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If you look with the eyes of a student, everything can teach you

May 23, 2018

By Sarah Susanka, FAIA 

In 2007 I wrote a book called The Not So Big Life, which provides readers with a roadmap to assist in their own process of awakening—waking up to what our lives on planet Earth are really here to teach us.  It has become a doorway for many that are seeking help in making sense of the world that surrounds us.

At its core is the message that the meaningfulness we’re seeking is embedded right within the fabric of our existing lives, and that we don’t have to go somewhere else to find it.  It’s really a matter of learning how to look at everything that happens in our lives differently.  A Not So Big Life is a life that recognizes the meaningfulness that’s embedded in each moment, rather than only in those moments of achievement and accumulation—the tools of success that we’re taught from a young age are the “point” of our being here. The conventional tools don’t get us what we really want. We keep thinking that our striving and pushing will put everything right, but we’re left feeling apathetic and unfulfilled.  We can’t seem to fill the emptiness, no matter how hard we try. Just ask anyone who has been a successful achiever or accumulator, and they’ll tell you that material success hasn’t stopped their striving–there is still something big missing.

I’ve found that when I’ve had the opportunity to take individual readers more deeply into each Not So Big Life principle, as happens in workshops like the ones I offer at Duke Integrative Medicine every summer, there’s tremendous personal growth as each person begins to see how their own thoughts and preconceptions about how things are have limited their life experience tremendously.  They begin to recognize that it is these self-imposed limitations that have kept them from experiencing the very thing they’ve been searching for all their lives.  They come to see that the “something big” that they’ve been missing isn’t really ever missing at all, but just obscured by their own thoughts and behavior patterns.

By applying the principles presented in The Not So Big Life that are expanded upon in these workshops, almost everyone experiences a difference—the difference between what happens when they do what they usually do, versus what happens when they do something different—something they’ve never allowed themselves to do before.  What they discover is that each principle opens a door they didn’t know was there.  Here are the names of just a handful, to give you a sense of the material we’ll be covering:

Our Thoughts are the Architects of Our World
There Is Nothing Wrong
Live the Questions
Everything is a Reflection
Focus on What You Want, Not What You Don’t Want

Searching with the wrong tools

In everyday life, when we buy into that fearful voice inside us that tells us it’s not a good idea to do anything other than what it believes to be safe, anything other than what we’ve done before, we severely limit our ability to engage life.  By playing it safe all the time, or sticking with what’s familiar, we can only experience what we already know, and nothing new can enter the system.

Is this what we want?  Clearly not.  Most of us spend a substantial portion of our free time trying to figure out how to experience something new, but we are searching with a set of ideas that can only bring us back to where we are right now.  To expand the aperture of our experience, we have to do some significant inner work to call into question the validity the dictates of that fearful voice that declares it knows what’s best for us and should be listened to at all costs.

This expanded aperture can present itself in all sorts of ways.  Reading this book, and taking the workshop will do it for some.  For others it can come in the form of a shock, like the death of a close friend, or the loss of a job.  What’s needed is something to shake you out of your reliance on your existing paradigm, so that you glimpse for just a moment that things aren’t actually the way you’ve always assumed them to be.

We have met the “frenemy” and he is us

Most of us consider it a good thing to have “personality”, and work hard to craft it into something that reflects how we want to be perceived, while keeping us safe and well defended.  But what we don’t recognize is that this bundle of personalized software runs on automatic, and so is a lot like the auto-correct function in your smart phone that keeps making “helpful” corrections that completely obfuscate your intended meaning.

So this treasured personality, so carefully cultivated over a lifetime, really isn’t our friend at all.  Far from keeping us safe, all this conditioning is in fact creating our own personal and perfectly crafted prison.  We may initially protest that we actually like it this way.  It may seem cozy and more or less comfortable because it’s familiar; but in fact, it is the very thing that’s keeping us separate from knowing who we truly are and separate from that big something that we know is missing.

In The Not So Big Life I use the metaphor of a kaleidoscope to help convey the difference between these two identifications—the personality on the one hand, and the unencumbered awareness that you are, right here right now, on the other.  When you look through a kaleidoscope, you see all the little pieces of colored glass or plastic that are contained in the cavity at the far end reflected in the mirrored surfaces running the length of the tube.

All our conditioned patterns, all those thoughts and memories that make us think the world is limiting us, and all our notions about how things are, are like those pieces of glass or plastic.  They prevent us from seeing past the end of the kaleidoscope to the light source beyond, which is what is actually bringing to light all those colored bits.  The light source is analogous to who we truly are.  That’s our true identity, which is vast, and unlimited, and capable of awarenesses and understandings that, from our current perspective, would seem nothing short of miraculous.

A key to unlocking your life

We are not limited to the colored bits end of the kaleidoscope that are our personal filters over reality, but until we learn to see through them, we can’t know the truth of who we are.  That’s the purpose of both the book and this workshop—to help you see through all those bits—all those beliefs, fears, habits, preferences, projections, judgments, etc.—to the truth that lies beyond them.

At previous Not So Big Life workshops, I have witnessed people who have been feeling stuck in and deeply frustrated by their life situations, with no hope of escape, suddenly find themselves able to move forward in ways quite different than they would have previously imagined.  People who’ve been dealing with debilitating self-judgment all their lives discover that there are ways to move beyond their harsh inner critic and into a world of possibility.  People who’ve been looking for their life’s purpose find it in a completely unexpected place that’s available without all the struggle and self-doubt.

This workshop allows me to share with you not only how these Not So Big Life principles work, but to give you the opportunity to try some of them for yourself, and to hear how fellow participants are applying them.  Even just over the weekend of the workshop you’ll see and hear how these applications have facilitated the experiencing of entirely new and unexpected results—things completely outside of your habitual way of thinking and acting.  It is my hope that you learn how to apply some of these principles in your own life, so that you can experience this deceptively simple yet undeniably remarkable transformation firsthand.  It CAN happen, if you make the time, and come with an open mind and heart.

Invitation to Attend a Not So Big Life Workshop

If what you’ve read here interests you, I encourage you to read or listen to the book, of course, but I also invite you to join me for The Not So Big Life Workshop, which I teach every summer at Duke Integrative Medicine.  This year the dates for the workshop are over Labor Day weekend, from Thursday, August 30th through Saturday, September 1st, 2018. (

There are few things more transformative in life than these opportunities to share in the process of self-discovery, when we gather as a group with collective intention toward that end. I look forward to meeting you, either at this workshop, a future workshop, or wherever our paths may cross.

I’ve put together a short video that tells a bit more about what to expect, which you’ll find here:

To learn more and to purchase the book or audio book, visit:


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