Everyone wants to improve their lives. I sure do. I'm sure you do as well. That's probably why you're reading this right now. The pursuit of a better life has been the subject of countless thinkers, and I'm one more to add to that list.
In the pursuit of a better life, I have been a lifelong consumer of self-improvement information and advice. I have read books, watched instructional films and shows, participated in discussion groups, attended seminars, taken classes, listened to an array of speakers, reflected on various spiritual and philosophical teachings, attempted to practice what I've learned, and thought long and hard about how to be a better me and have a better life. Many people have done the same. And in all likelihood you have as well.
Then one day I realized something. Woven throughout all of the self-improvement information I have been exposed to are common threads of guidance in the form of what I see as basic "principles." These principles form the foundation of all of the self-improvement philosophies and systems. This was an epiphany!
No longer did I feel held captive by any single self-improvement system. No longer did I feel I needed to pick and choose from among the many ways of thinking about living a good life. Gone was the stress of having to abide by every rule and guideline a particular self-improvement approach dictated. I was finally free of the shackles imposed by years of thinking that each author, philosopher, speaker, teacher or fellow searcher had the better answer to the eternal question of how to life a better life.
So, here is a concise summary of the basic principles and truths that I have noticed during my many years in the pursuit of a better life. I call these the Principles of Life. I use them as the guiding principles in my life and perhaps you can too.
"Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You."
- Dr. Seuss
The pressure to conform is all around us. Our friends, families, employers, schools, religions, governments and organizations all take part in this pressure. Sometimes their participation isn't conscious or intentional, but it's pressure nonetheless and succumbing to that pressure is a guaranteed pathway to unhappiness. Remember this, always...
You are unique!
There is no one on earth exactly like you.
Our individual uniqueness shouldn't be surprising. As a close friend of mine used to point out, all one has to do is look to nature to understand diversity and uniqueness. Look at snowflakes. Look at flowers. Look at trees. Look at mountains. Look at people's faces. They are all 100% unique.
If these externals are unique, why would we think that our insides, our minds and hearts and needs, are the same. They're not. They possess the same uniqueness as everything else in the world.
There's no such thing as an average person. An average person does not exist. Each of us is unique and that uniqueness should be celebrated and fostered. When average human characteristics are discussed, what's being discussed are statistical measures that can't really be applied to an individual. How can you average character, bodies, psychology, education, values, ethics, family, social situation, lifestyle and other measures of what make up a person? You can't.
Anytime we try to quantify or measure an individual's makeup by any set of standards, they are destined to fall short. In spite of the pressure for us to all try to be the same, we just aren't. And this is what makes life worth living. How boring if we truly all were the same. There'd be nothing new to learn, explore or experience.
Even traditional psychotherapeutic strategies are increasingly embracing the concept of individual uniqueness. Transpersonal psychology, for example, attempts to embrace this more comprehensive view of human nature.
We must embrace our uniqueness. To do any less is to deny who you really are and the true nature of your self. You are the only person on the planet with the qualities you possess. It is only by fully embracing those qualities that you are able to be truly happy.
So what does this all mean? Be you! Don't try to be who someone else thinks you should be. It is only by fully accepting your uniqueness, honoring it, embracing it, that you can attain maximum happiness and contentment. There is no other way. You simply can't live your life on someone else's terms and expect to be happy. It won't happen. Celebrate uniqueness.
At every turn, society attempts to force people into molds. Regardless of your special talents, desires and dreams, society, at all levels, want us to conform. Individuality is frowned upon. Uniqueness is not valued, at least not at face value.
But society is dysfunctional when it comes to individuality. Religion, family, politicians, teachers, friends and others do their best to keep people more the same than different. However, when we deify our pop stars, television personalities and athletes, we want them quirky, odd and anything but normal.
Sure, we give lip service to embracing individuality. You hear people say they're open minded. But the truth is the vast majority of us are often being the person we think others want us to be, not the people we really are.
Closely related to celebrating your uniqueness is understanding that, ultimately, only your opinion matters. Much of the suffering we force upon ourselves stems from our irrational need to impress others, even when those others are complete strangers. I put it this way:
Your happiness is in direct inverse proportion to how much you care what other people think.
Think about it for a moment. The more you care what other people think of you, your actions, your accomplishments, your possessions, your home, your looks, your whatever, the less happy you'll be. On the other hand, the less you care about what people think about you, the happier you'll be. It seems so simple, but in this conformist society of ours it's not easy to brush off other people's opinions. But you need to work at it. The better you get at not caring what others think, the happier you'll be.
In Ernie J. Zelinski's excellent book The Lazy Person's Guide to Success: How to Get What You Want without Killing Yourself for It, he illustrates well the need to think for yourself when he says "The hardest way to achieve success is to have someone else define it for you." Zelinski's observations are so true. Remember...
Think for yourself.
Ultimately, only your opinion matters.
Embrace your uniqueness.
Every human being is different. No two of us are alike. Each is totally unique. While this may appear to be self-evident, it's surprising how often we act contrary to this fact. On the one hand you'll hear folks talk about uniqueness, individuality and the distinctive nature of everyone's personality and essence. Yet on the other hand many of those same folks work incessantly, consciously or unconsciously, to categorize, pigeonhole and label people in an effort to restrain their uniqueness.
At the core of all self improvement work must be an acknowledgement that everyone is unique. A person's innate nature, experiences, education and life situation all mix in a myriad of ways to produce an individual that is totally unique from anyone else. To not accept this truth is to begin all self improvement work from a foundation of falsehood, which can only lead to less than optimal results.
When people decide to improve themselves, either in a generalized way or in a specific area of life, they turn to many forms of help. They might seek out counseling, coaching or therapy. They might read a book or take a class. Support groups might be appealing. They might try meditation or spiritual guidance.
All of these forms of help can be valuable, but often these forms of help come from a place of bias or are based on a rigid system of thought or practice. A therapeutic approach might be based on only one perspective of the human condition. A book may contain information and advice heavily entrenched in the opinion of the author. Support groups are notorious for promoting a group think mentality that doesn't tolerate dissent well. Meditation and spiritual practices can be based on a narrow interpretation of the divine.
Embrace your uniqueness. Forces surround you that will continually try to make you conform. Religions, schools of thought, physical disciplines, spiritual practices, educational institutions, social constructs, family, friends, and even our own habits and internally imprinted patterns are just a few of the forces that will inevitably exert pressure on you to conform, to the detriment of your individuality. Resist these forces. It is only your own path to self improvement, your own path to a better life, that is important. And your path won't necessarily look like anyone else's.
Of course, it is also important to strike a proper balance. The various approaches to self improvement and a better life virtually all have value. Some more than others, but most have some value and can be utilized to improve yourself and your life. Just be careful to be sure that the information or approach resonates as valid for you. Does it fit properly with who you are? Does it align with your values? And never discount your gut feelings, your intuition. Intuition is information. Admittedly, intuition isn't well understood, but there is no doubt that we discount the guidance of our intuition at our own peril.
So how does this work on practical level? Some examples will illustrate the importance of embracing your uniqueness. Let's say you've decided it's time to begin, or restart, an exercise program. Before you lay many choices, such as weight training, running, cardiovascular machines, yoga, aerobics, kick boxing, martial arts, swimming, calisthenics, and the list goes on. While proponents of each form may tout their approach to exercise and fitness as superior, the truth is that they're all good in their own way.
So how do you choose? You choose based on what seems to work for you. Consider both your objective and your personal style and needs and decide how a particular form of exercise fits with those requirements. Some might choose a personal program based entirely on yoga. Another might choose a mix of running, stretching and calisthenics. Yet another might choose to swim laps a few days a week. Is one approach better than another? No. If someone truly embraces their uniqueness, how they flow through life and engage in life's activities will all look somewhat different. And that's just how it's supposed to be.
"Human beliefs, like all other natural growths, elude the barrier of systems."
- Miguel de Unamuno
Everyone is out to sell you a system. Diet gurus sell countless weight loss systems. Fitness experts sell an endless array of exercise systems. Spiritual leaders sell systems to govern your views of God and spirituality. Financial experts sell money-making and management systems. Cosmetic companies sell beauty systems. There's no end to the systems you can buy.
What these folks don't want you to know is that most of their systems are based on the same few principles. The systems may vary, but the principles remain the same. It's the principles behind the systems that are ultimately what's important, and what you should focus on.
A simple example might help to illustrate this concept. Let's say someone is trying to sell you an exercise system to build muscle strength and size. Maybe it's a machine or device. Or maybe it's a series of predefined movements. Regardless of the system, you can probably break down the system into its basic foundation principles. A muscle building system might look something like this when dissected to its essential and most basic underlying principles:
1. Apply resistance (weight) to your muscles using good form.
2. Do this consistently over time.
3. Slowly increase the resistance as your muscles adapt to the level of resistance.
That's it! Every system of muscle development will apply these same three principles in order to attain muscle strength and size. This muscle building example is an extremely simple one, but I use it to clearly illustrate that the countless systems can always be deduced to a small set of principles upon which those systems are based. And it's those principles that you should focus on, not the systems.
Systems don't conform well to the uniqueness of each individual using the system and they are often attempts at easy fixes to complicated problems. And systems are typically solutions to a problem or need from one person's perspective.
Notice I never urge you to avoid systems, merely to beware of them. There's a big difference. Rather than avoid systems, feel free to learn about them to whatever degree you believe is helpful. Just don't assume any system will apply to your life situation exactly. It won't. Why? Because each one of us is truly unique. Everyone has a unique set of experiences, genetics, education, family history, and personal interests. Since this is the case, how can any system apply universally to all of us. No system can.
When it comes to systems...
...one size does not fit all.
Systems are not bad. In fact, they're helpful and usually necessary to meet our goals. The danger is assuming someone else's system fits your particular needs. We should all create our own personal systems.
Studying other systems can be helpful. Many systems were created after some thoughtful consideration by many people. Dissecting systems for those things that work well for you, and discarding those that don't, and mixing in your own personally developed approaches that fit your own needs and situation well, is a great way to come up with individualized systems that work for you. This is how you achieve personal greatness, happiness and fulfillment. Using systems in this way is an intelligent way to view systems, as guides to understanding any system, or parts of a system, that work in your life.
We all need systems. Basic systems support those things we do repeatedly all through our lives. More complex systems help us achieve what we want to achieve. It's a well put together strategy of systems that comprises most of what we'll do with a fulfilling life. But the key is that they have to be our systems that seem appropriate and relevant for us. Adopting someone else's system with no consideration of adapting it to meet our unique desires, needs and life situation, is illogical. Illogical, but we all do it much too often.
We take on other people's systems without some assessment of that system at our own risk. For example, you might do yoga as a form of exercise and really like it. You've explored other physical fitness systems and have decided that yoga is the right approach for you. That's a sensible way to go about it. Or, you might just as well have decided you didn't like yoga, or you chose to use a few of the principles you learned in yoga in your own personal form of physical practice. This is how you should approach systems all through your life. Examine them, study them, dissect them for their core, foundation principles, and then understand and apply those principles. This might mean you continue to follow the system because you've decided it works for you, or not. And that's how it should be.
Philosophical traditions for centuries have promoted the concept of living in the now. What do I mean by living in the now?
— Don't focus too much on the past, except for learning from it.
— Don't focus too much on the future, except as is necessary for a basic level of planning and the setting of flexible objectives.
— Do focus on the here and now, on the immediate task at hand, the immediate situation, and the people you're with.
The most well-known contemporary proponent of this principle is Eckhart Tolle in his hugely popular book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. But the concept is not a new one by any means.
Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaimed "With the past I have nothing to do; not with the future. I love now." D.H. Lawrence stated "The living moment is everything." Emily Dickinson said "Forever is composed of nows." Alan Watts said "I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is." And to point out that the ancients knew well of the power of living in the now, Marcus Aurelius said "Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present."
Zen, Taoism and a host of other philosophical approaches to life have living in the now as a core tenet of their practice. Live today, now.
"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
- Dr. Seuss
Socrates, who many consider the founder of Western philosophical thought, encouraged his students to "know thyself" and this remains wise advice to this day. Marcus Aurelius said "Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look there." The great stage star Fannie Brice, who made her fortunes being herself, said "Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be."
Few people actually spend time giving serious thought to exactly who they are, what makes them tick, what makes them happy and fulfilled, and what makes them sad and aimless.
Can we really know ourselves completely? No. To study ourselves is a lifelong pursuit. But it's study worth undertaking and maintaining. No man can ever fully comprehend the full extent of another human being's mind and life situation, but perhaps we can at least understand ourselves well enough to be able to articulate our ideals, good and bad habits, ethical and moral foundation, and other aspects that help us move forward in life with an awareness of who we really are so that our goals align with our true selves and not the selves we're trying to be to appease others.
Outside influences will always be working hard to steer you clear from your true self. Advertising, peer pressure, parents and family, and religions are among the many strong forces at work to get people to conform to an unattainable, homogenized ideal of what we should be. Eschew all of that. Decide, for yourself, who you are. Decide for yourself what makes you uniquely you. Decide for yourself where you want to go in life and how you want to get there.
"It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end."
- Ursula K. LeGuin
A friend told me a wonderfully clear metaphor about the many paths to a goal or destination. He attributed it to Ram Dass, but I haven't been able to verify that.
If you think about a life destination or goal as the top of a pyramid, consider how many paths can be taken up the side of the pyramid in order to reach the point. Imagine being at the top of that pyramid and looking down. How many ways can you see to reach where you are? There are so many variations in the paths as to make counting them unnecessary. Suffice it to say that there are as many ways to reach the point of the pyramid as one can think of. So it is with life.
So many people or systems tell you that there's only one way to do something, one way to reach a goal, one way to live a good life. They are wrong. There are countless unique ways. And this makes perfect sense. Because each individual on earth is unique, why should their path to any particular goal or objective be the same. Sure, someone might find some path previously trodden by others a good way to reach a goal, but someone else might prefer another approach. Remember to always do it your way.
Copyright © 2009 Race Bannon