I’ll see it when I believe it
This is Part 2 of a two-part post on a different way to think about passion. You can find Part 1 here. In Part 1 I claimed that the journey towards self-actualization is the more fundamental journey in life. Once we set foot upon that journey, passion will reveal itself along the way. We just need to see it.
George Mumford was a drug addict. Plagued with injuries while chasing his basketball dream in high school, the drugs were initially a relief from pain. Soon enough the relief became the norm, and reality became an abnormal state to be escaped. Defeated by his injuries, never fully letting go of the dream to play in the NBA, George Mumford withered away at his day job as a financial analyst. Ten years later he was working with the championship-bound Chicago Bulls, mentoring the players and the organization in everything from mindfulness and focus to baby mama drama and general advice.
George Mumford hit rock bottom, joined the AA, and scraped together the chutzpah to quit his job. He set out on a correction course, committed to a daily spiritual practice, got a Masters in counseling psychology, and taught mindfulness and meditation to inmates in prisons in the Northeast. When Michael Jordan retired to play baseball in 1993, Phil Jackson sought help for the disarrayed team; he found it in George Mumford, whose skills he continued to lean on for the remainder of his time with the Bulls, the Lakers, and the Knicks today.
This is not how Mumford pictured his life at the age of 14 while in high school, or 24 while at a dead-end job. But it is where his quest for self-actualization brought him. Is this the only possible passion he could have found? Probably not. But it’s honest, fulfilling, and has defined and given meaning to his life.
As Mumford mentions in his book The Mindful Athlete, it’s the very opposite of the aphorism “I’ll believe it when I see it” that rings true in life — you will actually see it when you believe it. The kind of change that turns one from a substance abuser to a man with a fulfilling career requires a strong shift in perception — and this requires believing far before there is any seeing.
The crux of this concept is conviction. Call it faith, call it trust, but you must believe in the self-actualization journey that you set out upon. As Muhammad Ali has said, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” The champ was the champ for a reason.
Critical caveat: faith without wisdom is blind faith. This is not what I mean. Conviction should be informed by wisdom. Fortunately, humans have been thinking about self-actualization for quite some time, and there are a number of frameworks that provide more than enough kindling to start the fire of self-discovery. None of these frameworks is “wisdom” as is. They are a starter kit to set out upon some experience. It is your living this experience and drawing conclusions from it that crystallizes into wisdom. And it is this wisdom that can then inform the conviction in your quest for self-actualization.
Below are some of the frameworks that provide actionable steps towards self-actualization.
A group of nomadic herders known as Aryans migrated to the Indian subcontinent around 1500 BCE., and a fusion of culture between the Aryans and the existing Indus Valley civilization led to what we know today as Hinduism. Its basic precepts are codified in a collection of texts known as the Vedas. Two different subcultures — brahmanism and asceticism — led to a radiant spectrum of meditation, mystical, and yoga practices. A key to the Hindu conceptualization of the world is Brahman, or ultimate reality. Whereas Brahman is a universal force/field/dimension/energy that permeates all that is and is not, Atman is the manifestation of Brahman in each individual, connecting each of us to a greater, fundamental whole.
Actionable item: While yoga is now common in the Western zeitgeist, learning about the philosophy and teachings it’s based on can be very helpful in getting more out of the experience. The breathing systems inherent to most yoga practices are an excellent way to calm the mind, center yourself, and create space for insight. Contemplating the Brahman/Atman dualism is a great way to forge a sense of connection to other humans and the world at large.
Out of the ascetic subculture of Hinduism, one group become far more popular than others. From the traditional account of Siddhartha Gautama’s life, he was the son of a ruler of a small state in modern-day Nepal, born in the 6th century BCE. He was highly shielded from the outside world as a child, and in an attempt to escape this bubble, left his family and spent years living alone or with various ascetic groups. He sought a way to escape suffering, which he saw as endemic to life. After experiencing both the excesses of luxury and the bodily pain of extreme asceticism and deprivation, he settled on a middle path that allowed him to reach a state of nirvana, an existence similar to Brahman. The various methods he used to reach liberation from suffering are enumerated in The Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, and later writings and commentary.
Actionable item: As with yoga, meditation has made great inroads into the West. So much so that the new Apple Watch will have a simple breathing app. Simply sitting down and breathing can lead to tremendous progress in our ability to cultivate clarity of thought and insight. Learning about the different approaches to meditation and getting a coach or finding a group to meditate will help to establish the habit.
The founding of the Taoist school in China is traditionally attributed to Lao Tzu in the 6th-4th centuries BCE. A short book called the Tao Te Ching contains most of the core ideas of Taoism. The key concept is Tao, which can be approximated as the unknowable source of all things, the “way” that brings everything into existence. It is similar to Brahman, with the major difference that it does not have a counterpart to Atman — it remains ultimate and mysterious, without individual manifestation. Living the Tao encompasses embracing life as continuously changing, flowing from one state to another; it is recognizing the yin and the yang in everything — nothing is absolute; it is living a harmonious, balanced life. There are a number of practices that have arisen over the millennia to help disciples internalize the ideas in the Tao Te Ching and later texts; some are quite esoteric, but all share the concept of reflecting and meditating upon the truths laid out in the texts.
Actionable item: The Tao Te Ching is absolutely overflowing with nuggets of wisdom. Taking the time to read one or two of these short sayings, and then contemplate them, can lead to an orthogonal perspective that changes the way we look at familiar things. This leads to a clarity of thought that informs our conscious and subconscious thought processes, and can be especially useful in getting out of a rut, whether it’s personal, professional, or emotional.
The Stoic philosophy was founded in Athens in 3rd century BCE. Its disciples saw Stoicism as a way of life. These included the Roman statesman Seneca and emperor Marcus Aurelius. The core tenet of Stoicism is the understanding that it is possible, through discipline and practice, to rein in emotions. Once a control over emotions is established, the person is no longer bound by its vagaries, and achieves a transcendental freedom. This freedom is the faculty behind the phrase that has now entered common Western parlance, “Stoic calm”. A natural consequence of this core tenet is the idea that a person who has sufficiently mastered emotions can fully choose his or her response to anything that occurs in the outside world. For example, Seneca draws on this inner calm when he is exiled. This impregnable tranquility is not unlike that granted by the meditation practice of Buddhist teachings, a similarity that is noted in the theory of the Axial Age.
Actionable item: Learning to control our emotional response and cultivating an internal tranquility is a very useful tool for dealing with events in life that are out of our control. Whether it’s a manager at work, a natural disaster, or an election cycle, this internal calm will lead to more effective decision making and lower stress.
This philosophy of life was founded by Epicurus in the 4th century BCE in ancient Greece. In one of the most unfortunate misnomers in history, the fundamental maxim of Epicureanism is the antithesis of the meaning of the modern word “epicurean”. While the latter means leading a life of luxury and indulgence, the philosophy advocates the opposite — leading a modest life that keeps desires and indulgences in check. In Epicurus’s view, this is the way of life that leads to happiness.
Actionable item: Pursuing anything worthwhile takes patience and grit. Internalizing Epicureanism’s core lesson — discipline is an integral part of a good life — will help to accept discipline as not only an important, but an enjoyable part of life. This goes a long way towards achieving whatever goals you set for yourself.
Consider these a sample platter — you may try what you like and order more of the one that best pleases your palate. These are some of the more accessible and familiar frameworks for self-actualization that I have come across. There are many more, and none is the right or wrong approach. What matters is what works for you, which means you must be your own, and the only, judge. I encourage you to take a step onto any of these paths and see where it may lead.
I will bet that if you give it an honest, authentic effort, it might just lead you to discover what it is that you love doing. It has for me.