“The best project you’ll ever work on is you.”
I know this popular saying means well, but there’s one thing it’s got wrong:
You’re not a project.
You’re a living, breathing, human being. You’re not something that can be finished, or turned in to be graded. You’re not meant to be worked on for a brief period of time, only to be forgotten about the day after you were “due.”
And yet, that’s exactly how we treat ourselves in the “real world.”
Most of us only work on ourselves for a short time, and when we don’t see any results, we stop. We give up and put the project away, tired of waiting to find out how we did.
We focus so much on outer success, pushing ourselves to do more, be more, achieve more, and earn more, that we forget completely that there’s a whole inner world that also needs to be attended to.
And attending to that inner world is actually the key to “success” in the outer world.
But it’s a whole different type of success than we’re used to.
A few years ago, I was living and working as an English teacher in South Korea.
In my second year there, I became aware that I was deeply unhappy, but trying to put on a brave face and pretend like I was okay so I wouldn’t upset anyone or make them worry.
I knew that with each passing day, I was plunging deeper into darkness and despair. Each day became harder and harder, and each day I dreaded waking up a little bit more.
I’d started to hate my job, and I couldn’t be bothered with any of the things I used to find enjoyable. Walking on the beach, going for a hike in the mountains, or hanging out with my friends on weekends all seemed like too much effort. I didn’t have the energy, or the interest.
One day, I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I was sick and tired of my life being a chore that I didn’t want to do. I was tired of not feeling anything, of going through life numb. It was monotonous, bleak, and soul-crushing.
I didn’t want to live like this anymore. I couldn’t bear to live like this anymore. Life was miserable, and I constantly felt tortured by the toxic mix of negative thoughts brooding and festering in my mind.
I knew I needed help.
I don’t know when it first began, but a long time ago, I started to become aware of this nagging sense in me that there must be more to life than this.
I’d look around me, and I’d see people living in a way that just didn’t seem that fun to me. They always seemed to have something to complain about: the weather, the government, the bills that wouldn’t stop coming, their boss, their co-worker, their neighbour, a politician.
It seemed that people bonded over unhappiness. They’d happily share their stresses, their worries, and their problems, when all it seemed to do was make them more gloomy.
They’d rush about, always keeping busy, always talking about how busy they were, and how they “didn’t have time” for this or that. There were more important things to do, and they were driven to do them.
These messages began to mix with the messages I’d receive in the media and at school about beauty, happiness, success, and what it takes to attain all these things.
Eventually, I began to wonder:
Is this really all I have to look forward to?
I secretly hoped there must be a better way, but I didn’t know what that way was.
I’d never known anything else, and nobody around me seemed to be immune to this “normal” way of living: unhappy, unhealthy, broke, and stressed.
So I followed in their footsteps, thinking they must know something I don’t. After all, everyone was doing it.
Fast forward to Korea, and everything I’d begun to pick up on seemed to be 100 times more pronounced and in my face.
My seven-year-old girl students were asking me if I thought they were beautiful. My own boss told me I should wear makeup more often, because I looked better when I did. Competition between students about their parents’ job titles, how much money they made, and where they lived wasn’t uncommon. Being over-scheduled with studying and other activities to the point of exhaustion and frustration was normal, even amongst my youngest students. They’d come to school looking depleted.
At the time, all of this was shocking to me. It seemed unjust that such young kids were already facing such “grown-up” problems, and it made me unsettled.
Of course, I now realize that all of this was present in my own country and culture as well; it just wasn’t quite as obvious and “out there,” in your face. It was more of a silent knowing.
These fixations weren’t unique to South Korea — their culture was just more blunt about it. Us Canadians tiptoe around the fact that we feel all the same pressures and suffer from all the same longings — to be beautiful, successful, happy, etc.
In reality, it was the perfect set up.
Being injected into a culture so vastly different from the one I grew up in was so confronting that it brought the pain in me up to the surface. I couldn’t hide from it anymore. It was there, staring me down, intimidating me to my very core.
Going through this wasn’t an easy time in my life, but good did come out of it.
The gift in this experience was the fact that it brought me to a new understanding that there is another way to live!
We don’t have to be unhappy all the time. We don’t have to wake up with dread, or live in fear, or expect the worst. We don’t have to constantly strive for things, or pit ourselves against others. We don’t have to struggle, and be in pain.
And that way is to focus more on the inner world.
As Vernon Howard says, “Self-awakening must be the first and foremost business in anyone’s life. Otherwise, he falls into one pit after another without knowing why.”
All of the great spiritual teachers on the planet have pointed to the inner life in order to find freedom.
Become more aware of what’s going on inside you, and be willing to examine it — the thoughts, the feelings, the reactions to the world and others.
Once we learn to see ourselves as separate from our thoughts and emotions, they no longer have power over us. They no longer get to control our lives, dictating what we’re capable of and how happy we get to be.
Byron Katie often says that everything you need for your freedom is already inside you.
You just need to be brave enough to look.
And then, continue to look — because inner freedom is a lifelong project, but it’s the best project you’ll ever work on.