The answer exists within us: How mindfulness has changed my life

Julia Hall is a junior environmental studies major.

 Chiang Mai, Thailand, June 2019. PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIA HALL

I can’t say that my path has been all that linear. My journey has been filled with zigzags, loops, and spirals. But while I used to hide from my fear of uncertainty, I am learning that giving myself the freedom to explore the opportunities that are out there is one of the most liberating and empowering parts of the human experience. When we stop trying to mold the world around us and release rigid expectations of ourselves, we can approach the inevitable unknown in this life with curiosity, rather than crippling fear.

During my three years at USF, I have changed my “career path” at least a dozen times, found myself in a few different identity crises, and have taken a whole year off after my third semester to figure out what I really wanted to do. But so what? Who am I trying to prove myself to? Spending time to really get to know myself has allowed me to trust myself  — to mess up a million times in the process, and not take it all too seriously.

Right before I moved away for college in 2018, I felt I was operating on autopilot, trapping myself in dubious expectations that were unknowingly preventing me from seeing myself with clarity. I was graced to have discovered a local yoga studio in my hometown of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where I met teachers whose reverence for simplicity and fulfillment were embedded in both their practice on and off the mat. The independence that came with moving to San Francisco for college allowed me to further dig into my journey of self-discovery. In a city with countless fascinating souls who bring unique stories from all corners of the world, I felt inspired to venture out into the world solo. The destination I chose was Chiang Mai, Thailand, primarily to deepen my practice through a 200-hour yoga certification but also — unknowingly at the time — to free myself of the attachment to who I thought I was.

Recently, I looked back at a letter I wrote to myself in Thailand. Suan Sati, the yoga retreat center where I studied, is a place that is magical for many reasons, but most especially because of the community that I was immersed in, which is still very near and dear to my heart. It was at Suan Sati where I was encouraged to be honest with myself, to make a true assessment of my intentions behind where I wanted to go in life and what I wanted to do. My letter reflected on an exercise we did in which we continuously asked ourselves the question, “Who am I?” Paradoxically, I realized that the more I sought a definitive answer to this question, the more shattered my sense of self felt because of how easy it is to cling to an imagined version of ourselves that is rooted in preconceived ideas about who we are supposed to be. 

In reality, we are ever-evolving beings. I am not the person I was yesterday, let alone three years ago or 10 years ago, and I am not the person that I will be tomorrow, next week, or a decade from now. 

Self-study is about cultivating the ability to further understand ourselves, to release the habits and parts of our identities we dislike and embrace habits and new identities we do like. It really is that simple. For example, I have found a sense of freedom by reframing beliefs about myself:  “I am a trail runner;” “I am a morning person;” “I am an avid sauerkraut fermenter.” These are labels that resonated with me and have produced positive changes in my life, but what you put on your list will likely be entirely different. The beauty about embodying your own truth is that no one can do it but you.

If we spend our lives trapped in a mindset of who we could be, we miss out on the opportunity to embrace who we are in this very moment. If we spend our lives wishing we could be as happy or fulfilled as we might be when “XYZ” happens, we will waste our time on this planet in an endless cycle of trying to satisfy unfulfilled expectations. There is no joy, happiness, nor satisfaction “out there.” These feelings come from realizing that you are joy itself. You are what you are seeking. Of course, people, places, and experiences will transform you. I owe much of my short journey so far on this Earth to my parents who have given me the freedom to walk through this world with wonder, to strangers whom I have had serendipitous conversations with in cafés, and to a multitude of friends, roommates, and other earthlings who have helped me see myself in a different light. I am discovering that ultimately, we are the ones who decide which experiences have meaning to us, and which experiences we must release because they no longer serve us. 

I am still only in the beginning stages of getting to know myself, but I am humbled by how mindfulness has helped me observe my thoughts without convenient distractions and excuses. Undergoing an internal shift has afforded me the clarity needed to really see how I want to show up in the world. Learning to lean into our own inner voice and resist the urge to outsource our decisions can be as simple as opting to sit in silence for ten minutes a day  — as long as we stay in the seat of wonder and curiosity. Opportunities to grow aren’t just found in macro-moments like solo travel or study abroad; they’re also found in micro-moments of everyday activities, like walking through Golden Gate Park without listening to a podcast or music, or devoting fifteen minutes a day towards stream of consciousness writing.

Baba Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher, Harvard psychologist, and author, once said, “The most exquisite paradox [is that] as soon as you give it all up, you can have it all.” As soon as we let go of the material items, status updates, and unattainable goals we think we so desperately need, we can surrender to the blissful experiences that life brings us moment by moment. While we may face failure, pressure, distraction, pain, and grief, it is possible to find peace and joy within ourselves if we are committed to doing so. All we have to do is realize that we have all the answers inside of us already. So stop seeking, and just let it come.

The more we observe the way that every particle on this dynamic planet is constantly changing, the more we will realize that the same change applies to who we believe ourselves to be. Retraining your mind to see yourself from a different perspective will take intention, resilience, and endurance, but, whatever crossroads we approach in this lifetime are worth it, because the reroute is necessary magic. 

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