Living beyond our limiting definitions

I never quite know how to answer the question, “What do you do?”

I used to say, “I’m a yoga teacher.” Or, eventually, “I own a small business.” These days, I say something like, “I’m a full time mother. I also a post partum doula, meditation teacher, lactation specialist, and I can brew an herbal blend for you, and I do nervous system massage, and I can help with your back pain. I also support women in a variety of ways on their creative recovery. I host a lot of events.”

In college, I had a professor who made us answer this same question. He challenged us to say five things about ourselves that weren’t identifiers to our place in society. We all failed.

I was resolved to the fact there’s just no way to describe what we do and what fills our time without trying to place it within the framework of a definable role in society. Then I met Caroline, a Tahitian yoga teacher and adventure athlete, and she put me in my place.

We gathered once to talk about goals. All the American folks in the room had what we thought were lofty, spiritual goals, outside of the normal societal expectations on us. We thought we were enlightened.

Pregnant woman.
What if we stop asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What if we ask them instead, “Who are you today?” What if we validate them for their role as a child, as an integral part of a family and society at any age, and let our definition of who they are include their past, present and future?

When it was Caroline’s turn, we first had to take a long time explaining to her what a goal was. Her English is fair, but this concept didn’t have a word in her native culture of French Polynesia. Eventually she thought she understood. And she said, “Oh. Well. My goal is to be present and enjoy my life.”

And then we took turns trying to tell her she still didn’t understand what we meant. Eventually she said, “Right. I understand your goals. My goal is to be present and enjoy my life.”

And that was when I realized we really don’t need to define what we do or are hoping to do in such narrow terms. Sure, it helps to have something to write on your business card. But, beyond that, we can have an ever-expanding vocabulary of who we are.

My meditation teacher, Jon Kabat Zinn, talks about a similar concept when we find ourselves distracted in meditation. When a particular thought keeps calling to us, he says it is an invitation to expand the definition of our presence so we can include that thought, too, and just allow it to be exactly as it is in the moment.

None of this comes naturally to an modern human. We live in a culture that likes to classify and divide; across the world, this is a uniquely human thing, and my friends Caroline and Jon are rare exceptions.

I’d like for them to be a little less rare, if only by one person. As I continue to define what I do, whenever I see a new experience I want to add into my daily life, I hope to expand my definition of how I spend my time. I recently took up African drumming. So, I’m a musician. I have spent a lot of time learning embroidery and fabric work. So, I’m also an artist. I made fresh pasta from scratch last night with my kids. Therefore, I’m now, too, a chef.

I can be all of these things and on any given day spend more time in one area than another. My modern culture hopes I will pick a side, define myself, and stop “changing my mind” so much.

But, the whole point of my meditation practice – my most sacred and dear space – is to change my mind!

Today, if you’re wondering what it is you do or who it is you are, just allow all the parts of you to be included in your definition of yourself. Just let them hang out and be there. Feel what that expansive definition is like. I hope you feel the freedom of meeting yourself exactly as you are.