Getting out of the ditch

Thursday night in a basement room at Atlanta Unity Church: Nine men sitting in a rectilinear U formed by couches and chairs, some with their feet on the long, scarred coffee table in the center.

We have, left to right, a graphic artist for a federal agency, a retired engineer, the retired head of IT for a Fortune 500 company, a realtor, a small businessman, a retired small businessman, a physician’s assistant, a contractor and myself.

As often happens at these gatherings – they’ve been taking place once a week for eight years – a topic has presented itself during the check-ins that follow the opening meditation.

P is self-employed, and has not one or two, but four different jobs. Changing hats all the times is getting difficult, he said, "And I’m wondering what’s the point. Today was a beautiful day, and I didn’t take the time to stop and enjoy it."

D is living what seems to be a self-improvement nightmare. He and his wife listen to self-improvement tapes while getting ready for work in the morning. They listen to more in their cars to and from work, and again when they get home, where two long shelves are filled with self-improvement books.

D’s wife has begun a purification diet, and D has been listening to biofeedback tapes and reading a book which posits that mystical experiences are tricks played by the brain’s hemispheres.

D was frustrated, and a little angry. "I’d just like to relax, have a party and listen to some rock ‘n’ roll," he said.

Like the other two, C admitted to a serious case of "busyness." He’s been studying "universal law" for nearly three years while taking on jobs and volunteer positions one after the other in a futile attempt to feel better about himself.

"Now," he said, "I’m working on changing my belief system."

It is a common dilemma, this mistaking busyness for progress, perhaps the pre-eminent dilemma of our time.

When I was at CNN.com, it was commonplace for my co-workers to eat lunch at their computers, unwitting drones of the technological revolution. My editor commented once that I wasn’t much of a multi-tasker, as if doing one thing well was the professional equivalent of chewing with your mouth open.

But in his wise and eminently practical book, "The Seven Stages of Money Maturity," George Kinder  makes a distinction between busyness and vigor: "Crazy busyness, the fully booked, not-a-moment-to-lose air of always doing something or heading someplace fast lacks true Vigor’s inner calm and deeper sense of purpose, the peaceful confidence of the self-definition and self-knowledge that spring from understanding and form vigor’s core."

One of the men suggested that we take on a service project which would help us see how fortunate we were. P said he was looking forward to a four-day meditation retreat that he and his wife would attend in a few weeks.

Volunteering and vacations have merit, but there was an element of "I’ll be happy when…" in this context. The issue was not activities in the future, no matter how beneficial they might be. The issue was how do you get back on track now, when you’ve got two wheels in the ditch?

The answer lies in that word "now."

C said the key to re-tooling his belief system comes from Jesus, who said "As a man thinketh, so is he." C said he’d begun monitoring his thoughts, and countering every negative with a positive.

Another solution comes from Eckhart Tolle. In "Practicing the Power of Now," Tolle asks, "Is there joy, ease and lightness in what I am doing? If there isn’t, then time is covering up the present moment, and life is perceived as a burden or struggle.

By time, he means we are either thinking about the past or the future. And this inability to stop thinking, he says, is "a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal."

Tolle and Kinder recommend ignoring thoughts and acknowledging feelings, something few of us do with any regularity. All those stuffed feelings we ignored comprise the subconscious rubbish we lug around with us every day that runs our lives and encourages that "dreadful affliction."

To observe feelings, says Tolle, is to heal the past "through the power of your presence." The result is that "all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease."

And that, to paraphrase Will Smith, is what we’re talking about.   

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