Find Your North Star

Find Your North Star

Where are you headed?

The Practice:
Find your North Star.

Why?

I did a meditation retreat (at Spirit Rock, a wonderful place, including for workshops). One evening as we walked out of the hall after the last sit, I was feeling rattled and discombobulated. (One of the benefits of a retreat – though it can be uncomfortable – is that it stirs up the sediments of your psyche, which can muddy your mental waters for a while.)

I looked up at the stars shining brightly in the cold clear night and soon noticed the Big Dipper. My eyes followed its pointing to Polaris, the North Star, and a wave of easing came over me. The star felt steady and reassuring, something you could count on. It connected I think with a young part of me who loved the outdoors and learned to believe that as long as he could locate the North Star, he could find his way out of the tangled woods and back to safety.

Gazing at Polaris, I asked myself, “What’s my North Star?” One answer came to me immediately, and another just seconds later. Immediately I felt better. Calmer and more resolved.

I’ll tell you what came to me in the How section below. Right here I want to make the point that it’s the question that matters most – and that the answer(s) will be different for different people.

When you find your North Star, you know where you’re headed. That alone feels good. Plus, your North Star is (presumably) wholesome and vital, so aiming toward it will bring more and more happiness and benefit to yourself and others. And you can dream bigger dreams and take more chances in life since if you lose your way, you’ve got a beacon to home in on.

Everyday life is entangling. It’s so easy to get caught up in routines and obligations that gradually take over to set the course of your life. It may look goal-directed – make breakfast, get the kids to school, go to work, return home, make dinner, go to bed, repeat the next day – but we know inside that there is no deep purpose to it, no fundamental aim that gives clarity, meaning, and richness. Then life starts to feel hollow, more about getting through than getting to.

What’s the light that will guide you out of your own tangled woods – both the woods “out there” in the world and the ones “in here,” inside your own mind?

How?

Find a time and a place that’s meaningful to you. Perhaps sitting quietly at home with a cup of tea, or in a house of prayer, or – like me – under the night sky. Help your mind settle and grow quieter. Then simply ask, wordlessly or out loud, “What’s my North Star?” Perhaps try other ways of asking this question, such as: “What’s the most important thing?” “By what should I set my life’s course?”

You could also just hold the question in the back of your mind over the course of a day and see what comes to you. Or while doing a pleasant task with your hands (like gardening, knitting, or stroking a cat), ask the question and see what arises.

The answer may be soft; you may have to listen closely to hear it. It may come with the voice of an inner child, or a teacher, or with a simple viscerally persuasive clarity. The answer that came to me was the single word, Truth, followed by Love – but your own answer(s) may come in the form of a wordless knowing, an image, a body sensation, or a memory.

Some people (including me) have several North Stars, though usually they are lined up in the same direction so there is no conflict among them. And sometimes a person has a single North Star, one aim, one principle, that draws together all the threads of his or her life.

It’s OK for your North Star(s) to change over time. But whatever it is right now, let it guide you.

This means keeping it in mind – perhaps with a yellow sticky on the refrigerator, or by jotting it down (maybe in a coded way, for your privacy) at the top of your “to-do” list for the day. Or you could (as I do) often recommit to your guiding light(s) when you first wake up.

Notice or imagine the rewards that do or will come to you and others from following your North Star. What trouble will it keep you out of? What joys and gains will it bring to you and others? Keep letting these good feelings and knowings sink into you, linked in your mind to your Star.

When troubled or tangled, ask yourself: “How could my North Star guide me with this? In its light, what’s the priority here and now?” Try to accept this guidance; give yourself over to it.

Moment after moment, we are always headed in one direction or another. As these add up, they become the course, for better or worse, of a person’s life.

May the course of your life be aimed at your own North Star.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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