How to Find the Courage to Question Your World
I’ve always remembered something that one of my college sociology professors said: “What is the world but an agreement?”
In other words, we eat with a fork and knife only because when we were growing up, that’s what we saw everyone around us doing. We stop for red lights only because of a collective agreement. There is nothing inherent in forks and knives or red lights that require us to look at them as we do. But we have been so thoroughly conditioned in those actions that it seems like the only rational response.
One premise of the Liberated Life Project is that an important step toward freedom is to recognize that the world shapes who we are – whether we know it or not. Usually we don’t know it. By uncovering the hidden scripts that we grew up with, we give ourselves many more choices in how to respond to situations.
During my time in Thailand, I’ve loved spending time with my friend Ouyporn Khuankaew. Ouyporn is one of the most courageous people I know, and a true example of what it means to live a liberated life.
Before I tell you a bit about Ouyporn’s story, there are a few things to understand about life in Thailand. This is a wonderful country in many ways and I love the kindness of the people here. But like any other society, there is a shadow side.
Thai women are raised to accept a secondary status in relationship to men. All young boys are given the opportunity to ordain as Buddhist monks for a short or a long period of time and because of this, they receive a good education and many other social benefits. Girls, however, have few options. Buddhist nuns cook and clean for the monks, but have no social status and are not supported by monasteries in the way that monks are. There are few other life choices for women—they often end up as maids, factory workers, or prostitutes. Those who have resources and determination can break this cycle by getting an education.
Ouyporn grew up in a poor rural area north of Chiang Mai (the biggest city in northern Thailand) in the 1960s and 70s. Early on, just like other Thai girls, she was taught that in order for a woman to be happy, she had to be beautiful, have a boyfriend, get married and have children. But there was severe domestic violence in her family, and much trauma.
Ouyporn’s life could have turned out like so many other women. But she took a different direction.
In 2002, she co-founded the International Partnership for Women’s Peace and Justice with Ginger Norwood. For the past nine years, she and Ginger have led retreats and workshops at IWP for activists and people from marginalized groups, including sex workers, trans-gendered, and people with HIV. (To learn more about IWP, see this story from Ms Magazine.)
Ouyporn is a self-identified radical feminist lesbian who teaches people how structural oppression works and how it can be unraveled. And in this intensely Buddhist country, she reminds women that the Buddha’s original teachings on karma were not meant to be used as an excuse for unjust conditions.
Interestingly, the IWP site is right next door to the house that Ouyporn grew up in. Her aging mother still lives there. So Ouyporn has managed the unique feat of staying close to her roots while at the same time living a life that is completely true to who she is.
I asked Ouyporn how she broke out of the limiting beliefs held by her family and culture. What was it that made the difference in her life? This is what she told me:
When I left my village to go to a secondary school, I went to the library and read a book about slavery in the United States. That opened up my world. It was shocking. And I read Anne Frank’s autobiography. I loved to learn and to read – and I read everything. Knowing that the world was bigger than what was going on in my family helped me to question how my own life could be bigger than my world.
Also when I was in school, I watched as one of my teachers, a Christian woman, got up to a podium to speak. We never saw that happen in our Buddhist temple.
When I was in the university, I fell in love with theaters and plays. I realized that in order to survive trauma, I often created a story for myself to get through it.
Ouyporn’s life is a reminder that we have it in our power to write a new story and create a more liberating way of being in the world for ourselves and others.
Here are three questions to work with as you free yourself from the limitations and fears you may have inherited from your family and culture:
1. What agreements have you signed on to from the way you were brought up that may not be in alignment with who you really are? For example, if you’re a woman, see if you can remember a few statements that your mom or dad or other influential adults made about the role of women as you were growing up.
2. What tools help you to wake up to those agreements and consider other possibilities? For Ouyporn, books and theater were two ways to keys that helped her question assumptions from her upbringing. How about for you? What helps you shine a light on other ways of living?
3. What is one agreement that you are now choosing to question? How can you create a new response to this, one that is based on what is true for you now in your life?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions…
I’d love to stay in touch with you through my mailing list! When yousign up, you’ll receive my monthly e-letter with reflections on life and liberation, as well as “9 Keys to a Liberated Life.”