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Investing in Ourselves

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One worrisome development among many in the consumptive frenzy of our so-called culture is that our innate desire to improve ourselves has been transformed into to a desire to improve our material position. Are there those among us who lack the basics of food and shelter? Sadly, yes. Those who stand to gain from our assets and efforts, however, have duped the rest of us into believing that growing horizontally, which is to say increasing our material footprint on the world, is a satisfactory substitute for growing vertically by increasing in wisdom, knowledge, peace, compassion, and illumination.

This widely pervasive shift is subtler and more insidious than we might think, so much so that our economy, so sorely in need of revamping, rests perilously heavily upon it. In addition to being about spending money we don't have on things we don't need (and thus plunging into debt) the shift is also, and more rationally, characterized by three common behaviors -- restoring, protecting, maintaining -- that between them eat up a huge amount of our time, assets and energy.

Restoring is one of the sneakiest things we do, because on the surface it makes so much sense. Whether we are restoring an old house, an old boat, an old car, motorcycle, piece of furniture or art, it often seems financially prudent, and even green, to save something from the rubbish bin rather than throw it away or replace it with something new. There can be passionate, hobby-level satisfaction in shining old automotive chrome, replacing worn parts, putting in a new kitchen floor, shoring up shaky beams, removing the patina of age from a painting, or refinishing an old table. Indeed, magazines, books and television shows, not to mention chain stores, have grown up around our desire to do restore things.

Ditto for protecting our property, both from thieves and the effects of the weather. Countless products (from paint sealers to security systems) have arisen to help us protect our stuff. We seek to keep interlopers out of our apartments, bird dung off our windshields and flood waters out of our homes. We try not to drop hammers on the tile floor. We try not to chip the counter. We try not to yank too hard on the kitchen cupboard or let our kids draw on the walls with crayons. We try not to put pistachio shells down the drain or paper towels in the toilet. We close the garage door when it rains so our possessions don't get wet and so our precious vehicles don't rust. We protect our sofas with fabric sprays; we guard our lettuce patches from the ravages of rabbits.

And then there's maintaining. In order to keep up our houses, we plug leaks, paint siding, adjust leaking faucets, seal cracked molding, vacuum, clean, polish and scrub the counters, walls, sinks, windows and floors. We change oil in our scooters, compound and wax the finish of our cars, tighten loose bolts, snug up belts, check fluids, run Q-tips through vents, spit-shine leather, put air -- and sometimes even nitrogen -- in tires, and pay our local dealer or mechanic to do those more complex tasks that are beyond our ken. Of course we maintain a lot more than our houses and cars. Our lives have become dependent upon electronic and other high-tech systems that require not merely regular maintenance, but constant supervision.

In a sense, restoring, protecting, and maintaining our material world all falls under the umbrella of investing. We have an investment in our goods, depending upon critical equipment and often profiting from material objects that we cherish, study and collect. Be it stamps, old hi-fi equipment, vintage pocketknives, or real estate, when it comes to collectibles, our passions run hot. Many good livings have been made from investing in material things, and quite a few famous fortunes too.

There's a lot of good sense, it seems, to all this investing. Indeed, in our society, investing has a definite caché, a ring of street smarts and importance, even wisdom and elitism. And yet, for all that apparent prudence, what about investing in our most significant assets: our health and our spiritual life? Despite reams of self-help books, retreats, seminars, workshops, training centers, and even social movements, we remain, as a collective, more concerned with our external world than our internal world, more concerned -- at least until we get old or sick -- with our stuff than ourselves. The result is that we consume too much, use too little, appreciate too rarely, and in doing so suffer greatly the consequences of ignoring what's most important -- our bodies and our vertical, personal growth.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. A bit of meditation, a bit of quiet consideration, and we all come to realize that the things we can't take with us are not nearly so worthy of our investment -- restoring, protecting, maintaining -- as is our state of health and our state of mind. While it makes good sense to be "green" about our important material possessions, it makes even more good sense to make strong efforts to avoid illness and decrepitude -- along with depression, frustration, envy, disquiet, alienation, loneliness, and a lack of any sense of unity or belonging -- by attending first and foremost to the needs of our body and mind.

Make a little change today. Choose to work out instead of polish. Choose to meditate instead of repaint. Choose to stretch instead of shop. Make a mind/body practice your focus, thereby maintaining and restoring and protecting not your automobile, but yourself. Read up on nutrition rather than woodworking, on brain exercises rather than video games. Redirecting yourself thus, little by little, will set in motion a process that will yield great dividends in your longevity and your ability to enjoy life. Spread the word. Share these ideas with a friend. Every individual who moves from external compulsion to internal awareness, from materialism to spirituality, contributes to much-need global change. If we all do this, we can truly expect a new economy and a revivified society too.

Ask yourself if this isn't true.