During the last 15 years, I’ve made huge leaps (including a career change). Yet each leap contained countless small steps. My path toward living life true was gradual. It’s hard to pinpoint a single moment, but eventually I had appropriate tools and enough practice, and my heart shifted. When I revert to old habits, I trust there’s a safe space within me: I reconnect with breath and awareness.
While teaching mindfulness class, I shared a story from my journey: For years, I looked externally for approval. I repeatedly asked my loving husband some version of “Am I okay?” His reassurance was never enough, and not because he wasn’t genuine, but because I was looking in the wrong places. What I needed—in the core of my being—was my own approval: my own love and acceptance. And once I found this, I stopped asking him those questions, because I trust I’m my own anchor; my own friend.
One of my students responded, “How did that transformation happen? Can you describe it?” These processes are difficult to pinpoint. There were many small steps along the way, and the way is zig-zagged, not straight. But I made a commitment: I truly wanted to befriend myself. My tools were meditation, journaling, therapy, self-portraiture, yoga, and mindfulness. During one of our unplugged Caribbean sabbaticals, I went for a run to the end of the island, not a single person in sight. I sat on a rock and sobbed, feeling old and new wounds. This experience didn’t provoke shame, nor did it provoke external focus: I didn’t want to hide, nor did I need help. I could stay with myself. I trusted that everything I need is inside me. As my meditation practice deepened, so did this sense of trust. I still need human connection—love, hugs, and support—but my true ground comes from within.
To live a life true to yourself you must understand your own heart, listen to your own voice, uncover activities that bring you alive, identify your core values. And continue this process indefinitely, since the path true to you will naturally wind and meander. If you listen to your internal compass as regular practice, then you won’t get lost along the path. There is no “right choice” for the rest of your life. There are many good choices. If you pay attention to where you are in this moment—not where others think you should be—then you’re on a good path; a true path.
Over 33 million people have watched Brené Brown’s TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” She talks about vulnerability, shame, and taking risks. These are topics our society squelches in many ways. Our current level of societal discourse (e.g., news, social media, politics) is often judgmental, not open to vulnerability. So there’s an underlying feeling of uneasiness. People recognize they want to be true to themselves, take risks, make changes, yet it doesn’t feel safe. But someplace deep in our hearts we believe the words of Brown: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.”
To be brave is really to be vulnerable. It’s not brave or courageous if we don’t expose some part of ourselves. And in doing so, we battle fear. Instead of blindly following fear’s urgent voice, we pause, reflect, and listen to our own voice, not that of fear. I think the more brave acts we witness—even small ones—the more courage we gain to tell our stories, be ourselves, and share our passions. The reality is we’re all vulnerable. And that real-ness is often what connects us. Whether we’re artists struggling to find a meaningful job, students happily attending graduate school, or people re-evaluating life choices after many years, we are connected. We all face fear; we all want to be happy while being true to ourselves.
When I announced my resignation from academia, I received three types of responses: “I’m surprised, but not that surprised,” “I’m really sad for Lawrence, but happy for you,” and “I admire your honesty and bravery.” The last response amazed me the most. It’s what allowed me to see the cultural undercurrent of a divided life. Circumstances can make us feel as if we have no choices. External and internal forces sometimes lead us down a safe, yet unfulfilling path. We put off dreams until later, at least partially because declaring dreams makes us vulnerable. What if we declare a dream—something close to our heart—and then it fails? Our fear stops us—it talks rapidly and flails its arms in our face. But think of the flip-side: What if we live our entire life without openness to dreams or without making choices that correspond to what we most value?
Small steps have huge impact. Small steps pave paths of great awakening. Each person has their own journey; their own deepest intentions. What’s most important is to listen to our own heart and then begin: take a small step and then another. Forgive ourselves when we falter—which we will—and have the courage to begin again.
Living life true to ourselves can be done in small, meaningful ways. Each time we move past fear and uncover another layer of ourselves, we make a leap toward freedom. The reality is this: We have but one precious life. How do we want to live it? Let’s be fearless. Let’s be true. Let’s start now.