A few years ago, vacationing in a small North Carolina town, my family and I were trying to remember the name of the night club on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
As avid fans, we were shocked we couldn’t remember. Eventually fed up with our collective ignorance, my nephew, Collin, looked up the answer.
“Ohhh!!! Yeah!!!” He said, a grin spreading across his face. But before he could say a single other word, I shouted: “Wait!! Don’t tell me!!! I want to figure it out myself!”
Eventually, after we gave him permission, he offered up the clue: “silver.” It did nothing at first, but soon, a light dawned. I squinted my eyes, as if peering into the darkest recesses of my memory, the kind of dimly lit place where Buffy and her gang would likely hang out. And there, I found it.
“THE BRONZE!!” I shrieked! “THE BRONZE!!” I leapt out of my chair in victorious delight. I’ve remembered that moment ever since.
I’ve probably read two hundred books or more about happiness, meaning, or how to live a fulfilling life. I’m sure I’ve been to at least as many retreats, workshops, lectures, and group events on the same topic. I know so much about what different people have said about how to realize one’s self, and I know so many stories of how different people have gotten there.
If it sounds like an obsession, it should. It is. If there’s a line between obsession and devotion, I haven’t found it.
But the other day, instead of cracking a book or following a particular practice, I sat down to have an honest heart to heart with yours truly. I’d woken up stressed, in an incredibly, ridiculously, painfully, familiar way; we’re talking decade upon decade of this particular stress-variety. The thoughts were telling me about all the things “I should do” with my morning, my day, my year, my life, before launching into all the things I haven’t done, won’t do, or can’t do, and anything and everything I am doing, but am doing wrong. This is all before even getting out of bed. Pulled in so many directions at once, I felt like my soul was being drawn and quartered by future possibilities and passed mistakes.
“NO.” I said firmly (inside my own mind) and I got out of bed.
Then I padded out to my porch still wearing my pajamas. I pulled out my journal, and asked myself this question: “Ok self, what is actually happening right now??”
And then I began to write. I wrote quickly and faithfully, documenting the flow and contents of my own mind. I’d write down a stressful thought as it came in. And I’d notice the effect of it on my body; thoughts have roots, you know, you can’t just pluck them off at the stem, or they’re guaranteed to return. If one thought or image had a particularly strong hold, I might ask it why it was here? What was it trying to tell me? It’s hard to explain, but harmful thoughts, when honestly listened to, usually have something helpful to say even if they offer it in a super crap way. Often, the thoughts would interrupt one another and cut each other off like cars at rush hour on a downtown city street. Sometimes they’d even honk at each other, or lay on the horn until another thought would tell them to please shut the F*#$! up. Sometimes I’d follow the new thread, and sometimes not, depending on the pull, but I’d notice as honestly as I could, what was actually happening in those moments, and how it was affecting me physically, emotionally, spiritually.
After about ninety minutes of solid gratifying detective work, I realized how much I’d started to enjoy myself. I was feeling really fulfilled trying to find answers within my own self, rather than looking outside.
For years, I have been pedestalizing my teachers’ journeys. I have fantasized about spending years on Eckhart Tolle’s bench, under Buddha’s tree, or wandering Byron Katie’s desert. I’ve imagined myself following Elizabeth Gilbert across continents, or Cheryl Strayed down the Pacific Crest Trail. At this point I know hundreds of stories of self-actualization. I could go on and on, (and on and on) with all the teachers, friends, family, friends of friends, perfect strangers, etc., whose stories and teachings I have imagined, planned, or tried to emulate.
But all of these stories have one thing in common: They all belong to the person who lived them.
Back in North Carolina, in the moment I remembered that Buffy and her friends had spent every Tuesday night at “THE BRONZE!!” I felt like I could die of happiness. I’d set my mind to figuring something out, and I had done it.
Now, this might not be everyone’s definition of pure joy, but it seems to be mine. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember, about every joke, riddle, puzzle, computer program, or clever comic caption. “Wait!!” I’d say, “Don’t tell me. Let me figure it out.” My joy seems to be in the discovery, rather than in the knowing itself.
So no wonder, despite all my research, reading, and retreats, I haven’t been able to find the answers in other people’s journeys. I haven’t wanted to. What would be the fun in that?
I’m grateful for all the clues from all those teachers, just like when Collin said “silver” to help me point me toward “Bronze.” It’s no fun being totally stuck. But after I get my clue, then…wait, please. Don’t tell me.