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The 40-Hour Jail Sentence

By Mark Brady, PhD

Does working a desk job fry your brain and rot your soul?

The first “real” job I ever had was working in an office as a purchasing agent. The job was to buy nuts and bolts—literally. The parts were for military aircraft. I was 19 years old and it was good money…for about a year. Then it became bad money. I soured on the job when I realized I was doing something I was morally opposed to: contributing to the war machinery. (Literally.) Working lousy jobs with little meaning inherent in them, even if you rationalize the hell out of it, rots the soul. So there’s that part.

Then there’s the brain part. Once I realized I was in a soul-rotting job, I tried drugs and drinking as medicine. That only made things worse very fast. My body started sending me wake-up alarms, but mostly I just ignored them. I could take aspirin for the migraines and antihistamines for the hives breaking out here, there and everywhere. (I wish Marina Shifrin’s “I Quit” viral musical video had been around in those days to inspire me. I might have ended up in a job working with Queen Latifah like she did.)

When Wisdom Speaks

One day when I was ready, a Sufi medicine man from Turkey showed up and issued me a stern directive: “Provide shelter for people.” That seemed like a work I could bring some soul to, and stop being part of the 71 percent of American workers who hate their jobs. Amazingly, the next day, outside the very office where I cubed out daily, I was offered a job working as an apprentice on a house-building crew. I took it, and traded my war-making machinery, slave-labor job for Right Livelihood on the spot.

Little did I know at the time, but that move saved my life. Why? Because the brain is built primarily for one thing: moving our butts through the world. More than 80 percent of the cells in my brain are devoted to that one operation: body movement. If you don’t move it, you’ll lose it—guaranteed. Brain cells literally shrivel up and die. Neural networks gradually go dark. Mike Evans, the 23½-hour doc, is on board with me moving my body through the world. So is Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert. He thinks body moving is the primary reason we have brains in the first place. I suspect both those guys are right, but even if they’re wrong, the way I see it there’s more upside in believing them than not. By acting as if it’s true, does it become true?

Providing Homes with Heart

In response to the Direct Order from Spiritual Headquarters, I built a ton of houses over 25 years. I provided good shelter for people, volunteered regularly in programs like Habitat for Humanity, Christmas in April and Hearts and Hammers, and I’m still around and in pretty good health. Lately, I’ve traded in the tool belt for a laptop computer for the most part, but I’ve still managed to keep the body in motion. I recently got this little puppy, Ollie, and a good collection of friends to keep me off my butt and moving through the world. That’s a good thing.

One other thing physical movement does, I’m convinced, is keep traumatic memories at bay. Why do I think this? Because I used to go on week-long meditation retreats where not much movement went on. Essentially you just sat and watched your breath as it entered the openings of your nose. For hours on end. This was a great recipe for having traumatic memories surface. Once they did, however, without doing something to reconsolidate them, I was simply piling a new traumatic memory on top of the old ones. Nailing countless 16-penny sinkers into thousands of Douglas Fir pre-cut studs managed to process a lot of that traumatic energy out of my body in ways that formal contemplative practice never did. I call it my Nail-Pounding Meditation. It works for me.

When Sufi saints speak soul truths that resonate in the heart, brain and body, wise men listen.