Newborns are dependent on people for survival. From birth, until we leave our parents’ home, we grow in independence, learning from those around us. But, what’s often left out of our education is learning to go inside. Influencers in our orbit miss or learn the lesson too late to share with us. Even so, the world’s accumulated wisdom maps the path to the inner life. Socrates says that life is a continuous journey of self-examination. Every phase of life is about learning. If we stop learning through self-reflection, we deny our potential and the peace that comes from self-awareness and acceptance.
Babies take in their surroundings with curiosity, much like dogs smell everything in nose reach. They cry when you take away something they have not finished exploring, like puppies resisting the leash’s pull.
Children thirst for information. “Where does the sun go at night? Why can’t we grow sausages instead of vegetables?”
Teenagers’ world is searching for their own space, finding a pod of friends, and contemplating a world without their parents’ firewalls.
Adulthood is about the externals, and we find ways to feel “alive” without an inner life, but it never lasts. Our struggles mount, and defeat pours down like rain and hail. Sunny days give way to clouds.
Entering old age without an inner life, we risk feeling dead long before we run out of time. But first, what does it even mean to have an inner life, and how do you claim it? We all have an inner life, but can’t feel it because our mind is making too much noise. My first glance was through our living room’s glass doors, my father, sitting in solitude reflecting and reclaiming his inner space (humanness, spirit), rooting his soul in something larger than himself. The journey inside is never about new vistas, but new eyes to see. Today, I see my husband journeying the same path, reconciling himself with losses and finding something truer than the ever-present ego.
You are not dead yet, it’s not too late
To open your depths by plunging in
and drink this life
that reveals itself quietly there.—Rainer Maria Rilke
Going inside means a willingness to face the black as tar human pain that threatens to devour us. It rouses emotions we want left undisturbed. It’s why I continue to say that I wish I could un-watch Sophie’s Choice. On our recent travels back to Florida, Tim and I stopped in Chattanooga to meet our 22-year-old-granddaughter. I asked Liz if she’d enjoyed the autobiography I’d sent her, Epic Solitude. She liked the book until the author, Katherine Keith, made a horrendously bad decision. “I couldn’t continue,” Liz confessed. Driving through the Blue Ridge region of Georgia, thinking of what Liz said, I realized that I’d had the same reaction—too painful to process. Epic Solitude is her amma’s Sophie’s Choice.
Aging and dying well means to become acquainted with our inner life, and it takes practice and courage. It means falling and getting up again and again. It means coming to terms with all the moments when we failed others. When we lacked courage to stand up for truth and justice. We take off our self-protective cover and feel the rough edges of our being. Edges with names like racism and death itself. It’s seeing ourselves in bright light instead of the more agreeable soft LED. We come to understand that what is most sacred doesn’t lie outside; it lies within. The fixed self is illusionary and transient. Our true being is the flowing energy we feel inside. It’s not our looks or the look of our possessions. This innermost being is our essence, a collage of awareness, emotions, joy, and sadness.
The path to wholeness is to find who we are without the disguise our ego has created. We strip away the lies we’ve told ourselves to hide our shortcomings. We take down the walls we erected to keep others from knowing who we are. Public speaking is not our number one dreaded fear. It’s going inside and sorting through the mess we call life and taking a broom to the cobwebs to face what’s hidden. It’s the courage to be open to everything we find. For slow learners like me, it means repeating, failing, repeating, and failing —grateful when I notice that the period between the two has grown.
We discover our inner journey when we stop searching for the next moment. Instead, we take in the view right where we are, the rotten and the delicious. Religion and rituals can help transport us to the inner self to “the peace that passes all understanding.” This solitary voyage back to the real us. I hear this truth in Psalm 46:10, Be still, and know that I am God. I also hear it in the ocean waves, the birds chirping, and see it in a child’s smile. The Buddha called his teachings a raft to carry us across the river to our inner self. Once we find the Island of Self, we will never be lost again. We may stray, but our intuitive GPS brings us back.
The inner place is any moment we remain in the present. It happens when we take breaks from the voices in our head, when we wash our hands or sit on a park bench. Instead of thinking about what to do next, we do what we are doing now. Slowly, we build a path that creates a habit that brings us home.
In his book, When Breath Becomes Air, Paul, who is on the verge of completing his neurosurgery training, learns death is knocking at his door. His inner journey will be a short climb, his backpack courage and candor.
“Why was I so authoritative in a surgeon’s coat but so meek in a patient’s gown?” he asks himself. “I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a nice catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends. I could see myself finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be.”
To pursue the inner life is to finally be fully human. We no longer feel scandalized or judgmental of other people’s lives stories. We no longer fear life or death. There is no escaping our imperfections, no exit, or adventure that promises eternal reprieve from pain. We feel what we feel, stick with what we see, and from this inner space, we connect with our wisdom mind, our soul, the energy that binds us to others. We become a better person, a better listener, soft to the suffering of others.
Friendship with ones self is all important, because without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.—Eleanor Roosevelt
- Podcast: Meditative Stories “My funny, feisty, thoughtful brave girl,” Lucy Kalanithi (Keith’s wife speak of life after his death)
- Teaching a Stone to Speak, poem, Annie Dillard
- When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
- Epic Solitude: A Story of Survival and a Quest for meaning in the Far North, Katherine Keith