Vital Signs: Discovering and Sustaining Your Passion for Life

Vital Signs: Discovering and Sustaining Your Passion for Life

by Gregg Levoy


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Rediscover—or discover for the first time—the things that make you passionate in life

Vital Signs is about what inspires passion and what defeats it. How we lose it and how we get it back. And ultimately it’s about the endless yet endlessly fruitful tug-of-war between freedom and domestication, the wild in us and the tame, our natural selves and our conditioned selves. Each chapter in Vital Signs will contain a core sample, an intimate biography of one of the strategies we employ to gain or regain our passion. The book also affirms the importance of courageous inquiry into dispassion—where we’re numb, depressed, stuck, bored—so the reader can recognize and change these tendencies in themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399174988
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/29/2015
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 1,154,313
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Gregg Levoy is the author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life and This Business of Writing. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Omni, Psychology Today, American Health, Reader’s Digest, New Age Journal, and many others—as well as for corporate, promotional, and television projects.

A former adjunct professor of journalism at the University of New Mexico, and former columnist and reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer and USA Today, he is the recipient of a 1st-Place writing award from the Associated Press, and a Genesis Award for “Outstanding Newspaper Commentary” for a New York Times Magazine essay.

He has been a visiting faculty member at the University of California, the University of Nevada, the University of Arizona, and Portland State University, as well as a faculty member at many national writers’ conferences, including SouthWest Writers Conference, California Writers Club Conference, Reader’s Digest Conference, Haystack Program in the Arts, Taos Institute of Arts, Austin Writers League, Wyoming Writers Conference, and Willamette Writers Conference.

Read an Excerpt


Chase down your passion like it’s the last bus of the night.


I USED TO BE a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, back in my twenties, and among my favorite stories was one I wrote about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus coming to town.

In a fit of journalistic zeal, however—and therefore shortsightedness—I let one of the animal trainers convince me that riding bareback on an elephant at the head of the circus parade through downtown Cincinnati would add color to my story.

Contrary to my jungle-book fantasy of being airlifted onto the elephant’s back while standing on its trunk, the only way to actually get up there was to use a ladder, and the only way to stay up there during the parade was to hang on to the elephant’s ears.

Those who’ve ridden elephants bareback probably know about this already, but elephant ears have an extremely disagreeable habit of flapping a lot, especially when they’re hot. And it was high summer. So the only way to stay up there was to remain extremely flappable, otherwise I’d have been thrown, and it was probably ten to fifteen feet to the ground—a concern that, to be honest, paled in comparison with my concern about how stupid I looked up there, desperately hanging on to this animal’s buffeting ears, wearing my business clothes, because the animal trainer had sprung this brilliant idea on me right before the parade, and with my pants scrunched up above my knees.

I was the first thing anybody saw in that parade, and I’m fairly certain I did not capture the theme of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

But in looking back on my elephant ride, and on what I’ve learned since then about what’s involved in living passionately and courageously, that experience had a lot in common with the experience of following passions—in that I was caught by surprise and carried off by something much bigger than me; in that it was nerve-racking and thrilling simultaneously; and in that the elephant couldn’t have cared less. By which I mean that I’ve discovered an unsettling truth: my soul doesn’t seem to care what price I have to pay to live passionately.

This seems like a design flaw to me. But my security, my popularity, my vanity, even my happiness don’t seem to matter to my soul. It’s not interested in whether I live a comfortable life. It’s not interested in making me rich or famous. It’s not interested in whether people even like me or not. What does seem to matter to it, though, is staying up on the elephant and being willing to go for the Ride—the one that ensures that someday if my life flashes in front of my eyes, it will at least hold my interest.

•   •   •

PASSION IS WHAT DISTURBS and confounds the safe and settled in your life, the tendency to try to lock yourself into geosynchronous orbit around some form of security, no amount of which will ever adequately compensate you for giving up your passions or selling your soul, though it may allow you to suffer in nicer surroundings.

Passion is the impulse toward growth, which, by its nature, protests boredom and ennui, refuses to bump mindlessly along on the conveyor belt, and has little patience for the “been there, done that” attitude that there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s what stirs your interest in life, helping you awaken from the trances and entrapments of the everyday, which block the natural migration of your energies.

Whether passion takes the form of colorful intensity or contemplative alertness, it contributes to a vibrant life, a keen awareness of where the pulse is, and a determination to plug into that place. It helps you stay engaged with the world and enjoy it as a function of the primary calling of all creatures—maximum aliveness.

In fact, passion is a survival mechanism, because your attachment to life depends on your interest in it, your sense of wonder and reverence, enthusiasm and gratitude, participation. It also depends on your ability to resist the torpor of dailiness, with its hypnotic routines and its soothing illusion that there’s always tomorrow—a lamp of Aladdin merely awaiting your caress—and that you have plenty of time to make your dreams come true and your passions come alive, even though years may continue to slip by Rip Van Winkle–like and you occasionally awaken with a growing uneasiness and a sense of being unrecognizable even to yourself.

Part of the reason so many people are fascinated nowadays with vampires and zombies is our collective fear of being sucked of our life force, drained of our vitalities, and left in a bloodless and catatonic state.

This fear may not be so much one of dying, or even being eaten alive, as much as one of being turned into a zombie. And most of us know, or have known, the experience of feeling like the living dead. Being at a job that, like a vampire, sucks the life out of you. School years spent staring zombielike into space and dreaming about the pleasures of the flesh or perhaps about freedom. Evenings spent clocking your statutory 4.8 hours of daily television. Being in a relationship in which you feel like a mere ghost of your full vital self. Long, dull stretches of life through which you’ve staggered like the walking dead. And most of us also know the fear of losing our minds and our identities that can come with simply growing old and suffering dementia. Given enough time, life itself devours our brains.

But even if we haven’t sent out a new shoot in years, or haven’t strayed much beyond the cadaverous light of the television and computer, the hunger for passion reminds us that we’re still vivid with life force, our souls shouting at the turned backs of resignation and boredom and time being torn off the calendar unused.

Just as there are parts of us we put to sleep over the course of life—passions ignored, pleasures denied, emotions censored, powers hidden—there’s another part that wants to bend down and kiss our sleeping selves awake.

During the aerial bombing of London in World War II, damage to the Natural History Museum allowed light and moisture to enter the buildings, and mimosa seeds that had been brought over from China in 1793 and stashed in wooden collection cases suddenly awoke from their 150-year sleep and began sprouting. We, too, are revivable. No matter how long or deep the sleep, the soul is always willing to awaken.

Granted, the work of coming-to is formidable, whether individually or collectively. A lot of people feel deeply disengaged from life, from themselves, and from a sense of purpose or passion. A 2012 Gallup poll of employees in 142 countries found that, on average, 87 percent of them are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” (63 percent and 24 percent, respectively), and only 13 percent were “engaged.” In the United States alone, this adds up to roughly $550 billion a year in lost productivity.

Passion equals productivity, and lack of passion sabotages it, and that goes for both work and non-work modes of expression—which makes you wonder what the engagement/disengagement figures would be on school life, family life, social life, and spiritual life. “While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival,” says Daniel Pink in Drive, “it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment.”

“Not engaged” means you’re checked out, but “actively disengaged” means you’re busy acting out your unhappiness and dispiritedness, spreading the virus among your colleagues, family, and friends, to say nothing of the body politic of which you’re a cell. What it means, as one business columnist puts it, is that if you’re part of a rowing team out on a river, one of the team members is rowing his or her heart out, five are just taking in the scenery, and two are actively trying to sink the boat.

But while dispassion is contagious, passion is equally catching. Some years ago, I was invited to facilitate one of my Callings workshops (based on my last book, Callings) for the environmental organization Earthstewards Network. As I was unpacking my car in the parking lot before the workshop began, a man pulled in, parked his car, got out, and motioned me over. He told me that he’d taken one of my workshops a year before and wanted to share with me the passion that had emerged for him as a result. “I’m going to start my car,” he said, “and I want you to bend down and smell the exhaust.”

This was certainly among the stranger requests I’ve had in my time, but the exhaust that came out of the back of that fellow’s car smelled exactly like a McDonald’s. He explained that he’d recently invented a process capable of turning used french fry oil into nonpolluting fuel for automobiles. In fact, he called it “McFuel.” And he was about to embark on a one-year pilgrimage driving his car around the country to drum up media attention for his new breakthrough, which, needless to say, relies on an abundant and renewable resource.

It reminded me that people—their enthusiasm and ingenuity—are amazing and that you never know who’s watching you. One person’s passion can have a profound effect on the unfolding of another person’s passion, without the first person even being aware of it. So, it thus matters greatly that every one of us is out there doing our proverbial thing and expressing our passion for life, interconnectedness being what it is, the Web being what it is, the mechanics of inspiration being what they are.

This certainly goes for anyone in a position of leadership or stewardship, especially relative to children and young adults. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, minister, mentor, manager, coach, counselor, politician, or CEO, this much is certain: your passion is critical to their engagement.

There’s a reason some of the world’s great stories, like Sleeping Beauty and King Arthur and the Holy Grail—of which there are versions all over the world—speak to the idea that when the king or queen sleeps, those around them also sleep, and the kingdom sleeps. But when the king and queen awaken, those around them also awaken, and the kingdom begins to flower. It’s an idea embedded very deeply into the mythologies, and thus the psychologies and philosophies, of the world, and what it tells us is that our individual work is also the work of the world, and that when we insist on our own aliveness, we stake a claim for everyone’s.

Among my favorite stories from the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez is the story of a man trying to solve the world’s problems. His young son comes into the room and asks if he can help. Touched by his son’s concern but impatient to get on with his task, the man takes a map of the world, rips it into little pieces, and gives it to the boy, telling him that he can help by piecing the world back together. The boy doesn’t have a clue what the world looks like, but he takes the pile of paper off to his room.

Two days later, he rushes into his father’s study. “Father! I’ve put the world back together.” And indeed the shreds of paper have been meticulously taped together. His father is stunned and asks how he did it. The boy turns the map over and says, “On the back was a picture of a person, Father. I put the person back together and then turned it over and the world was back together!”

•   •   •

VITAL SIGNS is about what inspires passion and what defeats it. How you lose it and how you get it back. And ultimately it’s about the endless yet endlessly fruitful tug-of-war between passion and security, the wild in you and the tame, your natural self and your conditioned self.

My prior book, Callings, is primarily about finding your vocational passion, and Vital Signs expands that exploration into the art of living passionately in all arenas of life—adventure and discovery, creativity and self-expression, relationships, service, and spirituality. While Callings is geared to doing what you love, Vital Signs is geared to being in love with life. Not just attaining a passion, but cultivating the skill of passion. Not just passion as a place you get to, but a place you come from.

Vital Signs also speaks to those who’ve been living through years of a Great Recession and a Code Orange world, which has driven many people to batten their hatches and hunker down. Those stresses highlight the many downward-pulling forces of everyday life that can siphon your vitality and make it hard to keep your fires burning.

The restorative lies in determinedly tapping into those places where your life force wells up to the surface even during dry spells and downturns, so you can not just survive but also thrive—and crucially, take your power back during those times when you feel disempowered, starting with a clear sense of what choice in any given moment will lead you toward or away from your sense of aliveness.

Each chapter in Vital Signs is a core sample, an intimate biography of one of the strategies you can employ to gain or regain passion—including the search for wonder and awe, the quest for novelty, the urge toward self-expression, the hunger to reconnect with inner and outer wildness, the desire to keep passion alive in your relationships, and the role that risk-taking plays in the ripening of passion.

In exploring what’s healthy and essential about these strategies, as well as what’s potentially unhealthy and maladaptive about them, this book offers a kind of mug shot of passion—so we’ll know it when we see it—and an expansive menu of possibilities for how to discover and rediscover it.

The book also affirms the importance of courageous inquiry into our dispassion—when we’re numb, depressed, stuck, or bored—so we’ll recognize that when we see it too. Because behind these debilitating conditions is our rightful inheritance of vitality and our incredible capacities.

Vital Signs is also a kind of natural history of passion as it expresses itself in the human experience, following its tracks back to the dens of family, culture, religion, gender, genetics, and primal reflex. It looks at what psychology and science, as well as spirituality and myth, art and literature, history and philosophy, have to say about passion. And of course it shares the personal stories of people who’ve claimed and reclaimed their passion and aliveness, propelled by the understanding that being alive without feeling alive is like eating food with no taste to it and that we should insist on living in a world—on creating a world—that enlivens us rather than deadens us.


Excerpted from "Vital Signs"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Gregg Levoy.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

1 Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Wonder 1

Becoming Adult-erated 6

Keeping the Fires Burning 12

The Envy of Angels: Everyday Awe 19

Thunderstruck: On Passion and Perspective 31

Trading Faith for Wonder 47

Captivated or Held Captive: Wonder and Credulity 54

2 Questing: The Happiness of Pursuit 66

A Revolt against the Fixed 72

Settling for Less 82

No Cure for Curiosity 87

The Power of Walkabout 96

The Tonic of Boredom 103

Sacred Drift 113

Love's Driving Force 122

Something You Cannot Possibly Do 127

3 Call of the Wild 134

What Fights the Saddle 138

Breaking the Spell 144

The Wilds of Meditation 151

The Wilderness Effect 156

The Tame and the Wild 166

Controlling Interests 173

Wired for Wildness 191

Raising Cain 197

All Hail the Beast Within? 202

4 A Spark Needs a Gap: Love and Passion 225

The Logic of Passion 229

A Marriage of Sweet and Bitter? 234

Frustration Attraction 243

The Other in Another 258

Shame: The Hole in Wholeness 270

The Fading of Passion 280

Making Love: Why Passion Takes Work 283

Adrenaline Makes the Heart Grow Fonder 290

5 The Freedoms of Expression 297

The Hunger to Make Contact 303

Holding Your Horses: The Force of Inhibition 307

Cleaning Your Caches 319

Busting the Spirit's Sleep 323

Setting Your Soul to Rights 336

The Link between Revealing and Healing 344

The Dangers of Overexpression 349

The Physics of Communion? 357 The Commodification of Passion 365

The Social Version of Love? 376

6 The Passion is in the Risk 387

The Mach 1 Experience 397

A Ropes Course for the Soul 409

The Tiger and the Cage: Intelligent Risk-Taking 418

Playing the Edge 426

A Matter of Life and Depth 436

Ready Fire Aim 442

The Enzyme of Our Passions 450

Gratitudes 467

Bibliography 469

Index 485

About the Author 494

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for VITAL SIGNS
“This magnificent work brimming with gorgeous prose and life enhancing stories and insights reveals how the cultivation of passion is key to the energy, love, creativity, health, and just about everything else that is good and true in our existence. Levoy offers us a thrilling new map to the vital core of all our becomings. To read this book and follow its principles is to stop boring God!”
Jean Houston, Ph.D, author of The Possible Human and The Wizard of Us, and Consultant to the United Nations in human and social development

“The topic is stimulating…and Levoy’s faith that we can all find passion in our lives is genuinely stirring.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Our society seems increasingly obsessed with security and playing it safe in every area of life.  But along with this trend often comes a deadening and listlessness in living—as risk-taking, excitement, and novelty are shoved aside. Gregg Levoy's Vital Signs is a marvelous corrective to this trend.  If you could use more passion, wonder, awe, and the sheer juice of being alive, this is your book.”
Larry Dossey, M.D., author of One Mind:  How Our Individual Mind Is Part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters
“If you want to fall in love with life, this is your guide! Vital Signs is a roadmap to living a life using your passions as a compass. Grab a cup of tea, find a quiet spot to sit, and dive into this book. You are about to set upon the journey you were born to take.”
Dennis Merritt, author of Your ReDefining Moments and The Art of Uncertainty
“Gregg Levoy has written a beautiful book about being enthralled with life by activating the passion that is within. His extraordinarily powerful storytelling, captivating language, and insights into what ignites human hearts with awe makes this book impossible to put down. He reminds us that our inclination to seek out enchantment and wonder needs regular maintenance and that raw experiences, intensity and aliveness, are what stimulate us to ever grander perspectives of this fascinating thing called life. I love this book."
 —Edward Viljoen,author of The Power of Meditation
“Gregg Levoy has discovered the fountain of youth, and his soulful book is the map leading us to the buried treasure of our own passionate aliveness.”
August Gold, author of Multiply Your Blessings
“Gregg Levoy has the answer to one of life’s biggest quandaries: How do you find your passion? Herein lie the keys to living in awe of life. Read this book and soar.”
Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction
"Vital Signs is a vital read if you’ve ever wondered how to discover or reclaim your passion. Illuminating how others seize the sweetest aspects out of life, Gregg Levoy unravels the art, wonder, and imperative of falling in love with your own life again and again. Every word is rain for the parched soul."
Tama Kieves, bestselling author of Inspired & Unstoppable: Wildly Succeeding in your Life’s Work! and A Year Without Fear: 365 Days of Magnificence
“What a timely book this is, and so welcome. A yearning for passionate, engaged living is deep in our souls. That means living with more active appreciation, awe, delight and fascination—and with far greater happiness and care for others. Gregg Levoy writes beautifully, with all the contagious vigor and delicacy his subject matter so abundantly deserves. Renewal is possible at any age, he shows. So give this gorgeous book widely, generously, passionately. I will.”
Stephanie Dowrick, PhD, author of Seeking the Sacred and Heaven on Earth

Acclaim for Gregg Levoy’s CALLINGS

"An absolutely superb book. I was stunned by it. It strikes right to the soul. It's like a remembrance of everything you knew but then forgot."
Jean Houston, author of The Possible Human

“Gregg Levoy has written about the nature of guidance with a ringing clarity. CALLINGS is a spiritual seduction that gives form to a universal mystery. I’d recommend it to anyone who is seeking to hold the divine hand through a transition in their lives.”
—Caroline Myss, Ph.D., author of Anatomy of the Spirit

“Gregg Levoy’s wonderful book is not only filled with wisdom, it is inspiring and illuminating——a book of special insight.”
—Neale Donald Walsch, author of Conversations With God

“Stunning! Wonderful! Levoy writes like a poet. His material is both spiritual and practical. I don’t know another book that deals with callings in quite the same way.”
—Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Healing Words, Prayer is Good Medicine

“Ravishing! This book is going to charge off the shelves. It’s the kind of book people call each other about to share favorite passages. A book to savor.”

“This inspiring book, elevated far above the category of self-help by Levoy's masterly writing, is a recommended guide for those who dare to examine their dreams and take action to explore them.”
Library Journal

“Beautifully written.”

"Sensitively written and appreciates the value of the journey as much as the end result."
—Good Housekeeping

“Solid and wise.”
—Utne Reader

“In the crowded field of books about listening to the heart, Levoy’s guidance and encouragement are rewarding.”
—Publisher’s Weekly

“Callings is a feast of prose, and filled with wise observations.”
—Intuition Magazine

“An intelligent and articulate exploration.”
—Body Mind Spirit Magazine

"Gregg's book is a touchstone for anyone seeking something more out of their work, or making a transition."
—Kansas City Star

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