It’s funny how the universe works. It sends you messages in unexpected ways, exactly when you need them the most.

A little over two years ago, I was on a plane headed to Rio de Janeiro, a trip I booked on a whim and completed solo with a small backpack.

At the time, I was exhausted. I was emotionally drained, physically tired, and just exhausted from the daily grind, the enormous amount of pressure I’d put on myself to carry the weight of my company, family, friends, and myself. I was ready to GTFO of the daily routine for a few weeks to just “be.” I was feeling jaded and confused, and was desperately looking for something to ground me.

On the plane, I sat next to a Swami — a guru / master yogi / an enlightened being able to rise above the petty humans that we are (that’s my definition, anyway) — who had just completed an engagement in San Francisco. He looked like Buddha. He ate kale chips. I felt completely vulnerable as he looked into my eyes as if he could read my thoughts and knew my entire life history without me saying a word. It became clear to me I had an incredible person sitting next to me. I was ready to be enlightened (he also happened to be quite famous in the yogi world, I later found out).

He asked me a series of questions that changed my life:

Swami: “If you lose your hands, are you still you?”
Me: “Yes…?”
Swami: “If you lose your legs, are you still you?”
Me: “Yes.”
Swami: “If you lose your eyes, are you still you?”
Me: “Yes.”
Swami: “If your body doesn’t define you, then what does?”
[pointing at my heart]
Swami: “Your character. Your spirit. It’s not something we can touch or see. We must commit ourselves to the lifelong journey of being true to our character.”

I can confidently say that if I lost my hands, my legs, my eyes, my anything physical, those who love me will still recognize who I am.

But if I lost my character — my integrity, my values, my principles, my passion, my loyalty — I don’t think even I would recognize who I am.

I’ve been wanting to share this story with more folks for a long time because of the profound impact it had on my life and the way I view “who I am.”

I’ve been going through some tough times lately that have shaken me to the core. I’ve been feeling powerless watching truth be distorted, feeling angry after being mischaracterized, feeling terrified by the thought of losing my hard-earned reputation, and feeling hollow witnessing so many injustices be played out right before my eyes.

After weeks of feeling sad, angry, disappointed, and empty, what I keep coming back to and holding on to, is knowing that I have been true to my character. That I have prioritized acting on my values and integrity over my personal gain or future potential. That I did the right thing, even though it’s hard – really, really, hard – to do the right thing. Even though it’s really easy to do the other thing — that other thing that doesn’t necessarily seem “wrong,” turning a blind eye or justifying with a few compelling, self-sympathizing reasons, but that thing that is still not the right thing. 

During this confusing, tumultuous time, I take enormous comfort in knowing that I am on the right side of history. I get to have the conscience to sleep at night knowing the truth is on my side. Without this conviction, I would flail and spiral out of control.

Growing up we were told to “do the right thing” in the face of extreme challenges and dilemmas. Superheros do the right thing. Good people do the right thing. You should do the right thing. Then over time, we were introduced the concept of “gray areas,” the blurred lines of morality and personal responsibility, further complicated by risks that seem to grow with what’s at stake and the perfunctory consideration of conflicting perspectives and others’ truths. We started to measure the impact of our stance, others’ perception of our opinion, fearfully calculating what that means for our future likability and employability, leaving us in a state of paralysis. But we always, ALWAYS, have a choice. We always have a choice to take a stand. To have an opinion. To stand for what we believe in. To make it known. And to walk away from those who view our integrity as a threat. We have to learn, and re-learn to trust our inner compass and walk in a direction we believe is the right way. Being pleasant, moderate, or neutral should not give you guilt-free sleep at night.

Amidst feeling depressed about what’s going on that is outside of my control, I feel fan-fucking-tastic knowing I stayed true to what is within my control – my integrity, my character, my principles – what, at the end of the day, actually defines me. 

So think about this –

Would people recognize you if you put your essence on a plate among other people’s? What does your essence look like? Is it shiny, sparkly, and full of rainbow-colored glitter? Fluffy and warm? Heart-shaped? Solid like a rock? Airy and light?

Who are you? 

An email I wrote to the Swami a year and a half after we met — Sadly, I still have not committed to “nonviolent eating” (vegetarianism).

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