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Beyond Greatness

A memory of my five year old self exists, sitting in my mother’s giant eggshell yellow Pontiac station wagon on the way home one day from kindergarten. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” my mother asked. I responded innocently (if not a wee bit precociously), “I want to be Great!”

Great, though, I was not, and for many years following that epic moment with my mother, I struggled with not-being-Great in as many ways as I could. At first, this not-being-great happened spontaneously through childhood illness and low self esteem, but as I grew older, the very desire to be great waned. In fact, throughout my teens I under-ate, over-exercised, and engaged in as many be-not-great behaviours as I could find.

If my teens and twenties were spent with activities themed ‘ways to gain and lose control’, my thirties were about waking up the the aging process, desperately trying to undo the wrongs of my past, at the same time trying to decide what I wanted to ‘be’ when I really grew up. This question was thrown into the spotlight when I found out at age 33 that I would likely need a liver transplant by the time I was 40. While my ill-health was deemed nothing to do with unhealthy choices of my younger years and instead linked to my life-long digestive disease, I nonetheless blamed myself for not taking better care, earlier on in my life. At that point, I wrote my life off as simply having ten more years to live. With that kind of pressure, I upped my game in finding out how I truly wanted to spend the rest of my days living in my body, while I still had it.

By that time I had already begun to immerse myself in the yoga practice. I had completed university, graduate school and even had several years of an Ayurvedic medical training under my belt. I had been working as a creative director, but every day I woke up feeling disingenuine; like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. There was stress involved with a feeling that it was just a matter of time until someone found me out. For over a decade I’d been operating on auto-pilot; in a state of waiting for something, or someone to wake me up.

Something did wake me up, but it did not come in the shape or form I thought it would, nor did it happen overnight.

At first I thought that ‘something’ was the yoga practice, which acted as an enormous transformation catalyst. I quit my job, left Amsterdam, and trained as a yoga teacher. From this place, the train left the station and was full steam ahead.

Several years passed. I was now teaching yoga and also a Thai masseur, craniosacral therapist, wife and mother. I had had a liver transplant and survived, and continued my training as a Rolfer and Rolf Movement Practitioner. I even had spinal surgery.

At each of life’s twists and turns, there were important intervals when I felt as if I was waking up, yet as I worked through layers of transformation, I realised that there was still a deeper part of me hitting the ‘snooze’ button. Choosing to hide under the covers and hold on tight, this deeper self was terrified at what really waking up might look like, and definitely not ready to go that next little step.

The truth is, through all the yoga practice, self-study and education, the pattern I held onto from my youth was so inherently cloaked around me that I had found a million clever work-arounds so I would not have to shed the very thing that held me back from Greatness. The yoga practice helped me to know and be able to name what that thing was, but letting go has to come from within.

You see, Greatness had always been this out-of-reach achievement, some wonderful fantasy ‘talent’ that I would be recognised and rewarded for; perhaps something I could do better than anyone else could; something that would make my parents proud. In fact, I had subconsciously set the bar so high on Greatness that most of my life had been spent shaming myself, both for not accomplishing it yet and as a means to propel me forward. Most of my waking hours had been spent teetering of being on the cusp of attaining ‘it’ through hard work, motivation and discipline; or contrarily, doing everything I could to make sure ‘it’ never happened, through small sips of self-administered poison in the form of insecurity that played out in a myriad of ways.

What happened? I woke up. As I mentioned, not all at once. But the fact is, when your physical body is in jeopardy, it puts one in an ideal condition to surrender to faith. Of course, it’s not mandatory. Often people go through trauma and near death experiences and walk away unscathed, going about their lives as if nothing happened, status quo. But chances are, if you go through this experience again, and again, and again, and combine that with a daily practice of looking deeply into questions like ‘who am I?‘, ‘what does it mean to be alive?‘ and ‘how can I surrender myself to something greater than my ego?‘, well, sooner or later it may strike you that the very act of being alive is a miracle in and of itself.

Over the past several years there have been multiple occasions when I observed and understood my own temporality. The most recent iteration has been over the past six months, when I all but resigned myself to the belief that my spine was deteriorating due to the sudden and daily intense chronic back pain. This was not completely self-fabricated; I was aware of a long term spinal condition, and I assumed that this had gradually taken over my vertebral column. It certainly felt that way, and I came to work each day secretly feeling it might be my last.

When I was eventually given a diagnosis that was potentially reparable with surgery, I was elated. Even though there was some uncertainty from the doctors about my recovery due to my medical history, I knew that by having faith in the doctors, faith in myself, and faith that something bigger than myself, call it a universal force, I knew I would have help being shown the path forward.

The week following the surgery has been one of the proudest in my life. Unlike the liver transplant, when everything that technically could have gone wrong (barring death) did, this time my hospital stay actually went according to plan. In my healing process I have had no expectations, instead observing and participating in my body’s choice to step up and heal itself, to resiliently know exactly what it needs to do to rest and rebuild. It has been remarkable to witness this, and to enjoy being in the moment of wonder and exploration, without the normal demands I am used to putting upon myself.

In stepping back and allowing my intrinsic system guide my recovery rather than reverting to my old standby pattern of my mind pushing my body around, another layer has been shed, and I have come to embrace the understanding of a long-held sneaking suspicion that Greatness does not lie in any achievement. Rather, greatness lies in the acceptance and delight of simply Being: Being together, in good company; Being present, to nature’s sounds and invitations; Being curious about one’s own potential and limitations; Being kind and generous, in using whatever life experiences we have been afforded to help others along their path if they should seek guidance.

Of course, each of us are unique and greatness is merely a word, so its description and meaning will read differently for each one of us. Finding out what that is for me has felt like the wake-up alarm ringing and choosing to rip off the sheets and rise up. In this moment I am exposed and vulnerable, grateful and confident in knowing, finally, who I really am. Greatness, as it turns out, was there from the beginning, and is there for us all, if we could just understand it for what is, as an expression of our authentic self.

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