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June 2016

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Editor’s letter

Breaking free … from yourself!

How many times have you heard someone say that they reacted in a certain way because that’s just who they are? Or how many times have you declined to try something new because it’s not what you necessarily like?

Chances are that you probably figured out who you were around the time you turned 21 and that has shaped your life and decisions. And chances are that you (and others) have already labelled you.

Michael Puett (Professor of Chinese History at Harvard) turned the idea of finding your true self on its head. He writes that Chinese philosophers like Confucius said that in order to grow and change you have to break free from who you think you are – you have to overcome yourself.

Our lives consist of interacting with others and for most of us, these relationships are not easy. These interactions and the desire to get along tend to make us fall into specific patterns of behaviour. We react in the same predictable ways and encounters with others draw different reactions and emotions from us – like anger or calmness. And that is how our days are spent – being passively pulled into one direction or another depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

We believe we know ourselves – what makes us tick. And when we define who we are, we all too often label ourselves according to these established patterns and reactions.

According to Puett, we should break free from ourselves by engaging in rituals. He writes that these rituals come from the small things we do all the time. When you see a friend, say hi as if you hadn’t just been stressing over bad financial results, or if you’re tempted to roll your eyes over something annoying a co-worker said – rather respond as if they had said something insightful. These rituals could allow you to become a better person, even for a moment, and even if they go against your true feelings.

Chances are that you have learned to focus on your strengths from an early age. By  focusing on your strengths, you choose to live your life accordingly. But in doing so, you condition yourself to cut out experiences that could lead you in unpredictable directions and close yourself off  from new encounters.

The way to go, writes Puett, is to deliberately go against what you tend to focus on or what you love. Intentionally seek out things you don’t love, aren’t good at. Choose experiences precisely because they are so ‘not you’.

The point of all of this is not to become a well-rounded person or to develop expertise in a new area but to get into the habit of expanding your perspectives. It’s to constantly practise to engage in anything that forces you away from the constraints that come from living as your authentic self. You’re opening yourself up to living life as a series of breaks: breaks from your true feelings, your true interests, your true strengths.

The end result of all of this? As you cultivate your ability to break away from yourself, you will continue to grow and change; as you cultivate your goodness, it slowly will become second nature. And your kindness, rooted in the mundane, will spread from the family and friends around you to your town, your region, your nation … the world.

Author:

Gerinda Jooste

Editor

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