When Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, he used to ask people on the street, “How am I doing?” He was asking them to comment on how he was doing as mayor of their city. While this practice of his was amusing to me, I realized that I act similarly when I look for standards outside myself against which I “measure” my progress.
This was brought home to me in a impactful way recently when I was part of a gathering with a Waking Down teacher. I was recalling that Ramana Maharshi had once said, “That which is not present in deep, dreamless sleep is not real” and expressing my doubts about every reaching this state of being myself. My teacher very quickly observed that Maharshi’s reality might not be mine and encouraged me to pursue my own truth. Upon hearing this, I immediately had a tremendous sense of freedom, freedom from comparison, and empowerment to simply follow my own path. That happened three days ago, and this freedom is still very present in me.
This tendency to compare and come up short has several roots in me two of which I will mention here. First, I was taught to respect and emulate authority. Pastors, government officials, community leaders, and teachers were among those that I attempted to copy. In the culture in which I was raised, we put such people on pedestals and imagined them to be perfect. When the President of the U.S. made a speech, we clung to every word. Part of me looks back and feels embarrassed that I participated in this, as if I have moved beyond it, but have I when I continue to make comparisons against which to measure myself?
Another root of this behavior is psychological. My dear mother was very controlled and disciplined and expected me to be that way too. While growing up it seemed to me that what I did was never good enough, that I wasn’t good enough. There was always a higher standard than what I could attain. It also seemed that I was only loved when I was good enough. Given that this was almost never the case, I concluded that I wasn’t loveable and loved.
The experience of life keeps giving me opportunities to recognize patterns that do not work and put them aside. Sometimes this happens when alone and other times with the help of another person as in my case here with my Waking Down teacher. In various ways life keeps teaching me what works and what doesn’t. There are moments of Grace when I feel the freedom to be myself unencumbered by my history. This is a state of being that Ken Wilber described as having no boundary. And so the journey of Growing Up After Fifty continues.