One of my favorite books is The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope. Cope opens with a bold quote from the Book of Thomas: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
The quote resonates deeply for me is because I know this to be true from my own experiences.
In my sophomore year at university, I encountered Buddhism for the first time and felt a pull in that direction. Despite the hunch, I did not pursue it because there was no clear career path in my mind.
Being in a business school, I had convinced myself that the way to success and an extraordinary life was through a career in financial services. By 22, I had an MBA and was on my third corporate job with a strong resume, complete with extracurricular activities and leadership roles. I did all the things I was supposed to do.
While on the outside it was a success story, on the inside I was lost and felt a disconnect with life.
It took years of dull pain, and eventually suffering, stemming from resistance, to realize that happiness need not be fleeting. I now believe that it's our natural state -- that state we're in when we bring forth our gifts. After all, the only thing we have control over is what we give, right?
It's when we choose to deny the calling or demand certainty that we suffer. The reason we do that is because of fear. As Robert Brault has said in quoting the Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita, "We are kept from our goal, not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal."
By letting the path unfold one step at a time and giving without being attached to how it has to look, we experience joy in the moment. The point of fulfillment is not to be extraordinary but to be yourself. This is how my friend Deb has approached life.
In her 20s, Deb decided to put off her studies to raise a family. She said it was an easy choice because she just knew that's what she had to do. Once her kids were off to college, she felt it was time to complete her undergraduate studies.
She then had an urge to apply to graduate school in New York City in order to pursue a career in higher education. She was accepted and soon learned of an opening in the career services office. It was exactly what she wanted to do. She ended up getting the job and now loves serving students.
Deb's life is not at all a walk in the park, having had to deal with the loss of a child. However, no matter what comes her way, she seems to trust life, live in the present, and rely on her inner guidance.
While there are people, like Deb, who are able to follow their intuition easily, there are others, like me, for whom fear gets in the way. Here are four questions which have helped me to be more open to life and bring forth what is within me:
1. Who am I when no one is watching?
Are you a different person when others are watching versus when no one's watching? If you are, it helps to investigate why you don't feel safe to be yourself. It's only when you acknowledge your fears that you can objectively question their validity and address them.
Michelangelo said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." Bringing forth your gifts does not require adding on anything extra. It's already within you. All it requires is removing what's in the way.
2. What would I do if failure was not an option?
From my experiences, I've realized that the times I've been most afraid of failure were the times when I wasn't doing what felt right. When you do things for validation and approval, failure can be devastating. Focusing on how you appear to others rather than on how you can best serve creates a breeding ground for fear. Why? Because, you're essentially basing your worth on the reactions of others, something you have zero control over.
When I'm following my heart, my joy comes from giving, not getting. No matter the outcome, I cannot fail. As one of my teachers recently said to me, "If you take an excellent bottle of wine to a party, it's likely that there will be people at the party who don't drink nor appreciate wine. However, you will not feel bad about that because you know you've given the best that you could."
3. What's the risk in not taking a risk?
In evaluating where to go next, we tend to give greater weight to what we need to give up and less weight to what our current reality is costing us. We're wired to avoid pain. In doing so, we also miss out on fulfillment.
The greatest risk in not taking a risk is living a life that's not true to who you are. By only focusing what you have to lose and not considering what you have to give, you're committing to a life of false safety instead of one of self-expression. This leads to a feeling of disconnection with yourself.
4. What's my vision for my life?
It's important to know the direction you're going in order for you to get there. A vision provides you with the clarity you need to determine if you're moving towards where you want to go. Otherwise, circumstances will dictate your life, and you will get caught up in other people's agendas.
In working on your vision, connect with the highest version of yourself. What top three qualities define you at your best? What impact do you want to have? What action can you take now to move towards that?
Using questions like the four above, I now see life through a new lens and have learned to trust my hunches more. It's been four years since I transitioned out of my career in financial services with no clear path before me except for a deep knowing that I wanted to help others uncover and bring forth their gifts. Though it hasn't always been easy, it's becomes simple once I let go of the need for certainty and take the next step I know is right for me.
What I've learned from my journey is that happiness does not come from the quest to be extraordinary, a subjective outcome I have no control over. It comes from being myself and giving what I have to offer.
What a relief it is to know that I'm in charge of my happiness.