It’s time to call bull on the cultural programming that keeps us enslaved to external influences. It’s time to question taboo subjects for ourselves.
I remember what it was like before I really knew the truth. Sure, I could recite Hindu scriptures from memory. I honored my family and my community, and pursued my culture’s idea of “success” in my corporate finance job. It seemed like I was on a positive track. I was “comfortable.” That’s the goal, right?
But I often felt haunted inside. Deep down, I knew that I wasn’t free. I felt like a robot, routinely thinking, acting, feeling, and behaving according to my programmer’s desires. Have you ever felt this way?
In 2004, I left India to join my father in New York City and pursue a business degree. I attended one of the best colleges with the full intention of working in the finance industry until I turned forty years old. Only then would I establish a spiritual center where I could impart all my spiritual practice to people who wish to adopt a mindful lifestyle. But within a year of landing an internship at an investment-banking firm, the chaos I witnessed in New York inspired me to leave the financial world.
It was not just the blind race after money that bothered me. It was a painful feeling of being enslaved by the conditioning to be the “best.” Being myself wasn’t an option. I was expected to be the fastest rat in the rat race. Thankfully, a mentor helped me find the courage to take a look at my genuine self.
During my sophomore year in college, Maureen Berrios, a smart and successful CPA, hired me for tax season. I watched her shower tough love on every intern but me. To make sure I was not invisible to her — and not just a dumb intern — I asked her a question one evening.
“Maureen, how am I doing? A little feedback will help me to improve.”
She gazed into my eyes like a tough but caring mother as she said, “Are you ready to hear the truth?”
I pretended that I was ready. She poured it all out in one breath: “I don’t think this is the place for you. I don’t mean this office, specifically. I mean Wall Street, the material world. You are meant to help the world by adding meaning to our lives. Your energy is so different from all the people I come across. You can decide to stay in the financial industry. But ultimately, you will be on a social service path helping people with your wisdom.”
Maureen was so confident about this that when I requested that she write a recommendation letter for my MBA application to Harvard, she said, “Let them come to study under you. Why are you going there?” Attending Harvard was the dream I had set my heart on when I left India. I wanted to be a Harvard MBA graduate. So when Maureen said they will come to you, I thought either she was consoling me because I wasn’t a fit for Harvard yet or she really did see something in me.
Her words eventually led me to see in myself what she saw. I left the financial industry and started Break the Norms as a platform to help spiritual seekers. And one of my first clients was from Harvard. I even took a few Harvard alumni to India for a spiritual retreat. Maureen knew.
Too many souls suffer the disillusionment that comes from following a destiny that is not their own. We follow paths that are “normal” in our culture. I call these external patterns that shape our lives “norms.” My definition of a norm is “any thought or behavior that has been learned from outside sources, such as parents, religion, culture, or society at large.” Norms may or may not reflect our internal truths, but most of us don’t take the time to notice how they fit. Instead, we blindly follow a norm laid before us by others — a path that always leads to a dead end. This is because if we never examine these norms that influence our choices, we may have a persistent, haunted feeling. We may suffer with anxiety or feel lost. To distract ourselves from this harrowing emptiness, we may drink more alcohol or get hooked on reality TV. Maybe we’ll seek fulfillment by going to one self-help workshop after another or following strict diets. Or perhaps we’ll try to find an idealized romantic relationship or dream of the freedoms we’d have by leaving the relationship we are in. In so many ways, we look outside ourselves for the fulfillment we wish we could find inside.
It’s time to call bullshit on the cultural programming that keeps us enslaved to external influences. It’s time to question taboo subjects for ourselves.
When we follow our truth, we feel excited each morning. When we don’t, our moods and reactions often get tied up with situations around us. A person overtaking you on a highway and crossing in front of you while honking is making himselftrouble. Don’t take it personally. If a woman at the cash counter of your grocery store is a bit cold, let her be; it has nothing to do with you. Our spouses have a world of their own, just as we do, and it’s okay to let them be in it at times. It’s okay to live in a state of freedom and allow others to do the same. As a result, we will feel pleased with how we are shaping our lives. Even though we can’t completely escape pain, we won’t struggle so much and we become resilient.
I want you to know that you can completely overhaul your life. Whatever is not working can shift into something new. It takes a strong commitment on your part, and it won’t be easy — but it can happen. You can upgrade your quality of life, on your terms. You can function at a higher level that is fueled by inspiration. And you can free yourself to follow your deepest passions. How to do this is as simple as questioning the norms for yourself — and discovering the free soul that lives in your heart.
Adapted from Break the Norms: Questioning Everything You Think You Know About God and Truth, Life and Death, Love and Sex. Copyright © 2015 Chandresh Bhardwaj. Published in January 2016 by Sounds True.