This little book we picked up at a yard sale a few years ago is full of these great little stories that every time I pick it up I get something great from it. Today’s article I read was so good that I wanted to share it. We all have worries or fears or stress that causes us to feel like this sometimes.
Not long ago I came to one of those bleak periods that many of us encounter from time to time, a sudden drastic dip in the graph of living when everything goes stale and flat, energy wanes, enthusiasm dies. Every morning I would clench my teeth and mutter: ‘ Today life will take on some of its old meaning. You’ve got to break through this. You’ve GOT to!’
But the barren days went by and the paralysis grew worse. The time came when I knew I had to have help.
The man I turned to was a doctor, not a psychiatrist, just a doctor. He was older than I, and beneath his great gruffness lay great wisdom and compassion. “I dont know whats wrong.” I told him miserably. “I just seem to have come to a dead end. Can you help me?”
“I don’t know,” he said slowly. He made a tent of his fingers, and gazed at me thoughtfully for a long while. Then, abruptly, he asked, “Where were you happiest as a child?”
“As a child?” I echoed. “Why, at the beach, I suppose. We had a summer cottage there. We all loved it.”
“Are you capable of following instructions for a single day?”
“I think so,” I said, ready to try anything.
“All right, here is what I want you to do.”
He told me to drive to the beach alone the following morning, arriving no later than 9am. I could take some lunch, but I was not to read, write, listen to the radio, or talk to anyone else. “In addition,”‘ he said, “I’ll give you a perscription to take every 3 hours.”
He tore off prescription blanks, wrote a few words on each, folded them, numbered them and handed them to me. “Take these at 9, 12, 3, and 6.”
“Are you serious?”
He gave me a short laugh. “You won’t think I’m joking when you get my bill.”
The next morning, with little faith, I drove to the beach. It was lonely, all right. A northeaster was blowing, the sea looked gray and angry. I sat in the car, the whole day was stretching emptily before me. Then I took out the first of the folded strips of paper. On it was written: LISTEN CAREFULLY.
I stared at the two words. Why, I thought, the man must be mad. He had ruled out music and newscasts and human conversation. What else was there?
I raised my head and I did listen. There was no sounds but the steady roar of the sea, the creaking cry of a gull, the drone of some aircraft high overhead. When I got out of the car, a gust of wind slammed the door with a sudden clap of sound. Am I supposed, I asked myself, to listen carefully to things like that?
I climbed the dune and looked out over the deserted beach. here the sea bellowed so loudly that all other sounds were lost. And yet, I thought suddenly, there must be sounds beneath sounds-the soft rasp of drifting sand, the tiny wind-whisperings in the dune grasses-if the listener got close enough to hear them.
It is here I made a discovery: If you listen intently, there is a fractional moment in which everything seems to pause. In that moment of stillness, the racing thoughts halt. For a moment, when you truly listen for something outside of yourself, you have to silence the clamorous voices within. The mind rests.
I went back tot he car and slid behind the wheel. LISTEN CAREFULLY. As I listened again to the deep growl of the sea, I found myself thinking of the immensity of it, the stupendous rhythms of it, the velvet trap it made for the moonlight, the white-fanged fury of it’s storms. Sitting there, I realized I was thinking of things bigger than myself-and there was relief in that.
Even so, the morning passed slowly. The habit of hurling myself at a problem was so strong that I felt lost without it. Once, when I was wistfully eyeing the car radio, a phrase from Carlyle jumped into my head:
“Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves.”
By noon the wind had polished the clouds out of the sky, and the sea had a hard, merry sprinkle. I unfolded the second “prescription.” And again I sat there half-amused and half-exasperated. Three words this time: TRY REACHING BACK. Back to what? To the past, obviously. But why, when all my worries concerned the present or the future?
I left the car and started tramping along the dunes. The Doctor had sent me to the beach because it was a place of happy memories. Maybe that was what I was supposed to reach for: the wealth of happiness that lay half-forgotten behind me.
The tide was ebbing now, but there was a still thunder to the surf. So I chose to go back across the years to the last fishing trip I made with my younger brother, before he died in the Pacific during WWII. I found that if I closed my eyes and really tried I could see him with amazing vividness, even the humor and eagerness in his eyes that far-off morning. In fact, if I tried. I could see it all.
By 3pm the tide was out; the sound of the waves was only a rhythmic whisper, like a giant breathing. I was feeling relaxed and content, a little complacent. The doctors prescriptions, I thought, were easy to take.
But I was not prepared for the next one. This time the three words were not a gentle suggestion. They sounded more like a command. REEXAMINE YOUR MOTIVES. My first reaction was defensive. Theres nothing wrong with my motives, I said to myself. I want to be successful, who doesn’t? I want a certain amount of recognition-but so does everybody. I want more security than I’ve got-and why not?
“Maybe,” said a small voice, “those motives aren’t good enough. Maybe that’s the reason the wheels have stopped going around.”
I picked up a handful of sand and let it stream between my fingers. In the past, whenever my work went well, there had always been something spontaneous about it, something uncontrived, something free. Lately it had been calculated, competent-and dead. Why? because I had been looking for the rewards. The work had ceased to be an end in itself:it had become merely a means to make money. The sense of giving something, of helping people, of making a contribution, had been lost in a frantic clutch at security.
In a flash of certainty, I saw that if one’s motives are wrong, nothing can be right.
For a long time I sat there. Far out on the bar I heard the murmur of the surf change to a hollow roar as the tide turned. Behind me the spears of light were almost horizontal. My time at the beach had almost run out.
LISTEN CAREFULLY: To calm the frantic mind, slow it down, shift the focus from inner problems.
TRY REACHING BACK: Since the human mind can hold but one idea at a time, you blot out present worries when you touch the happiness of the past.
REEXAMINE YOUR MOTIVES: This was the core of the so-called treatment-this challenge to reappraise, to bring ones motives into alignment. But the mind must be clear to do this-hence the 6 hours of quiet that went before.
The western sky was ablaze of crimson as I took out the last slip of paper. Six words this time. I walked slowly out on the beach. A few yards below the high water mark I stooped and read the words again.. WRITE YOUR WORRIES ON THE SAND.
I let the paper blow away, reached down and picked up a fragment of a shell. Kneeling there under the vault of the sky, I wrote several words.
Then I walked away, and did not look back. I had written my troubles on the sand. And the tide was coming in.