A Kinder, Gentler Minimalism

HeartLightI’m not new to minimalism. On the contrary, roughly fifteen years ago, I spent a year of my life practicing what would be considered by most people to be extreme minimalism. I’m glad that I had the experience, but it isn’t one that I care to repeat.

I love simplicity. I love clean lines and clutter-free environments. I like to leave lots of wide open spaces in my life for new thoughts, ideas, and yes, even stuff. The less I own, the more I tend to enjoy what I have. That being said, I’m not 22 anymore, and I really have no desire to pare down to the point of feeling like owning more than one pair of shoes is a sign of moral shortcoming. My relationship with minimalism has evolved, and I would hope, matured.

While my love of minimalism has evolved, it has never left me, although it did seem to go into hiding for a period of time. After living alone with my three teenage daughters for several years, on October 27th, 2013, I moved across the country to live with the love of my life. I brought very little with me in the way of personal belongings, but since it was being merged into an already very full home, it was too much. That was a year and a half ago, and in that time we’ve moved a lot of things out of our home and acquired more.

We have too much stuff. And what’s worse, we don’t even particularly like a great deal of that stuff! Thankfully, my wife and I are in agreement about this, so there won’t be any conflict about revamping our home to create a sweeter, simpler, and less cluttered space. It’s time for less stuff and more living in our living space.

I’ve started this blog to document the process as we set about getting rid of what no longer serves us, acquiring only carefully selected items that we find beautiful, useful, or both of the highest quality we can afford, and simplifying our schedules and obligations so we have more time for each other and our hobbies. I’d also love to connect with other people who are embracing a moderately minimalist lifestyle, however you define that for yourself.

Because I love challenges, I’ve decided to set up a series of them for myself, and if you’d like to play along, I’d love to have you join me. My next post will be the first challenge in the series, and it’s going to focus on wardrobe since this is currently one of the areas I’m struggling with the most. If you have ideas for future challenges you’d like me to feature, leave a comment and tell me about it, and if it isn’t one I’ve already thought of, I’ll be happy to consider adding it to the list.

Warning: Do Not Read This Post If You’d Rather Stay Stressed and Overwhelmed

note valuesLast night, I sat down for five minutes. I paused.

My 12-year-old daughter wasn’t feeling well; she’d had a headache at school and came home funky. I had been at work all day, gone grocery shopping after, came home and put away the groceries, made tacos, played Mankala with my third-grader and read to her in bed, then sang to her while she fell asleep. In other words, it was a pretty normal evening. By 9:00pm, I was ready to collapse myself, but my headachey daughter wanted me to sit with her. I did, for a few minutes, stroking her hair. Then I said, I’ll come back in a little while.

And I took two pillows from my bed, asked my partner if she wanted to sit for five minutes, set the timer on my phone, and settled in facing the wall.

And then it came… the contrast, and the corresponding relief. Of doing nothing. Of not responding to anything, not even my girl when she came padding into my bedroom. The amazing thing was she didn’t say a word. She saw that I was sitting there and just seemed to understand, that I was not avoiding her or putting off her needs. I was simply tending to my own, for five minutes that felt both like a blink and an hour. An oasis, even if it was filled with thoughts from the day and thoughts of what else still needed doing. I knew she needed my attention, and I also knew she could wait. I knew there were still more dishes to wash and a load of laundry to put in the dryer, and that those too could wait.

The same moment could be applied at work. Say you have back-to-back meetings, an overflowing inbox. You’ve barely stopped to pee, much less take a lunch break to get some fresh air or take a short walk. Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to move some big project forward, or you have to prepare an agenda for a meeting with your boss. Let’s say you supervise other people, and two of them called in sick today and payroll is due, you have to get to the bank before 5:00pm, and the dentist’s office just called with a reminder about your cleaning this afternoon. Maybe you and your significant other have been meaning to go for a fall hike all fall, and you are wistfully aware that the trees are almost bare of leaves and there is a frost warning for tonight.

This is the part where you might feel like you can’t possibly pause. There is too much to do. Maybe this is the part where you feel irritable. Or overwhelmed. Or just tired.

Our days are often like this, in some iteration or another, a fugue of incessant sixteenth notes without variation, fast fast fast and full full full and go go go. And this is when things are going along fairly “normally,” meaning there is no emergency, no crisis. No frozen pipes or dreaded pink slip or last-minute snafu, no injured child or chronic illness or bad news on the other end of the line.

If you have ever practiced yoga, you know that savanasana, or corpse pose, is how every practice concludes–whether it was a gentle 15 minutes or a vigorous 90. The language of yoga is that of “integrating the benefits of our practice,” the intention being that without taking the time to just be, to pause, to rest, we cannot fully come to feel the effects of all the doing.

If life feels like something you have to hold onto like a handbasket on its way straight to hell, or a roller-coaster ride that makes your stomach lurch, or simply a treadmill stuck on an 8-minute-mile when you’d rather be strolling, pausing like this can be painful. Because rather than feeling the benefits of all of the doing, you might feel the negative impact of it. You might realize, by taking five minutes to just sit there, that not pausing is actually a form of procrastination. Not taking rest when to do so is an option (and there are few professions where it isn’t) is a way of avoiding your life, even as you might think your life is the reason you can’t, or don’t, pause.

Our culture–whether you’re a manager, a business owner, a parent, an artist, none or or all of the above–feeds this reliance on busy and its corresponding glorification of stress. It’s a badge we wear, a purple heart of martyrdom.

If more people said, Actually, that can wait five minutes, if we could differentiate between fires to put out and true emergencies, if we inserted rest symbols into the endless stream of notes that is the music of our days, we might just start making different choices about how we live and work. We might get brave and admit to someone that we don’t in fact enjoy this sense of chaos and the anxiety it provokes, that causes all kinds of problems–in our relationships, our health, our ability to keep up.

We might just stop keeping up.

And that may be scary, especially if our sense of security and even self-worth rests on this premise that we must go a million miles an hour from the moment we wake till we collapse into bed.

But it doesn’t have to be scary.

Like all fears, as soon as you turn the light on, the big monster shadows shrink to harmlessness. If you find that you are putting a lot of things off–whether it’s returning that package with the too-small shoes or meeting the deadline that looms closer each day–consider that pausing is actually an antidote to procrastination. It may be just the thing you need to move forward.

Stop, for a moment, for one full breath, for five minutes, and respond to nothing. I am willing to bet nothing will fall apart. In fact, this small act may be the glue that holds all the pieces together.

Dismantling the Atomic Fears

atomic bomb

 

I have a love/hate relationship with self-help books. I love the concept. Self-help = help yourself. Right on. I’m all in favor of that. That would be the love. The hate part is a little bit harder to nail down, at least in words. Books like The Secret make me cringe. While I believe that our beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes influence our lives in some major ways, fostering a belief that all you have to do is believe strongly enough in something, and practice feeling it as though it has already happened, is enough to make it occur is beyond ridiculous.

If the concepts in The Secret work, explain to me why I was never able to get my Big Wheel to fly? I believed it would happen with all of my heart. I felt the power, triumph, and exhilaration fully. Yet still, my little five-year-old body never cleared the ground on that thing.

I’ve spent countless hours reading, implementing, and assessing dozens upon dozens of self-help books. Some of them are invaluable. Some of them are worse than worthless; they’re toxic. Books that lead to product deals, making the authors extremely wealthy, while unable to show any evidence that the theories actually work, piss me off.

The Secret is that anything worth having is going to require more than belief. In fact, it will require quite a lot from you. You’re going to need a healthy dose of the following:

  • Optimism
  • Desire
  • Action
  • Willingness to Fail
  • Persistence
  • Help from Other People
  • Flexibility
  • Discipline
  • Bravery
  • A Plan
  • Coping Skills

If you’re looking at this list and feeling like you don’t stand a chance, give yourself some credit. You’ve probably exhibited most or all of these traits at different times in your life. What about right now? Assess yourself honestly.

Don’t be shy about patting yourself on the back for the things you’re doing well. It’s not only okay to feel good about the things you’re doing well, it’s critical for you to acknowledge those things if you’re going to succeed.

What about the areas in which you could use some reinforcements? When you look at the things that are holding you back, remember that there’s no need to feel ashamed. Having weaknesses doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human. Being human is a good thing. What’s the other option? And the only way to improve anything is to get very clear and brutally honest.

When you think about your art or your business in terms of what isn’t going so well, what is your primary emotion?

I’m lucky enough to work with artists and creative entrepreneurs on a regular basis, and while the issues we discuss are personal and differ greatly, almost always, when we get to this question, the answer is the same.

The Primary Emotion That Holds Us Back is FEAR.

What are you afraid of? Are your fears realistic? Are they likely to come to fruition? If they did, would your world fall apart? Would you die? Or would you feel the pain and ramifications, recover, and keep living? If you’re ever going to put fear in its place, meaning that it will no longer rule your life, you have to look the beast in the eye.

Remove emotion from your assessment of the fear. It might sound impossible, but it isn’t. It’s actually not that hard at all. Pretend that you’re not looking at your issues at all. Take them in as if they belong to someone else, someone you care about, and imagine that they’re asking you for advice.

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to be reasonable and pragmatic when offering advice to other people than it is when you’re trying to figure out how to tackle your own problems? It’s because no matter how much you love and care about the other person, you’re slightly removed from the situation. Learning to distance yourself from your own life issues enough to give them this same sort of objective once-over isn’t easy, but it’s a skill worth learning. I can’t promise you that you’ll never feel afraid again (you will), but I can promise you that bouts of hysteria and paralysis will take up residence in your brain less often.

Teeny Tiny Baby Steps

 

It’s time to put down the self-help book and actually do something. I’m not against reading about overcoming fear. I think it can be very useful. I’m sitting here right now writing about it, and I wouldn’t be wasting my time if I didn’t believe it could be of value to the people who will read it. But it can get a little sticky when you start to confuse reading about something (or talking about it) with doing something about it. If you’ve read eleven self-help books in the past year, but you haven’t started to implement changes in your daily life, you’re no further along than you were before you read them. If you’re like me, it’s all too easy to get stuck in the research phase without taking action.

So I’m asking you to do something for yourself today. When you’re done reading this article, sit down with a pen and paper. Ask yourself what steps you can take, right now, to move through your fears, and write down as many as you can. It might mean that you RSVP for a networking event, even though you’re terrified to talk to strangers. It might mean calling your local library and reserving a room for a free class, even though you’re afraid no one will show up. Or maybe you’ll send out an email to your twenty closest friends and ask them to promote your upcoming gallery show, even though you’re fretting that they might feel like you’re imposing on their time.

Aside from being situations that all evoke fear for some people, do you see the common thread between all of those things? No, I’m not talking about the fact that they are all forms of marketing. I’m talking about the fact that they are all first steps towards doing something bigger.  They’re teeny, tiny baby steps. Not one of them will take more than fifteen minutes. If you’ve listed something that will take longer than this, it might be too big for a beginning step. Break it down into smaller, shorter steps. This makes them totally doable. You can do anything for fifteen minutes. You’ll be afraid for just a quarter of an hour, and then that step will be done.

Take one fifteen minute step each day for a week. Next week, aim for two fifteen minute steps a day. Week by week, your distress tolerance will increase, and your fear will decrease. You might still be afraid, but it won’t take you long to discover that even if you’re afraid, that fear can’t really hurt you, because it’s not actually real.

And just like that, you’re doing it. You’re helping yourself.