We all have times in our lives when we are confused about our path and which way forward.
We can have the most satisfying career, great relationships, and financial security but sometimes we feel there is something more, something we are missing.
A question that has been asked by so many comes to mind. What am I doing with my life? What am I here for? It is an existential angst common to so many of us.
This is the perfect time to do some soul searching.
It is the time to reflect on your meaning and purpose in life, on your values and really look objectively at your life as it currently is.
It is not something you can do fully with your intellectual mind, but you need to use all your intelligences to look within.
It is definitely not navel grazing and not to be confused with the over-thinking and ruminating mind.
Learning to master wayward mental processes brings with it a sense of mastery and the few if only brief moments that this can be done can contribute to a sense of wellbeing and acceptance of everything.
It brings with it the knowledge that life is as it is meant to be.
There is a form of wellbeing called eudaimonic happiness. It is derived from the Greek words eu, meaning good, and daimon meaning soul or self.
This form of happiness does not depend on external circumstances but rather comes from the inner self. It is actually about what we contribute to life rather than what we get out of it.
How to begin soul searching
1) Spend some time alone
A good place to start on some soul searching is spending some time on your own.
You need to have some time when you haven’t got a long to do list, or at least you have put it to the side.
In many ways, you can forget about time altogether. Be present to where you are at and to yourself.
According to Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D. in Psychology Today:
“Constantly being “on” doesn’t give your brain a chance to rest and replenish itself. Being by yourself with no distractions gives you the chance to clear your mind, focus, and think more clearly. It’s an opportunity to revitalize your mind and body at the same time.”
For many people spending time alone can feel strange. We are so used to this frenetic, connected world that even if we are by ourselves, we are checking our emails and social media.
It is so important when you embark on a soul-searching journey you disconnect from technology.
Turn off your devices and put them out of your sight. Actually, it can be very empowering to do this.
2) Be kind to yourself
A great prelude to soul searching is practicing some self-compassion. Being kind to ourselves is an extremely powerful tool in developing our inner wellbeing.
We are all very good at berating ourselves when we make mistakes. Our inner critic loves to let us know when we have messed up and is an expert at doing that.
Dr Kristin Neff, a well-known researcher on this topic, describes three elements of self-compassion.
The first two are mindfulness and kindness. The third element is common humanity. Suffering is what unites us with every human being on the planet.
Self-compassion recognizes that suffering and personal inadequacies are part of the shared human experience.
Reminding ourselves that it is all something we go through rather than thinking it is something that happens to ‘me’ alone is reassuring and helps us feel connected with others.
Practicing self-compassion is not indulging ourselves. In fact, by being open-hearted to ourselves, it actually helps us to be more compassionate to others.
Sometimes, it just about doing something for ourselves and practicing some self-care.
Do an activity that really helps you relax. It can be small such as having a satisfying tea or coffee, going for a walk, reading, listening to music, dancing or even going for a massage.
Practicing self-care can really help set the scene for your soul searching and put you in the right frame of mind.
3) Spend some time in nature
Another important step to take is to arrange to spend some time in nature. It can be as simple as a walk through a forest, sitting down by the beach, observing the stars on a clear night.
In our frenetic, connected world, many of us suffer from nature deficit disorder.
Being out in nature puts our own individual lives very much in perspective and connects us to something much bigger than ourselves.
As Tenzin Wangyal says so well in The True Source of Healing, “Connection to the peaceful, joyful experience of who you are, is directly accessible through the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of nature.”
Forest bathing or shinrin-yoku is a famous, therapeutic Japanese practice of spending time in nature.
Dr Li Qing, the world’s most foremost expert on forest medicine states in his book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, “studies have shown that spending mindful, intentional time around trees can promote health and happiness.”
4) Take up mindfulness meditation
There has been a great deal of evidence on the benefits of incorporating meditation and mindfulness into our everyday life.
So many scientific studies show that these practices can profoundly affect every aspect of our lives – our bodies, minds, and emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
In fact, almost all health problems can be improved with such an approach.
“Studies have shown benefits against an array of conditions both physical and mental, including irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
It is not just about feeling calmer. The relaxation response, the state of equanimity after meditating, affects genes that are related to our immune system.
Meditation changes the brain. It increases the prefrontal region of the brain and slows down the thinning process that occurs as we age.
In essence, the practices of meditating and mindfulness not only help with our physical health, they strengthen our resilience in dealing with stress, help us tap into our wisdom and they also slow the aging process.
A study at the University of California found that long-term meditators showed an increase in gray matter in areas of the brain that deal with emotional regulation:
“Researchers report that certain regions of the brain in long-term meditators were larger than non-meditators. Specifically, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the hippocampus, and within the orbito-frontal cortex, thalamus and inferior temporal gyrus, all regions of the brain known for regulating emotions.”
This form of mindfulness brings with it a sense of wellbeing and genuine happiness, irrespective of what is happening externally and what we derive from the world.
Happiness lies within and practicing mindfulness definitely helps with this.
We can all fit in time in the day to improve our health and wellbeing and increase our state of equanimity.
For those of us who tend to have a mind like a runaway train when under stress and which at times can be difficult to tame practicing mindfulness meditation can make a big difference.
The Happiness Plan by Dr Elise Bialylew, founder of Mindful in May, is a one-month mindfulness meditation practice guide which helps make meditation simple and accessible.
Elise states in her book:
“Mindfulness connects us to our inner reservoir of wellbeing and helps us to see the causes of our happiness and suffering. With this growing wisdom and clarity, we make better decisions and start to experience a happiness that transcends our never-ending flow of wanting.”
5) Make time and space for reflection
Now that you have all the conditions set up for your reflection on your life journey, it is the time to start looking at different facets of your life.
What I have learned over the years is that often our cause of dissatisfaction in our lives is complex and not easily identified.
Of course, it can be beneficial to get some help and guidance. Unfortunately, many of us don’t have access to this support and may not even choose to go down that path.
The good news is we are all capable of doing our own soul searching and developing a greater understanding of our purpose and meaning in life.
Here are some questions that you can ask yourself:
• What is your present situation?
• How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with different areas of your life? These areas include all facets of your emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing.
• What are your core values?
• What gives you energy?
• What drains you of energy?
• What internal resources have you used in the past to get you through difficult times?
In practicing self-reflection, it is important to do this without judging yourself. This is where you can clarify your core values, your intrinsic motivation and how you behave and act in all situations.
This is in essence about how you are true to yourself.
6) Define what a successful life is to you
Through my own development and coaching others over many years, I have developed a self-coaching guide which details clear steps and strategies on how to live a truly successful life.
The definition of success in this guide adds a spiritual dimension and includes our emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing, our values, our resilience, our personal mastery, our relationships with people, our ability to be present, how we can make a difference and, finally, our regard for all life and for the planet itself.
Of course, we all need a certain level of security, safety, and comfort. There is nothing wrong with having material goals, but if that’s the be all and end all for you for then you may find that they do not give you the satisfaction you thought they would.
Power and money seem to be something people want more and more of when they are on a materialistic path: accumulating more and more, needing more and more.
If you are truly soul searching, this definition of success I have just talked about would align well with you.
Underpinning this is the knowledge that we are so much more than our minds and bodies. At the end of the day, it is how we are inside that counts.
It is knowing that we can access that place of inner peace and presence even while we are in this frantic and increasingly complex world.
Buddha said it so well, “As within, so without.”
7) Create a compelling vision for your future
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
There are many different ways to develop your personal vision for the future. Take time to reflect on your life and what your own purpose and meaning is.
Ask yourself the following questions.
• How do I want to be emotionally and physically in 2 or 5 years’ time?
• If I had unlimited confidence, who would I be?
• Who do I love and who loves me?
• What bad habits do I want to get rid of?
• What am I passionate about?
After having done all that reflection articulating your strengths and resources and your values, it is now time to go into the future.
This is a time to think and write freely and imaginatively about your vision. Writing it down really articulates it well.
Forget about your obstacles and barriers. Visualize all those issues floating away in a balloon. Leave them behind.
A useful technique is to write a letter to yourself in the future describing your ideal life. The future may be 1, 2, 5 or even 10 years.
Describe in detail what your life is like and more importantly how you feel, how you will look, what you see around you.
Really visualize all aspects and write them down in detail.
Imagine it in close detail, where you have worked hard and succeeded at achieving your life goals, how you interact with others, your beliefs and your values. Take time to really reflect and dream!
Another great technique which I think is a more powerful one and which focuses on your inner life is to write your own eulogy:
How do you want to be remembered? How have you connected with others over your life?
Remember, a eulogy is less about a person’s professional life and more about how much the person meant to their family and friends, their compassion and their lifelong passions.
David Brooks says, “They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.”
He speaks on this topic so well in his TED Talk. Should you live for your resume… or your eulogy?
To sum up
I have just gone through what I believe to be are the most important ingredients in soul searching and in developing a greater understanding of yourself as well as your purpose and meaning in the world.
1. Spend some time alone. Make sure you are disconnected from technology.
2. Be kind to yourself. Practise self-care.
3. Spend time in nature. Try the Japanese practice of forest bathing.
4. Take up mindfulness meditation if you haven’t done this already.
5. Define what a successful life is to you. Include your emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing.
6. Make time and space for reflection. Writing can be therapeutic here.
7. Create a compelling vision for your future.
Finally, in asking yourself these questions, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ and ‘What am I here for?’ you already have the most important ingredients of all. They are your curiosity and openness to learning more.
I wish you all the best with your journey of soul searching.