A Field Guide to Life – The Practice of Personal Responsibility

by Brad on February 19, 2013

This installment of A Field Guide to Life invites you step into a new world of possibility – by taking full personal responsibility for how your life goes. You’ll create a profound sense of freedom when you release the “blame game” and re-claim your own power to create. 


Practices for Personal Responsibility

“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”    – Andy Warhol

Over the past many decades, it seems we’ve looked more and more to others as being responsible for our own happiness and well-being. Evidence runs from a ‘prevailing mood’ of complaint and blame; to a sense of ‘entitlement’ everywhere – from families to politics; to a consumer culture that promises happiness in exchange for buying more stuff. The original American Dream promised freedom of spirit, which, as our ancestors knew, was to be found in radical self-determination, or taking full personal responsibility for one’s own life.

History is filled with icons of this freedom of spirit. (Perhaps that’s why we remember them.) Thoreau, Emerson and Muir come to mind in this country. Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama come to mind from around the world. Jesus, Moses and the Buddha come to mind from ages past. One thing these individuals had in common was a fervent belief in their own deepest personal truth. Each one stood strong in a societal cause based in that truth, a commitment to something far bigger than self.  On one hand, each seemed “armed” with very little, whether in the way of money, possessions, or education. On the other hand, each one “had it all,” making a difference by taking full personal responsibility for how their lives went

Snowy OwlWhile we may complain and blame and expect a lot from others, we somehow lose conscious awareness that complaint, blame, entitlement and expectation are ways in which we give our power away to others. Personal freedom can never result from giving power to others. Even when we do recognize this, we still give power to others, in the form of politicians, who often do not act on our behalf; to institutions, which do not serve the common good; to religions, which cannot promise us salvation from our own responsibility; to many of “society’s consensual structures” – businesses, banks, credit bureaus and the like – which act as gatekeepers and approval authorities for what is possible for us. All of these “others” claim to be looking out for our well-being, but the reality is that it’s not working.

Our two greatest assets are an ability to think clearly for ourselves and the unique personal potential we represent as expressed by our souls and spirits. By reclaiming our “right to self-determination,” we reclaim personal responsibility for how our lives go. In the process, we tap into what’s most unique and possible inside us. Only from personal strength and inner awareness can personal responsibility be an effective creator of meaning and purpose. The practices that follow open you to reclaiming your power, which depends on your taking full personal responsibility for how your life goes.

Change your perspective on yourself and life:

  • Adopt a culture of learning: Each of us tends unconsciously to see life through a prevailing question. In your practices to date, you may have already discovered this. For many, the question is of the form, “what’s wrong here?” When we see this way, we find things to fix. The world “becomes” a problem to be solved. If instead we chose a new question, perhaps “what can I learn here?” possibility would open instantly. When you look for possibility instead of problem, you find possibility instead of problem! As you notice your own prevailing question in any of life’s situations, see if you can consciously choose a new one. As you do, you begin to see your life as a learning opportunity instead of a problem. A few “possibility” questions as companions on your journey:
    • What’s the greatest potential this situation holds for me?
    • How many “right” answers might I find in this situation?
    • How might I respond to life from the perspective of my own truth?
    • How does my life go when I listen to my intuition and heart, compared to how my life goes when I listen to the voices in my head?
    • How does my life go when I adopt a culture of learning (what’s possible) instead of a culture of blame (what’s wrong)?
  • Create a larger context: when we experience obstacles in life’s path, we often cite the facts and details of life as the cause. In fact, however, life’s details rarely cause problems or hold you back; the issue is how you see them. You change the way you see and think by reframing, drawing a bigger box around them so more of life is included than is excluded. The bigger your framework, the more life just “unfolds” into the context you defined; you no longer need to fight or manage details again. Many times a day, stop; step back in your mind. View the current situation from a greater distance or larger time perspective. With distance comes objectivity, so things get less personal. That which appears as drama in this moment is far less significant when viewed against a lifetime, or a month or week. As you continue to observe, you’ll find that your edges both soften and grow, allowing you to release the tight hold you have on your life, thereby becoming more resilient in the midst of a chaotic world.

Make new choices:

  • Claim your personal power: Only you are responsible for how your life goes. Because you’re part of all you touch, you can choose how you respond, how you relate to others and who you choose to be, regardless of circumstances. (1) Notice how you listen. Do you listen for something, a judgment or problem, or are you open to something new? (2) Notice how you speak. Do you say what you mean and mean what you say? Do your words, body language and intention match? (3) Notice choices you make each day. How many are conscious? Of those, which are based on your intention? Your growing awareness helps you claim power of your own intention, the power to bring your uniqueness to the world, every day.

Find your unique creative essence:

  • Discover your own personal truth: Until you know what matters most to you, your energy is unconsciously devoted to upholding outdated beliefs about how life ‘should be.’ Your innate creative essence has always been a part of you. It wants to express itself through how you live – your soul purpose, life mission. You feel this energy many times a day, pointing to your truth, asking you to listen. You discover it by noticing! This practice is a life-long inquiry into what matters to you. It creates a beacon illuminating your life’s path. Daily at first, perhaps monthly forever: sit quietly; absorb the you you’ve come to know. Name distinct phases of life. Possibilities include childhood, school, family, transitions, jobs, relationships. Overlap is OK. Now look inside each phase, one at a time, asking yourself: Who was I always being? What was I always drawn to? What did I wonder or imagine? What did I do whether I gained approval or not? Look for places in your “always” stories that ran against convention. One of mine from school: “I don’t care about the formula; tell me how it works and I’ll give you the formula.” Not so popular, but it was me. Then review notes and see what you find in common across multiple lists. When you discover who you can’t not be/do, you find that piece of yourself that is so naturally you that you may have missed your unique, deepest essence (soul, purpose). Absorb the energy of this! Now, after however long it takes to get a sense of your true self, begin to listen to its message. Stop several times a day for a moment of quiet reflection. See if you can identify instances in the present where your deepest longing (the first part of this exercise) spoke to you. Question how you responded in that moment? Did you honor the message; did you deny it; did you ignore it in favor of what was happening at the time? Just notice; no judgment; no need to change anything. Your truth is a “pattern” deep inside you. You can recognize it as you would a friend’s voice in a noisy room. With clarity and awareness, answers you struggle with today become obvious or inconsequential. This practice is “heavy” and carries huge potential. Resist the temptation to take it lightly or to expect instant results.
  • Learn to say no: We’ve been taught to say yes to many things that don’t serve us well: friends who aren’t friendly, family that’s not family, duty, obligation, not-so-human managers, others’ bad behavior, relationships, following others. What matters least often holds you back from what matters most. Saying no to what doesn’t matter creates space for what does matter. Possibility rushes to fill the void created by saying no. Starting with what matters most to you (above), make a list of things that don’t. You may not believe it ahead of time, but the act of making the list causes you to say no effortlessly. “No” is a natural outcome of clarity. 
  • Learn to say yes: By knowing consciously what matters, and by saying no to all that doesn’t, you will have created both space and energy to say yes to what does matter. There’s no real “practice” here. “Yes” is a free by-product of (1) clarity and (2) space created by saying no. When you know what matters, you’ll naturally devote energy to making it happen.


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