New beginnings for living on the small

Living small sounds straightforward. The materialization of the concept takes up residence in the brain quite easily. Who wouldn’t want to have a simpler life free of clutter and material anchors?

I read about Matthieu Ricard and his very real example of this kind of life. He has an inspiring dedication to compassion in action. It is reported he lives in a small space with little to no possessions or central heating in Nepal. He donates 100% of the profits from his prolific writing and photography to his non-profit Karuna Shechen adding up to one and half million dollars to date.

It seems so deceptively simple when I look at this Buddhist monk’s life. It seems anyone could rise on any given day and just decide to live with only the necessities of life. Living with a small footprint in the world and redirecting earnings to those far less fortunate has the ring of authentic living.

As a family our goals and aspirations in this area have been less pure and altruistic. We have discussed at length the value of buying less in order to have a smaller footprint, to teach our son the value of a less materialistic life, and to have the money to have a life with more freedom. One where we don’t think twice about taking time off work to spend time with our son and where we can take extended travel vacations to explore the world. We say it. We agree to it. We get distracted. Then, I look around and somehow our home is filled with every type and number of material items that are here today, but had not been yesterday.

I struggle, as I imagine many do, with consistently balancing the aspiration to live smaller and more compassionately with the rigors of everyday family life. With our busy jobs and family commitments, our frantic schedules, and societal expectations, we slip into mindless consumerism as quick as thoughts pop into the head during a meditation.

Christmas this year is a clear case of this. Busy with hosting Christmas we got caught up in the “magic” and bought way too much stuff for our son’s stocking. Most of it wrapped candy he will never get through. Although the only thing he asked for from Santa was candy and lip balm we felt the urge to get him, in additional to ridiculous amounts of these items, a Lego set and about ten new books.

Even my son questioned repeatedly the sanity of Santa this year when he delivered a lollypop that could block out the sun and a Lego set he never asked for. Due only to Christmas, and to being one of only two children in our whole extended family, our home now sports a drum kit (from us off Craigslist), a keyboard (aunt #1 off Craigslist), two new Lego sets (aunt #2 and Santa), a fish tank (uncle), an electric puzzle toy (Nana), a whoopee cushion (aunt #1) , a remote control car (aunt #1), a magician’s kit (Grandma), and a Pandington bear and book set (aunt #1).

Choosing Christmas as an example might be to easy of a fish to catch, however, it is indicative of the collective family resources and how we choose to direct them. Each year for my birthday (which is only five days after Christmas) I do an act of kindness instead of getting myself something or going out. This was a huge shift a few years ago that admittedly brings me a great deal more joy. However, this action is overshadowed significantly by the gross overspending that happens each year at Christmas by myself and others.

For every bag of clothing, kitchen items, furniture and toys we send to the Big Brothers charity it seems another sneaks its way in. It seems our house is always and impossibly filled with stuff. The clutter is nearly unmanageable and the organizing of storage containers and spaces seems a holiday and weekend tradition now.

The ideal set by a Monk with few belongings who donates all his earnings to others is one that can motivate action and demonstrate how small and simple one can live. Unfortunately this is not an ideal so easily attained for a family of three. For example, with two of us working in a professional setting with expectations of dress code this means that I need two sets of clothing: one set of clothing for work and one set for daily life.

In fact social norms and keeping up with the Joneses seems to drive a great deal of our purchasing behaviour even though we are not really that susceptible as a family to those kind of things. Another driver is the sheer ability to buy whatever we need. I remember growing up with very little. If a pot broke and we didn’t have the money to buy another we just got creative. Now, any kitchen gadget recommended by one of my hipster cooking books can be purchased quickly and easily via Amazon and delivered in a single day. We barely batted an eye at the recent acquisition of a Vitamix which seemed at the time to be a “necessity.”

So, I see there being three truths here. The first is that it is not possible to live a life in harmony with our planet and our fellow human beings while acquiring every material item we desire whenever we desire them. The second truth is that it is far more difficult in many ways for a family of three to live small and simple like a Buddhist monk might. But, finally, the third truth is that it is possible to live quite close to this ideal if living a life of compassion in action is a higher priority for our family than living a life that looks and feels like those of our peers.

At the start of a new year and a time of new beginnings we will embark on an intention to move closer to this ideal. I am not one to give advice in this regard as you can see from the above examples but here are a few questions that I have learned to ask myself before making a purchase that I intend to be more intentional about in the coming year. These questions come from others living and writing about simple living that I have read over the years:

  1. If I buy this item what will I not be able to buy in the future (e.g., vacation time, donations, unexpected Strata levies)?
  2. Is this a necessary item or merely a convenience that I can do without (e.g., a kitchen gadget)?
  3. Do I already have X number of these (e.g., cardigans, necklaces, shoes)?
  4. Is this a luxury that most of the world will never get to have (large flat screen television, brand new gas range)?
  5. If I buy this item will it limit other living beings’ ability to simply live?
  6. Do I need this item more than a refugee needs to reach a safe shore, a mother in famine needs to feed her child, or a girl in a poor country needs to go to school?

I intend to do better this year. If you have similar intentions please let me know and share your approaches to living smaller and more simply in the comments section.

a journey to peace: doing the little bit of good where we are

 

Last night I completed my 100th meditation session. A small thing perhaps to those who have been meditating for years. But, for me it was like qualifying in the Olympic games. To understand why this feels like such an accomplishment it is important to get acquainted with the feeling of chronic anxiety if you have never spent extended time there.

For those of us with chronic anxiety it truly does feel like there are ants in our pants, and in our heads, and hearts, and every nerve of our bodies. It likely expresses itself differently in everyone so I’ll just speak from my  own experience. Anxiety for me is like a cattle prod. Every single moment of peace I have lives in the shadow of an impending electric charge that drives me to run in any direction other than the here and now.  The state of chronic anxiety is one of constant and crushing fear that sits on the chest with the weight of a herd of elephants. While depression feels like suffocating in darkness, anxiety feels like being trapped in one of those nightmares in which you are being chased by something you cannot see but you know you must not stop running.

The desire to escape when living with anxiety is ever present. This escape can present itself in many forms including busyness, physical movement, drugs and alcohol, anger as deflection, and obsessive ruminating in thoughts and pursuits.

To be anxious is to be in an ever vigilant state  of readiness to fight the next tiger that comes around the corner and it is exhausting. Therefore, to find peace in the stillness of meditation is like being on the floor of the stock exchange drenched in the cacophony of voices and then being handed a pair of industrial grade noise cancellation headphones.

After only 100 sessions I am able to recognize the ever present anxiety for what it is and am far more mindful of how it plays out in my body from moment to moment. I can still my fidgeting in a meeting, catch myself in the natal stages of an angry outburst, ground my body to actively listen to someone, and most importantly halt a negative self talk narrative mid sentence.

I now feel moments of peace, and something that can only be described as a shift from acidity to alkalinity, on a weekly basis that were once very rare. So rare that I only recognize the feeling as one I used to experience on long vacations far from my daily reality. The “feet up on a warm beach drink in hand” feeling.

In the pause that happens during these moments of peace I feel a sense of joy. And, having a chance to reach out of my self focus and worry I begin to think more of others. As I reach out and extend loving kindness and compassion to others I find more peace. It is a positive feedback loop. I experience what I believe is a central teaching of the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodren, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mathieu Ricard and others-that compassion for others is what brings greater happiness.

In these moments I have something very positive to focus my attention on.  This is the simple fact that although there are many things to worry about we don’t have to fix them all. It is OK not to be in control of all outcomes. We do however have the power to make at least one other person’s life a little bit better. Desmond Tutu says “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” If we all do what we can today that is within our power, and let go of the rest, it will all add up. Once that little window opens, and the pressure to do the impossible and solve all the world’s suffering dissipates, anxiety loses its power.

I can feel the difference in energy in my own body when I viewed a video online about a single Israeli elementary school teacher who was wholly dedicated to changing the lives of her students. I felt so full of happiness and a rush of endorphin ran through my system as I watched the video. I felt inspired to do my little part as well. Moments later I read a post by another friend about a climate denying politician potentially heading up the EPA and (from their perspective) how life was pretty much over for everyone. The anxiety came back. The powerlessness, hopelessness, and sadness came back. My reaction to this post instead of motivating me to do my part made me just want to go to bed.

This experience with online-triggered emotional rollercoastering made me realize how powerful perspective and the different approaches to life and problems can be. So much energy within individuals and across societies is focused on the negative. The negative feeds the anxiety, the anxiety feeds the negativity, and once the anxiety has taken hold of our collective national and global consciousness, as nations and communities, we act in the same way I do when my anxiety is manipulating my every action like a puppeteer.  We make bad choices, we “other” people, and we think only of ourselves.

My own experience with peace through daily meditation has helped me understand my anxiety. I can name it and accept it. It has also helped me see with less distortion my own role in social change. I can make the world a better place with daily small actions starting with the simple commitment to ten minutes of quiet meditation each day. It starts with this humble base and radiates outward from there.

As a family we have all taken up this practice in our own ways. I get up each morning early before the rest of the family rises and sit. Dylan has integrated his into his work day. Our five-year old is practicing taking three deep breaths in moments of frustration and taking quiet time to calm his body when he feels overwhelmed.  The impacts on family harmony, intentionality, and the rhythm of our life is palpable.

Sometimes the slow has to happen in the mind first. As our busy life continues to whir and buzz around us the impact of calm minds and kind hearts allows us to stand still for moments as a family while the world continues to turn. We are kinder to ourselves, to each other, and to those around us. It’s a start in the right direction.

Illustration via Elephant Journal article http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/07/too-busy-to-meditate-with-your-family-around-scott-robinson/

Intentionality and Impact

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” Jane Goodall

A couple of weekends ago I experienced the true impact of meditation and being intentional about carrying this practice into my daily life.

It started with my very first real meditation session about a year ago where I felt so squirmy and uncomfortable with the stillness that I literally had to fight the urge to crawl out of my own skin to get out of the circle of quiet and run from the room to escape the discomfort. It was an oppressive feeling of claustrophobia as if the world and that room had begun to close in around me. I could feel a scream emerging from my body that only I could hear and when I left the group session that day I vowed I would never return. This is anxiety sitting.

I never did return to a group meditation session. But I have since learned to sit with the discomfort of being alone with my own mind. To calm the fear of stillness and all that creeps out of the deeper crevices of the subconscious in that stillness.

Since I have begun taking meditation seriously and committed to a daily practice I have learned to be still in other moments as well. In moments where the situation I am in pokes me and the resulting discomfort drives me to retreat, to move, and to avoid the sharp poky end of what I am experiencing.

I have frequently taken to heart the need to practice Buddhist ethics, meditation and mindfulness in daily life and I have slowly begun to punctuate a day using deep breathing and being present in the moment. This is pretty surface level practice though I see in hindsight and only the beginnings of awareness and intentional movement through a day. I never realized the power of practice outside the meditation session until I experienced meditating with my eyes open sitting across from someone in an uncomfortable situation.

Recently, I was sitting having a conversation with someone I have a lot of history and particular difficulties with. I instantly felt the same feeling of the need for flight that I did that first day in group meditation. This is the feeling of not being able to escape physically, to counter the anxiety with movement, which results in the sensation of a brewing electrical storm spreading through the nervous system with no external outlet to direct the energy.

Then, I found myself suddenly practicing. I let go. I found my center. I parked my mind in the present and I collected the parts of the moment I was grateful for. I sent my mind’s stories about the situation packing and wrapped a comforting blanket of compassion around both of us. I practiced a form of loving-kindness meditation while sitting and having a cup of tea, at my kitchen table, with someone who I have had a hard time sitting with for some time.

The result was a slow and peaceful conversation where time felt still and I was aware of my slow heartbeat, the calm that washed over us both, and the release of a static electric anxiety that usually bounced back and forth between us.

In this moment I experienced the benefits of daily practice and of a commitment to the practice as a way of life.

A few weeks later Donald Trump was elected President-elect in the United States, and I was sent on a trip to fear and despair for two days. I got lost in the what ifs and whys. I let anger cloud my judgement and perspective. I looked for other people to blame. However, in a quite unlikely and uncharacteristically quick turnaround, I began to see the event with less distortion.

Although the election of such an angry and opportunistic man is no joke I began to absorb the more neutral and positive perspectives on the event in addition to the negative and to stop my mind from running all sorts of doomsday scenarios. The election of this man was a cry of help from those potentially most left out in the cold from the global economic system. We can listen to them now and offer them compassion and a voice.

The white middle liberal class (of which I am a part of) that used our words and good intentions to support African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, women, the LGBTQ community, and racialized people of all stripes have realized quite concretely that pontificating from our comfortable middle class living rooms and office’s isn’t nearly enough. As Rebecca Solnit recently pointed out we are too comfortable with the status quo in this group to get deep into the discomfort of social change. And, I realized that Trump is a symptom of a growing malignancy in the current economic system that we all participate in that until only now have we wanted to truly face.

I stopped. I cleared my head. I began to look for my own role in this historical event and future related ones. I began to practice compassion for the “other side.” I started to use this mindfulness and compassion to begin thinking about how I can be part of the solution.

When I practice in daily life, not just on the cushion, I find I am far more aware of my impacts on others and can choose to be intentional about those impacts. I still am prone to make mistakes, lash out in a bad mood, use harsh words out of frustration, and act out of a place of anger and hurt rather than reflection and compassion. What is different is the speed at which I catch myself in a tailspin. It used to be never or infrequently. I might not even notice my emotions taking control of the cockpit. Over time it takes less and less time to catch the story taking hold, the driving emotion of the moment, and the impact my actions are having on others. I correct course quicker. I come to a place of compassion quicker. I calm the storm of my heart and mind at the speed of a moment or few hours rather than a whole day, year or lifetime.

We each only have this one chance to live this life we are in. We never know when our time will come. It could be today. What the practice of slowing down to meditate and be deeply mindful has begun to teach me is that each moment of this life can be as sweet or as sour as we choose it to be. But I cannot make any choice at all unless I am aware there is a choice to be made and this awareness is activated only by the yeast of daily contemplation.

the world is our backyard

I have always dreamed of having a big piece of property full of fruit trees, gardens, and open spaces. A place where my children and their imaginations could run free. Perhaps a part of this is the small taste that I had of this as a child on Lasqueti Island where for a brief time we spent our days on a 25 acre piece of wild land that was ours to explore.

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a journey to peace: 9 1/2

This morning I passed the 9 1/2 meditation hour mark. Six weeks of daily quiet. With the exception of the occasional day missed I have begun to weave this practice into my daily life. I feel its absence when it is not there. I notice the impact of a day made naked without the protective blanket that meditation has begun to wrap me. I no longer practice because I know it is good for me. I practice because I can no longer not practice.

I am beginning to rest more firmly into my intuition. I feel more confident in my own skin and in my own path. Because the air is clearer between my ears I can listen more easily to my gut and notice more readily my emotions and interactions with the world. I feel like I am standing on a stronger foundation and the beginnings of a formidable oak tree is taking root at my base and slowly but surely growing upward forming a firm but flexible inner core.

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adding the small & school lunches

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How to live sustainably is often framed as an exercise in subtraction. We are admonished to reduce here, lower there, and do with less. I have long struggled with this negative approach. It is based on a language and culture of sacrifice and depends on the ongoing goodwill and self discipline of the individual. It is not particularly motivating to always be taking things away. Also, I have read that we each only have so much willpower each day. Each time we say “no” to something the next no gets that much harder.

A similar approach is used to encourage people to eat healthy diets. Take away the fat, take away the carbs, take away the sugar…minus, minus, minus. What happens when you are not allowed to eat potato chips? Do you think about them constantly? Do you crave them more intensely than you ever would if you were allowed to have them? I do.

Continue reading “adding the small & school lunches”