~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Following Your North Star

May 25, 2019
You stand at a new beginning. Perhaps you are graduating from high school, or choosing a college, or contemplating a career move, or heading toward retirement. Or maybe you have a sense that your life needs a course correction and you are ready to take a leap into something new.

Here's what I want you to know: The world is eager to tell you how to live. Our society is filled with voices telling you what other people think you should do and who other people think you should be. There are business and schools and politicians who have a lot riding on you following their lead, on you buying their products, and on you buying into their ideas about what a successful life looks like.

What college should you go to? The best one you can get in to, according to someone else's definition of what best means. What job should you take? The one with the highest paycheck in the trendiest city, preferably the one that elicits the most nods of approval and admiration from others. What sport should you play and what vacation should you take? The photographic ones that produce enviable action shots that elicit admiring comments on your Instagram feed.

From our earliest days on the planet we are influenced by subliminal pressures to conform, to achieve, to step into someone else's version of good, better and best. We are quietly led to believe that we were born not quite good enough but that if we try a little harder according to someone else's rules, we'll be okay. We are offered pats on the back and trophies and then degrees and paychecks that instruct us on what the world deems most successful and most worthy. We sometimes even fall victim to those who resort to fear-mongering in order to keep us on the straight and narrow paths they think we should travel.

The digital world - with its likes and dislikes, tweets and retweets, invisible friends and anonymous critics - has only added to the crushing sense that we are losing ownership of our own lives. Sometimes those outside voices are so incessant that we forget they are even there. They become so tightly woven into our lives that we can no longer tell the difference between our desires, our passions, our happiness, and the world's.

Don't listen! Don't be a lemming! Don't take what the greater world puts on your plate with without a second thought. Don't be the fool the conventional world wants you to be, following the well-worn and well-marked paths that others have laid out for you. If you do, some day you are likely to end up looking back and wondering why you decided to live someone else's version of a good life instead of your very own.

Right here and right now, at this turning point, you have an opportunity to take back your life. You are in the ideal position to consider what brings you happiness, what gives you meaning, what offers you peace. This is your chance to decide for yourself who you will become and how you will spend your days. Now is the time to find your own footing, to plant yourself in the fertile soil of your own life, and to bloom into your own fullest being.

So go ahead, hear out your parents, your family, your wisest mentors and friends. Listen to what they have to say. Smile as they share their stories and offer you advice. Nod your head so they know they have been heard. Promise them that you will be okay.

And then take a deep breath, and turn and walk away.

Go outside. Look around. Feel the fresh air on your cheeks. Take a deep breath in, and then let a huge sigh of relief spill out of you. Open your eyes to the amazements all around. Listen for the birds. Linger on the colors. Set your gaze on the farthest horizon.

Go small for a little while. Lie down in the grass like you did when you were a child, and watch the clouds slip across the clean blue sky. Or plop yourself down on the closest bench, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of life. Or, perhaps, be like Thoreau and head off into the woods in search of some greater peace. Open yourself to the vastness and vitality of the world all around you, to the steadiness of the earth and the promise of the sky above.

Relax every muscle in your body. Exhale, and then exhale some more. Let go of the tightness of your fears, the weight of expectations, the suffocation of perfectionism, all the heavy shoulds you have been carrying around for years. Invite everything inessential spill away, like rocks tumbling off the cliffs of your body.

Crane your neck upward and imagine the millions of miles of space above you. Keep imagining - through the clouds and the blue sky, up through the darkness to the moon, through the spinning planets, the far edges of the solar system, through the milky way, and beyond.

Keep going until you sense how infinitesimally small you are amid the enormity of the world. Keep going until you see how beautifully minuscule this one turning point of your life really is. Keep going until you sense that you are just one teeny tiny light amid an infinite strand of lights that make up the world, no more and no less than any other light that shines. Keep going until you sense that as long as you keep shining, what happens to you next makes little difference in the arc of the whole wide world.

Linger here in the smallness and the vastness, in the spinning and the silence, until you sense the voices of the outer world growing quiet, until you sense your own head beginning to clear. Stay here until you feel your frozenness and  fear melt away. Stay here until you know in your bones that you are good enough, and that whether you go left or right, you will still be wholly you. Stay here until you sense that what matter most isn't your job title or your salary but rather that you live fully and deeply, that you shine brightly and live with whole heart, before you die.

From this place of quiet and calm, ask yourself what brings you alive, what lifts you up, what matters most. What fills you with a sense of purpose and presence? What brings you joy, what brings you love, what brings you peace? How will you live this gift of a life that you have so generously been given?

If you haven't looked inside for a while, gleaning a response from the depths of your being might take a while. Keep at it, though, for now is the perfect time to reacquaint yourself with who you are and how you want to live. What would you do if you were given an afternoon - or a month, or a year - with absolutely no obligation? What childhood passions brought you deep pleasure and delight, and might still bring you alive today? And when you are on your deathbed - hopefully a very long time from now - what will you have been most thankful for, most proud of, most happy to have been called your own?

Wait patiently for an answer.  Eventually the shy voice of wisdom will make itself known. Visions of what you love most and who you want to be will shine up from within, pointing you in the direction of your truest self, your deepest passions, your own true north.

Go deeper than job titles and cities and names. Open your field of vision wider than that. Is it creativity that brings you alive? Or the thrill of discovery - new places, new visions, new ideas? Does figuring things out set your soul on fire? Or attempting the impossible? Maybe your heart's greatest desire is to add beauty to the world through music or dance or poetry or painting, Maybe children lift you up, or animals, or long rambles through ancient woods filled with rare and unusual creatures. Or perhaps you never sleep better than on a day when you've righted a wrong or lifted up another soul.

Don't be surprised if the answers you hear aren't at all what you expected. Don't be surprised if your answers aren't the conventional ones. And don't be surprised if your answers aren't the most glorified or even the most respectable in the eyes of the outer world. But listen, nonetheless. There's only one person in the world who knows what will bring you happiness and fulfillment. There's only one person who can tell you how to lead an authentic life. Your time here is too brief and too precious to waste on someone else's dreams and truths. Welcome to you, and welcome to your life.

When you've found that shining steadiness within, promise yourself that you will never forsake it, that you will hold it close, and that you will carry it forward with you back into the world of action. Commit to living your very own life - the life that turns on all the lights in the house - from this breath forward.

How will you do that? That is up to you. Maybe you'll discover that the direction you were heading is already a perfect fit for you. Or maybe you'll swerve from the path you thought was yours and try on another life for a bit. Maybe you'll don the dark suit and head to Wall Street after all, or maybe you'll pull your backpack out of your closet and head to Kathmandu. Whatever you choose, it will be your adventure, your journey, your opportunity to call forth your greatest gifts in a way that brings both you and the world happiness and peace.

I do have one hint to guide you as you plot your next chapter: When we look back on our lives, on what has brought us meaning, what has brought us joy and what has brought out the best in us, we likely won't name the titles of our jobs, the addresses where we've lived, or the dollars that we've earned. In the end, it is our relationships that will have mattered most.

It is that trip we took to Europe with the friend we met in Kindergarten that will fill our hearts with happiness. It is that roommate who at first seemed so different, but whom we learned to treasure. It is the beautifully - and sometimes beautifully difficult - adventure of being a member of a family that holds itself together through thick and through thin. It is the joy of creating a new family, in whatever form that takes, to shepherd through the world with tenderness and care.

Our job here on earth isn't to cultivate a life of meaning and happiness for ourselves alone. It is to shine in ways that light up the world around us, too. It is to hold our bonds with others at the center of our lives, to love deeply and love well. For it is love that binds us together, love that points us beyond ourselves, and love that carries us through both the shining and the tragic moments of our lives.

Every authentic life flourishes from within. But every life worth living ends in the hearts of others. No one wants to eat their birthday cake alone. And chocolate always tastes better when it is shared.

So as you find your way, guided by your own north star, always reach out to others and err on the side of inclusion. Make connections, widen the circle of your life, and offer your gifts to others. Once you've found what brings your life into living color, and once you've cultivated the courage to live that vibrant life, then harness that energy to serve the world in some beautiful, meaningful way.

There is no one right way to live a life. There are only choices that bring us fully alive and allow us to flourish, and also choices that shut us down and disconnect us from our deepest loves. There are only moments that are ours to fill, and how we choose to fill them becomes who we are. The real journey is the journey inward where we discover our secret center - our own north star within - the place from which we shine most brightly and bloom into our most illuminated selves.

You are already good enough, deserving of the life you are meant to lead. You have all the wisdom you need to find your way with happiness and grace. All you need to do is take one step forward, and then another, and then another. Where your steps take you matters less than how you choose to live them. As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, wrote. "Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking."

One step at a time, one breath at a time, one moment at a time. Live with whole heart and an open mind. Follow the adventures that awaken your deepest passions. Trust your steady legs and your strong and tender heart. Shine brightly. Extend your arms wide out to the horizons. Love generously. Cultivate friendship everywhere. Serve others. Spread kindness and goodwill to all.

And never stray too far from the wisdom that already lies within you. Keep your eyes open and your heart clear. Stay true to your own north star, and never waver from the path that is yours, from the life that only you can live.

I wish you great happiness and deep love as you move forward into the next adventure of your life. May you live a life of meaning and delight, of depth and passion, of beauty and peace. May each day be filled with laughter to buoy you, adventure to inspire you, ideas to challenge you, peace to sustain you and an unending supply of that vital and shimmering love that illuminates all of our days.


I've been asked for a PDF version of this essay for easy printing and sharing. Here it is!