Reclaiming Your Life
Phil exposes the inner enemy that traps you in a limited existence, and guides you through the first steps toward activating your full potential.
How I Came Alive
I became aware of the power of the life force as a college student—but it wasn’t part of my course work. At seventeen, I was already in my sophomore year. Physically and emotionally immature, I belonged back in high school. During my freshman year I had indulged my greatest love—basketball. When I was sixteen years old, I played on the best freshman team the school had had in years.
Now I wanted to move up to the varsity. I wasn’t ready. I needed to wait a year and get bigger and stronger. But I was a gym-rat whose pulse would quicken at the sound of the bouncing ball. I made the team—barely—and then I got what I deserved. I spent the next two years “riding the pine.” (The pine was the wooden bench the scrubs sat on during games.)
Worse than not playing was the dismissive way the coach treated the scrubs. By the time I was a senior, my confidence was destroyed. But what happened in that final season prepared me for the future in a way I never could have anticipated.
The team was even better than when I was a freshman. The best player was an All-American point guard. I was his substitute, which meant I only played when he was injured or had fouled out—usually when the score was close and the crowd was going berserk.
If I sat inertly watching, by the time I entered the game I’d be so cold I could barely move. So I’d “put myself in the game” from the bench. I’d jump up and down, scream at the top of my lungs, yell out where the screens were, etc. Besides keeping me loose, it had an effect I didn’t anticipate—it lifted up the energy of the guys actually playing.
The best moments were when my excitement spread to the rest of the team. I learned that I could inspire others to do things they’d never done before. It was at those moments that I felt most alive. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was being prepared for my future.
Recognizing the Life Force
Winning was great, but the most alive part of the experience—the part I still remember fifty years later—was feeling that inner fire grow. The more powerful the other team, the more difficult the challenge, the more inspired we became. The drive to experience this inspired state is what moves competitive athletes to train for hours every day.
But sports are just one place to discover untapped potential. As a psychiatrist, my job isn’t to win basketball games, it’s to help people discover what they’re capable of. This happens in obvious ways, like helping them get a better job, be a stronger leader, or break through a creative block. But our most important potentials aren’t so obvious: to give and receive love, to listen to other people, to accept what life brings, to be patient—the spiritual and emotional abilities that work inside us and are the essence of what it means to be human. If you were building a fire, they would be the ring of stones that holds in the fire’s heat, allowing the flames of inspiration to grow and connect you to what I came to call the Life Force.
The Life Force speaks constantly—not in words, but through events. You can feel it as an undeniable presence guiding you. More commonly, you’ll feel its presence for brief moments, usually in reaction to a deeply moving event: the birth of a child, the act of falling in love, or a trip to a faraway place that awakens something deep within you.
Or it can emerge without explanation as a sudden insight into another person, as the solution to a problem that’s defeated you for months or as a burst of creative expression that comes from somewhere beyond you. These moments of inspiration can seem random, but they’re reminders that the Life Force is always there.
But knowing the Life Force is there isn’t enough if you don’t know how to connect to it. Look around. The people you see living inspired, expansive lives are the exceptions. The vast majority of human beings are caught in limited, joyless lives—every attempt to change seems thwarted.
Maybe you’re a songwriter with an idea for a film script. Rather than becoming excited about writing in a new medium, it feels beyond you and you give up. Or maybe you’ve developed strong feelings for a person you’ve always thought of as a friend, but when you’re around him you automatically close yourself off. Or perhaps you’ve run a lot of 5Ks and you’d like to run a marathon, but you’re not willing to commit to the time it takes to train for one.
All of these people want to open a new door in their lives, but the door is locked. There is only one key: the Life Force itself. But we’ve forgotten how to find the Life Force. In so doing, we’ve lost the key to our own future. How could we lose something so priceless?
Because we look for it in the wrong place. In our consumer culture, we look outside ourselves for everything. Products are sold with the claim they will magically solve life’s problems. The right hair conditioner will attract the perfect mate. The right wristwatch will give you the aura of success. A new car, a new lover, or a new home may create temporary excitement—but it doesn’t last. Like a child excitedly playing with a Christmas present he’s just unwrapped, we quickly lose interest and move on to another gift.
This fixation on things outside of us makes change impossible. If you want to open the door to a future with real potential, you’ll need to access the inner power of the Life Force. You won’t be able to see it, you can’t hold it in your hand, but when it’s flowing through you it will inspire you to do things you didn’t think were possible.
The Life Force in History, Nature, and People
The belief that an invisible animating energy underlies our existence is thousands of years old. Unlike our modern, mechanical notion of energy, which we understand via mathematics, this is a living energy that we feel inside us. In Eastern religions, this energy, or Life Force, is known variously as prana (in Indian philosophy and medicine), lung (in Tibetan Buddhism), and chi (in Chinese philosophy and medicine). In the Old Testament, it was called ruach, the breath of God, which gave mankind not only life, but the spirit to evolve.
The Life Force itself may be invisible, but evidence of its power is everywhere. It created life on earth and, over untold eons, drove evolution from single-cell organisms to the unimaginable complexity of the human brain. Every seed that sprouts into a full-grown plant, every salmon that fights its way against the current to spawn, every sun-seeking weed growing through cracks in the sidewalk, is an expression of life’s unstoppable energy.
How does this affect you as an individual? The songwriter, lovesick friend, and runner were stuck; maybe they’d failed so many times they lost hope that change was possible. No amount of talking or analyzing could free them from their dark conclusions. But the Life Force affects you in a way that thinking can’t. You can feel its inspiring presence. When you do, you experience a force that has sustained all living forms for millions of years.
It’s natural to think of the Life Force as sustaining growth in nature—the grass growing, fish swimming, birds flying, etc. But the Life Force is capable of something more: it can fuel the inner growth of each of us. When you learn how to use its energy it becomes the antidote to the personal problems that fill us with a sense of powerlessness.
Every human being is blessed with the ability to use the Life Force in this way, but unlike its workings in nature, harnessing its power for inner growth requires a conscious choice.
You Must Choose to Inspire Yourself
Making this choice in your head isn’t enough; you register your choice through action. Living a life filled with unstoppable passion doesn’t happen by itself; it requires a heightened Life Force, and that takes work. Many times we build our Life Force without realizing what we’re doing. When I was screaming at my teammates from the bench it didn’t occur to me that I was stimulating their collective Life Force. But the more I did it, the more familiar it became, until it became a ritual I looked forward to.
Athletes in every sport, on every level, have rituals designed to stimulate their Life Force. Observe the players’ rituals before a game. The hopping, bouncing, slapping, and bumping might look like an overly aggressive dance number, but actually is a celebration of the Life Force.
Athletics isn’t the only arena that benefits from an expanded Life Force. Any role that requires you to lead, to create, or to perform—an actor, a lawyer in court, a teacher, etc.—benefits from a strong Life Force.
The most universal practice for tapping into the Life Force is really a number of practices—meditation, prayer, reading, journal writing, exercise—that make up the morning rituals that so many people swear by. Rather than preparing you for a single event, like a game, a play, or a public address, the rituals prepare you for the entire day to come.
Every time you “practice” these activities—all of them or a select few—you are making the “choice” to apply the Life Force to your own growth.
The Guy with the Gun
If choosing to trigger the Life Force is an action that anyone can take, each of us is free to bring this power into his or her life. But remarkably, even when we know it’s available to us, we don’t activate it. Instead we make a choice that makes us weaker: we give up on something out of laziness, avoid social situations out of insecurity, yell at a subordinate for an unavoidable business setback. We look back in wonder and ask, “Why did I do that? What was I thinking?” And the most disturbing question: “Why do I keep making this choice over and over?” The answer is that these weren’t choices any more than you have a choice when a mugger puts a gun to your head and tells you to empty your pockets.
The “guy with the gun” is forcing you to make the choice he wants you to make, not the choice that connects you to life. His goal is to deaden you and take away your freedom and your future. He doesn’t want your money; he wants your passion, your inspiration, your potential—all for himself.