In the story The Little Engine That Could, children are taught that obstacles can be overcome with willpower, optimism, and hard work. As the plot goes, when larger engines refuse to carry a long train to its destination, The Little Engine volunteers and (spoiler) through sheer determination and an onomatopoetic chant gets the job done. What isn’t mentioned is that The Little Engine had some serious horsepower. Without it, The Little Engine wouldn’t have had a chance.
Essential to everything we do is the energy we need to get it done. Money, Love, and Creativity are forms of energy we must build if we want to live passionate lives, but for the most part they operate externally. Inside us is another form of energy that makes everything else possible— our Vitality.
Cultivated and contained in the furnace of our bodies our Vitality needs our attention every day, or, like facing a uphill slope with slippery tracks, everything becomes more difficult: it is harder to focus, make good decisions, make music, make software, make money, or make love; it’s harder to serve the people who pay us, to befriend, parent, or nurse the people we care about. It’s almost impossible to follow through with anything difficult.
In contrast, when the fire of our Vitality burns even and hot, everything else is easier.
And so, if we want the most from life, it is vital to make ourselves healthy inside and out.
There is one role to put at the top of every Week’s Plan, the role whose job it is to measure, feed, and stoke the furnace and turn down the heat at night. When we are children, our parents are supposed to do it for us. As adults we need to take on the role of Stoker for ourselves, and build the fire of our own Vitality.
The formula is simple for most of us:
- Eat good food, not too much.
- Rest regularly, especially when tired or sick.
- Work the body carefully and vigorously every day.
- Connect to the silent, the sublime, the oneness and the nothingness, often.
In reality it’s more complicated than that, and as the world around us changes, we must constantly adjust the myriad valves, knobs and levers of our Vitality. It’s sometimes difficult to decide what needs adjustment, because our post-modern culture inundates us with so many conflicting notions and vastly exaggerated promises that particular nutrients, spiritual practices, or exercise regimes will make everything better.
Let me offer the same idea I give to almost everything: Listen to the furnace. Read the dials. Feel the nuance of your own fire. Knowing what you know now, take your best guess at what you might need next. Then take the step in that direction. Learn what works. Repeat.
The little things that make a difference.
Your Week’s Plan should never be without a goal as a Stoker. Sometimes the goal is obvious. Book that vacation. Sign up for that yoga class. See the doctor about that thing. When you are tempted to make grand changes to your lifestyle for the sake of your health, remember that willpower is actually finite, and frequent failure at making big changes can drain it. Often the most important thing you can do is something small.
For example, as Stoker:
Use smaller plates (because with big ones, it’s too easy to eat too much).
Hold that meeting while we walk (because my brain will work better if my blood is moving).
Take 15 minutes alone in the park (because being near nature will calm my soul).
Change my companion (because certain people bring me down).
Stand up and breath deep, right now (because the bellows of my furnace need to pump).
For me, the past few months have been extremely intense. It’s a perfect time for a little vacation, so the top of my Week’s Plan looks like this:
Stoker > Slow the engine and surf.