Although I’ll admit I’m thoroughly hooked on self-help literature, Martha Beck is not the kind of author I’d expect me to love. She’s just too popular, too chick-flicky, too over-hyped, too much of what society would expect a person of my demographic (single white female, American born, liberal arts degree, middle class, lives near Boulder, mid 30s) to like. Not only has she been endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, but she’s a regular columnist in Oprah’s O Magazine. All of this makes me want to rebel against her, to find her sappy and irritating and … and I have to admit that Martha Beck is one of my heroes. This woman rocks.
Beck’s audio program, Follow Your North Star (published by my beloved former employer, Sounds True) was the most interesting-looking thing on a sparse shelf of CDs in my local library as I was preparing for my latest big road trip, so I gave it a try. On it, she explained that the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly (cue the syrupy music) is the best analogy for any major life change … in that a caterpillar in the cocoon falls apart completely, dissolving into a soup of undifferentiated cells (cue the sound of the needle being dragged off a record, and kids saying, “Ew!”). From that point on, I was hooked. She had me from undifferentiated goo.
I moved on to read the book version of that program, Finding Your Own North Star, and I’ve just started working my way through her later work, The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life. I like this lady. In a genre of new-age, nonspecifically spiritual advice, Beck is refreshingly practical, intelligent, and funny. Some of her advice actually reminds me of that of another of my favorite authors, the businesslike, jock-ish, very practical Timothy Ferriss. Both Beck and Ferriss profess that our lives will be infinitely better if, every day, we do one thing that scares the crap out of us. Both also recommend that, when we’re afraid of taking the next step, we take a moment to imagine the worst that could possibly happen—though Ferriss does it because he’s sure the worst won’t really be all that bad, and Beck does it because the worst is likely to be funny. Martha Beck is not empty fluff. She’s got brains, she’s got guts, and her life-coaching ideas actually make a lot of sense to me. I’m excited about The Joy Diet, in particular, because although it continues her philosophy (that if only each of us could listen to her deepest self, and have the courage to do what it really wants, our best life paths would become obvious), it does so in a simple, step-by step program. This book won’t overwhelm me or prevent me from getting other things done. In fact, in it, Beck orders readers to take in just one chapter, one “menu item,” per week. One spends a full week adding one tiny change to every day’s routine, and when that becomes second nature, one adds one more change, taking another week to incorporate it. I can do one tiny change a day. This is my new year’s self-help plan.
I started step one, “menu item one,” as Beck called it, a few days ago: Nothing. Doing nothing, nothing at all, Beck explains, is a big challenge in America’s multi-tasking society, but it’s absolutely necessary if we are ever to know what we really think and feel. Once she explains what she means by “nothing,” it becomes clear that she’s recommending daily meditation. Still, practical as she is, she makes her meditation instructions simple and customizable, and thanks to that plan, it works better for me than any meditation I’ve tried before (and, working at Sounds True, I have dabbled in a few forms). It works for me because she gave the option of, rather than sitting still and staring into space, engaging in any mindless, repetitive activity. I can do that. I’ve been knitting for nearly 25 years. With a simple pattern stitch, I can knit in the dark, in a moving car, or even while my mind finally shuts down. This is cool. I can do this. In my very first day, I was able to sink into my “nothing” and come out, 20 minutes later, with a new perspective on one of my life’s problems. (It turns out it’s not a problem. I was just catastrophizing because I was bored.)
I am rather disappointed, though, that I’m supposed to read just one chapter a week. As I said, Beck is one intelligent, funny lady. I may have to check out one of her memoirs (Expecting Adam, about raising a son with Down’s Syndrome, or Leaving the Saints, about her choice to disconnect from the Mormon church she was raised in—this lady has guts!) so I can get a new dose of her voice each day. Sure, she fits onto bookshelves next to vapid, fluffy, repetitive, over-hyped pop psychology, but I’m convinced that Martha Beck is the real deal. I’m looking forward to my New Year’s diet. I’ll tell you how I’m doing when I’m ready for next week’s chapter.