How to Recognize the Lessons Life Sends You

March 14, 2019

Moving from Fear and Acceptance into Growth and Joy


In my initial essay for this series back in December 2018, I stated that you don’t have to experience misfortune, mid-life crisis, or some type of dramatic life event to begin your inner personal journey. I still believe that. In fact, it’s the driving thesis of this entire project:

If you really want to become a better leader to your employees, a better member of your family, or a better person, all you need is the desire to change. What matters is that you want to improve your life. 

I want to dive deeper into this idea by discussing core aspects of the book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser. Two dear friends of mine gave me the book because they had participated in Elizabeth’s retreats. Their inscription to me inside the book reads,  

“With huge respect and admiration, we have seen you embrace the opportunities of opening and growing through grief, sadness, and pain thru your sudden heart-breaking loss. This book speaks to the journey that can unfold from such life-changing, heart-breaking events. And it’s written by an exceptional lady and teacher in a way that we believe will speak to you deeply– and our hope and prayer will help you heal and grow.”

While the title clearly states where the author puts the reader on their journey, I believe the book is an excellent resource for anyone who’s made the conscious decision to search for their most authentic self. Again, whether you experienced a major life event like I did or you have a profound desire to better yourself, what matters is that you feel and see the need to begin a journey of self-improvement.


Are You Once-Born or Twice-Born?

Elizabeth Lesser is a bestselling author and the cofounder of Omega Institute, the renowned conference and retreat center in Rhinebeck, NY. Her first book, The Seeker’s Guide, chronicles her years at Omega and distills lessons learned into a potent guide for growth and healing.


Her second book is a New York Times bestseller, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. In Broken Open, Lesser begins by sharing how philosopher William James once wrote about the two kinds of people in this world – the Once-Born and the Twice-Born.


Once-Born people do not stray from the familiar territory of who they think they are and what they think is expected of them. If fate pushes them to some edge, they turn back. They don’t want to learn anything from life’s darker lessons. They stay with what seems safe and what is acceptable to themselves, their family, and greater society. They stick to what they already know – even if they don’t necessarily want it.


As Lesser wrote,

“And then he gets out of bed and dresses for work, and he doesn’t attend to the soul’s questions. The next morning, and all the next mornings, he lives as if the soul was a figment of imagination.” 

I can relate to this more than I’d like to admit. Before I started my journey, life lessons wouldn’t get much attention from me when they popped up. Instead of stopping and recognizing that life was trying to get my attention and create change in my life, I treated each situation as merely a blip on the radar to either be endured or ignored. As a First-Born, the goal was always to get my life back on its normal track.


A Twice-Born person pays attention when the soul pokes its head through the clouds. Whether through choice or calamity, the Twice-Born person goes into the woods, loses the straight way, makes mistakes, suffers loss, and confronts what needs to be changed. They intentionally want to live amore genuine and radiant life.


Contrary to appearances, the most ordinary-looking lives are often being lived by the most extraordinary spiritual warriors – people who have chosen the road less traveled, the road of deliberate self-reflection. Twice-Born people use the difficult changes in their outer lives to make the harder changes within. While Once-Born people avoid or deny or bitterly accept the unpredictable changes of real life, Twice-Born people use adversity for awakening.


Turning Life Lessons into Soul Lessons 

Lesser writes that the most generous and vital people are those who have been broken open by change, loss, or adversity. And they’re not just broken open on the outside. Indeed, it is the internal transformation that matters most, as it means we choose to face the lessons life sends so that we can actively pursue change within us.


In my experience, life continues to feed us the same lesson over and over and over again until we learn it. In fact, that’s how I went from being Once-Born to Twice-Born. Whether by your choice or a life event, becoming Twice-Born is the beginning of a new life, and while it takes significant work, it’s worth it.


The only way to make true changes in this life is to learn the soul lessons. Lesser wrote, “Ask yourself the question, ‘What lesson does your soul want to learn?’” Do you fear what the soul would have to say about choices you’ve made, habits you’ve formed, and decisions you’ve avoided? That’s completely understandable! No one is naturally a Twice-Born. But perhaps if we quieted down and asked the soul for direction, we would be moved to make a big change.  


Facing Your Fears is Fundamental to Your Journey

As Vicki Gotsis Ceraso states in her essay “Dance in the Fire of Life” in Success Secrets for Today’s Feminine Entrepreneurs,  

“Fear is the foundation of all negative emotions.”

Lesser discovered something profound about fear when reading the book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögyam Trungpa. Chögyamwas a Tibetan Buddhist picked by the Dalai Lama to bring the Buddhist teachings of Tibet to the West. After reading his book, Lesser wrote,  

“His directions led right into the inner ocean and smack into the waves of longing, fear, anger, restlessness, or whatever else one found in the churning nature of the heart. He taught meditation as a way of swimming fearlessly in any ocean. There is no dry land, he said; there is only fearlessness, which is to be found in the heart. This is the path to freedom."

Specifically, fearlessness – the kind found deep inside our hearts – is the path to freedom, the path from First-Born to Twice-Born. I had to face my greatest fears through my grieving process and my spiritual journey, and I did so by working on my heart. In facing those fears, I had to answer some important questions:

  • What really matters to me in life?
  • What precisely do I need to learn, change, and transform within myself?
  • From whom or what will I take my direction and motivation?

I was motivated by my children. They were looking to me to show them the path forward through the loss of their mother. As a father, I had to help my young sons face their fears, too. When one of my sons resisted grief work, he told me,

“I’m afraid if I start to cry, I won’t stop. And that scares me.”

I believe it’s critical we conquer our fear. While I didn’t know exactly how to do so early on in my journey, I knew enough to take it a step at a time. I learned what fear felt like, and today, if the feeling emerges, I know what it is and then let it go.


This is what it means to become Twice-Born. The trick is learning exactly how to do this for your life and circumstances. If my journey and my experience are any indication, I would advise you to always ask you soul for direction.


In fact, we’ll discuss this exact topic in my next essay.


From Fear to Deep Soul Joy

Throughout Broken Open, Lesser offers stories of other Twice-Borns who thrived and prospered, even though they were broken open by experiences that seemed impossible to bear. She concludes by declaring,

“Life would always be quirky, dynamic, changing, and messy. The way of the heart – that inner instinct that draws us creatively into the chaos of life – is, ironically, also the way out of confusion, anxiety and suffering.”

Life’s deepest experience exists in pursuing the joy that fills our hearts when we love and give to others. Are you interested in learning more about how to find your most authentic self so you can become a better leader? Let’s talk!