Note: I published a previous version of this article on The Change Blog (now called Possibility of Change) in 2011.
What is life? Is it the state of physical existence, the fact we are alive? Or is it the state of consciousness, the fact we know we’re alive? Of course, it’s both. However, if today were our last day on earth and someone were to ask us to narrate our lives in retrospect, it is unlikely we would limit our stories to tales of our existence and being conscious that we exist.
Instead, we would reflect on our lives through a collection of encoded memories. Breathing and consciousness aside, it is our thoughts, perceptions, and the recollections of our experiences that define our lives.
The goal of personal development is to realize our human potential and enhance the quality of our lives. Therefore, if the stories of our lives comprise recollected experiences, then the most direct way to improve our lives is to improve our experiences.
Improvement requires change, and change requires work. And with encompassing holistic changes, most people are challenged to know where to start.
In epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, “tabula rasa” is a theory based on the ancient idea that all knowledge comes from experience and perception. From Latin to English, tabula rasa translates as “blank slate,” a reference to the practice of writing on a slate sheet with chalk.
Greek philosophers theorized the human mind was a blank slate (i.e., completely empty) at birth. They believed mental functioning solely depended on interactions with the external world. As the individual accumulated experiences, the slate would become filled.
Thanks to modern science, we have since learned that our minds are not blank at birth. We are born with cognitive mechanisms for information-processing, emotions, sensations, and automatic motor functions. But researchers continue to acknowledge that we are shaped by societal, environmental, and sensory experiences.
The ancient philosophers emphasized an individual’s freedom to author his or her own soul. This remains true to an extent. Our stories reflect our everyday choices and experiences. This key aspect of tabula rasa is where we will focus our attention.
The First Step Toward Personal Change
As with any task, work becomes easier when we have the right tools. Self-improvement is no different. Regarding personal change, the most inspiring tool will not be found in an expensive course or costly online download. In fact, it costs nothing. Because it’s in your mind. This important tool is a tabula rasa.
The first step toward change is to give ourselves a mental blank slate. Why?
It is difficult to rewrite our lives with a mind filled with clutter from the past. Imagine trying to add water to a cup that is already full. Therefore, envisioning a blank slate accomplishes three important things:
- It represents a mental fresh start.
- It limits our focus to the present.
- It compels us to design our lives with mindful intention.
Envision a Blank Canvas
For the benefit of example, I will share my personal experience.
Ten years ago, I went through a divorce. The process itself took more than a year, and it took twice as long to move past it. I had a hard time accepting the change. For months, I was stuck, not moving in any direction at all.
I struggled with a sense of loss regarding life plans that would go unrealized. The primary thing holding me back was my continued focus on what would never be as if the pages of my story had been erased.
With time, I shifted my focus from a negative frame of loss to a positive frame of growth and opportunity. I stopped thinking pessimistically about pages that had been erased. Instead, I started thinking of the empty pages as a clean slate on which I could write or draw anything I wished. It was at that point I stopped mourning the old plans and started making new ones.
I used a reframing technique to shift from a negative frame to a positive one. However, it was not possible until I accepted the optimistic idea of a blank slate.
As you can see, a blank slate provides an artistic canvas on which to layer new insights. Freeing ourselves of mental clutter creates a cleared space for new perspectives.
A blank slate is more than just a design instrument. It records our experiences, the raw elements of our recollections. And because a blank slate represents unlimited possibilities, it can spark enthusiasm for filling the slate with enriching life experiences. Unencumbered by mindless clutter from the past, we can move forward with mindful intention, which is empowering.
Create a Work of Art
The purpose of personal development is to enhance the experience of living. The consummate goal is to look back on our lives and see a rich landscape, artfully layered with vivid experiences.
The good news is this endeavor can be started today. Like a painter, we can add the colors we wish, one by one, to design a more meaningful life.
It all starts with an empty canvas. A blank slate. A tabula rasa.
“With every experience, you alone are painting your own canvas, thought by thought, choice by choice.”Oprah Winfrey