When we’re little, journeys are easier to make. We skip our way through woods, happily chasing butterflies and turn over rocks with curiosity and delight. Our novelty-seeking instinct is in charge, and the right brain emotions of fear and disgust take a back seat.
As we get older, the journey becomes more difficult. We stop chasing butterflies for fear of falling on our knees. We stop peeking under rocks, fearful of what we’ll find. Sometimes we consciously place these rocks to hide what we aren’t prepared to face.
And yet, in the words of Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living”. By staying away from the darkness, and disconnecting from failures and grief, we also blind ourselves to what is strong and beautiful within us, and fail to shine our light upon the world.
Here is a three-step guide to help you take the journey inwards and make sense of your life, so you can start living each day with authenticity and wholeness.
Step 1: Have the Courage to Look Deep
It takes courage to expose ourselves to memories that may be tender and hurtful. Our motivational systems are geared towards avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. And yet,the past is the path to our inner child. It’s the part of us that stores our wholeness—our dust and sorrows, but also our gifts and hopes. As 20th century American novelist William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Step 2: Have the Perspective to Look Wide
When we start exploring our past, we may come upon a lot of negative memories, thanks to our inherent negativity bias, and to the fact that we hang on to emotion-laden events. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman says that this is how our “remembering self” pieces together the story of our lives. If we wish for an unbiased and empowering story, we need to step back and ask ourselves: “Am I focusing on a single aspect of my early years?” “Is there something I’m not paying attention to?” Consciously jogging our memory allows us to remember positive events that may have washed over us, and then savor them to strengthen their place in our stories.
Step 3: Have the Curiosity to Look Again
Often we can be quick to jump to conclusions when making sense of our past. Connecting the dots gives our brain a dopamine kick—regardless of whether we connected them correctly or not. So it’s essential to look again. And again. We’re incapable of entering the vast unknown of our subconscious mind, and making sense of it in haste. It’s the work of a lifetime—and approaching it with the same curiosity with which we once roamed the woods can be the most liberating experience of all.
If your mind keeps going back to the past, or your mojo’s gone missing and you can’t progress towards your goals, perhaps it’s time to take the journey inwards. For in those mystic streets and alleys of your past, you’ll find your freedom. Freedom not of your past, but from the tentacles that kept you attached to it. Freedom not from your story, but from the fear that keeps you from embracing it. And freedom to take in life’s pains and joys, yours and those of others, and find meaning because of your past, and not in spite of it
This article was originally published in Happify and reprinted in The Muse before appearing here.