12/09/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2013

Who Made Your Shoes?

Physician David Agus puts forth a lot of controversial ideas in his book The End of Illness. "A good pair of shoes will go a long way to protect you," Dr. Agus blogged on The Huffington Post. Putting cushioning inserts into your ill-fitting dress shoes or swapping them out for a pair of comfortable athletic shoes can eliminate chronic inflammation, Dr. Agus tells us.

After reading Agus, I tossed my own badly worn-out running shoes and headed down to the local sports gear store for the most comfortable pair I could find. I also started thinking about a conversation I had in the late '60s that centered around shoes, albeit from a very different perspective.

The chat took place on a houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., which was the home of Zen teacher/philosopher Alan Watts. I was lucky to gain an audience with him through a mutual friend. After listening to me espouse my philosophy on life for about 10 minutes, Watts asked, "Whose life are you living right now, Rob?" I felt pretty sure of myself at the time, so without hesitating, I proudly declared, "I live my own life. No one tells me what to do."

While I was confident about my answers and, most importantly, my beliefs, Watts saw something else. He wanted to know why I was so defensive when I spoke. Again, I fired back immediately, "I respond from my convictions, my values, and my beliefs; it's all me."

"I'm hearing a lot of Emerson, Thoreau, and Spinoza in your words," he said. "Have you read them?" Of course I had -- who wouldn't read those great minds if they're seeking the truth with a capital "T"? But his question got me thinking: Was I really living my own life? Or was I merely parroting what I'd studied and claiming the ideas of these great minds to be my own? Worst of all, was I unaware of that line of demarcation between the thoughts of others and those that originated in my own mind, as a result of my own experiences?

If so, according to Watts, I wasn't alone: Most people mechanically respond to life from others' points of view. We internalize the philosophy of others and act as if it is our own -- without giving much thought to the matter. He went on to say that if we admire what others believe and choose to live our lives according to their beliefs, we should at least be aware of what we are doing. "If you enjoy your life, and you're comfortable wearing shoes made by someone else, then continue to wear them," he said. "But be aware that you did not design them. If the shoes are actually uncomfortable, give yourself permission to take them off. That's mindfulness. That's freedom."

I confess, Watts' questioning and admonition threw me off for some months after the visit. I began to question just about everything I thought was my own invention: Is that me, or am I simply adopting the beliefs of others? Is that my facial expression that I see in the mirror, or am I just reflecting back the visages of those I have seen? It took a while, but finally I was doing exactly what Watts wanted me to do -- questioning the framework from which I constructed reality. He wanted me to become mindful of my own "cognitive contribution" to the framework that I use to understand the world around me. He wanted me to understand that you don't only view reality -- you create your own experience of reality.

All of us synthesize what we read, hear, and see with our internal thoughts and emotions. The result is a unique experience, indeed, but mindfulness enables us to tease apart our true feelings and convictions from those of others. And as Watts said, when we are mindful of the shoes we're walking in, there is a sense of freedom in our lives -- it's very liberating!

So here's my takeaway from a lovely afternoon on a houseboat moored in Sausalito:

  1. Learn to walk in your own shoes, however humble those shoes might be. When you do that, you begin to discover the truth about your authentic self, one footstep at a time.
  2. When walking in shoes that others have designed, appreciate the cobbler, but don't value the shoes too highly. They are not your creation, and they are not who you are. Your identity lies in what you bring to the world, not in how you interpret the things that others have created.
  3. Don't be overwhelmed by the dust of anybody's else's footprints. Have confidence that you are here to leave your own footprints on the sands.

Choose freedom. Dare to think for yourself. Your very choice is an expression of affection for the true you. I think Alan Watts would agree there is no more noble act than to elevate your consciousness above the roar of what others have to say, so you can hear what you have to say.

For more by Rob White, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.