Here's How to Search for Meaning When You Feel Like You Can't Get Off the Couch
Dixie Laite, 55, is in a slump. Laid off in 2015 from her job as an editorial director for a TV network, she's currently a self-employed writer and brand consultant—but now that she has flexible hours, she's spending a lot of time on the couch. Her energy is low, her spirits are lower, and despite reading "hundreds" of motivational books, she just can't shed her existential malaise (or the 40 pounds she's gained).
Fortunately, O's life coach, Martha Beck, is here to help Dixie locate her missing purpose. First Martha advised her new client to quiet her racing mind and pay attention to her physical sensations. Though Dixie's not a fan of meditation, she gamely agreed to take some deep breaths as Martha led her to focus intently on one part of her body at a time. Let's join their exercise in progress.
Martha Beck: I want you to be very aware of each area as we get to it. Try twitching the muscles in your thighs. How does that feel? These deep breaths are toggling your nervous system from the anxious fight-or-flight mode to rest and relaxation. We want to get to a place of stillness so we can check in with your body, which is even more key to awareness than your brain. It's estimated that the body sends the brain about 11 million bits of information per second, but the conscious mind can process only about 40 bits.
Dixie Laite: Which part is unhappy about the fact that my thighs are touching?
MB: You're joking, but it's a good point. Is the sensation of your thighs touching physically painful?
DL: If I take thinking out of it, I guess not.
MB: That's because you're aware of your body, but you aren't judging it. Being unhappy about your thighs touching is a culturally conditioned judgment. There's nothing inherently wrong with having thighs that touch. It's no more wrong than having feet that touch the floor. Right now just focus on your physical feelings. Go into your gut. Can you feel your digestive organs sitting in your pelvis?
DL: To be honest, no.
MB: Keep breathing deeply. Feel your gut expanding and contracting. You don't need to be afraid of your gut. It has a cluster of nerve cells that sends messages to the brain. Research shows that gut flora may play a role in depression and even schizophrenia.
DL: That's interesting because in the last few years, I've developed stomach problems.
MB: Your gut's trying to talk to you, and you can't hear it, so it needs to hurt to get your attention. To find out what to do with your life, you have to feel yourself. Neuroscience has shown us that decision-making is more about feeling than thinking. People who have damaged the emotional center of their brain can't make decisions, but people who have cognitive damage can still manage it. I know being connected with your gut and heart can be frightening. When you notice any anxiety—heat, tension, tingling—imagine that you're trying to calm an animal. Do you have pets?
DL: Two dogs and four parrots!
Photo: Courtesy of Dixie Laite
MB: Imagine a crocodile got into your apartment. He's been taken away, but now your animals are freaking out. How would you comfort them?
DL: I'd use a low voice. I'd say, "Shhh, I'm not going to let anything bad happen to you."
MB: Can you say the same thing to the inside of your torso, where your gut and heart are?
DL: I'll try that. The animal analogy is helpful. I'm very bad at being compassionate with myself, but not with my pets.
MB: I know it sounds weird, the idea that your gut will lead you to your purpose—but I promise, if you can get still and pay attention to your body, you will feel physically pulled toward what's right for you. Have you ever played that game You're Getting Warmer, You're Getting Colder? When I take people on retreats to Africa, they have to track a rhinoceros. If they lose the track, they usually think about where he logically should have gone and head in that direction. They can't find him because he was never there, but they keep stomping around and looking in the same spot. To track an animal, you have to search for the smallest signs of life and follow each one to the next, asking Am I getting warmer? It's the same with tracking your life's purpose. You follow the hot tracks, looking for things that spark a feeling of joy and relaxation in the body. Is there anything you could do today that would make you feel joyful and relaxed?
DL: I just...I don't know.
MB: What did you like to do as a kid?
DL: I used to write my own newspaper.
Photo: Courtesy of Dixie Laite, playing cowgirl at age 9.
MB: So you like funny, smart writing. What if you had a really funny, smart book to read today? I'll tell you the moment that started my entire career as a writer. I'd been extremely ill, and I was mentally spent. I was in doctoral training, reading about 6,000 pages a week. I finally went to a therapist, who said, "When's the last time you read for fun?" I said, "Childhood?" She told me that my assignment was to read a fun book, so I bought a copy of Jurassic Park. I stayed up reading it into the wee hours, and the next morning I got up and thought, I want to write books that people read for fun. That spelled the end of my academic career.
DL: Even though I'm in the doldrums, I do feel joy sometimes. I love reading British fashion magazines and blogs about street style, especially by women of a certain age who dress the way I do.
MB: Now we're getting somewhere. You've been lost for a while, so at first your hot tracks will be strange little things.
DL: I like talking to groups. I remember that from teaching elementary school.
MB: Do you notice the shift in your energy? You sound lighter and friskier. That's your body and psyche drawing you toward things that bring you joy. So you love clothes, writing and communicating, blogs—you could put together killer outfits and create a blog about them.
DL: I've thought about it, but I don't want to take pictures of myself. I didn't even want a lot of wedding photos. We did a Guys and Dolls theme and just had a "mug shot" photo booth.
MB: You have to keep tracking your purpose even if it goes to a scary place. What if you just wrote, "This is weird because I hate my body right now, but I love style, and I know there are plenty of people like me. So join me." But we're getting ahead of ourselves. I don't know whether you should write a blog, or anything else. Only you know that. I'm going to give you a homework assignment: Enjoy everything you do. If it brings you joy, do it. If it doesn't bring you joy, don't do it. That's not permission. It's a prescription.
Photo: Courtesy of Dixie Laite, with her husband, Jeff at their 2009 wedding.
DL: Is that my only homework?
MB: That's your only homework, and it lasts forever. But let's talk again in a few weeks.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.
Last month: Martha Beck's Advice for kickstarting your life
Next month: Martha lets Dixie in on the secret to setting attainable goals.