Finding Ourselves Again

For many years now I have been fascinated by the power and need for what might be called “white space” in life. This means leaving down time in your days, weeks, and years for what some might call nothing. It might best be reflected by the body’s need to sleep during which the brain cleans up and processes the events of the day. Not doing this can actually cause us to be less functional. Some ideas on this kind of “doing nothing” were explored in a book by the same name that I reviewed in a previous post.

In her book by almost the same name (How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy), Jenny Odell takes a somewhat different approach. What stands out to me about this book is not so much what it says but how it made me feel. Broadly, it opened up for me a view into myself that I realized that I’ve had for some time now. I just didn’t have a way of articulating. In many ways, I still don’t. It’s more of a feeling that this book helped me learn how to look for, nurture, and embrace.

Two main themes were embodiment and maintenance. Embodiment in the sense of realizing that we live in a physical world. Too often we are looking at screens and the images or text on them rather than simply noticing the world around us. Maintenance in the sense that life is cyclical rather than simply linear. Our lives are now governed by productivity and economic activity while for most of human history they have been governed by nature and the seasons.

“As the body disappears, so does our ability to empathize”

So much of life today is removed from the actually living of it. We interact “socially” through small black rectangles and video conference calls. This removal makes it easier to judge and condemn others, to see issues as binary black and white positions rather than an endless spectrum between the two. When we simply slow down to actually see and listen to others, this is like a prism that breaks our isolation into a rainbow of infinite and various hues.

The author describes an experience where she attended a unique performance at a symphony hall in San Francisco. It opened her mentally to all the sounds around her that she simply wasn’t paying attention to. As she stepped out onto the street, one she had walked many times, she heard sounds that she had never noticed before. They were always there. She just wasn’t attuned to them. It’s the slowing down and contemplating of our surroundings that gives us the space and perspective to see and hear what we’ve been ignoring.

“To me, the only habit worth ‘designing for’ is the habit of questioning one’s habitual ways of seeing, and that is what artists, writers, and musicians help us to do.”

Our western culture’s foundational premise is productivity and progress. But progress toward what? What are we progressing toward? This attitude treats life like a straight line game that at the end we determine if we have won. It is proverbial that those at the end of life are not using the yard stick of productivity to measure their lives. Instead they are measured in their relationships and simply being with others. This is, to use the author’s words, the “ethos of care and maintenance.”

So much of our economic activity is focused on creating something new, and subsequently throwing out the old. Our products are no longer repairable. We’re meant to use them up and throw them out. We live in contradistinction with our environment instead of in harmony with it. Nature doesn’t throw anything away but reuses it over and over again transforming it in the process. How are we transforming ourselves and our world? With a little more time connecting to that world directly, we might find ourselves behaving differently, doing differently, being differently.

Our experience of life in family is in many ways cyclical like nature. We move from son or daughter to parent or aunt or uncle. We nurture and teach the generations following us, passing on the lessons we learned in hopes that the younger generations will grow beyond our achievements. Now what if we slowed down enough to take this view of others who we aren’t related to? What if we were willing to learn from those not like us? This can only happen when we are willing to circle back again and again to review the humanity in others that we see in and allow for ourselves. To identify and care about all embodied life. This is moving from the “I-It” experience to the “I-Thou” experience.

Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears.

When we engage with others through any kind of medium, we lose some of the context and connection to them as a fellow human being. When we inhabit the same space as someone else with humility and openness, this is the essence of care and maintenance. In this space, we can check in with ourselves and others, offering the help needed even if it is only our presence and compassion. Absent of physical presence and attention, this is extraordinarily challenging.

The authors end with a discussion of “manifest dismantling”. This is undoing the things we have done to disconnect ourselves from each other and the world in order to make space for the life that is around us. This isn’t an abandonment of progress or productivity but a balance to it that brings the meaning and purpose that we all crave as human beings. And in the process we might just find each other and our humanity right there waiting for us to see them again.

Overcoming Obstacles

man jumping across a small chasm

It has been a very rainy fall where I live. In fact, a few weeks back as I passed through the woods on my morning walk, I discovered my way blocked where the path was flooded. No problem, I thought. I know another path through. I backtracked and followed the other path. I soon came upon a similar situation. I tried going around the flooded path but found no success. I struggled to decide what to do.

I could simply walk back the way I had came instead of completing my regular loop. But that felt like giving up without trying, which I didn’t want to do. So, I headed back to the first path to look for a way through or around.

Once I arrived, I could see there was no way around. The flooding was too extensive. I looked for the shortest span I thought I could jump across without getting wet. I did my best to make it, but got my feet went anyway. I sloshed a short distance and came upon more flooding on my path. This time there were logs that I could walk across to stay dry. It was cold and the logs were slippery, but I managed to not get wet again. The rest of my walk home was soggy but obstacle-free.

As I walked home, I thought about what had happened. I was happy to not have been thwarted by the flooded paths. But I wanted to find a better way to get over them, one that would leave my feet dry. I didn’t know what I would do, but I was determined to find a way.

The next time I walked through those woods, the flooding had not receded at all. This time I found a fallen branch that I laid across the place I had jumped across previously. Then I found a long, thick branch to use as a walking stick. I used that to steady myself as I crossed the branch over the water. Success!

As I walked away, I realized I would need a walking stick the next day when I came back through. So I tossed the stick I had used back across the flooded area so I could use it the next morning. As I approached the next flooded area, I found another walking stick to cross over the logs and tossed it back for the next day’s walk.

Over the next week or so, the water slowly receded as I continued to use resources I had found in the woods to make my way down the path. Now the water has completely abated, but I am so grateful for the challenge that I overcame in the weeks previous. I feel stronger and more prepared to face difficulties on my walk should I encounter them.

During the those days when I had to get over or around that water in my path, something changed about my relationship to the woods and that path. I had been walking that woods since the summer and as fall progressed, it changed from dense green to being wide open and leafless. But it was more than that. My attention had been directed toward the pooling of water in the woods. I was noticing subtle low-lying areas that I had simply walked past before without noticing. By changing where my focus was, the obstacles had deepened and broadened my experience of the woods.

This lesson reminds of a book that I read last summer, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs by Ryan Holiday. Every day has its obstacles and difficulties. When I encounter them, I can choose to give up and turn back. Or, I can look around me for the resources to find a way around, through, or over the difficulty. In doing so, I will gain a perspective and vision that I had not had prior to the trial. Even though I don’t actively seek out challenges in my life, I no longer try so hard to avoid them. They are helping me grow into the person I strive to become.

Go for a Walk

person walking on a path amongst fallen leaves

For some time I have taken a twenty to thirty minute walk each morning. Before I started doing this, I often took similar length walks during my lunch break at work, walking around the building by myself or with a co-worker. While I don’t remember when I started doing this, I do know why I do this. The reason is simple – it boosts my productivity.

On these walks, I don’t look at my phone. And I don’t try to work through a challenge I may be having. In fact, quite the opposite. I try to clear my mind, to simply be present in the moment and enjoy my immediate surroundings. It’s kind of a mini vacation from my work and troubles. So, how does this boost my productivity? The time away refreshes me in much the same way a vacation does, despite the small amount of time “away”. I learned about the remarkable power of down time years ago while programming in my own database consulting company.

In addition to talking with clients and potential customers, each day I worked at a computer, writing database programs. It wasn’t that unusual during a session of programming to run into a problem that did not yield immediately. As I continued to try to troubleshoot and unravel the issue, I would get more and more frustrated and more and more stubborn. I was dedicated to finding a solution! Sometimes I would spend all day on a problem, not even taking a break to eat lunch. Eventually, I would have to come out of my office for dinner, grumpy and unsuccessful. It took a while, but slowly I would let go of the problem as I ate and spent time with my family. The next morning as I was getting ready for work, showering or shaving, I almost always got a flash of inspiration for how to proceed. It wasn’t always the ultimate solution, but I was no longer stuck. I had a direction to go in that moved me closer to resolution.

Eventually, I began to see this pattern repeated. So, I stopped beating on problems when I got stuck, angry, and frustrated. I learned that the most productive thing was to step away from the problem and do something unrelated, often some sort of rest or play. As a result, I used the feeling of being stuck as a trigger to let go and move on to something else. Over time, instead of waiting for a problem to take advantage of this phenomenon, I began to build in quiet time and adequate rest in order to work as optimally as possible.

Modern research on sleep, rest, and play has shown that the current fascination with “working hard” and bragging about how little time we have or how little sleep we get is actually counterproductive. Our brains require rest and open-ended play in order to process the inputs we receive every hour of every day (Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang).

So don’t wait until you are so frustrated with a problem that you are swearing up a storm or throwing things across the room. Be proactive and take time out to rest and play. And if you have already crossed the line into anger and frustration, go for a walk. It’s likely the most productive thing you can do.

On the Far Side of Distraction

Most of my adult life I have been known as a “techie”. Family and those I work with turn to me with their questions about technology. At one place I used to work, I was so “digital” that I was teased every time i printed something out. I have social media accounts. I read a lot, usually averaging a little over a book a week. And, as you can tell by the list in the column to the right of this post, I listen to a lot of podcasts.

But something odd has happened over the last few years. As the rising public concerns over online security and privacy have increased, I started to question my digital engagement. I stopped posting to social media as much as I used to. I started reading more physical book instead of exclusively ebooks. And after some personal challenges in the last two or three years, I started to question why I had filled my life with so much “noise”. There is so much media coming at me or piling up to be looked at and read that I’d sometimes find it overwhelming. And I started to ask myself, Why am I doing this?

As I started to quietly ask myself that question, I found something very odd happening. My desire to engage with others and my technology increased. Why would that happen? As I considered this in the relatively few quiet spaces in my life, I realized something. I was avoiding the question. Filling my days with engagement was a way to avoid self-examination. As a result, I made some changes.

Perhaps the biggest was that I banned my smartphone from the bathroom, specifically when I am getting ready for work. I used to listen to podcasts in the shower and while I shaved. No more. I also started meditating and taking purposeful breaks where I did nothing or went for a walk outside. In the beginning these were all very hard to do. The desire to fill the quiet space with some sound or engagement was strong. But I discovered on the other side of that burst of distractions a wide open peace where I could see myself honestly and compassionately, loving myself while also seeing those places where I can improve.

I am still challenged by the urge to distract myself. And sometimes I even indulge it. But I strive to break through these temptations to that space of peace and love for myself and others. It is difficult work making time for thoughtful reflection and simply being present in my world. But the rewards have been increased self-knowledge and peace with myself and others. I encourage you to explore for yourself what is on the far side of distraction. I think you will be glad you did.

Productivity and Journaling

Journal with a pen between the pages

When I was in high school, I kept a journal. I wrote in it nearly every day. It helped me notice what happened in my day-to-day life and make adjustments where I felt they were needed. Sometime during college I stopped journaling. I’m not really sure why. After a difficult time recently, I found myself again looking for the benefits I experienced from journaling as a teenager. What I discovered has worked well for me, and not just for self-awareness. Using a Bullet Journal has also made me more productive.

I was looking for a flexible way to organize the stuff I needed to get done while also trying to learn more about journaling in general. For tasks, I was always looking for just the “right way” to store and act on all the things I need to do. But as I started journaling again, I realized that perhaps there was no such thing. Not only am I a unique person (just like you!), I am also a dynamic person; I am constantly changing and growing. So, the tool or system I start using today may not work for me in a year or two. I need a flexible system, kind of like my traditional journal. My journal was just a notebook ― some pages to write my thoughts down on. It was for me and me alone. I thought of myself as writing to my future self to remind him of what I was doing or feeling at the time I wrote. I had no formal structure. I could write what I wanted in any way I wanted. And I could change however I was doing it at any time. I needed a productivity system as customized and flexible as my journal.

That’s when I came across the Bullet Journal created by Ryder Carroll. I no longer remember how I initially learned about it, but I was intrigued from the beginning. The basic guidelines are simple and make it easy to start. An entire community of bullet journalers has developed around this way of keeping a journal. Many are very artistic which can be very intimidating if you don’t feel very creative (like me). There are also some “minimalist” bullet journalers who help take the pressure off those of us who feel less creative (thank you!).

Artsy Bullet Journal Page
Artsy Bullet Journal Page
Minimalist Bullet Journal Page
Minimalist Bullet Journal Page

In my research, I also found a great book called Dot Journaling―A Practical Guide (Bullet Journal is trademarked). It has loads of simple ideas for how to get started easily and organize your journal, while encouraging you to do what works for you. You can find even more samples and ideas on YouTube and Instagram (search for #BuJo).

When I started journaling again, I tried to write in the traditional way every day. But I tended to wait until the end of each day. Often I was too tired or couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write. Now that I have a Bullet Journal, I keep track of all my tasks, appointments, thoughts, and even traditional journal entries in the same place. I am still deciding exactly what works best for me, but I love it! I encourage you to give it a go and see if it works for you. I find it enlightening, fun, and productive. You might, too!