Martha Beck's Advice for This Uninspired Woman Just Might Kickstart Your Life
Dixie and Jeff, her husband of eight years
Martha Beck: Hi, Dixie! I've heard you're smart, funny, and full of potential—but you might need a little kick in the pants.
Dixie Laite: Absolutely. Things have been taking a downturn ever since my health problems started. Now that I'm at home, I'm watching a lot of Law & Order and reading magazines and trolling eBay. Meanwhile, I'm getting older and fatter—but I know I could be doing more with my life.
MB: The question of what you should do every day is a deep existential dilemma, because the way you orient your day should be determined by the way you want to orient your life. You told me you're a philosophy major: What is your definition of the meaning of life? We'll start small!
DL: I think you should be kind. I think you should be authentic.
MB: That's your responsibility to the world. What do you want from the world?
DL: Love. Comfort. Attention.
MB: What kind of attention?
DL: I...don't know. I'll try to answer you without being embarrassed. I like it when people appreciate things that make me unique, like something I've written, or my apartment. I love retro style, and when people compliment my home, I get very happy because it's an extension of me. It's like people are getting the essence of who I am.
MB: So you're a creator. You have fun expressing your essential self and connecting with people who understand it. That's a great reason for living. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Beauty is its own excuse for being." In my own moments of wondering what the hell life is about, I believe if I can experience joy, that's enough reason to occupy a body for a while, you know?
DL: I agree, but the idea of joy as its own excuse for living also scares me. What if I'm just lazy?
MB: Let's explore that. I want you to go to a moment when you're just sitting around watching TV and feeling completely fulfilled and comfortable.
DL: And...though I do love style, I'm an obsessive online shopper. I wonder if I'm just using clothes and things to build a persona.
MB: Okay, but let's go to the moment. You're watching TV, and everything's fine—but then something changes, and you become afraid.
DL: Law & Order gives me joy, but in four seconds, I can tell you who did it. The show always has the same narrative template. I think that reassures me.
MB: Hang on. When I try to get you to slow down and hold on to the tension in a certain moment, your mind quickly begins generating stories—your shopping's a problem, you know every episode. That's understandable because you're very verbal. But underneath, I'm feeling a tremor of anxiety. Your mind doesn't want to stick with that anxiety, but it contains important information. So imagine the scene. You're perfectly happy, but suddenly you begin to tense up. What are you thinking?
DL: That I don't want to be a person who sits on her couch all day in sweatpants trying to figure out who the murderer is.
MB: So you know what you don't want to be. What should you be?
DL: I want to be...a more energetic version of myself.
MB: You're very specific when you're saying what you don't approve of—the sweatpants, the couch—but very vague when you talk about what you think you should do. It's like you're a marksman, and the only instruction you have is "You see that target? That's not it." You have to locate it before you can shoot.
DL: I've read hundreds of self-help books, and I try to come up with specific goals—but the Epicurean pull of just sitting around seems stronger than doing those things.
MB: That's more Sybaritic than Epicurean. The Sybarites were into sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. The Epicureans believed in doing what felt right to the soul, not just the body. And thanks, Miss Philosophy Major, for giving me the perfect segue: Let's switch to East Asian wisdom, which contains some ideas that are essential if you're going to know what to do with your life. Interior stillness, for instance. You don't seem to be able to experience that.
DL: You're one-hundred-percent right. I don't like meditation, I don't like yoga. Quiet makes me so antsy, I leave the TV on when I sleep.
MB: That's typical for people with high verbal skills. Anxiety engages your fight-or-flight mechanism, which makes you want to run away, and the mind's way of running is to continuously talk. But interior stillness is where all truth arises. It's where you'll find a deep knowledge of your beliefs, which will guide you toward what's right for you in this moment.
DL: I've tried to hear that truth, but I can't. I've spent most of the last 55 years thinking about it.
MB: You can't find the truth by thinking. You've been thinking your whole life. How's that working?
DL: It isn't.
MB: It doesn't work. It's like trying to steer with your engine—you keep gunning, but your brain just goes in circles. You get nowhere. Let's forget about your brain right now and check in with your body. That's where you'll find your helm and compass.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening. Next month: Dixie gets out of her head and in touch with her heart.