One of the key moments in Dr. Susan Biali’s early medical career was when a caring person told her, at an extremely stressful point in her life, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to” (2012, p. 6). Permission to be who you really are is the first of seven steps Dr. Biali outlines in a roadmap to getting life on its proper track. Like any journey, the first step is very important. Here, the advice is that you do not have to force yourself to do things which you really do not need to do. This recognition gives you permission to listen to who you are in your deepest being and to align your outer life with your dreams and desires. Dr. Biali’s book is a personal roadmap of how she has done this in her own life—moving from being a successful medical doctor to a flamenco dancer and doctor, among other hats. Her book is a good prescription for those of us who ignore our dreams, feeling that it is selfish to focus on ourselves.
After giving yourself permission to find who you truly are, the second step is to accept and love the self you find. Essential here is to watch out for what Buddhists call distractions from real life—the things that may entertain you or might look like quick solutions but which take you further off track. Biali’s third step is mastering the art of receiving, an idea which seems a kind of reversal of the “treat others as you would like to be treated maxim”—treat yourself as well as you treat others whom you care deeply about. As in economics, we need to pay ourselves first—make sure our needs are met so that we can help others meet theirs. In first entering psychotherapy, clients often reach a crisis point when they finally feel it is okay to get help for their own issues. Ideally, we should be able to give ourselves permission to get the help and support we need before things reach a crisis point.
The third step in Dr. Biali’s book is to learn your body’s language. She describes the body as an early warning system, alerting us when something is going wrong. On the road of life, the body is the vehicle and we ignore it at our peril. Like putting duct tape to cover a red light on our car dashboard, ignoring our body signals puts us at greater risk for illness, stress, and crisis. Biali is careful to say that illness is not something we deserve, but there is something valuable to be learned by what happens. Renaissance people called this Amor fati, or “love of fate.” We create soul, as James Hillman says, by finding the deeper meaning in life events, including illnesses.
The author describes a number of healthy eating habits important for the body, including avoiding processed foods and unhealthy fats, and eating fish. I lived in Asia for over 10 years and still know the names of many kinds of fish in Japanese but not in English; I had never eaten so many kinds of fish before. I learned an appreciation for fresh produce, fish in season, and local foods. Discussing differences in eating habits with an American friend, he put it this way: “In the North America we eat because you have to eat to live. In Asia they eat because food tastes good, is good for you, and makes you feel good.” The quantum shift for me was learning to feed my body what it needs—what tastes and feels good, versus eating to (unsuccessfully) fill emotional wants. Processed foods are geared towards making us feel like a genuine need is being met but are hollow or damaging in what they deliver. “Your body is your best friend,” Biali writes, “listen to it, care for it, honor it, and take its messages seriously” (p. 66).
Biali focuses on the importance of relationships in her fourth step. In a nutshell, the key to making close relationships work is to stop repeating patterns (or relationships) that do not work and to self-manage through difficult interactions. This lets each person own their individual stuff, versus having the feeling that it is your partner who is responsible for the misery in your life. In couples counselling I find it a turning point when individuals are able to self-manage and own their personal stuff through a heated argument.
The fifth step to living a life you love, according to the author, is to stick close to your dreams. As a medical doctor, Biali found her passion in Flamenco dancing and now performs professionally. The balance between a job, like that of being a medical doctor, and one’s dream, for Biali dancing, creates a current, like the poles of a battery and keeps the “juice” flowing in life, letting the inner artist have its venue.
Having a spiritual practice is the author’s sixth step to living an authentic life. Having a spiritual ritual, be it prayer, meditation, or a belief system, allows room for another perspective in life besides that of the rational, conscious “I.” At times of crisis this other perspective can be invaluable, but even when things are going well it can deepen your appreciation of life and help translate experiences into the fabric of your being, like being able to put things away in a room because the right vessel or container is there. Finding a practice that works for you is key, not what you feel others expect or even what is traditionally acceptable but what works for you –what your deeper self agrees with.
The final step the author outlines in her book is to “Make ‘Someday’ Today.” In following Biali’s advice, it is important to be aware of the inner critic—that voice which will tell you “you cannot do this, you are not an artist/dancer, etc.” I see this voice as the investment that each of us has in things staying the same. Change is difficult and changing what you believe to be true about yourself and what you can do in the world may mean making a leap of faith—leaving the security of what is known to follow an inner dictate. Part of us says, “Stay with what is safe.” Ignoring dreams can lead to overly dramatic changes later in life, as the energy of what was ignored breaks free. Carl Jung called such dramatic swings enantiodromia, swings from one extreme to another. It is much better to get in tune with your dreams and live them step by step rather than have life make dramatic shifts for you. I have found a great way to be in touch with my real life—what the Zen master Uchiyama Roshi called “waking up to the reality of life”; it is to get up early in the morning, when the house is still quiet (at 5:00 am) and write my dreams of the night and thoughts for the day. This practice helps center me, and my morning calmness follows me through my busy day.
There is nothing like a good personal story to make an idea come alive. Through the lens of the author’s experiences, Dr. Biali presents seven steps to moving into a life of passion. In the end, we learn that focusing on ourselves is not selfish at all. By truly doing what we are capable of—what we love—we have much more to give to others: more passion, more life, more authenticity. And we will enjoy our own life more too. Like Dr. Biali, we can move from thinking our days are like notches in a life sentence to the wide-eyed wonder and passion that young children have for being alive.
(Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You by Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.)