Close Kitchen Doors and Unleash Your Power
When one door is closed, many more is opened. —Bob Marley
If you must begin then go all the way, because if you begin and quit, the unfinished business you have left behind begins to haunt you all the time. —Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Ever walk through your kitchen closing cupboard doors and drawers? Maybe you’re like me and go around shutting the open lockers in the locker room at the gym. Why do we close them? Perhaps, they’ll get in the way as we walk through and slow down our progress. In addition, before I leave the house I also make sure everything is in its normal place. Then I feel ready to go out.
Unfortunately, it is not so easy to close doors in our head. Back before I ‘retired,’ most of my open projects were managed by the circumstances of the job. Things needed to get done and a timeline was imposed. I was always on the go; making lists and checking things off even in my off time. There is a natural momentum in a highly scheduled lifestyle. After quitting the job, the focus went from ‘what do I have to do’ to ‘what do I want to do?’ The shift from external locus of control to inner.
One of the little advertised facts of retirement is that many individuals who go from employee to retiree fail in that transition. Either they (more often men) get depressed and die quickly or get bored and return to work. Surveys indicate that most of these returnees to work do so to feel useful and productive. That is not a bad thing. But I think if the return to work is not due to financial necessity or a burning passion, it is a default solution to an existential question—what’s my life about?
For many, retirement allows the time to pursue long held goals and dreams. A website has compiled the world›s most common goals and in the top fifty nothing is even vaguely like relaxing. But to achieve personal goals, it takes the powerful skills that entrepreneurs practice: Self motivation and management. As employees we had a built-in system that channeled our time. Without the job structure to produce results, it is easy to start projects then get distracted—no boss, no deadline.
Unfinished projects don’t go away—they linger in the background of our minds like ghosts haunting us. Sometimes depression appears and then the thought arises that work is more rewarding than retirement so back on the hamster wheel. Don’t rat yourself out, identify incomplete projects or goals or dreams, whether it’s planting an organic garden in the backyard to starting that on-line business to taking a class in origami.
One day, when feeling a gnawing unease I was given noted productivity guru David Allen’s Getting Things Done. In spite of my self-talk that I didn›t have to be productive, a light bulb went off in my head and I began to conceive of this stage of life, retirement from the daily 40+ hour grind, as a project. And it consisted of many sub-projects. It is not a vacation and therefore deserves the attention and planning that I gave to my career in education. Allen considers all aspects of life a project. He encourages individuals to get control of all of the projects in their lives from maintaining the house, to keeping fit, to career advancement, to child rearing.
Like many people, I had many goals that I wanted to pursue when I had the proverbial ‘free time.’ It wasn’t like flipping a switch. Some projects I wrote down as vision statements but after awhile I noticed how many of these ideas seemed to stall. In surveying my projects and bucket lists, I noticed what Allen calls ‘open loops.’ Closed loops have a beginning and end and are complete. Unfinished projects or open loops leak energy and clutter the mind. I looked at the projects in my life from planning a trip to remodeling the house to getting the car tuned up to learning badminton. After I identified the open loops, it got real simple and powerful, ‘What is the next action step?’ Do it, close the loop, and move on! If it is planning a trip, then the next step might be looking up flights to the intended destination. If it is repairing the house, call the contractor for an estimate. And so on.
The main thing is to stay with the concrete and not the abstract. When we think about postponed projects, they are either big and complicated, or vague and mysterious or even just tedious. The perceived difficulty can stop us before even starting and we end up with a lot potential projects. Is that so bad? Well, not necessarily but in that case Allen recommends a Maybe/Someday folder for those goals we are not yet committed to. Moving a project into the action folder, says I want to get this done—soon.
I gathered up those goals, projects, and tasks and listed each one from ‘auto repair to Zambia trip.’ In the collection process I ended up deleting what turned out to be ideas, not projects, and fantasies not dreams. Anything remaining was assigned an action step. One longstanding project was remodeling the front of my house; therefore the next action was to call the contractor. Immediately, after calling him I felt energized. By taking action, I felt more life. Studies show that minor successes can create as much endorphin rush as major ones. Nowadays, I find open loops, take action steps, and bask in the positive vibes of being my own boss.
Pursuing & Living Zorba’s Secret
I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.—Rabbi Hillel
Action is the antidote to despair.—Joan Baez
All the problems we find so complicated or insoluble he cut through as if with a sword . . . it is difficult for him to miss, because his two feet are held firmly planted on the ground by the weight of his whole body.—Kazantsakis from Zorba the Greek
My home office looks like a used bookstore that specializes in self-improvement, spiritual, and philosophical books. It has been a passion for thirty years. While preparing for a recent trip, I decided to break this habit. The programs, theories, and con- cepts of my books and all the workshops had all blended intothe labyrinth of the Minotaur who could not escape. Wanting to read about a life well lived and fully expressed, I decided on Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, appropriately set on the same island as the Minotaur, Crete. There wasn’t time to order it from Amazon, as I was about to leave for a trip, checking my public library and several used bookstores, inquiries to literary friends were all futile. Caving to the chain store, I went to Barnes and Noble. Upon handing my $25 gift certificate to the cashier,I got a strange response. “Sir, our lines are down for gift cards. I can only take cash or credit.” Frustrated, I declined to buy it and walked out.
But he did not even look round. How could he possibly have talked at that moment to a bookworm who, instead of wielding a pick, held in his hand a miserable stump of pencil? He was busy. He did not wish to speak. (Zorba the Greek)
On the way to the car, it hit me: I am done reading about life. Life is to be lived right now in the present, like Zorba. No more read- ing about Zorbas but living like Zorba with zest, vitality, energy, purpose, passion, and in the body. My self-improvement zeitgeist had become a solipsistic merry-go-round. Round and round and round. Being a good student and a graduate of a career in public education, I always believed the answers were in books and classes. Study was my obsession, not living. Finally tired of prepa- ration, I wanted to just do it. For the recent retiree it may be even more poignant, since the sands in the hour glass are running out.
About a week later on my trip to the East coast, I chanced upon a used bookstore in Salem, MA. Hidden in between the shops selling witch costumes and broomsticks, it was the most crowded bookstore I’d ever seen. The proprietor only had a ten inch space to peer out. I asked for Zorba the Greek. He said “Sure. Right away.” He picked it out of one of the ten foot tall stacks. I imme- diately began devouring it.
In Zorba, Kazantzakis (a Christian mystic) explores life’s mean- ing in ideas and characters. I saw myself in the protagonist. Like me he is a writer and a student of life—in books. He encounters Zorba, who is a working man who lives full out; dancing, singing, making love, fighting wars, and traveling to many countries. But Zorba is not simply a hedonist, he is a thoughtful man also and ponders questions such as the meaning of life, but his solution is not reading but dancing to get the answers. Drawn to this totally different and liberated soul, the narrator realizes he must stop living in his head and allow the soul and body to lead.
Inspired by the book, I now wanted to see the 1964 movie.
It too proved elusive. I mentioned my interest to a friend and he called to tell me that it would be on TV on a certain day. I planned to record it but then forgot. Thinking that a vintage, classic movie would not be hard to find, I put in a hold request at the library. I waited for several weeks and the tracking report said it was in transit, meaning that it was turned in and on its way to my branch. After another week or so, I went in to the library and inquired and they reported that it had been in transit for six months and was obviously lost. Giving up on that outlet, I dropped into my local indie video rental store. They looked it up, ‘Nope, checked out.’ Surprised but into the hunt, I went home and joined Netflix streaming because I really wanted to see it immediately. Turned out it is not available on streaming, only on DVD. Chastened but not quitting, I put the idea on the back burner. The next day stuff- ing the mail box was a notice from my public library, ‘sorry we couldn’t get the DVD but we will do an inter-library loan for free.’ Yet again, I was unable to procure a simulation of living.
Finally I ordered it from Netflix and viewed the film immediately upon receiving it in the mail. Cloaked in the patina of a black and white, the film portrays the key events from the novel, but not the inner quest. Although the performance by Anthony Quinn was nominated for an Oscar, the film barely scratches the surface of Kazantzakis’ spiritual inquiry. Zorba comes off as a wild man who chases his passions, without the inner reflection explored in the book.
That is what a real man is like, I thought, envying Zorba’s sorrow. A man with warm blood and solid bones, who lets real tears run down his cheeks when he is suffering and when he is happy he does not spoil the freshness of his joy by running it through the fine sieve of metaphysics. (Zorba the Greek)
My quest for this book and movie demonstrated to me that living fully can be studied in a movie or a book but doesn’t replace ac- tion. I find it especially relevant these days when virtual experi- ences are considered normal. People walk down a beautiful street or park looking at their screens. Zorba says, ‘Look up and see what is obvious.’ Some things can’t be answered with an Internet search, sometimes you have to pull a Zorba; dance, sing, and play music. Study, analyze, and muster the courage to live life and act.