A Mid-Recession Life Revival

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Stressed lately? You're not alone. With new layoffs announced almost daily, a stock market on shaky ground, industries seeking tax-funded bailouts and hand-wringing is the new black. You know these problems will work themselves out. (If you doubt it, note how far those astronomical gas prices have fallen.) Downsized employees will find new jobs, and the economy will rebound. Life will go on. But here's what James Looram wants to know: Do you really want your old pre-recession life to go on, business as usual?

"Sure, a lot of people are frazzled and unhappy right now," says Looram, author of the new book Your Essential Self. "But think about it: Weren't you just as stressed before the economy collapsed? We have a very human tendency to blame circumstances for our unhappiness, but the truth is many of us started burning out a long time ago. And why? Because we are forcing ourselves to live lives that aren't fulfilling.

"What most people need right now is a life revival," he added. "And actually, the recession is the perfect time to do so. After all, America is already in an introspective mood. We've just elected a new president; we've clamped down on the mindless spending. As a nation we seem to realize the old ways aren't working anymore. Why can't we take that a step further and realize it as individuals?"

Looram is a pro at helping people find their purpose or what he calls their path in life. Your Essential Self captures the content of a five-day executive retreat he conducted for ten years. The seminar series came about after Looram noticed that the experienced, well-educated mid-level managers at the Fortune 500 companies he consulted with had lost their fire and passion for their work.

His system helps people shed the ill-fitting belief systems they've accepted all of their lives in order to discover the talents, values, and joy that make up their essential selves. First you must find the path to deliver your essential self. You get there by asking yourself questions, such as: What truly enthuses me? What has recently brought me the most joy? Am I doing what I am meant to do?

"Modern day humans live in two worlds," says Looram. "The first is the 'ideal' or perfect world we dream about, the one toward which we set our expectations. The other is the 'real' world of frustrations, blocked ambitions and dashed dreams. Too many of us get bogged down in the 'real' world and give up on trying to achieve our 'ideal' world."

With some introspection and self-cultivation, you can break your "real" world down and figure out how to start living in your "ideal" one, he explained. The key is to find your life's path. This is hard work, but the life that opens up to you is so fresh and exciting that it infuses you with energy. When you are on your path, you find meaning and purpose behind what you do. You are literally on a mission and that brings you joy.

If you think, "Well, I'll take care of that once this economic upheaval levels off," you're missing the point. In fact, it's that kind of thinking that brought you to this point. Looram suggests you take the plunge now-and provided the following tips to get you started on the path to finding your essential self:

Maybe you can't quit your day job, but you can revitalize it. Consider the following scenario: There are two high school teachers who have been teaching for 25 years. The first is still full of enthusiasm and joy. She continues to learn new ways to teach and can't wait to get to the classroom each day. The second is burned out, does an adequate job, but is simply going through the motions. The first has found her mission. She is on the right path, one that draws on her talents, is meaningful and brings her joy. She will gladly do it forever. The second is doing a job. She has not found her calling.

"If you're the second teacher, it's probably not realistic to abruptly resign, especially in light of the current economy," admits Looram. "But what you can do is figure out what you really love doing and incorporate it into your daily life. If you discover your passion is in caring for animals, start volunteering each weekend at your local humane society. Perhaps you can instill a love and respect for animals in some of your students, which will give you a new sense of purpose at work. By folding your passion into your life, you will find that you can enjoy other things more and you will be rejuvenated in every way."

De-fog your worldview lens. We have all been programmed over time to embrace a particular set of values. These values have in turn influenced your beliefs, which have influenced your needs, which have influenced your attitudes. These structures have then played a role in determining your relationships. Each of these layers-relationships, attitudes, needs, beliefs, values-creates a lens through which you see the world. But all these layers can actually alienate us-from both our essential selves and the world around us.

"Think of it like this," advises Looram. "In the winter, we pile on the layers when going outside. We throw on a sweater, a big coat, a scarf, a hat and gloves or mittens. But what happens is all those layers hamper your movement. You lose dexterity because your hands are covered and agility because you're in these bulky clothes. Well, the belief systems you have built up over time are just as cumbersome. To find out what you are really all about, you have to strip off those layers and get back to your essential self.

"Here's how to start the process," he explains. "Write down your three most important values. Then consider the following questions: Did I choose that value freely or was I programmed to embrace that value by some institution, such as family, church, or school?; Was I aware of the alternatives?; Was I aware of the costs incurred by embracing that value?; Do I publicly affirm that value?; And do I walk my talk? If you cannot answer yes to all of those questions, then you can strip that value. Eventually you will have gone through your list of values, beliefs, and needs and will be left with only those that are important to you in the here and now."

Clear your path by giving your priorities the attention they deserve. When you learn to focus on what is truly important, you can expend more energy on all the other aspects of your life. The manager who focuses time on truly developing a relationship with his daughter will find that it gets easier to focus on work demands because there is no longer the distraction of an unhealthy relationship at home. Conversely, the manager who finds the appropriate niche at work to deliver his or her enthusiasm becomes much more fulfilled and consequently much more "present" at home.

"The key is to truthfully answer the question 'What is important to me?' and then to focus your energies there without worrying about neglecting other areas," said Looram. "For example, commit to spend one hour a day for three days a week reading to and playing with your daughter. You'll find that when you focus on that one thing that is truly important to you, you will continue to perform as well as, and probably even better than, before in other areas of your life. Why? Simply because you are content."

Learn to accept those who irritate you. All of us have at least one albatross: that person at our office or that other parent at school events who gets under our skin. Perhaps you allow this person-and you know who she is-to ruin an otherwise enjoyable day at the office picnic or to distract you from your son's performance in his first school play. You probably blame your dislike for this person on her behavior or sour attitude, but the reality is you just haven't accepted what makes the two of you different.

"No one really has a bad attitude," Looram said. "They simply have an attitude that differs from yours. Each of us has a very distinct personality. It is a unique mixture of deeply ingrained opinions, beliefs, experiences, relationships, attitudes, needs, and values. These unique belief systems are what often make it very difficult for us to cope with one another. At least once a day, try to see the world through the other person's eyes. Once you accept that there are personality differences between you and those around you, it can be easier for you to find the common ground on which you can work together."

Stop trying to do it all. Advancements in technology have made it possible to work from virtually anywhere, which means many businesspeople work on their vacations and after their kids go to bed at night. Though women have become prominent and important parts of the workforce, they are still expected to play a larger role than their spouses in running the household and raising the children. Everyone tries to do it all in order to get ahead, but what happens most often is we look back and realize we have accomplished nothing.

"Sure, you might have gotten a pay raise here and there, but did you enjoy a single moment of all that work?" Looram asked. "Or explaining to your daughter why you missed yet another soccer game? What I ask you to do is to focus on one true path for you and cut out what just doesn't fit. The idea is that you find balance in your life by throwing it out of balance. When you are able to focus on your essential self, everything else falls into place."

Create a 20/20 vision of your future. A single, well-developed, congruent, and coherent vision for the future is a very powerful tool. If you don't have one, spend some time developing it. Write it down. There's something about translating your ideas into words on paper-or at least on the computer screen-that helps you clarify them.

"We can create inner peace by summoning the courage to focus on just one thing-the vision that draws us along the path we have chosen," Looram said. "Remember, you should have only one vision. Competing simultaneous visions do just that: They compete, and as a result, we become the referees. We are no longer playing along the path. Those who have more than one objective have none. You can have several goals to help you achieve your vision, but the vision itself should stand alone."

Start seeking joy, not pleasure. Pleasure is the fulfilling of many of our basic internal needs for food, drink, sex and exercise, and external needs for security and recognition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with pleasure. However, all pleasures are transitory: Once we have experienced a good meal, we will seek another, and another. Joy is something altogether different, Looram says-it's a deeper abiding sense that we are in touch with the universe. When you are joyful, there is an unmistakable enthusiasm for the task at hand. You have found a deeply satisfying psychological and spiritual state that gives a clear sense of authenticity and truth.

"You must choose a path that brings you great joy," he says. "It should be an activity that you can't wait to get to each day. It is work that when you are engaged in it you lose your self-awareness. So, think back. When is the last time you lost yourself for a moment and were completely joyful? Was it when your college rock band reunited for a show at a local bar? Was it when you wrote a special birthday poem for your daughter? Was it when you volunteered at the soup kitchen? If you can pinpoint your last joyful moment, chances are you have found your path."

Take up a "stop thinking" practice. Thinking isn't always a good thing. There are some tasks that we do every day that if we were to stop and think about what we were doing, we would actually slow ourselves down, like tying your shoe or driving your car. It's your right, non-thinking brain that controls these tasks, and that is the side of the brain you will need to tap into in order to realize your essential self. Thinking at the time of execution interferes with performance. Sometimes the less you can think about an issue, removing your thoughts from the circled chatter of your left brain, the more you come to understand it.

"Getting into a non-thinking state takes practice-daily practice," asserts Looram. "Gardening, biking, swimming, wood working, sculpting, yoga, tai chi, any sport, even walking can take on the aspects of a perfect non-thinking practice. They are performed with the specific intention of relaxing your body, quieting your mind, and allowing you to enter a non-thinking state. The more we practice, the more peaceful, centered, and focused we become. This practice, which may take less than an hour each day, places us back in our very active worlds centered, focused, peaceful, and able to move through the turbulence of our daily lives while remaining in the eye of the storm."

Stop living in the past. Just as we can create our future through our mind's ability to visualize it, we can recreate our past by simply causing our minds to interpret what has happened to us in a different way. This can be a powerful realization.

"The past is history that can be interpreted in any way you choose to interpret it," says Looram. "Everyone can find or manipulate some occurrence in their past and use that experience as an excuse for why they aren't seeking out a better life. If you find that you are lingering on a bad childhood or a bad work experience, it's time, as I used to tell my kids, to get over it! These experiences are absolutely irrevocably in your past. Fail to get over them and you ruin the present moment. Living in the past, even the most recent past, keeps us from enjoying the gift of the present."

You'll notice that most of these practices cost little to nothing in monetary terms. That's good news for those of us who are cash-strapped by the recession. The obstacle you may have to overcome is a deep-seated unwillingness to embrace a way of thinking that's foreign to the average, hectic-scheduled businessperson and parent.

"If you're about to write this spiritual, introspective process off as 'not for me,' I ask only that you stop for a second and evaluate how happy you are," urges Looram. "Think about how your stress levels and subsequent unhappiness affect not only everyone around you, but you, your health, and your soul. Just give it a try. You can always return to your old ways. But I promise that if you take the time to find your path now, you will set yourself up for a more fulfilling, joyful life."

James Looram, Ph.D., and his faculty provide Essential Self and Leadership seminars across America. He currently resides in New York City. For more information, click here.

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