How to Find Your True Self: The Greenlights Philsophy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to find your true self? What advice does Matthew McConaughey offer in his memoir, Greenlights?

After achieving fame with A Time to Kill, Matthew McConaughey struggled to adjust to being famous. He decided to travel and go on a spiritual journey. He thought if he knew how to find himself, he’d be able to handle the pressures of being famous.

Keep reading to find out how to find your true self according to Greenlights.

The Price of Fame and Learning to Find Your True Self

Immediately after the opening weekend of A Time to Kill, Matthew was a newly minted celebrity who couldn’t go out in public like normal people anymore. The show-business press lauded him as “the next big thing.” Strangers began to approach him like old friends. He immediately began to receive his choice of whatever scripts he wanted.

During this heady period, he enjoyed the fame and money. But soon it all began to feel out of balance. Life itself began to seem unreal. He needed to know how to find his true self and began to sense an increasing need to regain his sense of spiritual grounding. This need eventually led him to a desert monastery in New Mexico.

Desert Retreat

Having heard that Thomas Merton, the renowned Trappist monk and writer, had described the Monastery of Christ in the Desert as a good place to have one’s perspectives realigned, Matthew drove from Hollywood to New Mexico and sought permission to stay at the monastery. The monks there welcomed him and gave him a room with a cot and sleeping mat. 

The next day he spoke for several hours to one of the monks, a man named Brother Christian. During a long desert walk, Matthew aired his feelings of anguish and guilt over his sense of losing himself in perverse, low, and arrogant thoughts due to his new fame. He said he felt lost. Brother Christian simply looked at Matthew and said, “Me, too.” Matthew recognized this as a greenlight. He felt deeply affirmed, realizing that sometimes it’s not advice we need but confirmation that someone else shares our feelings.

Chasing the Dream: Peru and the Amazon

In the wake of A Time to Kill, Matthew’s new freedom to pick any project he wanted induced a kind of decision paralysis. To find direction and move forward creatively, he felt that he needed to go someplace where he could get in touch with his creative center again—someplace where his fame wouldn’t distort the way people perceived him and reacted to him.  

Right around then, he had a non-sexual wet dream that served as a greenlight. In the dream, he was floating down the Amazon river, wrapped in snakes, surrounded by crocodiles and piranhas and sharks, while some incongruous African tribesmen—incongruous because the Amazon isn’t in Africa—watched him from the riverbanks. Strangely, he felt peaceful instead of horrified. He had an orgasm, and then he woke up.

Recognizing the dream as something significant, and feeling a strong desire to chase down its meaning, he embarked on a 22-day trip to Peru. His journey involved hiking through the Andes and traveling by bus, boat, and plane to the city of Iquitos, which is inaccessible by car. On the twelfth night of his journey, alone in his tent in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, he took off his clothing and jewelry, all the symbols of his existing life, and tried to understand who he really was at his root, stripped of all outward identity markers. He began punching himself in the face. He vomited. 

The next morning, he woke feeling strangely energized and refreshed. While taking an aimless walk through the forest, he came across a surreally beautiful kaleidoscope of butterflies, thousands of them, pulsing in formation on the jungle floor. Then he noticed the Amazon River just past them—the destination from his dream.

That day, he floated naked in the Amazon on his back, just like he had in his dream (except without the snakes and things). When he arrived back at the camp, his guide said to him in Spanish, “You are light.” Matthew felt forgiven, cleansed, and entirely present, and this feeling remained with him through two more weeks of hiking and canoeing. Once, he thought he saw a mermaid’s tail wave at him from the Amazon. 

He felt that he had discovered an important truth, or maybe that a truth had found him because he had put himself in the right place. His Amazon experience and its accompanying epiphany, a transmission of wordless significance, were a greenlight that ushered him on to the next

How to Find Your True Self: The Greenlights Philsophy

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew McConaughey's "Greenlights" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Greenlights summary:

  • How "greenlights" help you confirm if you're on the right path
  • How McConaughey switched college choices because of family finances
  • Why family is at the center of everything for McConaughey, no matter what's happening in his career

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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