The aphorism, ‘Know thyself’, inscribed in the forecourt of the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, has had many interpretations. But in the Socratic dialogues recorded by Plato, there is a clear message that we need to understand ourselves in order to have understanding of and empathy towards others. The ability to reflect on ourselves with honesty and insight is fundamental to understanding the human condition.Writers are those who are in position to elucidate the human condition. And if we are to do this with responsibility and integrity, we need to have some insight into ourselves, not as an exercise in narcissistic naval-gazing, but in order to connect deeply to others, Others who are just as flawed, just as complex, just as human, whatever their similarities and differences.
Changing the story
There is never a time when story is not urgent, but it may well be that we currently stand on a threshold in history. It may be no exaggeration to say that the relatively short-term will determine whether our species, and many other parts of our planet, survives.
- Rainforests are being burnt for profit.
- Natural resources are squandered daily.
- Far-right politics are on the rise around the globe.
- The seas are filling with plastic waste.
- Hate crime, every kind of discrimination and racism are commonplace.
- Manipulation of fear or greed is replacing any pretence of ethical business practices in many arenas.
- The consumerist cry of ‘more, more, more’ is increasingly shrill and desperate.
In such a climate our survival, and beyond mere survival — active thriving — demands that we tell new stories, about ourselves, our communites and our world. New stories begin with writers. WE need writers who are self-reflective and able to rise above their own fears and projections, writers able to help whole cultures dream, imagine and live new stories.
Change always starts with story. And the first and most profound change any of us can make is to ourselves, letting this change effect how we relate to others and to the world.
We’re still in the New Year period and in my last blog I talked about about how to do less and be more by living a more value-centric rather than living according ‘to do’ lists. This entails living more slowly and attentively. It entails living in a rhythm that better matches the planet we belong to in order to cultivate a sense of abundance, gratitude and connection.
In short, it entails rethinking your quest not as a list of things to achieve in 2020, but in terms of who you want to be at this point in your journey.
Don’t do the quest, be the quest
Being the quest isn’t simply about an internal story that can be lived out through journalling, recording our own thoughts and dreams and writing lists of things we’re grateful for in life.
Instead it demands a different rhythm in our lives. This rhythm is one that pulses between how we think and what we embody. It holds in tension the inner work of knowing ourselves with the outer connections to people we love, the communities we live in, how we relate to people we work with and all the decisions we make daily about consumption, travel, what we eat… It is the heartbeat that moves between being and doing, keeping the inner work and the outer expression in equilibrium.
But what is essential is that no part of this rhythm should be extrinsic. What does that mean?
It means that every milestone or goal along your quest, whether it is about keeping a dream journal or donating time to a community project, should arise from who you are. It should be integral to you.
The things we are and do that are intrinsically motivated are also deeply authentic, even if they are not perfectly lived out or fully embodied. You don’t need to wait until you’re a mythical perfect person before you start or play a major role in a local community garden but what you do should flow from who you are. This is why our stories matter — those we live and those we write.
When what we do flows from who we are, even if that ‘being’ is only aspirational at this stage, then a feedback loop begins and what we do in turn reinforces and confirms who we are, giving us more confidence to live with integrity and generosity. This is how transformation happens. This is how stories change.
Being the quest doesn’t have to be the opposite of action
Who we are is pivotal. The ‘know thyself’ of the Delphic oracle is foundational, but it’s not an end point. We are always on the journey and along the path, even at its most interior, we will need to make connections.
Western thinking is often dualistic in nature. We think in terms of good versus bad, rationality versus emotion, being and doing. Sometimes we need to focus on an area of life in order to make decisions or just to get through the day, but when we make these short-hands into hard categories that oppose each other, we get caught in false dichotomies that limit the stories we live out.
Thinking about this for the start of a New Year, I did lots of journalling to come up with three words that summarised the point I’m currently at in my quest.
1. Defining the quest
For me, the quest is about how to live by:
What are the principles that define the quest you are currently on?
One of my friends who works in mental health and sees a lot of dismissive practices that hurt people has a quest for gentleness. Another person I’m close to and who is a political activist is on a quest for deep listening and radical change.
If the story of the world is going to change we need a huge harmony of voices with their intrinsically motivated quests adding to the complexity of the narrative.
But we also need these quests to make a difference. That doesn’t mean we all have to be activists or campaigners but the passions for connection, gentleness, listening … have to make it beyond our thoughts and dreams. There isn’t a choice between being kind and doing kind things, the two go hand in hand.
2. From quests to strategies
So, together with quests, we need strategies. I wrote a bit about mine in my last blog — the strategies I need in order to live out the quest for abundance, gratitude and connection are to become someone who:
- cultivates radical generosity
- lives slowly, with more simplicity
- connects with others (human and …) and asks for help
- celebrates the good of each day
- dives deeply into creativity and the internal story
- remembers to be bodiful and move
- focusses on healing and vitality — on what nourishes
If your quest currently centres on courage and patience, what strategies will you need to translate those values into how you live? Having strategies will stop the quests becoming simply a cerebral exercise. It won’t mean you’ll instantly become a new person, but it will give your values concrete steps that you can take, however slowly, to realise them a little more each day, or to start again with tomorrow.
What strategies do you need to adopt to realise your quests?
And of course, when you have these strategies, they will be all the more concrete if they have focus.
3. From strategies to daily life
Even with strategies, it’s easy for all of this to be a paper exercise unless we apply it to how we live day to day. We all have things that need to get done. Some of us are parents to small children or have caring responsibilities. Some of us have work, mortgages or food to provide. Some of us have commitments to courses of study or relationships or to finishing a manuscript.
When we make being and doing into antagonists, then daily life can be perceived as onerous. The things we do to hold body and soul together or to care for others can be denigrated as chores that keep us from living slowly and connecting deeply. But we don’t have to buy into that dualistic way of thinking.
I’m someone who can easily convince myself I don’t have time to exercise, with the added notion that taking time out to exercise won’t pay any bills. But clearly, if I’m out of condition, I’m more lethargic, more likely to get minor illnesses, whereas when I’m exercising regularly I have more energy and work more efficiently. Additionally, if I’m over-working, I’m more likely to get into unhealthy cycles of stress, overwhelm and becoming reactive in how I work, none of which benefits the work I do.
Stepping back, taking time to breathe and stretch, doing yoga, taking a break to be hydrated and refreshed make me more creative, more focussed, more embodied and still enable me to live that bit more slowly.
The tasks we have in our daily lives can either by in opposition to our quests and strategies or they can flow into one another.
Think about the areas of your life. I divided mine into seven areas:
- My family and key relationships
- Home and domestic concerns
- Work — for me co-running Cinnamon Press
- New work — my blog and courses
- Writing — whether daily journalling or larger projects
- Learning — the courses I’m involved in — currently aromatherapy and herbalism
- Self nurture — from eating to exercise, mediation to leisure
What are your areas?
How can you make your quests and strategies flow into these areas so that they in turn give you energy and creativity to hone the strategies, constantly making fine adjustments?
When the quests flow into strategies for who you want to be which flow into how you actually live which flow back into the story you are beoming which deepens your quest then you are in a cycle of transformation. The quests become ways of being. The ways of being become daily tasks which reflect back into your ways of being …
Instead of a hierarchy in which our daily lives are the dregs at the bottom of the life we’d rather have, we enter a continual cycle of deepening our appreciation of the life we have and the ways in which this actual life can make a difference to the world.
Living more attentively is about finding the resonance between being and doing rather than artificially dividing them. This doesn’t mean we should stuff our lives with doing too much. Most of us need to do less and be more. Many of us have too many distractions and need to eliminate things from our life that drain us and are not congruent with who we want to become. But within those activities that matter to us, we can set up a different relationship between actions and existence; one that nurtures and energises, one that sets up a constant flow. Above all, one in which you are the quest, intrinsically motivated to play your part in changing the story of the world.
What defines your quest in 2020?
What strategies will you need to live this quest?
How will your quest and your strategies flow into your daily life?
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to be part of a community of writers diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, I’d love to work with you in 2020. You’ll find lots more information on my site about the weekly emails, monthly themes and online workshops as well as a special offer. Or simply sign up to my email list to join the conversation.
Marina Sanchez says
Thank you Jan, for the clarity & grounding of your Quest blog.
I really appreciate the steps & areas you suggest in order to make our aspirations for 2020 a reality.
Heart-felt thank you
I love your blog posts and I love sharing in your journey. Thank you.
The fusion between being and doing makes so much sense to me. I’ve reached a point in my life where the two seem very much connected, although I need a much greater degree of self-honesty (being able to admit my flaws, weaknesses, lack of skills – being able to laugh at myself).
You remind me of things that matter and you help me not to feel unworthy. You remind me of the gifts within and around us and that, no matter how dark the world gets, there is an impulse, always, for goodness. And that impulse doesn’t have to be selfish.
Thank you so much, Lizzie
Self honesty is a constant reset button for all of us, I think – but we persist 🙂 an being able to laugh at our own hubris and busrt our own bullb es is a u=huge part of that. So much can conspire to make us feel ‘not enough’, can’t it, which is why I think radical kindness to hte self is not selfishness but simply owning that if if we are full of self doubt then we’re likely to doubt others too. I love what you say about the impulse of goodness 🙂 Thank you.