One of the most difficult cultural messages to unravel in my own inner life has been the message of “the doer.” I, and most people I know, was taught — you are what you do. This wasn’t overtly state of course, rather it was subtle programming that seeped in through watching the world around me–be productive, cross things off your list, have a good time, don’t forget to smile. We’re taught from an early age to seek external recognition and praise for all these things that we do–from grades in school to money for work, to accolades and praise for something creative–our worth is determined by something given to us from the outside.
As I’ve intentionally worked over the past ten years to create and live the life of my dreams I’ve had to directly encounter and investigate this programming in my own life.
In graduate school, studying environmental education, I was asked to sit quietly in the woods while doing nothing. It was a “solo,” an hour or more of time without pen, paper, books, etc. sitting in one spot, just being. This was the first time I’d ever connected with nature in this way. I remember wondering if the trees valued themselves more or less for being tall, or strong, or short, or wide. I realized that the trees probably didn’t see themselves as separate from life itself, let alone the forest they created, and that therefore value was a foreign, human concept. As someone who had struggled for many years with an eating disorder, body image issues, and generally valuing and judging my body and actions harshly, this blew my mind. It was a light bulb moment that delighted me.
I vowed to myself then, alone in the woods, to live like the trees: for life’s own sake, not for an arbitrary concept of value or worth. Like so many of life’s most potent truths this proved to be difficult. Not so much difficult to do, but difficult to remember when faced with a culture that immensely values doing, external recognition, and praise. It was hard not to want and seek what I’d been programmed to desire since childhood. I worked half-heartedly to be like the trees for several years until one day, in my late twenties, I realized nothing was going to change if I didn’t actively foster this idea in my life.
Deciding to intentionally explore this idea in my own life: that value is an arbitrary and useless concept when applied to one’s self as a means to an end, or as a motivating force in one’s own life, flew in the face of almost every way I’d functioned up to that point.
Without that doer I, at first, felt lost and unmotivated. I’d always been a runner and later a gym rat, working out 6-7 days a week, always driving my body towards an imagined ideal of perfection. Suddenly all of that was turned on its head.
Whose idea of perfection was this anyways? Was it mine? Where did it come from? Why did I start to think this? Why am I doing this again? I’d ask myself these questions and I could no longer find an answer to keep me going.
The exercise I was doing at the time was not enjoyable beyond a perceived goal of bodily beauty. As I began to question this idea, I was forced to recognize that I didn’t believe in this goal any longer. I also knew, deep inside, that the workout regimen I held myself so strictly to, was not for health. I didn’t need to workout 5,6,7 days a week to be healthy. And in fact might even be hurting myself by doing so. For that matter what did being healthy even mean anyways? Where did I get that idea in my head!?
There were many mornings that I would wake up, begin my day, sit and then just feel confused… unanchored. Here was this thing, exercise, that had been a part of my daily existence for so many years that I hadn’t even questioned it. It was so lauded and encouraged by the external forces in my life– from the media to my personal relationships– as good that I hadn’t ever imagined it was anything but.
For a few months this was agonizing. It was, like any addiction, difficult to release my dependency. Having had an eating disorder in my earlier years I was familiar with the feeling of letting go of something that had served me in some way, but which had become destructive. What was so different about this letting go was that I was releasing something that most people agreed was a good thing.
I was not obsessively exercising, in fact I was keeping up with what many considered a norm. But the norm wasn’t what I was going for anymore. I wanted to explore what life could be like with freedom running it, instead of patterns and cultural conditioning. I wanted to know what life could be like if I were a tree in a forest who didn’t even think to look down at one’s self with judgment, blame, or guilt… about anything.
And what I found, when I really got down to it, was that there were many things in my life–exercise just one of them–that I was choosing to do from a sense of obligation, comparison, or a desire to be “better” and more valued.
This was big. Huge.
For several years I sat and wrote in my journal every morning about all of the things I wanted to let go of, all the unnecessary baggage I was carrying around, all the effort and energy I had been putting into holding my life together. From that addiction to exercise, to my love relationships being a certain way, to my work ethic that I’d so carefully created and protected. I was going for bare bones, stripping it all away. What did I do/have/want to be in this life that was truly coming from a higher self, or from a sense of love and connection with life?
You may wonder, as I did, what would remain if all was taken away. What would be left if I stopped trying to be that…
responsible cheerful well-spoken educated happy helpful controlled active achievement oriented neat loving
…person I’d imagined myself to be for so long?
I was ready and also a little terrified to find out.
There was a deep fear, within all of this exploration of values and motivations, that if I stopped trying to be someone, or stopped doing things to be valued that I’d just sit on the couch all day, watch cartoons, gain 300 pounds, and never do anything interesting again. But that hasn’t been the case at all.
As I’ve intentionally cleared away the clutter of my own mind, and conditioning, by investigating and questioning thoughts and beliefs that once seemed indisputable (like exercise being important and good for me) a new part of me has woken up. It feels like a new part of me has started to live.
I’ve heard many different descriptions of what I am also pointing to, but the metaphor of a river makes the most sense to me. A river wanders its banks without will or effort. It moves around, through, under. It winds past rocks and over. There is no resistance, just response to what arrives. There is little need for forethought or planning, just a slow or quick trip down stream, depending on the weather, the day, the slope of the river bed. Sometimes, when it is cold, the river is still. Winter comes and the surface freezes, though water still moves beneath the hard places. In spring, the snow melts. The river is fed with new life.
The river is inside all of us, moving our lives, even when we think we’re the ones making the decisions.
The thing that amazed me most about this process of investigation, that started with an hour long solo in a forest, was how experiential it was. This wasn’t just a concept or an idea, I could live this on an entirely practical level. Contrary to what my fears wanted me to believe, I don’t sit on a couch all day or eat nothing but junk food, or watch excessive amounts of television. Life happens and I experience and respond to it. I wake up when I’m ready or when I need to, when I’m hungry I eat, when I’m tired I sleep, when I need exercise I go to a dance class, for a walk, to a Pilates class. When a task needs to be completed I finish it. I don’t plan out each moment of my day, I don’t measure hours of exercise, I just wake up every day and see what it has to bring.