Monthly Archives: January 2014

Culture Tax

A few things came up over and over, during the Clarity exercise.

– Physical objects are vessels that bear abstraction
– Physical objects obscure complexity
– Physical objects last much longer than the states they were acquired to satisfy
– We approach a culture of abundance with a scarcity mindset

One of the consequences of global culture is the abstraction from the most elemental parts of our life, like our food and other energy sources. For many of us (in the West at least) this abstraction has also led to tremendous abundance. Mechanization, technology, and the extreme fungibility power of a shared monetary system, have created a world where, with relative ease, time can be turned into almost any object or service. We spend some time doing something someone else values, we’re given some money for our effort, and then swap that money for a dazzling array of goods and services in a marketplace that is more or less always available. Yet, if I am any indication, we are still largely engaged with this monumental change in our living circumstances from a scarcity perspective.

The Abundance Trap
Physical goods represent past investment and future opportunity, and getting rid of them conjures up the fear of future regret. Thoughts like, but it works fine, or I might need it later and then I’ll have to replace what I already had, emerged over and over as I sorted through the things in my home. Our physical objects become a tangible stand-in for cognitive and emotional security, and the vessels that bear our memories. It is as though our abstract models for synthesizing reality must be anchored in, and buttressed by, the material. We instantiate what we love, the things that matter, in, well, matter. It is an astonishingly literal and straight forward way to surround ourselves with our world view and personal narrative. I actually find it oddly charming, almost childlike for it’s simplicity. But the sweetness in it also seems naive in a modern context of abundance. My fear of being wasteful, led me to actually being wasteful, by accumulating, and keeping, more than I can use.

The reality of my situation is closer to this: I am not going to start cycling anytime soon, and those padded bike shorts I still have from when I was spinning six years ago, can go. And if I do take up biking again, those shorts probably won’t fit anymore, or the spandex will be too deteriorated anyway. AND, it is also insanely easy for me to either purchase new ones, or with a little more effort, get them very cheap or free from a thrift store or freecycle.org. But still, I think, well, it’s always possible… Doubt, particularly the positive doubt that allows our future self redeem to the choices and aspirations of our past self, gives staying power to physical objects that are currently irrelevant. With shows like Hoarders and Storage Wars we have turned the viewing of other’s excess into a commercially viable sport predicated on sanctimony and excitement. And like so much of our media, it reflects what we cherish and revile, what we ourselves do at a scale small enough, that we only dare explore it through the magnified reflection of some one else, safely distant from our actual lives.

Food, my most direct and important energy source, is freighted with complexity and abstraction. What is crucially intimate, is also frighteningly foreign; this is the paradox of our time. I know almost nothing about where my food comes from, who makes it, and whether or not it will be good to eat after a seemingly arbitrary date, stamped on the packaging, has passed. I am being duped into unnecessary waste (and more purchasing) by the manufacturer, or is it actually not safe to eat, or safe, but lousy tasting? I can’t believe how little I really know about my food. Why would dry grains that once served as currency, for heaven’s sake, expire? I store it to the point of waste because it’s easier than using it. I buy Japanese soba noodles to try in a recipe and then let the rest sit in the cabinet for years, because they don’t quite fit with what I normally eat. Globalization and accessibility have made it easy for me to trifle in experiences outside my dominant culture, but the steel gossamer of my own native patterns makes it difficult to see those liaisons through to an honorable conclusion. My life is littered with the wreckage of my love affair with information – the noodles I bought to make a recipe in Gourmet, have outlasted the publication!

We buy in bulk at box stores for convenience and value, but this also obscures our consumption rate. It feels like we use less, and spend less because we don’t have to go through the uncomfortable exchanges of giving away our time and money every time we want another roll of paper towels – and the side effect of that is we don’t live in close contact with the true cost of using them at the rate we do.

The abstract nature of the abundance further divorces us from the relationship between what we do with our time, and how we come to have the trappings around us. I might talk and write about an idea that someone else builds, and someone else buys, and through the magical power of commerce and other people’s labor, have a house full of things I don’t maintain, and food whose origin is a mystery. I have more of everything, but I am distracted and lonely, because I have so little relationship to myriad things that surround me. I am constantly fighting my eagerness to find it in the next shiny object, or tantalizing idea, but I inevitably begin the cycle again, blindly, with the same model that landed me here in the first place. The abundance around me – in my home, in my media, in my schedule – tugs and taps and winks, a million microns of attentional gravity, pulling me into a perpetual now of nothing.

Learned Instinct
As a species, we are terribly impoverished in the realm of instinct. We’re born knowing how to eat, cry and clutch, and nearly everything else has to be learned. When we think of “trusting our instincts” it almost always applies to a personal, subjective experience, and does little to reliably contribute a predictable offering into the world around us, like say a spider’s web, or a bird song. But instinct is awfully useful, and so we do our best to approximate it through social organization: culture is the collective instinct of any given population – a family, a town, a nation, a gender…

Culture is learned, and preserved, through deep repetition and social reinforcement, which is why it is so hard to change – it requires collective practice against the already existing (usually unconscious) pattern. It is often vaguely linked to safety – physical (don’t eat this) or social (don’t say that) – and strongly linked to identity (we do, or don’t do, X). And because it’s also linked to the power structures of any given system, there are painful consequences for dissent, ranging from time-outs to execution. The immediate social and psychological benefits of belonging are so powerful that being counter cultural seems not only like a lot of work, but also dangerous to one’s wellness and security. As the saying goes: One doesn’t sip cyanide just to see what it tastes like.

The dominant population in America is one who has exchanged the cultural identity of their linage for a personal identity of hope. The origin stories of most non-Native Americans start with leaving the culture of their heritage, either willingly (often because things were so bad abandonment was the best option), or by force (because they were dragged away in chains). The American mythos is that of the pain/hope cycle: that merciless combination that drives astounding feats of achievement. Americans, by and large, are gambling on the exchange of a less-than ideal now, for a perpetually better future. This has been an extremely successful model for generating vast amounts of wealth, technological advances, and scientific discoveries, but we’ve mortgaged our humanity along the way. The chafing from our nobly-intentioned sacrifice further drives us to abandon the status quo just as quickly as we can identify it, in the hope that the arrival of the next future will make us happier right now.

Even when we can see our unhappiness, the prospect of trying to step out of this cycle is terrifying. For starters, it produces so much convenience and prosperity; the abundance we’ve created allows for a near frictionless (and presumably infinite) feathering our nests with goods and services that subtly reinforce this pattern. But stickier still is the emotional attachment we have to belonging. As humans, we long to be part of a narrative that is broader and longer than our own. It is very hard to leave the only home you’ve ever know, even when you don’t want to stay there.

The cycle times of these cultural narratives run at a much slower pace than the cycles of our markets. Our stories of sacrifice and improvement enjoy the dual benefits of an early introduction and constant repetition in the way they’re (often silently) enacted around us. Against this behavioral backdrop, quarterly earnings capture our attention over and over, leaving little room to consider the less urgent, but deeply pervasive, patterns that drive most of what we do. We eat the values of the market, and subsequently grow the culture that perpetuates them. If you’re at least third-generation American, you’ve probably got a family story about the Great Depression, and you’ve probably got some personal values that relate to behavior associated with economic hardship, and you are likely enacting those values in a way that also supports the perpetuation of personal abundance. For those of us who have been eclipsed by the abundance we’ve helped create, I offer that it is time to stop refining – and start redefining – the model that creates it. Rather than continuing to look at everything through the same lens, we must consider the lens itself.

America is a culture exquisitely primed to consume connective and information-pushing technologies that feed our cultural instinct for more. It’s no surprise that we have invented so many of them – it’s what we value. And this, in and of itself, might not be so problematic if it were not for the clutter of objects that accompany our frenetic pace of acquisition. In material form, these objects are crippling and overwhelming our environment, and in abstract form they are crippling and overwhelming our human spirits. The impact of object proliferation is finally reaching an impact point painful enough to contend with the painful risks of culture change. Abandoning our cultural narrative of acquisition for a better one would, in fact, be a very American thing to do.

So what, then?
The good news is that if our instincts are learned, they are also mutable. How do we learn in a culture of abundance, to accept the abundance, and shift our attention elsewhere in order to solve more pressing problems, including the problems of abundance? What will we loose by doing this? How do we even think clearly in the din of our economic engine?

One possibility is that our excess will actually allow more of us to live well, by living more simply – but we must choose to do so. In a world where we no longer need to hedge against basic needs that aren’t secure, and put our energy into the attainment of physical goods, we have to retrain ourselves step off the gas, and practice living in the (sometimes uncomfortable) intimacy of our own lives: Cooking our own food, raising our own kids, cleaning our own homes, and actually BEing with the people around us.

Successfully switching to a culture of being, from a culture of doing, requires reducing, among other things, the number of relationships that we claim for intimacy. Americans are loathe to surrender to the limits of their capacity – because it is pleasurable (and mythological) to live in the abstraction layer of abundance afforded us by ubiquitous technology and financial capital, not to mention the righteous fantasy generation of that little meat computer between our ears. It has become so common to do this – it is so culturally supported – it’s difficult to even recognize how dominant it is. Culture is transparent from the inside out, like a one way mirror.

Significant change usually comes from a place of emergency, disgust, or impoverishment; otherwise we’re just not motivated enough to undertake the effort. And it is a lot of effort. Sitting still long enough to discover these things within ourselves, requires patience and tolerance and kindness for oneself – not exactly skills that we get a lot of chance to develop along the way. Class, we will now sit still for an hour and practice recognizing and accepting our fear and self-loathing with loving-kindness…

Our values and intentions are difficult to quantify because the inner experience is so subjective. And we live in a culture that is crazed for quantification because that is how we convert nearly everything into financial currency, so it can go through the abstraction exchange that powers abundance. Americans are some of the hardest working, most creative and driven people in the world, but our cultural narrative is so fixated on expansion and achievement, we trample the development of our humanity in the rush to prove how great we are. We call the normal, second adolescence of adult psychological development a midlife crisis. How did a culture founded by pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, slaves and exiles become so disdainful of questioning the world around us, that is, the one we created? I actually find this heartbreaking.

The world will re-balance itself, to be sure; either through a catastrophic failure (likely in the economy or environment) or through the deliberate work and attention of humans – the same way we got here. I would prefer the latter, but it’s not as attention garnering as cataclysmic disaster. I’m not sure how you give kindness, generosity, compassion, and self-awareness mainstream appeal and commercial viability.

For my part, the best idea I have come up with, is simply to practice in the ordinary context of my ordinary life. Practice is like pulling that loose thread, before you know it, a whole bunch you weren’t expecting is undone. I am learning humility in spades, and pitching fits with every lesson. And I am doing the other, equally small and simple thing I can think of, which is to write. To tell my story, which is a story about being human. The hurt and hope in my pressable flesh, and ethereal spirit, are not so special as I fancy. We need voices of relief, voices that throw contrast against the crystalline instincts of our culture, so that their forms might be seen. Voices that name what’s already slumbering in the hearts of others, so that it might be known to them.

Gifts, Mother-Fucking Gifts

As I clean out objects from my house, the number of gifts I come in contact with is astounding. Paying attention to my reaction to gifts, as I decide to keep them, or give them away, I’ve begun to realize how complex they are. Lest I sound ungrateful, let me say that I am not. I am fortunate to have incredibly generous family and friends; I truly appreciate the affection, generosity and thoughtfulness with which the gifts we have were given. But gifts are complicated in a way that I think is worth exploring, and is not mutually exclusive to gratitude.

My family is given so much stuff – it’s a big contributor to how much stuff we have. I’ve got perfectly good T-shirts (for example), and I’ve got newer T-shirts, and I’ve got brand new T-shirts, and so does everyone else in my house. And when I get new versions of the same thing, it’s rare for me to immediately swap out an earlier version in order to maintain object-stasis. I just accumulate more and more. What we call consumerism, is actually much closer to collectionism, or the cycle of collectionism and disposalism, which in our house runs at a cycle of about 3:1. Aside from food and cleaning products, very few physical objects in my home actually get consumed. It’s part of what makes it so hard for me to get rid of things – they still seem perfectly good to me.

Gifts are sticky. A gift is more than the object itself, it is imbued with the expectation of our pleasure. And for my part at least, I really want to live up to this expectation. I was taught that a gift should be freely given, without expectation, but in practice I struggle to trust in this aspiration, either as a giver or a receiver. Gifts give form to our hope and fear, and in their embodied separateness keep us safe. We bear objects instead of our hearts, and so can tolerate the occasional shooting of the messenger.

Gifts reflect the intimacy between the giver and the receiver. When a gift captures a genuine knowledge of what the receiver enjoys, it is a truly magical experience. My most pleasurable gift experience was giving a race car driving experience to my husband, who is a NASCAR fan. I knew he was going to love the gift. I enjoyed weeks of anticipation before Christmas. I knew it would be a total surprise. And it was all of those things. He loved it. He never would have guessed. And then six months later, when summer came and he went and did it, he loved the experience. We got to enjoy it all over again. It remains a fond memory for both of us, but for me it’s also tinged with disappointment that I might never have that peak experience again.

And sometimes the intimacy reflected back at us in the exchange of gifts is one we’d rather not spend too much time looking at. We might have to confront that we don’t know the receiver of our gift well enough to be confident that they will like it. We might have to wrestle with the internal what? seriously? in the reception of an unwanted gift, as we do our best to be externally gracious. We might have to admit that we are not trusting enough of ourselves, or the relationship, to share our anxiety about these things. We might have to do this with people we are not “supposed” to have to do this with, like our family members. A failed gift suddenly becomes a failure of knowing, and even when this is small, sometimes because it is small, we turn away from it. We smile, we say thank you, we honor the intention, but we do not honor the reality, and into this gulf intimacy recedes a little further.

Tradition and etiquette combine to turn a beautiful practice into a super-storm of emotional complexity. Our traditions change much more slowly than the reality of our needs. Bridal and baby showers come from an era when the objects bestowed were designed to last a lifetime (or at least a long time), and when the household earning power was a fraction of what it typically is today. We live in an age where availability of things, both in terms of cost and proximity, far outpace our actual need for them. It’s hard to resist the cultural weight of our customs, not to mention the excitement that often accompanies them, and so we focus on the pleasure, setting aside the rest for a later reckoning. I have encountered a surprising number of things in my home that I don’t particularly like, yet I have passively allowed them to become the things that represent me, which is weird.

All objects come with the responsibility of ownership, and in my experience, there is very little acknowledgement about this by either the giver or the receiver. How would gift-giving change if every time we gave someone a gift, they gave us something they already owned? Thank you for this new scarf, I love it! Here is another scarf I already have, please take it. If I keep it, I’ll have to enjoy it half as much, or wash it twice as often.

What might a new etiquette for a culture of abundance look like? Many people refrain from gift-giving already, reducing or eliminating the exchange of gifts. But what if we also stared to encourage gift-giving as an act of redistributing value? Imagine a birthday party invitation that said, If you wish to honor the celebration of Jonah’s life with a gift, please consider donating a toy to Toys for Tots. And then, at the party the birthday kid could be celebrated for the generosity they helped foster. Would it work, or would you just end up with a teary child that didn’t understand why their party was so weird and different, and they didn’t get any presents?

Or what if amazon.com had a “this is a donation” option right next to the “gift” check box, that would allow you to send a gift directly to a charity, and a write donation card to the person on whose behalf you gave? In the card you would explain how much you valued this person, and why you thought they would value helping someone else. It would be a way to acknowledge something beautiful you recognize and appreciate in that person, and honor it through helping someone else.

Or what if at the Christmas tree, along side the bag full of discarded wrapping paper, there was a donation box. When each family member opened a present, the giver could explain why they had chosen the gift. The receiver would listen, thank them, and decide if they wanted to keep or donate the gift, or donate something else they already owned. When choosing an item for donation, the person would talk about why they did not need that item, how it had mattered to them, and why they thought it would be useful to someone else.

These ideas make me squeam a little. They seem plausible, and at the same time, corny, almost cloying in their earnestness. It’s hard to imagine being this thoughtful, this honest, in every exchange. It takes time and attention, bravery and trust. It takes knowledge of oneself, love of others, and the willingness to tolerate the rejection of what’s in your heart.

January, Clarity

The super-self me project is underway, and January is dedicated to the value of Clarity. I am suddenly feeling very self-conscious about publishing this – but I’m at my deadline, and rather than evaporating while trickling my way to perfection, I’m going to see what happens when I follow my own rules. Nothing wagered, nothing gained, right?

I had a hard time selecting a single word to represent this theme. I’ve been talking about it as “cleansing and purification month,” but what those actions are about is creating physical space and mental clarity. In the end, it all more or less reduces to cultivating clarity in the causes and conditions out of which my reality arises.

Intention:
This was a natural fit for January, when the excess of the holiday season makes it easy to embrace cleaning out and cleaning up. I also liked the idea of having a clean space and a clear mind as my baseline for the undertaking of this project.

The physical environment of my home seems like the most controllable condition that contributes to my experience. I enjoy having uncluttered space. I love needing something and knowing exactly where to find it. I am a little bit compulsive about wanting things cleaned up and put away. Sharing a house with a husband who works from home a lot and three kids under six, results in a space that’s much busier and messier than I would choose to live and work in, all things being equal. I get overwhelmed by how much stuff there is, I accidentally buy things we already have, and I spend more time than I want to maintaining, and thinking about maintaining, the objects in our lives. There isn’t enough pregnant emptiness into which new thoughts and actions can be born, so enslaved am I to bounty we already have.

I want the objects in my environment have a specific purpose in my life. I want to enjoy less, more. To the extent I can, I want to create a crafted, purposeful environment. My house feels like a choking ecosystem. It’s a nice little house, it’s just all clogged up with the detritus of busy, inattentive living.

The most immediate desire I have is to reduce the labor and attention I give to object maintenance. When I was getting paid for my work, and I worked outside of my home, what I had and who took care of it was not something I paid a lot of attention to. George took care of the lawn, a rotating set of Brazilian women cleaned my house. Smiling, Portuguese-speaking apparitions who, I’m ashamed to admit, were as interchangeable to me as they apparently were to their boss. Now that I have chosen to BE RESPONSIBLE FOR MY OWN THINGS, I am feeling the crush of my leveraged lifestyle collapsing back on top of me. When other people cleaned my house and clipped my lawn, I consumed at a rate greater than one person because I outsourced the effort of ownership.

I want to have a serene space in which to live and work, but I still don’t want to spend a lot of my time maintaining it. So this month is about the over-due reckoning of living within my means, but beyond my capacity. I gotta own my shit, and this means removing obstructions that prevent me from placing my awareness at the deepest level available to me. A big part of this month’s activities is about doing this literally, by reducing the things in my home, but I also want a clearer internal baseline. The more I meditate, the less I enjoy drinking. The pleasure is briefer, and the side effects are more obvious. I also think it has a bigger impact on my mood stability, physical comfort, and energy level than I wish were true. So, I as I clean up the distractors around me, it seemed like a good corollary to stop putting chemical distrators in me.

I want to have more meaningful relationships with fewer objects. As I’ve slowly (often begrudgingly) settled into the intimacy of my own life, I’ve realized how much pleasure and wonder there can be in simple tasks. One of my fondest memories from this past summer was sweeping a batch of tiny brown, papery husks that fell all over our deck from blossoming tree. At the time, there was a big orb weaver in residence, and I noticed the same husks caught in its web. The next morning, a small batch of them were scattered below the web; overnight, the spider had meticulously picked out each one and repaired the silk threads. The symmetry of our actions was so beautiful and so moving I started crying (surprise). I felt such camaraderie with that eight-eyed, eight-legged little cleaner. I felt intense gratitude for this quiet offering of validation that, yes, I too was part of the nature of things, and I thought Holy shit, this is what it feels like to really live inside my own life. This is amazing. I want to keep doing this.

January Activities:

  • Abstinence from alcohol.
  • Exercise 3 times a week, 30 minutes or longer.
  • Remove all unused objects from the house.
  • Find a place for all remaining objects.
  • Establish a system for maintaining space and clarity.

Expectations:
Some of my expectations seem really tangible, like spending less time cleaning and less time thinking about cleaning, but some of them are extremely vague, even foofy, like feel happier and lighter. Part of what’s good about trying to identify my expectations is the simple act of seeing how unspecific they are. They’re almost more aspirations, but for the (almost) non-judgemental record, they also include:

  • Be less bothered by the (mostly kid) mess around me, because there will be less of it, fewer conditions for it to arise, and because I will be more ok with it by the end of this month of practice. I expect my perception will shift in a way I can’t quite articulate, but I think it will end up more accepting and relaxed, for having exposed some of my own ridiculousness.
  • If I sincerely, consistently live the behavior, my kids will start to copy it
  • Enjoy the visual and functional aesthetic of less clutter.
  • Become more aware of my consumption patterns: buy less, enjoy it more, and actually consume it. I.e. eat it, wear it, wash it away…
  • I expect it won’t work the way I think it’s going to, and expect I’ll be a little disappointed about this.

I had to really resist the desire to over-work the four questions. I wanted to make sense of them up front, refine them into a more palatable, more likely list. Some of them don’t make a ton of sense relative to this theme, some of them are in conflict, but it feels right to try to grab it as a rough snapshot of where I’m at.

What do I Value?

  • Opportunity – which to me seems inextricably linked to open space. A chance for something new to emerge.
  • Truth – seeing as complete and unobscured of a reality as is possible for me.
  • Trust – being calm and secure that I have done as much as is reasonable to enable seeing clearly.

What do I Want?

  • I don’t feel like I’ve hit my stride yet, and I’m sort of herky-jerking along. I want there to be something more, something different. This might be something new in its own right, or just a new dimension to what already exists. There is a sort of icky-seeming sense of wanting to be “saved” buried in that desire. Ugh.
  • I want more time for my independent adult life, writing, reading, meditating, seeing friends, etc.
  • I want better focus.

Where is the Resistance?

  • I’m not sure I want to be ok with messiness. I have a sense of pride about myself associated with high standards, hard work, and excellent performance. I’m sort of a controlling person, I stink at letting go.
  • Staying perpetually engaged with the mundane is a great way to ensure nothing I care deeply about will go wrong, for it never goes at all.
  • I have a sense of frugality and conservatism that I’m attached to. I don’t like to throw things away because I don’t want to be wasteful. It’s so ironic that that an undertaking to have less would challenge my sense of frugality. It’s because my idealism about being frugal is about to get called onto the carpet, packed up, and donated to a worthy cause.

What’s Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • Time for my personal projects. If I have less to maintain, I will spend less time on maintenance. It is so, so much more expeditious to do housework when the kids aren’t here, and I spend precious solitude on cleaning instead of writing, meditating, connecting, etc.
  • Satisfaction… (red flag!) I struggled to articulate this any further, best guesses included: at having changed my patterns and habits / having accomplished “it” (no idea what it is) / walking into a clean room.
  • Appreciation for what I have – Making intentional choices about the purpose of the objects I keep will allow me to understand the value and use they provide.
  • Humility – Having to confront the amount of stuff I have that I don’t need will help me acknowledge the degree to which I take more than is necessary.
  • Acceptance – doing the work has a way of exposing what’s at the top of the “let it go” stack.

Lost

  • A sense of cultural convention – I live in a middle-class suburb – drinking while socializing, and consumerism are just part of the vernacular.
  • The soothing and time consuming activity of shopping – I use it to kill time and get my kids out of the house on long days together. It feels satisfying to have “done” something like get groceries and gives me a break from the non-stop requests for attention, snacks, help, etc. when we are in the house.
  • Security – I tend to keep stuff out of a “just in case” sense that I will need it later.
  • Ease – I have a family that – loving as it is – is not quite so interested in this exploration of pseudo-asceticism as I am. Giving away their stuff on my behalf might not always go over well.
  • Old values and relationships – I’ll have to say goodbye to the emotional payload in objects I don’t value, or need, anymore. This one is going to be really hard.

Sidebar…

Possible Gotchas

  • I’ll just find different things to distract me. Distractions are internal, I’m just a lot better at noticing the outward manifestations.
  • I’ll spend more time with fewer objects, and get no net gain on free time. (The whole concept of “free time” is silly enough for me to cringe when I write that, but it has a valid colloquial meaning of: activities I’m unwilling to stop doing.)
  • I won’t reduce nearly enough stuff to make a tangible difference.

A Question to Watch For:
How much of the mess is generated by people, rather than the proliferation of objects? As I wrote this piece, the whole thing started to have a wag the dog feeling. It’s possible I’ve got it all backwards – that the people will generate the same amount of physical disorder no matter what, and no matter how much I get rid of it won’t matter.

Super-Self Me

This year I have resolved to become a better human being. It recently occurred to me that every day I have the chance to wake up and live exactly the life I want, and I am sort of blowing it. The fast follow-on to that realization was having to admit that after a year of hanging out with myself, I still don’t really know what I want, beyond a general sense, or how exactly, to discover and accomplish such a thing. This is so embarrassing. The trouble with values is that they’re context dependent. They’re much more dynamic than rules, and although they can be clear, they’re not specific.

What I want more than anything else is to have peace in my heart, and for every action I live into the world to be an offering and reflection of that peace. I am a long, long way from being able to do this with any consistency, if at all. So this year is about honoring the hope I have for my own beauty, and learning what it takes to close the gap between my beloved ideals and the life I actually live.

I have never accomplished anything important to me without working hard at it – why should becoming a kinder, wiser, happier person be any different? I have much respect and affection for the thinking and writing of Alain de Botton, who champions the idea that living a rich human existence takes effort and thoughtful cultivation. There is a pervasive cultural myth that somehow, once we reach adulthood, our psychological, emotional and spiritual developments are complete. That somehow, everything we need to know about being a good parent, child, spouse, friend, and community member are understood and immediately available to us. That somehow, we all know how to accept ourselves and others, not to mention the surprising nature of the universe, and that help with those things is an abnormal failure of some sort – one that is best relegated to the dark cloisters of disdain and weakness, also known as the church or therapy office.

So I am dedicating this year to calling bullshit on that notion, and seeing what happens. I am dedicating each month to living one of my values by setting specific goals and activities in service to manifesting and reflecting on that value. My best guess for how to develop insight into my experience is to answer the following questions:

  • What do you value?
  • What do you want?
  • Where is the resistance?
  • What are your expectations?

Lofty notions and honest guesses are all well and good, but they don’t mean much without action. My plan for each month is to follow this basic structure:

Clarify Intention: (wk. 1) Written reflection on the intention and choice of the value. This step is about articulating what a highly subjective, abstract value like “kindness” means to me. Using intentions will help me stay focused on the value I’m working to cultivate, within the boundaries of the exercises I’ve chosen.

Select Goals and Activities: (wk. 1) Choose 3 – 5 specific activities to engage in the theme. These are designed to create the chosen value in my inner or outer world, in order to develop the kinetic knowledge of experience. They are the quantified objects for my qualified reflection.

Clarify Expectations: Write down what I expect will happen as a result of my practice. Expectations are the qualified stand-in for outcomes, so I have some way to evaluate how what I imagined compares to the reality that occurred. Outcomes are often the tangible thing we select to represent the hope in our hearts. We love them because they’re so clear, and so easy to work towards in a categorical way – they give us a feeling of control that is deeply satisfying. But too often, we fixate on the outcome without being clear about the expectation that created it. Once we achieve it, we are surprised and disappointed that our happiness is not as great or enduring as we imagined it would be. Or, we achieve the outcome, but at the cost of something we valued much more than the result itself. When I do this exercise honestly, sometimes ludicrous stuff ends up on the list; better, I think, to meet that up front, and chat it up along the path.

One of my biggest challenges is accepting my own limitations. As a kid, the notion “you can do anything” was drilled into me. By and large, I still actually believe this, but the deeply enmeshed subtext of that message is “you can do everything, and you should do it to an externally defined (and often changing) standard.” This part is seriously not true, but I harbor all sorts of notions that it is.

Identify Gained and Lost: (wk. 1) Something is always gained and lost but I tend to assume that the only losses will be negatives I want to shed, or I simply focus exclusively on what I expect to be gained. The positive aspects are nicer to focus on, but it’s not representative of the full experience I’ll have. This step is important for being honest with myself, having a way to evaluate how good I am at predicting my pain points, and shedding light on them ahead of time. It’s a critical step for learning how to be accepting and gentle with myself around my most difficult and unpleasant parts, which I believe is fundamental to being that way with others.

Activities: (wks. 2 -3, and throughout) This is the activity-based portion of the practice. It involves doing the work I’ve laid out, and being flexibly disciplined about my commitments. The most important part of this is being accepting and creative in the face of the (inevitable) obstacles that arise, and making a complete effort to fulfill the commitment I’ve set. I.e. do my best, and accept that it won’t be perfect.

Review and Reflection: (wk. 4, and throughout) Since this whole project is about growth and discovery – about investigating if something like this will actually work – actively engaging in the experience is perhaps the most important part. It’s my sincere living practice as a householder. Throughout the experience, I will journal to document and reflect on what happened. Week four is dedicated to exploring my experience in full. What did I learn, and why does it matter?

This work takes a different kind of effort than the kind I’m good at. It is not the effort to accomplish a specific outcome, but rather the effort to work diligently and accept the outcome. It is about living in the space between the intention and the result, and mining the wisdom that lives there. It is accepting the invitation, and stepping into God’s speakeasy, the rough and holy place where you meet your soul.

Themes of Cultivated Practice
January, Clarity
February, Love
March, Listening
April, Self-Compassion
May, Strength
June, Kindness
July, Perspective
August, Acceptance
September, Discipline
October, Community
November, Gratitude