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The Art of Effortless Living
By Ingrid Bacci
Perigee Books Copyright ©2002 Ingrid Bacci
All right reserved.
To Do or To Be
Every culture seeks to provide answers to some of the fundamental questions we face in the course of a lifetime. How can we become everything that we need to be? How do we tap into our potential and go in a direction that matches our deepest needs? These questions reflect another even more fundamental question: How do we master the art of living? There are only two basic answers to this question. Each culture pledges primary allegiance to one of these answers. That answer then becomes the driving force behind individuals' choices and accomplishments. It defines their value systems. It creates criteria for success and failure that determine how society's members perceive and value themselves. It enters deep into the core of each person's being.
The first answer to the question is that living well is a function of what you do. It embodies a philosophy of doing. It says success at living is measured by what you accomplish externally. The second answer is that living well is a function of who you are. It embodies a philosophy of being. It says success at living reflects your internal state, or how you experience yourself inside.
When we define ourselves by what wedo, our focus is on achieving concrete external goals. We also assume that by achieving those goals we will find internal contentment. We think that the external activities that absorb our attention will create a desirable internal result. We become professionally successful, or gain the recognition of colleagues so that we can feel internal states called happiness, confidence or self-esteem. We search for a mate and create a family for the same reason: to feel internal satisfaction. We always assume that external accomplishment, or doing, comes first. Our internal state, or how we feel, comes second, presumably as a consequence of what we do.
The second answer to the question of right living is exactly the opposite. According to this philosophy of being, achieving a desirable internal state comes first. When we define ourselves by who we are instead of by what we do, our focus is on achieving inner qualities like serenity, strength, balance, passion or insight. The inner reality is the most important thing. External success, which is the primary focus of a philosophy of doing, comes second, presumably as a result of achieving a desirable internal state.
The Cultural Commitment to Doing
Our culture overwhelmingly embraces the first approach to right living and life mastery. We live in a culture based on doing. We have very few reference points for achieving internal fulfillment or success at being. We are all willing to sing the praises of poise, passion or courage, but most of us spend relatively little time thinking about what these terms mean, or about what we would have to do to develop these qualities. Naturally, we hope to attain noble character traits as a result of our activities. But that is not quite the same thing as devoting ourselves each day to using the events of the day to pursue inner growth. Instead, even while we are interested in inner growth, most of us still define our day in terms of a "to do" list: getting the next deal closed, the obligatory phone calls completed, the children fed and shipped off to school, or the next meal arranged.
Society also doesn't offer us many institutionalized opportunities for pursuing inner goals. We have to look to our extracurricular volunteer activities, recreation or religious life if we want to devote time to character cultivation. It's in our time off that we try to find the inner qualities we long for. But the rest of the time, all the time that is not leisure, gets focused mostly on achieving. And so we have lots of criteria for making it in the arena of doing. Financial stability, recognition in the professional field of our choice, marriage, children, service to the community, social status, are all signposts for external success. We spend a great deal of time working to meet these criteria, and to a large extent we measure our success as individuals by how effectively we have done this.
No one would deny that external goals can be extremely important. There is nothing wrong with doing things. After all, we do live in a physical world and things do have to get done. And the Western industrialized focus on external accomplishment has until recently fostered unparalleled levels of abundance for at least certain portions of the planet. But there is a problem. It is not at all true that achieving external goals will guarantee internal satisfaction. This may be what the philosophy of doing claims, but things don't work out that way. There is no guarantee that by accomplishing the external goals we set for ourselves we will achieve internal fulfillment. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Over-focusing on external achievements can cause us to ignore the deep personal changes and challenges we must confront in order to feel we have lived life well.
How many people do you know who are successful yet are gnawed by feelings of insecurity and failure? The road to external success is not necessarily the road to depth of character and self-realization. You can amass millions to assuage feelings of insecurity yet never resolve that inner sense of worthlessness. You can become an entertainment celebrity and the envy of all around you, a Marilyn Monroe or a John Belushi, and be so ridden by feelings of despair that you take your own life. Storing up the external symbols of success just isn't the whole answer.
Our culture is in crisis, and the crisis we are in is due in part to this terrible gap between external success and internal satisfaction. Carried to an extreme, the focus on external accomplishments and achievements produces the opposite of a satisfying life. We accumulate external proofs of our value at the cost of a deep inner sense of emptiness and what often amounts to despair over the meaning of life. If we try to quench our inner emptiness by accomplishing more, that inner emptiness only grows. As a guiding principle, the philosophy of doing is at best limited and at worst bankrupt. And there is something about our focus on achieving that is distorted, that expresses a sickness of the soul. Why do we think that we have to pile up achievements in order to be okay? The truth is that we would not feel that we had to prove ourselves by what we did unless we already believed that we were unworthy. Yet if we are unworthy at our core, no amount of achievement will solve our problem.
The Alternative of Being
The only way we can find the pathway to satisfaction is by lessening our obsessive grip on doing and focusing more on being. But what does being involve? What would individuals who practice being be like? These people are all too rare, but I have met a few. They are balanced and at peace, yet also courageous, strong and not afraid of taking risks. They blend authority with gentleness, patience with dynamism, the capacity for joy and laughter with an ability to experience deep recesses of personal pain. They integrate a passion for self-expression with the ability to listen intently, and are leaders who can also follow. They are their own person, uninfluenced by public opinion, yet also capable of deep partnership and companionship. They are profoundly committed to inspiring causes, and able to evoke that sense of commitment in others. They are mentally sharp, emotionally vibrant and vitally alive. They make every moment of life count and contribute in a big way, not because they need to pile up accomplishments but because they care deeply. They can give and receive love abundantly, and be of genuine service from a spirit of self-giving rather than of obligation. Their many strengths combine yin and yang, softness and strength, independence and the capacity for loving interdependence. They are totally comfortable in their own skins.
Spiritual writings extol the virtues of being. In the Old Testament, Job was great not for what he possessed but for his ability to endure with strength through all he lost. It was his struggle to achieve internal freedom and faith that gained him God's grace and that eventually returned him to material prosperity. Job represents the spiritual principle that internal achievement, or focus on being, brings about external achievement and success. The New Testament is also a teaching of being. It guides us toward purifying ourselves of inner weaknesses like envy, greed and fear, and replacing them with the light of love. In a different tradition, Buddhism teaches us not about achieving externally but rather about developing detachment in the face of life's restless striving, and committing ourselves to the inner quest for peace. The ancient masterpiece of China, the I Ching or Book of Changes, which became a source for the teachings of both Confucius and Lao-Tse, teaches the way of inner balance in the midst of constant external change. Its oracles guide the sincere seeker into right living through learning the personal security, tranquillity and power that come from aligning oneself with the forces of life and the reality of the Tao.
The philosophy of being is about self-transformation. The consequences of our culture's total failure to value self-transformation are deadly. A pessimism about human potential pervades Western society. This pessimism tells us that we cannot amount to much, that we must lower our sights, and that great feats are not for the common man or woman.
A lack of faith in the human spirit underlies our obsession with keeping busy. We learn to over-focus on details and avoid responsibility for the big picture. We learn how to do more but we don't necessarily learn how to become bigger and better people, to conquer the anxieties that drive us, or to set our sights on high ideals. Our lack of faith in ourselves limits our ability to challenge ourselves. We admire greatness of character in others, yet often assume that we cannot develop this greatness within ourselves. Almost nothing around us tells us what the pathwork of self-transformation and empowerment looks like or how we can embrace it.
Cultural voices counsel defeat rather than challenge us to grow. These crippling voices even masquerade as scientific fact. Here's a typical so-called objective scientific argument: We are born with unalterable genetic traits. Therefore, our personalities are largely under the control of our biochemistry. And if biochemistry rules us, how can we change ourselves for the better? How can we change our internal states? How can we conquer anxiety, depression or fear if these are biologically determined? In fact, since biochemistry is our master, then when anxiety or depression hails our way, shouldn't we take a drug to control it rather than find out how to transform it from within? According to this view, we are victims of our biochemistry, and the best we can do is to manage our states with the use of external agents.
Our nation is not only the biggest consumer of illicit drugs in the world, it is also the biggest consumer of prescription drugs. We rationalize this fact by saying that our brain synapses rule our lives, and so all we can do is biochemically influence those synapses. The problem with arguments like these is that they use so-called science to limit us instead of helping us to grow. They are also misleading. It is a fact that biochemistry affects our mental and emotional states. But it is just as much a fact that our mental, emotional and spiritual states influence our biochemistry. Our beliefs can create health or disease, self-doubt or self-confidence. There's no doubt that our beliefs have power. When we embrace self-limiting, fearful beliefs and ground them in cultural superstitions that we call science, we use our mental capacities for outright self-destruction.
Each of us has the power to use our own mind to transform our internal states and create a life that is physically healthy as well as emotionally and mentally rewarding. But we can't create this life for ourselves unless we place our priorities where they belong: with being rather than with doing. That's the responsibility we face. And it's not a question of sacrificing one thing for another. Focusing on being will take us where we actually want to go when we focus on doing, because both the philosophy of doing and the philosophy of being are aiming at the same goal: inner satisfaction. But people who focus on becoming happy by achieving external goals are going about their lives in a confused way. They're putting the cart before the horse. They think that they can get away with focusing on their achievements first and deal with themselves afterwards, when what they really should do is the opposite. This confusion over what comes first is the problem. It makes for a lot of poor choices in life.
The Key to Happiness
Long ago, the Buddha recognized the confusion in the way human beings pursue happiness. He observed that a restless striving after goals is part of human nature. People are constantly seeking to get something or to do something, operating with the notion that what they get or what they do will give them satisfaction. At the same time, what they are really looking for is something they can achieve only by ceasing their striving, by ceasing to think in terms of what they can get and do.
The Buddha identified a paradox. In all the frenzy of our activity, no matter what we are trying to do or where we are trying to go, what we are actually seeking is not an external achievement but an internal feeling. It is our internal state that we are trying to manage, and not something else. We believe that by achieving somethingfinding the right mate, getting the perfect job, etc.we will attain the internal state of satisfaction that gives us a feeling of meaningfulness. We look to the outside, but we are looking there to heal the inside. External goals simply become a means for producing internal results. After all, it is our internal state that we live with moment by moment and day after day. It is the only thing that never leaves us. It is us.
In the end, everything we do is motivated by the desire to achieve an internal state that makes us feel better. What differentiates us one from the other is not whether or not we are seeking internal fulfillment, because all of us are doing that. What, makes us different from each other is how we go about seeking to create that inner well-being, what kind of results we actually achieve, and whether we learn from the results.
The drug addict takes drugs to change his internal state, to get rid of pain, anger or anxiety and feel more pleasure, more freedom, more joy. Like everyone else, he wants to find happiness and release from pain. But he has a fairly low criterion of success and is prevented from learning and growing. The addict is also dependent on something external for changing his internal state. The external thing that changes his statethe drugproduces short-term satisfaction and leads to long-term disaster. The more he relies on the drug for feeling good, the more the rest of his life falls apart. He gets symptomatic relief from a cancerous problem he's feeding. His approach to managing how he feels is short-sighted, creates a more and more unmanageable life, and doesn't meet his real needsneeds that have more to do with feeling safe in the universe than with feeling high.
Imagine the opposite extreme from the drug addict: the Tibetan yogi who wraps his naked body in a dripping wet sheet and sits in sub-zero temperatures on a Himalayan mountain top throughout the night. He practices a fairly intense inner discipline by training himself to heat his body with his mind, drying the wet sheet that envelops him. He's remarkably adept at maintaining a comfortable body temperature in an uncomfortable world. There's a similarity between the Tibetan yogi and the drug addict. Both of them are working on getting control of how they feel on the inside. But the yogi is doing it in a way that's very different from the drug addict. Instead of looking for something outside him to warm him up on the inside, the yogi trains his mind to raise his body temperature so that the outside world doesn't bother him. He is using an adverse external circumstance as a tool for developing an internal skill. Instead of changing from the outside, he changes from the inside. Instead of trying to get something outside himself to satisfy him, he satisfies himself by changing his normal response pattern to the outside. And if he keeps it up, he'll even influence his environment by melting the snow he's sitting on.
We may not all want to develop the ability to dry wet sheets in Arctic conditions. But there is a lesson in the yogi's approach. The ability to maintain control of our internal states in the face of difficult circumstances, instead of being tossed to and fro by the winds of the moment, is basic to leading a fulfilling life. And there's more. Inner balance is a key ingredient for meaningful external achievement. People with inner balance train their minds to be powerful allies in the pursuit of their goals, instead of weak companions or even foes.
When we focus on being instead of doing, we explore and strengthen the power of our minds. The mind is the greatest resource we have. Because our culture asks us to focus excessively on doing, it neglects the cultivation of our greatest resource, the internal faculties of our minds. What's more, when we over-focus on doing, we actually end up achieving far less in the outside world than if we focused on being. That's the real rub: if you go with doing you lose on all fronts. You're less happy and you achieve less. But if you go with being, you find that by working on your internal state you're not only happier, you also achieve far more than you would have imagined possible. Focusing on doing is self-destructive and inefficient. It undermines our peace and makes our life stressful. It encourages self-hatred, fear and shame. It is totally ineffective, crippling and painful. We are suffering from a cultural disease that is making us sicker than we know.
It's impossible to live in today's world and not be affected by this disease. We need to understand the enemy we live with fully before we can free ourselves. The next three chapters explore how living a life that overfocuses on doing and on external success weakens every aspect of our lives, from our health to our emotional life, our relationships and our creative potential. I call the life path of doing the way of the effortful warrior, because over-focusing on doing eats up our lives. Let's look at how we commit ourselves to an effortful lifestyle that then destroys us.
Excerpted from The Art of Effortless Living by Ingrid Bacci Copyright ©2002 by Ingrid Bacci. Excerpted by permission.
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