“What do you need for you, Bonnie?”
Two people, who didn’t know each other and lived 10,000 miles apart in different countries, asked me the same question several days apart a few weeks ago.
Both times I uttered in reflex with a hint of awkwardness, “What do you mean? I have everything I need.”
Both times the person nodded and smiled at me as if they could see through that thick skull of mine and read all my secrets.
I knew I was not entirely honest.
My chest felt hollow, as if my heart was gone. Knots started to tie up every inch of my gut. My gluteus muscles clinched so tightly, like they were bracing themselves on a roller-coaster ride.
Even my body disagreed with my response.
One night I lay in bed scanning the plain white ceiling aimlessly. The street outside was dark and quiet. The roller blinds moved back and forth with the cool summer breeze, softly tapping the window frames. But my mind lit up like the giant billboards in New York Times Square, flashing and looping one question after another.
What does it mean by what do I need for me? I have what I need–sunshine, fresh air, clean water, food, a safe place to live, universal healthcare, friends, books, freedom…what more do I need? Why did they ask me the question? Am I missing something?
Amid the rumination, my consciousness travelled back to my pre-teen years when I first learned about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths:
Suffering is inevitable. It happens when we cling onto pleasure and desires or avoid discomfort and changes. There is a way to end suffering–through practising loving-kindness, mindfulness, and the right livelihood.
Somehow my younger self misinterpreted the concept, likely through a distorted lens shaped by traditional upbringing and culture:
Happiness is not guaranteed. Having dreams or getting too fixated on plans and outcomes will cause suffering. I must practise loving-kindness to help people who are suffering. I must live life with discipline and ambitions, focusing on saying and doing the right things.
Over time, I became the exemplar of a “good girl” by society’s standards.
I was cool, calm, and collected.
I was self-sufficient, rarely expressing my needs or asking for help.
Every aspect of my life appeared meticulous and orderly.
I would habitually prioritise whatever is needed by people around me–family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers. I would try to predict and prepare for what they might need next. I would spend hours worrying about not being or doing enough because no one seem to notice my effort or support me in a reciprocal way.
Looking back now, I recognise that my selflessness was inherently selfish.
When I put other peoples’ needs first, I acted out of fear for disapproval or rejection if I did not show them enough care. I kept my heart small and closed and held back from showing up fully.
When I created this polished façade, I wanted to control how the world would perceive me–nice, considerate, and not a b*itch. I denied people the chance to know and embrace the real me, even if they wanted to.
When I suppressed my voice and feelings to avoid conflicts, I allowed unhelpful thinking, behaviours, and relationships to continue–for myself and everyone.
My giving to others was unconsciously conditional. I thought I would only be happy and worthy when I met certain standards or expectations. I thought other people would look out for me in the same way as I did for them. No wonder I felt uncomfortable when being asked, “What do I need?” I did not think that I was worthy of love or allowed to have what I want.
True selflessness can only happen when we develop unconditional friendships with ourselves. It is not selfish to attend to our own needs first.
When we treat ourselves with loving-kindness, we start to feel safe and grounded within. We feel relaxed and assured, knowing that we are enough, no matter what happens to us and around us.
When we practise self-compassion daily, we start to embrace and give to the world genuinely and unconditionally. We set ourselves free from the ego’s fear of abandonment and judgement.
As the year is coming to an end, it is time to take stock of our highs and lows, check in with our hearts, and dream big about our future.
I decided to write down a list of what I truly need to bring joy and fulfilment into my life.
Unlike New Year’s resolutions, this is not about critiquing our shortcomings or overhauling our lives from top to bottom.
It is about looking at our present self with genuine love, compassion, and honesty. It is about understanding, accepting, and honouring our human needs. It is about choosing how to live our lives in the most authentic way.
And here is my list:
>> Nourishment for body, mind, and soul: rest, mindful eating, exercise, reading, writing, learning, simple living, purposeful work, and so on.
>> Deep connection between my consciousness and the universe through spiritual practices: daily meditation, using astrology and tarot as self-care, and doing healing work with a wellness coach.
>> Openness and spaciousness in life that support imagination and creation: daily sketching, making ceramics, and a monthly visit to the art gallery.
>> Leaning into love, companionship, and support: not only from my family and a handful of trusted friends, but also hopefully soon, a dog and a life partner.
>> Participation in mindful communities that commit to doing good for humanity: feeling grateful to be part of the Elephant Journal community this year. And feeling good about joining another community early next year.
“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself. When you are born a lotus flower, be a beautiful lotus flower, don’t try to be a magnolia flower. If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life. True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself.” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn