The One Secret to Making the Most of Unwanted Downtime

07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If you're like many Americans, you may be finding yourself overeducated and underemployed as the recession enters its second year. Maybe you've had well-meaning voices tell you what an opportunity this is for personal growth, to get into shape, or a thousand other good things. Maybe some of those voices are inside your own head.

But if you're like most of us, you don't listen to them nearly as much as you say you should. Are we all just pathetically lazy? Or is there a way to better live up to our collective resolutions? In fact, having spent several years teaching spirituality and personal growth, and having just spent five months on a meditation retreat myself, I've found there is exactly one secret to making it work: Do It Anyway, Especially When You Don't Want To.

Let me back up one moment to reiterate what an opportunity unemployment or underemployment really does present. This is not PollyAnnism; it's the truth. Most people who read websites like this one complain endlessly about not having enough time for "what really matters." Well, if you're working less than you want to, now you have the time -- and, probably, plenty of opportunities. Sure, you may not have the spare cash to afford that long trek in the Himalayas. But in-between-jobs-time is a great chance to get your body into shape, cook for yourself instead of eating yummy-but-unhealthy restaurant food, explore meditation or yoga, read those Russian novels you really ought to read, start gardening, try oil painting, volunteer at a local shelter or soup kitchen, or take up a thousand other pursuits that make life worth living.

There is no shortage of sources of good ideas. Books like Thomas Moore's classic Care of the Soul and lesser-known entries like Colleen Kinder's Delaying the Real World are chock full of zero-cost ways to get smarter, thinner, more mindful, more helpful to those less fortunate, whatever. So it's not that there aren't good ways to spend your newly abundant free time.

Confronted with such freedom and opportunity, however, most of us act like five-year-olds raiding the pantry. Sure, we know that the spinach would make us feel better in the long run -- but those Milky Ways sure are tempting. Even after we've eaten too many of them, most of us keep going back for more. And more. Maybe your favorite junk food is watching back episodes of The Muppet Show online. Maybe it's refreshing your Facebook page every five minutes. But whatever your personal junk food is, I'll wager you keep binging on it even after you already feel vaguely nauseated.

Finding "the right spiritual practice for you" will not do it. Swearing on a stack of bibles will not do it. In fact, there is only one thing that will do it, and that is Doing It. Nike was right, as I've learned the hard way over the course of many long meditation retreats and other spiritual endurance tests. You have to Just Do It, particularly at those times when you don't want to. In fact, whatever "it" is for you -- eating right, meditating, doing yoga, gardening, exercising, reading a good book, practicing the clarinet, volunteering, calling your grandmother -- it's at precisely the times you don't want to do it, that you most need to do it.

The point, and the problem, of what I'm calling "spiritual practice" -- hopefully the examples I've listed indicate how much that term can include -- is that it is transformative. It changes the "you," perhaps only temporarily, from a "you" which is bamboozled by sensory stimuli, reptilian-level desire and aversion ("like it!" "hate it!"), thoughts and appetites, to one which is just a little more at peace. But if the "you" is what's being changed, that means you can't trust it, in the beginning, to make decisions. It's the decider that's the problem.

A few weeks ago, I wrote in these pages about how New Age ideas about "trusting your heart" and good old American ones about "going with your gut" can sometimes get us into trouble. All of us form immediate, Malcolm-Gladwell-esque snap judgments about people based on gut reactions which are themselves based on biases which really don't deserve our respect. But if we make these judgments about other people once or twice a hour, we unconsciously rely on them ourselves once or twice a second. You are the marionette and they are the strings.

Thus, the secret to spiritual practice is doing it precisely when you don't feel like doing it. When you're inspired by some beautiful landscape, or moved to tears at the birth of your newborn daughter, it's easy to think sublime thoughts about miracles or God or whatever. But that's not so interesting. When such thoughts matter most is when they are the hardest to summon up: at times of boredom, laziness, disinterest, and...blah.

If you look closely at those blahs, you'll discover that they're usually full of aversion to whatever is going on. Nah, don't like this; nah, don't wanna do that; meh, I think I'll click that ad. Not this, not this, not this. Whereas any good spiritual teacher will tell you that The Point, the Big Idea, the Secret, is just to "be here now," be with what is, and stop looking somewhere else for satisfaction. So in order to break the cycle, you have to just interrupt the circuit of "Nah" and do the thing which you know you ought to do, but which you don't want to do. Because, again, it's the "you" that's the problem.

Let's role-play it. First, make that list of the 10 things you want to do each day for your well-being: learn to play clarinet, eat leafy greens, commit to tutor an underprivileged child -- whatever. Next, figure out what the next steps are toward each of those laudable goals: for example, find a teacher who'll barter clarinet lessons with you, cook the kale, research the tutoring opportunities. Good -- now the easy part is done.

Now, just do it. Don't assume it will feel good, because it won't at first. It might feel like pulling teeth. But my advice, again based on years of doing this myself, is to give absolutely no respect to your laziness. Just shake it off. Force yourself to slog through those steps and keep slogging. Remember that the "you" that doesn't like this stuff is exactly the "you" you're trying to transform into something else. It's actually the problem you're trying to solve.

The Buddhists have a nice way of thinking about this. They personify these forces in the mind of greed, hatred, and delusion as Mara -- basically, a non-religious version of Satan. When Mara tempts you, ignore him! Just smile at Mara, say thanks very much, and move on.

I've found this approach works under both extremely trying and extremely banal circumstances. On one retreat, for example, I was confronted with so much self-hatred I couldn't bear to look at it; Mara was judging me, berating me, and, in a wonderfully neurotic twist, judging and berating me for judging and berating myself. I felt like I was going to die -- but I knew that inner drama queen was just Mara, too, and somehow I soldiered on. I remembered that Samuel Beckett quote: "I can't go on. I must go on. I'll go on." And I just went on.

Perhaps more familiarly, I'm tempted a thousand times a week to slack off instead of doing my spiritual practice, to flake out, pig out, or wig out at something that isn't that important. Often, I do exactly that. But once in a while, I look Mara in the eyes and tell him to f--- off. Those are the times that I actually make progress.

It really is that simple. Thomas Edison was right about inspiration and perspiration, even if he didn't spend time in a Buddhist monastery. Once you've made your spiritual bucket list, don't wait until you want to do it, to do it. Do it when you don't want to -- because that's how you know you need it.