During the 45 years that I have been in practice as a clinical psychologist, I have worked with individuals who have considerable difficulty maintaining a sense of balance in their lives. They are as discussed in the last chapter: compulsively driven to attain more and more goods, toys, money, or titles; chronically anxious lest they lose their possessions or positions; tormented by feelings of inadequacy. As much as they want to change, and as clearly as they are able to see that the way they are organizing their lives is not bringing them the joy that they had hoped for, they feel incapable of reversing the process.

Some recognize that as children they had a sense of freedom and a fuller appreciation of life. As they grew up, often beginning as early as grade school, they learned that life was not to be enjoyed but to be taken seriously. Life was work. They learned that their value in this world, and indeed their very identity, was going to be based on what they did for a living and how much money or power they had. Parents and other adults around them, in their often well-meaning concern for the future of these people, over-emphasized the need to find purpose and meaning in life through work. In their zeal to produce responsible adults, they imparted the message that what one did as an occupation was all important.

As I have worked with these people to help them create balance, and a greater sense of personal harmony, many have asked for some principle that would guide them. They wanted some sort of reminder on which they could focus especially when they felt caught up in the press of everyday activities. Similar to the alcoholic suffering from a hangover, they remember only in retrospect what they should have done in a given situation. By then it is too late. They asked for a reminder that might help before the fact, rather than after.

As I thought it occurred to me that these individuals were not distinguishing between what they did for a living and what they did for their life. What they did for a living had taken over their lives to the point where they virtually had no life. Their lives were dominated by work. They spent more time and energy physically and mentally involved in their work than all the rest of their time and energy combined.

I began to think about these terms as two different worlds, the world of for-a-living and the world of life. The mission for these people was to develop more of a world of life and less of a for-a-living world. The world of life includes family, friends, hobbies, recreation, community involvement, spirituality, and self-awareness. Perhaps life offers less money, power, or status than for-a-living, but life offers appreciation, courage, love, community, joy.

The more I pondered this issue, the more familiar these the thoughts were. Then I realized that thousands of years ago the biblical sages must have been dealing with similar issues. They wanted people to realize that they were not on this planet merely to achieve some end, to procure more possessions, to follow our animal instincts and emotions. Rather, human beings had consciousness. This consciousness differentiates us from lower animals and some spiritual leaders might consider it to be divinely inspired. Charles Darwin purportedly said that “human beings are the only animals that blush” indicating that only humans can experience self-consciousness. Other theologians believe that it is through consciousness that God speaks to humans and/or operates through them. Whatever the belief, it is through consciousness that humans have the capacity to reflect on their behavior, are able to have a higher order guiding principle, and can develop values and principles to help guide their behavior.

Frequently we do not utilize this consciousness and thereby reduce ourselves to lower levels of development relying upon habit, needs, and drives to determine our actions. The ancient religious leaders recognized this tendency in people. They saw, even in ancient times, that people spent their amassing fortunes, gold, land, goods, etc., often at the expense of their own integrity as well as that of others. They went off to wars for power, glory, and money. And these wise men also recognized that people were easily enslaved, either by others or by themselves. They were enslaved by the promise of riches or because they failed to use their consciousness to determine a more appropriate path.

It seems to me that these ancients were dealing with a society that tended to get caught up in the materialistic world, whether it was the world of ancient Egypt, where they chose to remain slaves rather than crossing the hot desert or were more interested in being Hellenistic, with all of the material things, than in fighting for religious freedom. And here I am faced with a number of people who are involved in their personal struggle between freedom and slavery, between consciousness and habit, between what one does for life and what one does for a living.

The Old Testament states that the Israelites were commanded to place the words “Hear, Oh Israel, God is One,” on doorposts, doorways, and gates and to tie them on their arm and on their forehead each day as a constant reminder that there is but one God. If we equate God with Consciousness, then this idea suggests that human beings are in need of a constant reminder to utilize their Consciousness lest they fall back on their animal instincts and become enslaved by either their own ignorance or by the ignorance of others. Buddhists might equate “enlightenment” with consciousness. Perhaps this is why such a high value is placed on education by many civilizations. Education demands consciousness.

Many cultures have embedded within them rituals, symbols, and traditions designed to bring adherents to a higher level of consciousness. When performing the rituals or gazing at the symbols, one is supposed to direct one’s thoughts away from the mundane and toward enlightenment or a more spiritual focus. It occurred to me, for example, that the mezuzah (the ornament that Jews hang on their doorways which contains those biblical words) and the tefillen (the leather boxes containing the biblical words that traditional Jews place on their arms and foreheads each morning) could be viewed as visible, symbolic reminders of the need for human being to be conscious. These devices can be understood as daily, frequent reminders of the continuous struggle to maintain one’s humanity on a daily basis. Lighting candles or morning meditations are common with other cultures and serve to remove the participant from the daily thoughts of earning a living and bring him/her to a higher consciousness.

To the individuals whom I described earlier who have asked me for reminders to help keep their lives in balance, I have suggested that they might think about ways in which they can alter their days so that each day would begin with an appreciation of life. I suggest that they might meditate, find a special place where they can stand or sit and reflect on the meaning of life and the distinction between what they do for life and what they do for a living.

I further suggest that they develop some physical symbolic reminders that they can see and even carry with them. For some it might be a special figurine, a special bracelet, or a unique amulet. These can be carried or placed strategically in their environment. For those who are religious, I suggest that they re-interpret their religious or cultural symbols in the above light. Thus, rather than being merely a religious artifact that has spiritual, traditional, or ornamental value, these symbols can have contemporary value in their own lives. For the Jew, the mezuzah, the Chai, and the tefillen could be symbols of Consciousness; a reminder that life is more important than what one does for a living. For the Christian it could be a crucifix, a statue of the Virgin Mary or other Saint, or a St. Christopher’s medal. Almost any object can serve as a reminder of our essential humanity, our consciousness, providing we impart that meaning to it.

In this light, even the very act of eating can serve to keep us in touch with our humanity. Special dietary laws of many cultures can be viewed as another way for us to remind ourselves that we are conscious human beings. It does not matter whether it is the Hindu practice of avoiding beef, the Muslim practice of avoiding pork, the Christian practice of Lent, or the Jewish practice of keeping a kosher diet. We can distinguish ourselves from animals by choosing what we eat, when we eat, and how much we eat. We do not have to be driven by our hunger, but rather we can choose. We can choose not to eat bacon or fats or sugars or salt, or any number of other foods that we know we would be better off not eating. In this act of choosing, we are exercising our uniqueness and can recognize that we eat for life. The simple act of eating can become an affirmation of our commitment to life rather than to what we do for a living. Missing meals in the service of what we do for a living would be counter to this commitment to life. Consciously fasting if done for spiritual or health reasons, by contrast, might be considered an act of higher consciousness.

One can view mealtime as an opportunity to commune with one’s inner self, one’s higher power, or any other form of higher consciousness that might serve to remind us of our uniqueness. Each of us can decide on a particular form of dietary style that will serve as a tangible reminder or our commitment to the world of life as different from the world of what we do for a living. Most animals eat standing; humans can eat seated as a reminder that they have the choice. Even this act can be seen as an act of higher consciousness.

From this perspective it is possible to find many symbols into our lives to remind to remain conscious, to be fully human, to maintain connected to our own inner strength. It further suggests that there are many simple acts that we execute daily that could bring us in touch with a higher self if we were to be conscious when we performed them. There are many acts in which we could engage that would elevate us to a higher level of consciousness, and that would make this world a little better place, make us feel a little better about ourselves.

[For additional essays that will help you change your life you may wish to read my book, Keeping Your Sanity (in an Insane World)]

[Please add your thoughts and experiences on this topic in the comment section of this blog.  This blog is intended as a forum for folks to raise issues, share experiences, and promote dialogue on important issues of contemporay life.   Please sign up as a Facebook Fan at www.docdreyfus.com/fanpage. For additional information about me and my practice, please visit my website at www.DocDreyfus.com. ]