Logging Off: The Power of Disconnection

snowy sceneMy thesis: The great English writer E.M. Forster may have valued connection above all else, but for us 21st-century folks—with our jam-packed contact lists, e-mail from intimates and strangers, texts and phone messages left by friends, colleagues, passing acquaintances, and the occasional deranged stalker—disconnection is as necessary as connection for creating a healthy, happy life. When we force ourselves to connect against our heart’s desires, we create false, resentful relationships; when we disconnect from the people who deplete us, we set them free to find their tribes while we find ours. I planned to illustrate these thoughts with snippets of Greek philosophy, and perhaps even the poetry of Robert Frost. 

But it has just occurred to me that this refined approach is not how I actually disconnect—and I need to disconnect a lot. Overconnection is my major occupational hazard. My job is all about soulfully linking with others, and this is truly as much fun as I’ve ever had with my clothes on, but after doing this with many people for many hours, I often feel as if I’ve watched ten great movies back-to-back: dazed, frazzled, longing for silent solitude. I’m not up to gracious separation; I need quick-and-dirty ways to save my sanity, right now.

So I’ve listed some of my favorite disconnection strategies below, in the hope that you might find them useful. Please remember that this advice is not for the E.M. Forsters of the world but for those of us who are already connected up the wazoo.

Martha Beck’s Favorite Disconnection Techniques

1. Hide. I’m sitting in my room at a beautiful wilderness retreat where intelligent, sensitive, wonderful people come to renew their spirits. I’ve been running a workshop meant to stir the deepest reaches of the participants’ fears and dreams. I’ve also been living on tap water and protein bars because the thought of going to the dining hall, where I would end up connecting for another hour with those intelligent, sensitive, wonderful people, makes me want to shoot myself.

I packed for this trip with disconnection aforethought, tossing in 20 protein bars with the express intention of hiding out. Blame my high school English teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Jensen—who married at 17, bore her first child at 19, and was a farmwife and mother of four by age 22. When she felt overwhelmed, she’d retreat into a field of tall corn near her house and hide there, listening to her children search for her, until she heard a cry of genuine pain or felt ready to reconnect, whichever came first.

“Martha,” Mrs. Jensen told me, “every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to.”

All these years later, this advice still gives me permission to sit here by myself contemplating whether I should eat the nondairy creamer from my in-room coffee setup, just for variety. I’ve used hundreds of other “cornfields” over the years: cars, forests, hotels, bathrooms. I’ve been known to hide for days, but even a few minutes can calm my strung-out nerves—or yours. If you don’t already have a cornfield, find one now. 

2. Go primitive. We all know that technological advances have made connection easier than ever before. They’ve also led some people to think that breaking away is a violation of the social order. Friends call to chastise each other (well, anyway, my friends call to chastise me) for being slow to return text messages or e-mail, as though the ability to communicate in half a dozen newfangled ways makes constant attention to every one of them morally imperative. 

At such times, I become downright Amish, religiously committed to avoiding all modern communication technology. I unplug phones, computers, intercoms, and fax machines, risking opprobrium because I know that if I don’t lose touch with some of the people who are trying to reach me, I’ll lose touch with myself. The overconnected me is a cranky, tired fussbudget. Silence is golden if it keeps me from broadcasting that fretful self into my network of treasured relationships.

3. Play favorites. Your ability to connect is a resource much more precious than money, so manage it well. Make a list of everyone to whom you feel bonded, then consider what kind of return you’re getting on your investment. Which relationships make you feel robbed or depleted? Which ones enrich you? Notice that there are many ways for “connection investments” to pay off. One person may be good at helping you solve relationship problems, while another can fix your home computer and another makes you laugh. A baby’s trust may be the only return you get on a massive investment of time and energy, but it can feel like winning the lottery.

It may sound cold-blooded to say you must divest yourself of the relationships that give you consistent losses, but unless you do this, you’ll soon run out of capital, and you’ll have no connection energy left to invest in anybody. So please, decide now to deliberately limit the time and attention you spend on “low yield” relationships. Above all…

4. Get rid of squid. Squid is my word for people who seem to be missing their backbones but possess myriad sucking tentacles of emotional need. Like many invertebrates, squid appear limp and squishy—but once they get a grip on you, they’re incredibly powerful. Masters at catalyzing guilt and obligation, they operate by squeezing pity from everyone they meet. They can make you feel entwined to the point of rage, desperate to escape their clutches, unable to see a means to extricate yourself.

Getting a squid out of your life is never pretty. (Excuses don’t work—tell a squid you’re on your way to a colonoscopy, and they’ll come along to sit beside you, complaining, while your doctor performs the procedure.) Since you can’t make a graceful exit, don’t try. Scrape off squid any way you can. Tell them straightforwardly that you want them, yes them, to leave now, yes, now. This will be unpleasant. There will be lasting hurt feelings. Don’t worry. Squid love hurt feelings. They hoard them, trading them in for pity points when they find another victim—er, friend. Let them go, their coffers bulging.

5. Be insensitive. A friend I’ll call Zoe once went to a world-famous psychologist to discuss her recurring nightmares. After months of waiting for an appointment, she finally met the therapist, who asked why she had come.

“I’m having terrible dreams,” Zoe explained.

“Yeah?” grunted the famous psychologist. “So what?”

Zoe blinked, then stammered, “Well, they keep me awake.”

“Uh-huh. So?”

“Well…,” stammered Zoe, “I guess I never thought of it that way.” And her nightmares went away, never to return. Once she stopped treating bad dreams like the end of the world, her mind had no reason to replay them.

I’m not suggesting that you say “So what?” every time someone turns to you for help, but I like to think that therapist was famous for a reason. I suspect he could feel the difference between something that required deep discussion and something that didn’t. He was willing to be insensitive, alerting Zoe to her own hypersensitivity. 

This is a very compassionate way to use your own psychological instincts. Instead of connecting with every person’s problems, let yourself feel whether someone really needs your attention, or whether the best gift you can give might be a little abruptness.

6. Rehearse escape lines. When I’m overextended, I paradoxically become worse at setting boundaries. I end up resorting to rehearsed exit lines. “Oh, there’s my doorbell!” I might say to end a client call that’s run 20 minutes over (this is technically true: My doorbell is, in fact, there). When someone collars me in an airport, eager to share personal problems and ask for solutions, I may point behind them and say, “Oh, my gosh! Is that Dr. Phil?” Then, when their head snaps around, owl-like, I sprint for the nearest restroom. 

I’m sure you can come up with better getaway lines than these, but do take the time to rehearse several reliable alternatives. Because when you’re exhausted, a practiced excuse can keep you from wading deeper into relationships you don’t need and can’t handle.

7. Be shallow. Even staying in touch with a reasonably small number of high-quality people can be overwhelming if you tend toward emotional intensity. In such cases, shallowness can be a delightful alternative. So instead of discussing Schopenhauer with your beloved in meaningful, calligraphed epistles, e-mail a stupid joke or a silly Youtube video (my own favorite past time). Gather your friends to watch TV shows in which strangers paint one another’s rooms the color of phlegm and then feign mutual delight. Once you know you can swim in the deep end of human connection, it’s fun to splash around in the shallows.

I hope you find these disconnection strategies as useful as I do. By striking a balance between the imperative to “only connect” and the need for individuation, you really will relax your psyche and your relationships, making your life as a whole more joyful, more loving. Maybe someday we’ll meet to compare notes, to share disconnection experiences as well as time, space, and perhaps a protein bar. But right now, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that I’d like to eat this one all by myself.

Balancing Act: The Dance of an Unbalanced Life

Here is typical scenario from when my children were younger: It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’ve been awake for about 23 hours, having struggled vainly to fit in writing between yesterday’s tasks: getting the car fixed, taking the dog to the vet, answering email, grocery shopping, driving my kids to music lessons, seeing clients, picking up deli sandwiches for dinner, and cuddling one of my children through some of the horrors of growing up. I finally sat down at my computer around midnight—and looked up just now to see the sun rising. 

Since I’m up, I decide to set a historic precedent by preparing breakfast. All goes well as I awaken my children and head to the kitchen, at which point I remember how much I hate to cook. I even hate to toast. The kids arrive, yawning, and ask what I’m planning to serve them. I think for a minute, then say, “We have Oreos.” 

My children roll their eyes. 

“We have cocaine,” I venture. I’m pretty sure they know this is a joke. I’ve never seen cocaine, much less tried it—although frankly it’s beginning to sound like a good idea. Isn’t that how Sigmund Freud got so much done? 

Understand three things: (1) I don’t have a job. I am a writer, which means I procrastinate and get away with it; (2) my children are not young. They walk, talk, bathe, diagnose their own viruses; and (3) I’m kind of supposed to be an expert at combining career and family. I conducted years of sociological research on the topic, wrote several big fat books about it. Plus, I’m a life coach. You’d think I could live a balanced life as a 21st century American woman. 

Ha. In fact, having done all that research, I can tell you with absolute assurance that it is impossible for women to achieve the kind of balance recommended by many well-meaning self-help counselors. I didn’t say such balance is difficult to attain. I didn’t say it’s rare. It’s impossible. Our culture’s definition of what women should be is fundamentally, irreconcilably unbalanced. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the very imbalance of our culture is forcing women to find equilibrium in an entirely new way. 

Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Walden recounts two years the author spent living in solitary harmony with the wilderness. The book’s premise is that all humans could live simply and naturally, as Thoreau did. As a teenager, I loved Walden. Years later, as an exhausted working mother, I learned something Thoreau failed to mention in his journal: The entire time he was roughing it, his mother and sisters helped care for his needs, hauling in food and hauling out laundry. The reason Thoreau didn’t write about this is that he took it for granted. Like most thinker’s of his generation, he saw “women’s work” as a product of natural female instinct: Birds fly south for the winter, and women show up to wash men’s underwear. Okay, so I’m a little bitter—but only because this attitude pervaded American culture well into my own lifetime. 

Early American feminists fought for the right to participate in the workforce by assuring everyone that it was easy to do women’s work—perhaps with one’s toes, while simultaneously performing jobs traditionally reserved for men. I once believed this, and I have the colorful medical history to prove it. Women of my generation thought we could have everything; experience taught us we could have everything but sleep (one sociologist who studied an early cohort of working mothers wrote, “These women talked about sleep the way a starving person talks about food”). Bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan while never letting hubby forget he’s a man turned out to be a logistical challenge to rival the moon landing, but without support from Houston.

Three Ways to Lose Your Balance 

I spent the last decade of the 20th century interviewing American women and found that no matter how they sought balance, virtually none of them attained it in their culturally prescribed role. Some of these women were like Meg, a stay-at-home mother who sacrificed her career to care for her children, only to feel devalued by a society that equates professional achievement with fundamental worth. Others resembled Laura, a 43-year-old lawyer who never got the marriage or children she’d always expected. Laura’s heart ached every time she attended yet another baby shower. At work, married people dumped extra work on her, figuring she had no life. But most of the women I spoke to were like Stephanie, who had a good job, two children, and chronic fatigue. For years Stephanie’s boss complained that her work was inadequate because of the time she devoted to her family, while Stephanie (and her relatives) worried that her children were suffering because of the energy required by her work. 

Many of these women were haunted by the fear that others were judging them negatively. They were right. Our culture does belittle women who cannot be both professional high-achievers and traditional moms. It questions the devotion of women who attempt to combine the two roles. My conclusion? Balance, schmalance. Trying to establish a harmonious equilibrium between our society’s definition of What a Woman Should Be is like trying to resolve the tension between two hostile enemies by locking them in a room together. But there is hope. 

The Joy of Being Unbalanced

If someone condemned you because, say, you failed to prevent Hurricane Katrina, you wouldn’t dissolve in shame or work to overcome your inadequacy. You’d probably conclude that your critic was nuts, then simply dismiss the whole issue. That’s the wonderful thing about seeing that our society makes impossible demands on all women. You free yourself to ignore social pressures and begin creating a life that comes from your own deepest desires, hopes, and dreams. You’ll stop living life from the outside in and begin living it from the inside out. 

That’s what happened to Meg, Laura, and Stephanie when each lost her balance in a dramatic way. Meg, the stay-at-home mom, hit the end of her rope when her husband left her for a “more accomplished” coworker. Laura’s turning point was an emergency hysterectomy that meant she would never have the baby shower of her dreams. Stephanie finally realized she was trying to do the impossible the day her mother-in-law scolded her for working too much and she was fired for being too concerned with her personal life. 

There will moments when you really “get” that the expectations you’ve been trying to fulfill are unfulfillable. This epiphany was terrible, because it meant relinquishing the goal of total social acceptance. But it was also the beginning of freedom, of learning to seek guidance by turning inward to the heart, rather than outward to social prescriptions. After her crisis, Laura discovered a passion for gardening that led her to quit her corporate job and start a floral nursery business. Meg spends her time contributing to the local schools and developing relationships that help her see her own value. Stephanie got a new job by developing a proposal that showed how she could add value to a company while working from home. 

On the surface, these aren’t revolutionary acts. But they filled each woman’s life with authenticity and satisfaction. If you feel trapped by contradictory demands, you may want to join this gentle rebellion. You can help create a new cultural paradigm, one that replaces conformity with honesty, convention with creativity, and judgment with kindness. That, in the end, is the gift of the disequilibrium that society has bequeathed to all of us. Being forced to seek balance within ourselves, we can make our unsteady, stumbling days feel less and less like disaster and more and more like a joyful dance—the dance of a wildly, wonderfully, perfectly unbalanced life. 

The Formula for Happiness

IHeart Carvingn my “Zero Attachment, Zero Anxiety” post, I commented on a contradiction between some of my earlier writing and what I have come to see as a constructive approach to creating your best life. The contradiction was about the concept of yearning. In the book The Joy Diet, I wrote that yearning is the internal map of the course your life was meant to follow. I believe I wrote something like, “Your destiny pulls you through life by the heart.” Last month I wrote that intense yearning is a form of attachment that can actually stop the thing you desire from reaching you. In the past month, I’ve realized that each of these ideas is accurate in its own way. Yearning is, indeed, a valuable indication of our best future, but it contains an energy that can push away our dreams even as it tries to pull them towards us.

Here’s the key to understanding how you can use the positive aspects of yearning while avoiding the negative: Recognize that yearning is loving something before you believe in it. The same may be said of jealousy, envy, disappointment and even despair. To love something deeply without believing it can be true is enormously painful.

The problem here is that we often fight our desire rather than our disbelief. Being firmly convinced that what we want could never happen, we fight to extinguish the enjoyment and delight of the experience for which we long. But every great spiritual teacher, from Jesus to Forrest Gump, has tried to explain to the world that love is indestructible. Therefore, the part of the yearning equation we must eliminate is not the love of the unseen thing, but our fear that it can never be ours.

Let’s write this as an equation. Here is what happens when we fight our desire rather than our disbelief:

Love + Disbelief = Yearning

To eliminate the distaste of this yearning, most of us try to solve the equation this way:

Yearning – Love = Happiness

This does not work because, as stated earlier, love cannot be subtracted. It’s the one permanent thing in the universe. In addition, subtracting love from anything makes it more painful, not less.

So this month, try the following equation:

Yearning – Disbelief = Happiness

If you have trouble simply subtracting disbelief, please realize you cannot force belief to exist, so you can’t simply add belief to something you don’t believe. The way to balance the equation is to allow your heart to trust that what it loves is real. If you can do this, trust automatically causes disbelief to relax and disappear. Then your equation looks like this:

Yearning + Trust = Happiness

Right now, make a list of everything you yearn for. Make sure that you realize that your yearning is for the emotional sensation that the experience would bring you rather than the form itself. (For example, you don’t just wish for the perfect lover, but for the sensation of knowing you are deeply loved. The perfect lover without that feeling would do nothing for you.) Make another list of things you feel you deserve, but don’t believe you’ll ever get — things like good luck, a soul mate, a really great haircut. Again, focus on the essence of the experience, not the physical form.

Now try a small thought experiment. Go through this list item by item and allow yourself to trust that the thing you love not only will come, but has already connected with you through the barrier of time. Notice any fear that arises to tell you that the thing for which you yearn will never come to you. Notice the choking, tensing or other form of contraction in your body when you focus on your disbelief. This is the body’s response to a lie. Give yourself a short space of time, say one minute, to take your attention off your disbelief and focus instead on the love of this thing that has not yet happened. Feel the warmth and openness of your life when you believe that your connection with this thing is real, solid, and inevitable. As the poet Rilke said, “You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter you long before it happens.”

Psychologists who study rats sometimes hook up the poor little creatures to harnesses that measure their pulling strength. Then they measure how hard the rats run away from an electric shock, or toward a pellet of food. If they put the shock and the food in the same place, the rats run toward it to exactly the point where their fear of the shock is as strong as their lust for the food. At that point, they develop what is called an “approach avoidance” response. They run back and forth, back and forth, toward the food and away from the shock and end up basically stuck in no man’s land.

When we yearn for something and focus on our fear that it may not happen, we create an approach avoidance response in everything our hearts desire. The love makes us magnetic to the outcomes we desire; the fear of loss or failure repels what we are trying to create just before it reaches us.

If we can change the way we solve the yearning equation so that more of our time is spent focusing on love and enjoyment than on our fear of failure or disappointment, the approach avoidance pattern begins to break down.

The future our hearts have already mapped for us gains the energy and momentum to break through the shell of fear and into our material lives. To live without fear or doubt is perhaps too much to ask of a small, frightened, human animal, but to practice the discipline of focusing on love rather than fear is something we can all achieve. Start with the things you want just a little. As trust begins drawing these things into your life, you’ll gain the confidence to escape approach avoidance responses and more impressive results will follow.

Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future has already entered you. It is pulling you through life by your heart.

Your Position From the Starting Blocks

We all know that change is occurring more rapidly and dramatically today than it ever has in history.  This may be either thrilling or terrifying, depending on the day and how ready we are at any moment to go along with dramatic transformations.  For many months, I’ve had the feeling that many of us humans have been milling around like athletes waiting for a marathon to begin.  Recently, it feels to me as though we’re all being told to take our position in the starting blocks.

I’m not sure exactly what this means, only that it feels tremendously exciting and somewhat alarming at the same time.  I’ve noticed two categories of reaction in myself and the people I know:  Some highly evolved individuals are positioning themselves happily and easily for some exciting unknown transformation; others are kicking, screaming and resisting like race horses who have decided at the last minute that the whole event is just too strange and frightening to tolerate.

This translates into divided extremes of emotion.  There seems to be no middle ground; either life feels incredibly joyful and exciting or absolutely horrid.  I, myself, alternate between these two extremes.  When I am completely in line with my purpose and following my inner compass, I feel almost intoxicated with joy.  When I am resisting in some way, I feel like week old road kill.  It seems that the biggest difference lies in my ability to relax.  There was once a time when hard work and intense willpower moved me effectively toward my goals and filled me with enthusiasm.  Nowadays, hard work and willpower feel horrible, even when I can muster them, and prove entirely ineffective.  On the other hand, when I give up struggling and acknowledge that I have zero control and no more energy, things suddenly begin to work in my favor, as if by magic.

I watched this process very intently as my friend Jayne passed away, which as you probably know, was simply a change of address as far as I’m concerned.  People talk about how courageously people fight their illnesses, and Jayne fought ferociously, but the effect of her struggle was horrific.  A few days before her death, when she completely stopped struggling, it opened a door to peaceful and joyful transformation that uplifted Jayne and everyone around her.  Watching the grieving process of her son Joey, who has Down syndrome, was another astonishing example of the power inherent in refusing to struggle.  Joey flows in and out of sadness with absolutely no resistance, and as a result, the pain of this time has been intermittent, alternating with periods of true and enormous happiness.

For anything new to be born, the existing arrangement of particles and situations must die.  Struggling to survive is laudable and natural.  I believe the “deaths” we experience as we take our positions for a new phase of history are benevolent and necessary, and are, therefore, best greeted with relaxed acceptance.  This is a wild time to be alive.  If you feel yourself being moved into position, you might justifiably feel terrified.  My advice to you this month:  Stop struggling.  Relax.  The signal to run is coming.

I Rest My Pace

This week I sliced my thumb nearly to the bone, smashed my knee so hard my head exploded, bought $400 worth of software it turned out I did not need, and spent one long day griping at everyone I saw. This, gentle reader, does not fulfill my self-help motto “live it to give it.”

At the end of that awful day, bruised and bleeding from both my thumb and my bank account, I realized I had lost the life rhythm of my essential self. I was working flat out and accomplishing very little.

This is not a first for me.

Past experience has taught me that although we all have the same amount of time in one day of our lives, we can put a great deal of life in our days by re-establishing our natural rhythm. It’s not about working harder, smarter or faster; it’s about working in harmony.

The rhythm of our essential selves is like almost every other rhythm in nature. It has two phases which I call “rest” and “play.” When you rest in harmony with your essential self, you feel as drowsy and contented as a cat in the sun. Right now, look back on a wonderful lazy day in your past. Maybe you were falling in love or you just finished a huge project. For some reason, you’ve given yourself permission to just goof off.

For the next ten minutes, give yourself that permission again. For me, it helps to pretend I’m in the company of “resting buddies.” These are real people in my life with whom I’ve goofed off in the past. As I picture them, that energy of loving relaxation comes back easily. It can also help to be around an animal — a horse, an iguana, or a dog — who is just being.

As you stay connected with your essential self through rest, there will come a moment when something piques your interest. You will want to get up and investigate, or you’ll be thrilled by the idea of exploring some area of your life – familiar or unfamiliar. (For me, this often takes the form of something I want to write.)

This is your signal that the essential self has finished resting and wants to play. Let it.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the idea of using the word play to replace the word work. If you have no way to feel playful doing your work, get different work.

This is not to say that play is easy. Real creativity, which is the essence of play, can feel absolutely grueling. But ultimately there is a sense of joy and meaning in having done it. The essential self doesn’t mind hard work. But it will reject meaningless work.

Of course you may not always be able to dictate the times when the external world wants you to work or play. So make conscious deals with your essential self (I’ve shown you how to do this in my first-ever video blog) Say right out loud, “Essential self, I promise you, that if you get up now and drive to the office with me, I will spend 2 hours goofing off this evening.” (For me “goofing off” is always watching TV with my family.) Or “Essential self, my body’s too tired to keep playing and I need rest. I’ll play your favorite computer game so you can wind down.” You’d be amazed how your energy cooperates when you make and keep such promises.

This is what I did to get back in touch with my own harmony. Though I felt as if I were slowing down, every good thing in my life suddenly quickens. People who had been ignoring me once again began returning my emails and getting my work done. Once I’d rested deeply, the project I was “playing” on developed with astonishing speed and ease.

You get more life in your time when you find the path of harmony, rather than the path of force. And it really, truly feels as if you have more time in your life, too.

More time. Can you imagine that?

Yellow is Gold: Slow down!

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For the past two weeks or so, every traffic light I drive through turn yellow while I’m in the intersection. Those lights are yellow for much less total time than they are either red or green, but I’ve become a yellow-light magnet. What’s more, as I drive under the lights, it almost feels as though my attention is being called: “Psst! Look! Another yellow!”

I have taken this as a hint to slow down. This is something I’ve been told approximately 3,968,452 times. Last month.

Seriously, I’ve been justly accused of overworking pretty much everything: my drawing, my writing, my body. I suspect I’m not the only one. Modern society feels like a treadmill that just keeps speeding up. Conventional wisdom says we should speed up, too. But wisdom and intuition say otherwise, to me and possibly to you. They say, “To get more done, slow down.”

I’ve seen the problem of too much speed and pressure play out in my clients’ lives for years. Couples shout when a kind comment would work wonders. Parents over-control, when their kids need them to just be and let be. Entrepreneurs oversell their products and lose willing customers. Too much can bring on exactly what we’re working to avoid.

I’m starting my slow-down-to-speed-up crusade by writing smaller blogs, more often. Here’s a checklist to help you notice when The Force is giving you yellow lights, too:

➢ You stop getting anything done (hence my lack of blog posts).
➢ You feel cranky and childish.
➢ You lose things, drop things, or forget things to a ridiculous degree.
➢ People tell you that you should back off, or seem very nervous around you.
➢ You’re exhausted (but often can’t sleep).
➢ Your thoughts race.
➢ You feel panicky.
➢ Though you live to serve humanity, you hate everyone.

That’s just a starting list. It’s just to get your attention on the topic, so that you’ll notice when your body and higher consciousness—what I call “your animal and your angel” are collaborating to ask for a slowdown. Go lightly. Go gently. Pay attention to yellow lights. In the end, you’ll reach your destination sooner and with a lot more gas left in the tank.

The Joy Diet: A Brief Guide to Feasting on Life

985571_59850291I had just traveled home from Singapore to attend my sister’s wedding. Now, a week later, I was back in Asia. My circadian rhythm was bewildered by two massive time-zone changes, so I was pleased to stumble across a magazine article about overcoming jet lag. The key, it said, was scheduling food intake. Travelers are supposed to eat at certain times and strictly abstain from food the remainder of the day. The article listed “feast/fast” schedules for several travel itineraries. I eagerly looked up mine. The chart said something like “feast, fast, feast, fast, fast, feast,” as if the author were sending a message in some kind of dietetic Morse code. But in my bleary-eyed incoherence, I misread the words. I thought the prescription said “feast, feast, feast, feast, feast, feast.” 

I felt a spontaneous smile ripple through my whole body. I was authorized for constant feasting! As an American female, I was accustomed to thinking that the occasional ounce of chopped celery was a righteous and appropriate diet. The word feast brought back memories of childhood Thanksgivings, when I was too young to be diet conscious; the lovely chaos of sounds, sights, and aromas that swirled around me as my enormous family sat down at a heavily laden table. Those feasts had been loud and obstreperous and wonderful, and I had given them up for lost. 

Within a few seconds, I realized that I’d misread the jet lag article. No, I did not have permission to indulge myself in nonstop feasts. I remember sighing with disappointment, but even so, something had changed. For the first time in years, I’d allowed myself to picture life full of feasts, and that glimpse was so seductive that it never completely faded. It took another decade or so, but I finally decided that I not only could but should “feast, feast, feast, feast, feast, feast.” 

Now I live that way all the time. I don’t mean that I never stop eating. I mean that every day I remind myself to return to the spirit of feasting. This is part of a program I call the Joy Diet, a regimen designed not for the body but for the inner self (the word diet originally didn’t mean an eating program; it was a way of living). To go on the Joy Diet, you add certain simple behaviors to your daily routine, practices that will improve your life whether you’re feeling just a bit dreary or utterly confined to the pits. Feasting (Joy Diet–style) means adding an element of attention and structure to events that otherwise might slip by as too ordinary for comment. Doing this can turn the most ordinary situations into celebrations. 

How to Throw a Feast

The most common definition of the word feast, of course, is a large meal. Most Joy Diet feasts, however, don’t involve food, and a big bunch o’ food won’t always qualify as a Joy Diet feast. A compulsive eating binge, for example, is the opposite of feasting. It is isolating and tasteless and sickening; it robs delight from both the senses and the soul. On the other hand, hearing a symphony or touching the curve of your lover’s elbow could definitely count as a feast, provided that you pay the right kind of attention. 

It helps to perform some kind of ritual that will direct your attention to the symbolic significance of your actions. A ritual, however simple, creates a border around an activity the way a frame does around a picture. It sets this activity apart from regular life in a way that emphasizes beauty and uniqueness, ensuring that those who participate in it become more aware of its meaning. 

I’ve watched my own children, who grew up with very little ritual, develop their own ways of formalizing celebration, as though the need to do this came precoded in their brains. One year, while learning the distinction between Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, the kids asked me about their own ethnic heritage. I explained that their ancestors were Celtic and Scandinavian, so we should probably observe the winter solstice, maybe by—I dunno—wearing Viking helmets, painting our faces blue, and eating venison. I was joking, but my children were so entranced by this idea that we actually started doing it (though we substitute steaks for wild game). This is now one of our family’s cherished yearly rituals, one that strengthens our bonds to one another by reinforcing other people’s belief that we are insane. 

You probably perform dozens of small rituals already, whether you realize it or not. For example, you may follow the same pattern of actions every night before you go to sleep, when you drink a cup of coffee, or when you exercise. 

If the most meaningful rituals you already observe involve preparing the washer for the addition of fabric softener, you might want to add some with a bit more psychological oomph. Here are some suggestions for ritualizing, and thereby feast-ifying, some ordinary events that can and should be extraordinary.

Feasting On Food

Though the Joy Diet isn’t a typical food regimen, it does have two strict rules about eating. They are: 

1. You must eat only what you really enjoy. 
2. You must really enjoy everything you eat. 

This means that if you want a fudge sundae and you substitute raw broccoli, you’re totally blowing your diet. On the other hand, if you’re happily inhaling your sundae and you start to feel uncomfortably full, the Joy Diet requires that you stop eating immediately. 

I settled on these two rules to normalize my own eating, which, believe me, was no easy task. Having danced a few youthful numbers with an eating disorder, I’ve done plenty of fasting, as well as my share of uncontrollable bingeing. When I first considered obeying my natural appetite, it sounded like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse. I expected to stuff myself so unstintingly that I’d end up the size of a municipal library. But after years of apprehensive experimentation, I realized that my body just wanted to establish its ideal weight and eating patterns. 

True, for a while I ate enough chocolate to cause a price spike in the world cocoa market, but this was not so much my body’s wish as a psychological reaction to denying myself yummy things for years. I believe that our psychology—and also our body chemistry—wants us to hoard whatever pleasures seem to be in short supply. Starve yourself, and your body will want to binge. Then it will store every calorie as fat, bracing itself for the next period of famine. On the other hand, if you give yourself permission to eat whatever truly makes you feel good, you may be surprised by how dietetically correct your body wants to be. Pediatricians tell us that left to their own devices, children will choose a balanced, healthy diet. Adults will do the same—unless they are eating for reasons other than physical hunger. 

If you are using food to soothe feelings other than hunger, you won’t be able to tell what your body really wants, or to really enjoy what you eat. The rest of the Joy Diet will help you address the psychological issues that may result in this kind of emotional eating. Once you’ve resolved those issues, eating what you enjoy and enjoying what you eat can turn the simplest meal into a festive event. At each meal, feed your body what it requests, without judgment or stinginess. Spend an extra buck on a really satisfying snack, rather than a cheaper but less tasty substitute. Get the original-recipe treat instead of the gritty, boring, low-fat foodlike product sitting next to it. Keep asking your body—it will tell you exactly what it prefers. 

Feasting On Beauty

Food-feasts are particularly gratifying to the senses of taste and smell. However, the Joy Diet encourages you to indulge in feasts for the other senses as well. We usually apply the term beautiful to things that appeal either to our eyes or our ears. Seeking these kinds of delights is what I call a beauty-feast. 

I had a beauty-feast right after my first book tour, a grueling affair that involved discussing the book I’d written until I hated to talk about it. By the tour’s end, the thought of saying another word made me want to hurl myself into a volcano. I retreated home with just one thought in my head: orange. I don’t mean the fruit, or even the word orange. I was obsessed with the color. I was entranced by sunsets and poppies, but also by traffic cones and bags of Chee-tos. I bought a canvas and spent several days painting it with orange of every tone and hue, parking myself in the visual right side of my brain while my verbal left side recharged its batteries. It was one long, delicious feast for my eyes, and a much-needed rest for what little was left of my mind. 

A visual beauty-feast can be even more enthralling if you add auditory pleasures, such as music, the thunder of waves, or crickets’ song. 

It’s amazing how long we may go without feasting on things we find beautiful. We may own dozens of CDs and a great sound system but virtually never listen to our favorite music. We hate the mustard color of the bathroom but never get around to painting it our favorite shade of periwinkle. I often force clients—not at gunpoint, but almost—to revisit and reclaim the things they find most beautiful. When they seek out beauty for their daily feast requirement, the world abruptly becomes more vivid, often breath-snatchingly lovely.

Feasting On Feeling

So far we’ve covered four senses: taste, smell, sight, and hearing. The remaining sense, touch, can provide the most amazing feasts yet. Leading the list of tactile feasts is good sex—need I say more? A luxurious massage can be added to or substituted for this kind of pleasure, depending on your state of mind and social calendar. Then there are other spa-type activities: facials, manicures, elaborate baths. Just making sure you have appealing textures next to your skin can make the day feel festive. Flannel pajamas are a feast for a tired hide. So are fuzzy slippers or your favorite old T-shirt. 

There’s a sort of feeling called proprioception, the sensitivity that tells you how your body is positioned and how it’s moving. Just lying down and relaxing can be a feast for the body, especially if you can get away with doing it for a few minutes in the middle of the day. Stretching, scratching, skipping, dancing—anything that moves your body in a pleasurable way can be a feast. 

Another entry I’d put in this feasting category is that sublime nourishment, sleep. Our economy loses billions every year because of problems caused by widespread, chronic sleep deprivation. I myself slept for approximately 15 minutes between 1986 (when I started graduate school and had my first baby) and 1993 (when I finished my degree and sent my youngest child to preschool). Since then I’ve slept pretty much continuously. If your lifestyle doesn’t permit you to sleep until you feel rested, commit to changing it. If you have insomnia, see a doctor. Reclaim naps not as the refuge of the lazy but as the birthright of every creature able to snooze. There may still be times when you won’t be able to have as many sleep-feasts as you want, but these should be rare. 

Feasting On Love

In the end, there is one sort of feast that eclipses all the other kinds put together, and that is a feast of love. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, keep searching until you do. There are as many different love-feasts as there are moments when one person reaches out to another, and all of them are wonderful. 

To me a feast of love is any instant (or hour or lifetime) when human beings exchange affection. I see my 14-year-old son and his friends giving each other gentle punches on the arm; that’s a love-feast. A client tells me that I actually helped, and I tell him it was his doing, not mine; that’s a love-feast, too. A crowd shows up to cheer for the runners in a marathon, and the runners wave back. Massive love-feast. It’s true that sometimes we head hopefully toward what we think will be a love-feast, offer our hearts, and meet rejection. It’s true that this hurts. But you’ll find that love-feasts are so incredibly nourishing to your soul that it’s worth the risk of heartbreak to attend even the smallest or most crowded one around. 

Here are some ways to make sure you never miss a love-feast you could have attended. (1) In Benjamin Franklin’s words, “If you would be loved, love and be lovable.” Love-feasts are always potlucks: Each person must bring the ability to love, somehow, some way. If you’re waiting for someone else to supply 100 percent of the love you need, find a therapist who’s willing to accept reciprocation in the form of cash. (2) Don’t hide love. If you feel it, express it—not to demand that others love you back, but simply to live outwardly the best of what you feel inwardly. The worst that can happen to your heart is not rejection by another person but failure to act on the love you feel. (3) If you have a choice between a feast of love and any other option, go with love. 

Compared to other activities, love-feasts will mess up your life, complicate your career, wear you out, make you crazy. But I guarantee that when you look back over the time you’ve spent on earth, the feasts of love will be the events you’ll remember most joyfully, the experiences that will make you glad you have lived. 

Consciously choosing to have at least three square feasts a day may simply cause you to notice the sacred and wonderful ceremonies that already fill your life. Or it may remind you to discover and enjoy things you would otherwise never experience. Either way, it will ensure that you have a more joyful, balanced life, a life lived in the conscious pursuit of your dearest longings and grandest hopes. Now, that’s what I call a healthy diet.