One full moon night, I drew back my curtains as far as they could go and lay down on my bed. As the moon rose, the moonshine reached from across the ocean and touched my cheek. It was enchanting, and I felt so alive. The ocean glistened, and with the sliding door wide open, the cool evening sea breeze entered the room and caressed me.
I had never felt such peace. I lay there and like a sponge I absorbed the sounds, the salty ocean scents, seduced by the magic of the moon. I knew there was nothing more important on this earth than being where I was right now, delving deeply into my life’s ocean, to see the treasure that lay within me.
I knew that my mind’s interpretation of events could not always be trusted; it didn’t always reflect the real situation, just like the moon’s reflection on the water wasn’t the moon.
I wanted more moon, more truth.
The next day, I awoke and dragged myself away from my bed with a view to make my plunger of yummy coffee. I returned to sit in my recliner, holding the hot cup and looking out at the sea. It was a memorable moment, because I realised that most of my profound insights had not been achieved looking back trying to understand myself, but in the present moments which I looked at attentively.
It suddenly made sense. How could I look back to know myself? I was a live, evolving being. Like a plant, I was growing and changing with the seasons, so I needed to look at myself today, afresh, as I was. Penny in the past was a dead image of something that had since changed, and that in many respects was no more. If I kept seeing myself through the lens of the past, how could I ever be anything other than that which I believed I was?
I was fresh, spontaneous, changing, growing, vibrant. A new canvas every day.
In the past, my second most popular methodology had been benchmarking myself against others. Naturally, we compare things all the time: an expensive coat to a cheaper coat, a cup of coffee to a cup of hot chocolate, our mother to our father. We compare features – how good things look, or my personal favourite … how fattening they are.
The process of comparison always seems to culminate in the result of how good or bad something is, which is fine when you are buying a microwave, but when we consistently inflict this upon ourselves like I do, around almost every corner there will be someone thinner, smarter, richer, or more attractive. And if you weren’t looking before, you can rely on social media to show you the difference. The dot-com billionaire makes the entrepreneur’s income seem puny. Simple experiences like going to the gym or the beach often result in my commencing with a diet to get back into the shape the other girls are in.
There’s no denying comparison gives us information with which to make choices between two cars, two poems, two carpets, but comparison is a form of competition. I realised my mechanical brain had been programmed with this technique since I was a child: you are more beautiful than your sister. Your best friend is sportier that you. Then you go to school and test results rank you in order of achievement and presumed intelligence compared to your classmates.
I started to look deeply at the significance of this psychological process. It was so weird to sit with my views and see them, but not to judge them, just admit to them. Some days I felt like I was on a blind date with myself. (I wasn’t doing too much dating at this time, more like trying to stop pining over Albie … He was still in my thoughts, the impact of his presence in my life so powerful. But I wanted to be here, not in my wild imaginings.)
Do I compare myself with others because I am a product of this judgmental society, or do I believe it gives me context? I guess it does, but is that context healthy and accurate?
In my successful career days, 23 to yuppie flu, I worked at improving myself and developed a wonderfully egotistical mindset, because one can’t deny that one also experiences a reward from favourable comparisons. I worked hard, and I secretly enjoyed the feeling: I’m better than you. I’m smarter. I’ve got a better job. And when I wasn’t flying high, naturally there were times when comparisons left me feeling depressed or jealous, even angry that others had more.
Then, like a ray of light breaking through a cloud, I knew why I personally held comparison in such high regard: it was synonymous with progress and evolution. I was worried – if I didn’t use comparisons, what would drive me?
Who wants to be ordinary? Comparisons forced me to up my game.
I “knew” from my young girlhood I wasn’t good enough, but obviously with improvement I became better. How did I know I’d improved? I benchmarked myself against others.
Oh my gosh! I was a hamster on the conditioned wheel of self-improvement.
I never truly respected or valued my uniqueness as a human being. I never felt that I was a beautiful rose in life’s garden, because I spent my life comparing myself to other, brighter, multicoloured species, and they often made me look dull.
I had no deep sense of value for who I was because comparison took me farther and farther away from the joy of living and experiencing the pleasures of self-discovery; instead I found myself trudging along the tiring mountain paths of self-judgement.
In one of Emerson’s essays he says, “Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say ‘I AM’. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing wind. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones. They are for what they are. They exist with God today.”
Exciting stuff! Can we live a life without comparisons?
I had been “working on myself” for 40-odd years trying to create a masterpiece. I had never thought I could relax and observe my inherent beauty, which is present daily. That which is me. That which exists without grinding, chipping, or colouring in. Could I look at my beauty as it existed, not constantly looking back to evaluate if I had worked hard enough on creating a better version of me for the day?
I imagined such an existence must be peaceful, a state without fighting and forcing. Perhaps there would be a lot less conflict because instead of becoming myself, I would be being myself. The rose doesn’t tell us what its fragrance is; the fragrance simply is – it’s part of the very nature of being a rose.
Could I just be a rose existing today in all my glory?
Damn, the disease of comparison was deeply rooted in the way I learned about myself. I knew I had to close the door on comparisons if I wanted to really start understanding me. I would not waste another moment. I am not a product of a system; I was not a food recipe which turned out that way because certain ingredients went in and because certain instructions were followed. My outcomes were not set in stone because of my choices or others’ decisions.
I will not be timid or apologetic, Emerson. I am.
I titled my next talk “DIY (Do it yourself)”. I thought this title would with have half the men in the audience switching off in fear I might burden them with tools for “how to do chores at home”, or perhaps I would have a few distracted women reminded of the “outstanding jobs” they had asked their husbands to do. But I went with it anyway.
I am a DIY queen. I have been busy at it since I was a young girl.
Except the DIY wasn’t on a physical house, it was on this house right here. I got given my first DIY list from my parents, then school gave me one, and you can also get one regularly from social media. DO SOMETHING, we’re told change yourself; do something – improve yourself”.
It’s true. When you look at others around you, you don’t need a list; you can tell that there’s huge room for improvement! There’s always someone who is more beautiful or intelligent, more moral, healthier, stronger.
I even had focused DIY projects, like getting married. You know – “behind every successful man is a woman”. Well, I got married and we got on like a house on fire. No, not like that. Rather, we both felt trapped, slowly suffocating as the smoke got in our eyes.
The next project was to develop an illustrious career, then moving on to having children, so I could be a REAL woman.
I’m wondering how many of you have similar projects?
You know that striving feeling: that if we keep on improving, eventually everything will be great.
One day while reading a small book with Winnie the Pooh and Piglet on the cover, called The Tao of Pooh, I came across an old fable about a stone cutter – I call it my Aladdin’s lamp story because it transformed how I viewed my life. So, let me share an old Japanese folk-tale.
There was once a stonecutter who like many of us was dissatisfied with himself and his position in life.
One day while he was working, a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession. How powerful that official is! he thought. I wish I could be a high official!
Suddenly he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by all the people around. It was a hot summer day, so the official felt very uncomfortable. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence. How powerful the sun is! he thought. I wish that I could be the sun!
Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and labourers. But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, blocking his light. How powerful that storm cloud is! he thought. I wish I could be a cloud!
Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone. But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realised it was the wind. How powerful it is! he thought. I wish I could be the wind!
Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him. But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it – a huge, towering rock. How powerful that rock is! he thought. I wish I could be a rock!
Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard a sound, and felt himself being changed. It was the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into his hard surface. What could be more powerful than I, the rock? he thought.
He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stonecutter.
I am no longer my own Do It Yourself project – I’m now a BEING MYSELF PROJECT.
I’ve accepted that “I am”, and I’m not ashamed that this house is just the way it is!
It’s amazing – when you do this you really enjoying living. You are no longer in the race to be someone else, no longer competing and comparing.
Simply throw away those DIY manuals, and realise that each moment is perfect and doesn’t need to be different from what it is.
Realising that was the beginning of a transformation in my life.
The stonecutter’s desire to be something other than what he was and his continual dissatisfaction with life resonated powerfully with me. Despite his wishes being granted repeatedly, he remained discontented, continuing to see his gratification in the next thing, the higher status.
Contentment arrives when we cease to indulge in petty comparisons, and I became happy because I was tired of striving toward the next big thing, which was more like a mirage than a miracle.
I was excited to share the past couple of months and I could feel that my move toward self-acceptance was causing tangible and powerful changes. It was hard to believe that something so simple could have such a radical effect, moving me from being my own worst enemy to walking the path of becoming my own best friend.
Photograph taken by me from the room in my story, one moonlit night in FishHoek, Highway Road, Cape Town, South Africa.