An old mule fell into a well. Panicked, he started braying loudly. The farmer heard the poor animal and followed the sound to the well, peering down and down and down. The farmer could see no way out for the poor old mule. In fact, the abandoned well had become nothing but a liability and an eyesore. He decided to fill in the well, burying the unfortunate animal in the process.
When the mule felt the first shovelful of dirt on his back, he was terrified. But his will to live was stronger than his fear. He shook off the dirt, creating a small pile at his feet. He stepped up on the pile. As dirt rained down, he told himself, “Shake it off and step up.” Shovelful after shovelful, he shook it off and stepped further up until he stepped triumphantly over the edge of the well, amazing and delighting the farmer.
What should have buried him blessed him.
What might our lives look like if we leaned into shaking it off and stepping up? Life promises shovelfuls of dirt, enough heartache and rejection to easily bury us. The difference between striving and thriving is the ability to shake off the tests and trials and step up despite them.
Shaking off is a practice of detachment. We are wired to hold on to our beliefs, habits and personal narratives, are not wont to let go of resentment, judgment or betrayal. We drag our past pains around, obsessively replaying them, nursing the hurt until it festers and seeps. We are creatures of habit but also inertia, would rather exist in a familiar pain than some pain-free but unknowable future. So we stay stuck until we’re buried alive.
It is written in the Sanskrit scripture The Bhagavad Gita that detachment is not that we own nothing, but that nothing owns us. We cannot let our past own our future. Freedom lies in letting go, in accepting the immutable truth that we have no control over our past but have a modicum of control about how we move forward. Neuroscience calls this an internal locus of control, or the belief that we have some power over our own destiny. Believing that we have some control in our lives is the first step toward living our best life, as expectations impact outcomes. It’s that belief which allows us to shake off the panic, fear and self-pity to step up and step into our greatness. Stepping up is the difference between an ordinary existence and a fulfilling life of deep meaning. Stepping up is answering the call of our heart, even as the dirt rains around us.
My 2019 word of the year is steps. This word is a touchstone to enrich my spiritual growth and help me stay aligned with my values. I want to take small steps every day to step into a radical, meaningful existence. Step out of my comfort zone and step into my truth. But until I heard the story of the mule, it hadn’t occurred to me that stepping up is useless without first shaking off what weighs heavy on my heart and handicaps my soul. For we cannot step forward without releasing that which holds us back. When we let go of our past, we find freedom and control over our lives.
You can’t change the past, but you can choose to stop allowing it to dominate your life. No matter how bad things were, those things are done and gone, and you are still here. Decide to no longer allow the past to damage your future.
Then pick the steps required to truly step up into your best life. What habits are handicapping your soul? This is such a powerful question. Know that if you ask the question, you have to be ready to hear the answer.
Is it finally time to stop drinking?
Take control of your finances?
Get in shape?
See the therapist?
Have that talk with your spouse?
What small step could you take today toward your best you?
It’s never too late to start living your best life, but it’s always too late to wait.