"I have a question," I said to my colleagues. "When I say, 'How much is enough?' what comes to mind?"
"Enough of what?" one of my younger friends asked.
"Enough of anything. What's enough success? Enough good deeds? Enough parenting? Enough creativity? Enough sex? Enough apps? Enough emails, tweets, texts? Vacations, clothes, shoes? In a world of unlimited possibilities, how do you know when to stop? How much is enough? Do you know what I mean?"
Everyone nodded vigorously. Regardless of age or lifestyle or to-do lists, we all got the point. A sigh arose from our lunch table. If it weren't for the plates of food, I think we would have cradled our heads in our arms and taken a long nap. It seems as if humankind made a group decision just a few years ago to pick up our collective pace. You know those long, moving walkways in airports? Where you step on and suddenly you and everyone else are going a little faster? That's what things feel like to me these days—like we jumped on the fast track and now we can't get off.
But we can, actually.
We can break out of our group trance; we can turn ourselves around, walk against the current and step off the moving platform—at least long enough to ask some important questions. I call them the 5 W's: the What, the Why, the Where, the Who and the When. It helps to have a real-life concern in mind when considering the 5 W's. So think of one "how-much-is-enough" issue you are wrestling with. Maybe you're wondering if you should enroll your daughter in gymnastics on the one free afternoon of the week; maybe you're thinking of working overtime or taking a second job; perhaps you don't feel you're making a big enough difference in our hurting world; or it could be a smaller matter, like you're not sure if you really need the newest iPhone. Pick one issue (just one!) to ponder, and then apply the 5 W's:
1. WHAT matters most? What brings you joy, peace and a sense of purpose? You may need to quiet down for a few minutes before you can tap into that answer. It may take more than a few minutes; you may need to sift through many layers of social and family conditioning to discover what's really important. It's worth the digging. The key to knowing how much is enough is to give voice to your deeper values.
2. WHERE is the hidden cost? You pay a price when you accumulate too much, push yourself too hard or multitask too furiously. Beyond the obvious stress of debt or exhaustion, constant striving can exact other tolls: the loss of community, family tension and diminished relationships, as well as compromised health and frayed nerves. There is a direct correlation between the speed and excess of our current lives and the amount of pills popped for body and soul.
When do we stop striving for success and start living
4. WHO are you doing it for? This is an important question. So much of our activity and consumerism is based on keeping up with the mythical Joneses. We imagine there's some sort of cosmic tribunal judging the worthiness of our life and comparing it to the lives of other mortal beings. And so we end up doing things, and being things, and buying things in an attempt to impress everyone from our parents to the Joneses to the big committee in the sky. Here's a little secret: If there is a cosmic committee, the members want something so much grander for you than more stuff or more status. And here's another tip—the Joneses are also comparing themselves to someone else—maybe even you. So whatever you do, do it for you—the deeper you. Put your energy into being your most genuine, fully alive and generous self. And start now, because…
5. WHEN do you stop striving and start living? When you work in order to achieve a future goal, whether it's to build the dream house or save the planet, you often forget to celebrate what's already in the house and on the planet. That's not to say you shouldn't dream or you shouldn't try to improve yourself or the world. But as the great civil rights activist Howard Thurman said: "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." So, instead of longing for more, consider loving whatever bounty you already have. Instead of excess, cultivate excellence. And instead of later, do it now.
We should consider ourselves lucky just to be pondering the 5 W's. They are not the kinds of questions asked by people who are hungry or homeless or lacking the bare necessities for survival. Even so, the 5 W's are not easy things to pull off. Best to hold them as gentle guidelines. Discovering how much is enough is a path, not a prescription. The great Persian poet Rumi wrote some lines in the 12th century that still can guide us in the 21st:
be silently drawn
by the stronger pull
of what you really love.
There's a total game plan packed into those 14 words, starting with "silently." It's in the silence where we can discover how much is enough. If we just rush noisily from one thing to another, how will we ever feel the stronger pull that Rumi alludes to? How will we even know what we really love if we never drop down into the quiet waters of the heart? The next time you are faced with a "How much is enough?" dilemma, take a few deep breaths, dip down into the silence, and see if you can feel the stronger pull. And then follow it. It may not lead to the mall, but I promise it will bring you the golden treasure of enough.
Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of Omega Institute, America's largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality and creativity. She has studied and worked with leading figures in the fields of healing and spiritual development for decades. A former midwife and mother of three grown sons, Lesser is also the author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and A Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure and is a guest host of Oprah's Soul Series on Sirius/XM.