This article from Joshua Becker of The Minimalists landed in my Inbox this week. It made me smile, because I certainly am a person who, when problem solving, frequently considers adding something rather than subtracting something.
The way this shows up in my life is not with stuff, but with the demands I place on myself. My default response to low energy, not feeling well, emotional or physical pain, frustration, and feeling discouraged is to drive myself harder, do more, move faster.
I could write for the rest of my life on all the ways this does not work, but I’ll spare you.
Yet it continues to be my unconscious default in every case.
A case in point is my exercise routine. I’ve begun working with a personal trainer.
I haven’t been able to exercise regularly until the last three or four years because of my autoimmune disease. When I finally fixed my inflammatory problems with a carnivore diet, I discovered I could participate in regular exercise and stretching without throwing my muscles into spasm. I bought some weights and put together a couple of workouts.
The combination of repetitions, weights, and stretching I’ve been using has occasionally made me sore but not triggered a catastrophic inflammatory response in my body, as long as I don’t eat plants or sugar. However, I began to get bored with my routines, and I didn’t always feel like spending an hour getting through them. I discover I also wasn’t very even in the muscle groups I was working and stretching. Who knew?
A personal trainer knew!
My trainer is well aware of my propensity to push myself too hard, a trait we share, so she is developing new routines for me, briefer, more balanced, and without so much weight. I started following her guidance a couple of weeks ago, but I felt guilty about it. If working for 20-30 minutes is good, working for an hour must be much better. If working with 3-lb hand weights is good, working with 5 lbs must be better, along with ankle weights.
My trainer gave me several new stretches and asked me to spend more time with them, but stretching is surely not as good as lots of reps and weight. Holding a stretch for 30 seconds eats up a lot of time I should be spending working harder, right?
I followed her advice about everything, curious but also convinced I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough.
Then I read about additive vs. subtractive problem solving, and smiled to myself. Less weight. Shorter, more evenly balanced workout routines. A few targeted slow stretches, which I’ve begun doing throughout the day, as I’m chronically tense and stretching reminds me to slow down, breathe, and be kind to myself.
What I discover is I feel better. I have more fun exercising. It’s easier to face a 20-30 minute session than an hour-long one.
Instead of using exercise as one more way to push myself too far, following the expertise of a personal trainer has transformed it into self-care. Real self-care. Loving self-care. More effective, more appropriate self-care.
It feels strange. Too easy. Too gentle.
Working smarter rather than harder has always been an idea I don’t quite trust. It makes intellectual sense, and I would encourage anyone I care about to consider it, but when I think about applying it to myself it feels like a cop-out. I expect myself to work smart and hard.
Whatever our challenges, from our most personal to our most public, it appears we naturally think of additive solutions. This tendency certainly benefits a consumerist culture. How would our power change if we taught ourselves to consider subtraction as well as addition when managing problems and challenges?
Mary Oliver writes about “the light that can shine out of a life.” I’ve been resting in that phrase over the holiday weekend.
When I think of “life” the first things that come to mind are not human lives, but those rooted in the green world, the world that sustains me. I thought of light shining out of lives as I deadheaded and watered velvety purple petunias in their hanging basket, leggy now but still blooming richly, as though the first frost is not around the corner. I thought of it as I diced fresh sage, thyme, parsley, and garlic chives from my garden with our sharpest knife to make herbed bread. On my low-carb diet I eat a half a piece a day and these two loaves will last me for weeks. The scent of baking bread with herbs and onion fills the house like late summer incense.
I think of human life, too — strangers, friends and family, all kinds of people, a great tidal wave of humanity that’s straining the planet’s resources to the uttermost limits, but each individual a soul with hopes, dreams, history, wounds, and memories. Each with potential to be a light. Each with equal potential to be darkness.
The thing about light is that it’s meaningless unless we know darkness.
I want to be a source of light in the world. More than that, I want to be a specific kind and intensity of light for specific people in specific ways. I’m pleased if my light illuminates a step or two for others, or provides some comfort, but the light I’m choosing to shine is really directed at a small handful of people.
Appreciate my light, dammit! Open your eyes! I’m shining for
I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that allowing light
to shine from my life is where my power ends. The intensity and quality of my
particular light is not in my power. I can’t control the eyes that see it or
the steps it guides or companions.
This morning I took an early walk at dawn. The sky was
orange and pink, and as I was heading home with the sun rising behind me that
light glowed in the trees, which are just beginning to turn the same colors. It
was so lovely my eyes burned with tears.
That light wasn’t for me. It wasn’t mine. Birds and animals and yes, people too, all had their being under that morning sky. The trees bathed in it as though they loved it. I just happened to be one of many awake and about, and I saw. I saw and I was blessed.
Another thing about light is that we can’t see it if we
I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our ability to see lights
that can shine from lives. Are our eyes too weary and distracted by a world full
of visual noise and endless screens to find starlight or firefly light? If we
light a candle in our soul can we find our way back to it when we’re lost in
darkness? Are we able to value only the glaring light of sun or spotlight?
We were cleaning out a storage area under the attic eaves this weekend, and I crawled on my hands and knees with a flashlight, noting wiring that needs attention, dust, the desiccated bodies of wasps, and signs of mice. It struck me that holding a flashlight in a dark place provides illumination in the direction it’s pointed, but the holder can’t actually see the light source itself. Can we ever know the quality and brightness of our own light? Are we able to judge its value or where it’s most needed? Can we control which direction it shines in?
“The light that can shine out of a life.” Light that nourishes. Light that guides. Light that connects us to the web of life that is community. Light that inspires. Yet the value and outcomes of allowing our light to shine is beyond our control, beyond our knowledge.
Letting light shine out of our lives is an offering we can choose to make, and then we’re done. Perhaps the rest is none of our business.
Allowing light to shine out of my life. My daily crime.
I’d love to be one of those serene, appropriately disciplined (as opposed to compulsive or utterly feckless) people who achieve an effective, useful, consistent morning routine.
Even during what I think of as “normal” times when my life was structured predictably by work and other obligations and activities, my morning schedule varied. Now, during weeks of unstructured time, I’m realizing how important it is for me to take responsibility for creating the shape of my life, rather than passively allowing work and other extrinsic forces to do it for me.
On the other hand, spontaneity is good, right? Going with
the flow? Following my bliss?
I’m better at routine than I am at spontaneity. I’m better
at working than relaxing. I get an A+ in productivity and a D at simply being.
I watch people who spend hours a day in front of a screen, reading, or otherwise appearing to do nothing but laze around with a mixture of envy, fury and contempt. How can they do that? I wish I could do that and still live with myself. What a waste of time! I hate myself if I reach the end of the day with nothing to show for it. (Show who?) The shame and guilt of just being and not doing is annihilating.
Doing is also my favorite remedy for anxiety, and that’s
when the dark tentacles of compulsivity wrap around my ankles and start
crawling up my body.
I’ve written before about my tendency to speed, back in the old days before coronavirus. My life was familiar to me then. I knew how to use my time and energy. I felt effective without being compulsive. I thought I’d defeated my old self-destructive patterns. I felt balanced and healthy most of the time.
Then I discovered, to my chagrin, that I was still speeding unconsciously in some parts of my life. It troubled me, and I resolved to bring that behavior into consciousness and change it, which is why I wrote about it. I discovered a great way to pull the plug on unconscious speeding is to develop a practice of sitting in silence daily.
I’m avoiding using the term “meditation” because it’s so loaded, for me at least. I’ve no interest in a guru, a chant or a sacred sound. I don’t have a special cushion or adopt a particular position. That’s all just in my way. What does work for me is sitting comfortably with my eyes closed, concentrating on the natural flow of my breathing. The world doesn’t have to be quiet. The room doesn’t need to be light or dark or smell of incense. I don’t need a special timer. The only thing required is the most difficult, boring part: Stop. Sit my ass down. Breathe.
I call this my Be Still Now time, and I’m annoyed by how powerful it is. I’m annoyed because it can’t be right that sitting, doing nothing but being, is more powerful and peaceful than doing and doing and doing. Everyone knows how important it is to be productive!
The problem with all this pressure to do is that sometimes I can’t stop. It’s a hard thing to explain to anyone who’s not been compulsive.
I start out feeling focused, energetic and excited about a project or task, looking forward to the satisfaction of completing it and looking back on a day in which I didn’t “waste” time. I begin working. I think about the task in front of me, but my mind also wanders as I work, sometimes into dark, fearful places. Pretty soon I’m working a little harder, a little faster, trying not to feel uncomfortable feelings, trying not to remember, trying not to worry.
Time ceases to exist, but vaguely, through my mental and emotional chaos, I realize I’m tired. I’m overheated and my shirt is sticking to my back. I’m filthy. The bugs are feasting on me. I’m thirsty. I feel all those things, but they’re not nearly as important as the noise in my head and my momentum. Doing the project or task (as perfectly as possible) becomes far more important than my state of being. I’m no longer in control of my day or my activity. I’m not pacing myself. I don’t give a damn about taking care of myself. I’m not having fun or feeling satisfied, and I don’t care about finishing. In fact, I hope I never finish. I want to go on and on until I’m beyond thought or feeling. If I stop, something just behind me, hard on my heels, will tear me to pieces.
I absolutely know that if I work hard enough and long enough I’ll find peace, my uncomfortable feelings will resolve, and I’ll be safe and happy and able to rest.
In that state of mind, just stopping is unthinkable. The
very suggestion makes me want to tear out someone’s throat. Part of me realizes
I’m out of control, speeding again, and it’s dangerous and self-destructive,
but I feel unable to make a different choice.
I do, of course, eventually stop. I tell myself I was productive and did good work. I search for that feeling of gratification over a hard job well done, but I can’t find it. I feel more like I’ve been beaten up than anything else. I’m physically exhausted but my thoughts and feelings are churning and I’m pacing the floor, trying to crawl out of my skin, searching desperately for another project to throw myself into.
I’ve acted out this pattern my whole life, and until very recently it didn’t stop until I got sick or physical pain disabled me. I rarely get sick now, and I no longer have physical pain, thanks to my diet. I’ve gotten much better at using my support system and dealing with my feelings more appropriately. Still, the right kind of stressors over a long period of time, combined with not paying close attention to how I’m doing, reactivates my compulsivity.
The best way to pay attention to how I’m doing is to sit for a few minutes every day and just breathe. I’m not sure how, or why, but I’m quite sure it helps. The funny thing is, I don’t inquire within during that time, I just watch thoughts rise in my mind and let them go. Now and then I get a creative inspiration, which I jot down before going back to breathing. I’m not trying to process feelings or figure anything out. I’m not, in fact, doing or producing anything. I’m just sitting and breathing, and it’s so quiet!
I realize, in that timeless space, that peace and safety,
both of which I’ve searched for my whole life, are fully present and always
have been. I can’t chase them down or earn them. They’re not elsewhere. We have
not become separated or severed. I am not lost. Neither peace nor safety can be
found in compulsive doing. All I need to do is be still, be quiet, for just a
few minutes, and they are there.
I’d love to say that I’ll Be Still Now every morning for the rest of my life and never be compulsive again, but it’s probably not true. I’ll get distracted, or bored, or lazy. My routine will change. I’ll make something else more important than my sit time. I’ll self-sabotage in all the ways we do self-sabotage. Fortunately, life will continue to be challenging and provide plenty of things to feel anxious and fearful about, and I will continue to work for growth and health, which means I’ll hold myself accountable and return home, to that quiet daily space in which compulsivity cannot live or take root and peace can find me.
Be. Still. Now.
My daily crime.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger, Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.