on. They already know the steps we're taking. They know how to use our own habits of thought to change the way we think.
What is the inner freedom I would hope to attain were I in prison? First and foremost, I think it would have something to do with maintaining my sense of purpose despite the intensity of my surroundings--adapting to my surroundings without losing my intrinsic sense of self in the mix of physical restriction and social interaction.
I would hope, in other words, to think freely, feel freely, and react freely, regardless of either the intensity or the restrictions in my surroundings. The same thing, of course, that I hope for in the day-to-day life I enjoy currently.
The question is, Can I find inner freedom despite enjoying outer freedom?
The Winter Solstice is upon us. The darkest days of the year are about to lighten again. We join together to celebrate the ending of one year and the beginning of the next. It's a time of impending rebirth. Even in these Arctic blasts of winter, there is the scent of Spring. In a time of shared hardship, there is the aura of hope. We are at the turning point of the year, the symbolic moment of starting over.
How to really start over? Or perhaps the question is, Can I really start over if I simply continue doing the same things in the same way that I've been doing them?
Most of us spend most of our time thinking the same thoughts, feeling the same feelings, and reacting with the same reactions, over and over, day in and day out, year in and year out. We live our lives in "Review," replaying our thoughts and feelings out of habit rather than creating new thoughts and experiencing new feelings by reacting to events with a spontaneous and experimental approach to life.
Setting goals for the coming year is all well and good but our resolutions tend to reflect our desire to change outer habits or achieve outer objectives. As an alternative, "Previewing" the year-to-come means envisioning the inner qualities we are going to develop and enjoy--qualities that will make us more adaptable, more successful, and happier.
Here are three ways we can change the thoughts, feelings, and reactions standing between us and inner freedom--
1. Make New Mistakes! This is one of the most powerful approaches to success. There's no shame in making mistakes. But doing the same thing over and over despite the fact that it isn't working? That we should take a hard look at. Make New Mistakes means that we do not have to come up with something perfect--if it turns out to be a mistake then we correct it. And correct that one, if need be. This approach solves two common problems. First, it cuts us loose of thinking we should keep doing what we've been doing, especially when it can be seen to not be getting us where we wish to go. Second, it short-circuits "analysis paralysis," the tendency many of us suffer from that drives us to put off a decision until we've analyzed every possible outcome of every possible alternative, all out of a fear of making mistakes. Planes spend most of their time off-course, so their pilots just keep making mid-course corrections. Your car is nearly always heading out of its lane, so you are constantly making the micro-adjustments to keep it in its lane. Make New Mistakes and your life will be richer, fuller of color and excitement, less frustrating and anxious, more creative and beneficial to others.
2. Enough! The things we say to ourselves generate our feelings and when these become habits, we start building up a pattern of predictable reactions to our surroundings. If I tell myself I am not good enough, then I feel unworthy, and so I approach each new moment already leaning into it with that feeling, already prepared to respond from that place. It is this leaning into the moment that is most telling, since it stands between us and a spontaneous response to things around us. Predictability is the opposite of creativity. Habit is the opposite of peak performance. Enough! is a technique for interrupting the self-defeating thoughts and feelings that have become habits. Pay close attention to your stream of consciousness and whenever such thoughts arise, cut them off by saying to yourself Enough! over and over, not following the thought to its end. Instead of thinking that your thoughts are you, see them as habits that have been fossilized in the neural pathways of your brain. Don't reinforce them further by following them as you have a million times already. Don't reinforce them by arguing with them or feeling bad for thinking them again. Just cut them off as soon as they start and that will become the new habit: a quiet place of the kind of peace of mind that acts as the womb of creative, self-constructive thoughts and feelings.
3. Surprise Yourself! Look at the world not as a "created" thing but as a "creating" thing, a Whole that wants the best for you and all others at the same time. See it as completely new every moment and approach it with a sense of wonder, for even though we often forget it, we are always standing on the edge of the world, gazing out into the infinitude of space. Our five senses cannot take it all in. So much is clouded by mystery. The magic and perfection of the world cannot be intellectually grasped, no more than the sea can be swallowed in a single gulp. But when we open our hearts to the sheer impossibility of it all existing--and of our being here to experience it--then it is impossible to respond with anything but awe. See yourself not as created but creating: think surprising thoughts, feel surprising feelings, react with surprising reactions. Surprise Yourself and you will resolve long-standing problems, find new avenues of success, and add to others' lives in ways that enrich your own.
The year in preview looks nothing like the year in review. Because it is not our surroundings that change but the way we experience them and contribute to them. And it is not just change we are personifying but change for the better.
Blessings for the coming year! See you there!
The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.