My other posts have focused more on the house and green building ideas, but in this post, I wanted to write about the other side of this project, which is more about the personal search for a simpler life.
I heard a quote several years ago that said something like integrity happens when what’s on the outside matches what’s on the inside. That really stuck with me and became something that I aspired to, because for so long, I felt that what I was experiencing inside was so drastically different from what the outside world would see of me. I guess it was a form of self-protection. Somehow I believed there was something more fundamentally defective about me than the rest of the human race, and I needed to keep hidden. But it was such a miserable way to live. I didn’t believe that love, happiness or peace were possible, or at least I didn’t believe they weren’t possible for me. I thought that the people who had found those things were delusional and that the universe was a metaphysical black hole of meaninglessness that would destroy me if I got too close. So I created a life full of distractions hoping to avoid coming face to face with my defective nature and futile existence.
But at the same time, I wanted so badly to believe that I was wrong, that happiness was possible and that there was something that made life beautiful and worth living, so that tiny glimmer of hope kept me writing, exploring and seeking support to find a different way of life. I’ve spent the last several years going back and forth between distracting myself with relentless activity and different self-destructive behaviors to taking time to deal with the beliefs that keep me caught in patterns of suffering.
And I’m happy to say that now, most days I believe I was wrong. I have learned to see myself as pretty normal (sometimes even great!) and to see pain as something manageable. I believe we can handle intense feelings of grief, loss, and anger without being destroyed by them, as long as we aren’t carrying around the impossible burden of seeing ourselves as irredeemably flawed.
Interestingly enough, the further I explore the depths of my being, instead of misery and hopelessness, I find more peace and contentment. I still have days where I revert to old ways of thinking, and there are still many remnants of old beliefs remaining. Sometimes my insecurities take over, and it feels easier to crawl under the bed and hide than to deal with life at the moment, but overall, I feel so much happier and more comfortable in my own skin than I ever thought possible. I’m working on projects that I love, and my life is full of wonderful people. I’m no longer caught up in a full blown war with myself.
But just like with anything, the layers are endless. The more I see, the more there is to see. And that’s the peaceful life part of this project. I still spend a lot of my life distracted, worrying about money and fitting it all in. These are more of the same limiting beliefs that aren’t based so much in reality as they are in my past and the reality that I create, so why not try to change them?
Pema Chodron, one of my favorite teachers says that “anyone who has ever meditated for even one day figures out that we are almost never present.” That has become so apparent to me in my life; being present is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do! My mind never stops. I’m at a yoga class, where the whole practice is about being present and all I can think about is when it’s going to be over and the glass of wine I’m going to drink when I get home. Or how I can pay a mortgage off in 8 years instead of 30 years. Interesting stuff. But fast forward to me at home with the glass of wine, and I don’t enjoy it because I’m already thinking about the next day’s plans or what I should be doing instead!
My boyfriend might not be thrilled about me publicizing his sensitive side, but occasionally I’ll notice him looking out the window, staring at the birds and the trees. Sometimes he’ll stand there for several minutes just watching. And while the frantic part of me wants to scream “how can you just stand there and look at the birds when there’s so much to do?!”, the bigger part of me realizes what a beautiful, rare thing that is. He’s managed to hold on to a piece of childlike innocence and wonder that allows him to appreciate the simple things around him. And I realize how much I long for that in my own life. I really miss that part of myself. I can no longer relate to being a child and being totally consumed by every moment with no concept of the past or future, and that breaks my heart.
I don’t want to live the rest of my life distracted. I want to stop missing out on the life that’s right in front of me. I want to be able to leave work and remember where I parked my car in the parking deck and reduce the number of times per week that I leave my phone in random places!
Pema goes on to talk about an analogy that her teachers use. They say we are like small children with scabies who are old enough to scratch but not old enough to understand that scratching only makes things worse. So by scratching, we get very short term symptom relief, but the itching gets worse. So as hard as it may be, the only real solution is to stop scratching. Which I guess for me means slowing down, putting down my phone, taking a few minutes a day to quiet my mind, and paying attention to my feelings and what’s around me.
In middle school, I read the book Cheaper by the Dozen about the Gilbreth family. The father, Frank, and his wife, Lillian, were masters of efficiency. They came up with a system where each unit of time was called a therblig (Gilbreth spelled backwards), and they worked constantly, at work and at home, to perform tasks using as few therbligs as possible, which I guess is kind of necessary when you have 12 kids! I was fascinated by the idea, so I would go home and try to clean my room with less and less therbligs!
But now it feels like they’ve crept into every corner of my life, and I can’t get rid of them. I’m ready for my therbligs to have an on and off switch. I love efficiency, and I love businesses and systems that work well, and I want to use that part of myself for what it’s good for, like building houses or organizing events. But I don’t want my relationships or the fun in my life to be about efficiency. It makes for an exhausting life, and I’m ready to give up the incessant quest to get somewhere I’m not.
I seem to be good at noticing these things about myself, but it’s a lot harder to follow through with what I need to do to change it. Just like with anything, it takes work, practice, focus and dealing with parts of myself that I’m not so fond of.
So far, meditation is the best technique that I know of to work with my mind. Although it is a spiritual practice, I don’t meditate for the sake of any religion. It’s just a way to reconnect with myself, to increase my awareness about hidden beliefs that I may have and to notice what I spend all day trying to get away from. I want to reshape the limiting beliefs that I have, the beliefs that keep me trapped in my small little world.
But unfortunately, meditating is usually the last thing I want to do. Trying to sit down and meditate for me is like trying to drag my dog to the vet. He doesn’t know exactly what they are going to do him when he’s there, but he knows from the moment we get out of the car that it’s not a place he wants to be!
There’s nothing exciting about the idea of sitting still and breathing. It represents a whole lot of empty space, and that’s something I’m quite afraid of. In the past, empty space has meant depression, isolation, boredom. So whenever I try to sit and do nothing, there’s an alarm that goes off inside of me. It screams at me, trying to protect me, trying to keep me from returning to that place of pain, loneliness and unhappiness. But the more I try to escape from it, the louder it screams, and then the harder I have to work to distract myself from it.
So I’ve decided for the umpteenth time, that I have to quit running, to stare my feelings in the face and listen to what they’re trying to tell me. And then learn to see things differently. To learn to appreciate the calm and not equate it with misery. To trust that being present doesn’t mean returning to the life of my past.
Because all I really want is to know myself, to stop running, and to know what it’s like to truly rest. The brief moments when I experience those things, it’s more than enough, everything else is just extra. But when I don’t have those things, there’s no person or house or amount of money that could ever be enough.
Sometimes the process can feel painfully slow. It takes micro steps of kindness and patience and not beating myself up if I don’t do it perfectly. But I believe it’s worth working on over and over again, because as another one of my favorite teachers says, “what you pay attention to grows,” and my iphone definitely doesn’t need to get any bigger 🙂
When I notice that I panic about all there is to do and how little time and money there is, I remind myself that there’s enough time and money in my life for me and for the things that matter the most. And maybe a couple of decades from now my mind will be a little quieter, and I’ll be the one staring out the window at the trees!