A Lenten Experiment – Mission 4, Day 7

For Lent I decided to give up judging myself. When a friend suggested that this was a common and harmful pattern for me, I was shocked—not by the “common” but by that other adjective. I knew I delivered harsh self-critiques to myself at times but somehow it felt appropriate—in moderation, of course. How else to motivate yourself to improve if you didn’t occasionally confess the litany of hard truths of where you’ve gone wrong? It seemed so practical, sensible and wise—admirable, even—a type of tough (self) love, as it were. The idea that the judging was itself a “where you’ve gone wrong” was unraveling for me. But a moment after the surprise, I knew he was right. In fact, in that moment I also realized that the judging, ironically, was an insidious obstacle to improvement; a distraction to righting the wrongs. The irony! Imagine the stamina I had diverted over the years! I mourned the wasted energy (alas, more judgment) and cursed the judging for tricking me into believing him (her?) all these years. My insight was merely this: while you are judging yourself—an inherently backward-looking endeavor—you spend no time in the present trying to fix your future.

The judging feels bad but, as the unblemished example of sadism that it is, it is so common because it’s surprisingly easy to do. For as Nietzsche’s unnamed “some one” put so dolefully well: “I have been prejudiced against myself from my earliest childhood: hence I find some truth in all blame and some stupidity in all praise. I generally estimate praise too poorly and blame too highly.” On this 7th day of Lent I can testify to the difficulty in giving it up. My hypothesis is therefore this: spend a small amount of time trying to minimize those life situations that cause you to judge yourself and see if somehow that is not a good thing. This is not a very scientific hypothesis, but I try not to judge.

Yet how proud we are,
In daring to look down upon ourselves! – Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Breathe – Mission 2, Days 3 through the end

I was disingenuous. I had an ulterior motive in selecting this mission that I did not mention. What you don’t know is that I was moving. When I chose this mission, I was in the process of leaving my apartment of 7 years in just under a month. The mission and the move are both done.

Do you feel duped? Don’t–I would have taken up purging even if there had been no move. But I understand that it takes some of the gloss off of it. Who can admire in quite the same way someone who vows bravely to cross the Sahara after you find out he had an appointment on the other side anyway? The move did force my hand. The new people wanted an empty apartment on a particular day in a “ready or not, here I come” sort of way.

I let go of a mountain of junk. But, if I am honest–and I feel I must be after having so recently misled you–I could have gotten rid of much more. I was tempted–seduced, really. It wasn’t the object itself–it was the role the object could play in the future. That is super sexy stuff–you can see how I was seduced. I thank you for understanding why the sleek Italian wall-mounted coat rack that I never used in my old apartment sweet talked its way into a box. I also don’t have to explain why the food processor made the trip to the new apartment of a woman who rarely cooks.

The marketing/advertising industry has a word that describes what happened to me: aspirational. A consumer product lured me in with the promise of a life that could be, with little regard for the life that actually is (for the second time, no less). There is a part of me–and a part of you too, I’m sure–that says: “well what’s wrong with that? Maybe aspirations will serve as inspiration.” There is nothing wrong with that. To aspire is an exquisite human trait. With the Latin root “to breathe” right in the middle of the word, it is a supremely romantic notion: that you can breathe life into an image of yourself with the promise that it will materialize before you. But there is a danger in it. Excessive trappings of the aspirational version of you will keep you from becoming her. You cannot “breathe life” while being stifled by your excess. Ironic, no?

Maybe keep the wall-mounted coat rack for a month–if aspirational me does not show up and use it, then the real me can use the clear space instead.

Life and Algebra – Mission 2, Days [sq rt] -1 through [sq rt] -25

Ok. So this was harder than I thought.

This mission has been–to borrow an expression from the young people–an epic fail. You’re wondering what the days in the title mean–it was my attempt at humor. (They are imaginary numbers…get it? I’ll refrain in future.)

I have insights from my inaction, if that helps. I think it does as it classifies this as a “mission stalled” and not a “mission aborted.”

Insight #1: While I am no one’s idea of a hoarder or pack rat, I find my “stuff” to be overwhelming–damn near oppressive. Clearly. It is why I was prompted to purge in the first place. Purging is an activity that requires energy and motivation–the “stuff” saps energy and motivation–and thus a circ is born. The only way to deal with a circ is to begin at the beginning and to give this problem what every problem needs for solving: at least one constant. This leads me to Insight #2.

Insight #2: I needed a plan. The plan is the constant. The plan is basecamp as you slowly work your way through the other variables. And though a plan (like a constant) is necessary, it is not sufficient. This leads me to Insight #3.

Insight #3: I needed “know how.” Not too much, but a little. The Minimalists by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus and someone whose writing I’ve admired for a long time, Julie Morgenstern were most helpful.

Now onto forming the plan. I usually “muse” in this blog but it’s time for tactics. There is more detail but I won’t bore you with the subplots.

Phase 1 (real numbers now):
Clothes, Papers/mail and shoes

Phase 2:
Kitchen, Books and sundries

Phase 3:
Office, Computer Files and Time

That’s it.

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate. (Plurality should not be posited [assumed] without necessity.) – William of Ockham, Ockham’s Razor

“Never try to solve all the problems at once — make them line up for you one-by-one. – Richard Sloma

The First Clue – Mission 2, Day 1

This mission began as an assault on possessions–on “things.” But the universe had other plans.

People can be superfluous. More precisely, the role a person takes in one’s life can need scrapping. Should a colleague be a confidante? Is a relative better suited as an acquaintance? Should a lover be just a friend?

The role a person had previously played in my life was the first of my effects to depart. You may be wondering how this fits within the scope of this mission–how can this be “clutter?” I wondered that myself. I believe we know intuitively how this is true. The “mind-body-some sort of soul” paradigm provided some guidance. The answer, at least in part, is clarity, and how the lack of it is an irritant to the human condition–mind, body and soul, although perhaps in unequal measure. Lack of clarity is maddening, distracting to the human condition–like a mosquito bite left unscratched. To explain fully what I mean would require a backstory that would, quite frankly, bore you and embarrass me. The details don’t matter. We set out to discover the nature of eliminating excess and our search has yielded its first clue. I love a mystery.

Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world,
A limited, limiting clarity.
I have not and never did have any motive of poetry
But to achieve clarity.
-George Oppen


Cui Bono – Mission 2

It is time for Mission 2. After completing Mission 1, I took some time to reflect. I wanted to savor my experience.

First, I wanted to reflect upon beginning this blog, which has been an experience in and of itself. Writing is such a curious exercise. Life could be described as a “stimulus blitz.” The seconds of life flow by, generally without recognition nor scrutiny. (Really, can you remember what was intriguing or interesting at quarter past 2 today? There was something of note—you just didn’t see it.) Writing forces a pause. Writing punctuates the endless onslaught of dull, gray input with bright flashes of meaning. Now, writing for others rather than for oneself adds a layer of complexity. The writer rifles through an inadequate vocabulary—selecting and discarding and selecting again—trying to convey her exact and entire perception of a moment or an idea to an audience she does not know. There is no such struggle when I write for myself—mostly, I know exactly what I mean. Next, there was the addition of yoga to my life. There is a mystical element to yoga that is difficult to describe. I don’t fully understand it but I suspect that if there is “divinity,” yoga gets you closer to it.

Choosing Mission 2 was a challenge. Because I write about my experiences, I feel compelled to be “epic” (15 days of ice climbing!). Or to be whimsical (15 days of origami!). Or to be meaningful. These are all worthy—not these missions, per se, but the intents behind them. Also, dear friends who know of this blog were an additional source of ideas. Learn burlesque (I’m being kind by using that word) or critique restaurants (I like that one as I excel at eating), to name a couple. There will be time for some of those later. For now, I am drawn inward. For 15 days, I will purge my home and office of superfluous possessions. These things are also called “clutter” in some circles.

That some sort of minimalist philosophy is beneficial is not a novel idea. Let us assume that the benefit is real (for I believe it is). But—and there is no rhetoric laced in this question—why? We are mind, body and some kind of soul—which of these is offended by excess and clutter? And what causes that sublime feeling of clarity, power and possibility in the presence of an ordered, clear space?

I mean to find out.

“Present Me is tired of holding onto Future Me’s crap. Future Me will just have to deal with it.” Comment from Stephanie, 4.29.09, uncluttered.com

The Problem with the Middle – Mission 1, Days 5 thru the end

The middle is a strange place. It is a place where the death throes of the novice are magnified in an echo chamber caused because you lack true mastery.

In the middle, you know you want it. If you didn’t, you would have abandoned it shortly after the beginning. You know you want it–but you are acutely aware that it is not yours.

In the middle, you’ve shed all illusions of perfection. You know it won’t cure all ills, but there is still the hope for a greater brightness once you reach the end.

How do you push past the middle? How do you make this thing yours? Whether yoga or any other discipline–or love, the greatest discipline of all–the middle can look like a wasteland. Those who gave up in the face of fear of never possessing this thing they desire are littered all along the terrain.

There is no one answer, but there is a critical ingredient. Patience.

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Genius is eternal patience. -Michaelangelo

A Day Not Ordinary – Mission 1, Day 4 (theoretically)

We knew it was going to happen. We just didn’t know it would happen so soon. Perhaps I knew.

The day would come when I wouldn’t complete the day’s mission or that I wouldn’t feel to post. Or both.

It is on an occasion such as this that I will leave you with the observations of someone else. However, before I do that I will say that although I failed to complete the day’s mission, I succeeded in spending a day that is in the spirit of this blog. It was productive and adventurous; I connected with new people with interesting lives, fascinating histories and fresh perspectives; and I shed tears of joy with a friend upon hearing her happy news. In summary, it was a day not ordinary. I think these are the best days. Goethe agrees.

“A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Ubiquity of Small Miracles – Mission 1, Day 3

The music, fashion and now financial services mogul and philanthropist Russell Simmons came to my yoga studio last night. To be fair, perhaps I went to his yoga studio. But I digress. After class, I stopped in the studio’s vegan café for a bit of dinner. As I tucked into a surprisingly delicious and pleasantly spicy daal soup, he walked in with a companion. He did not disappoint–sporting his characteristic Yankees cap and pair of Adidas. I appreciate those familiar elements of his look, but what really does it for me is the whimsy of an exquisitely tailored suit coupled with a dope pair of kicks.

There was a part of me that wanted to approach him and tell him about this blog. It whispered encouraging words to me, coaxing me with the thought that he would understand this small journey I’ve created for myself. “Look at his tweets,” it said. “A man who tweets about enlightenment and the divine and quotes yogis and stuff totally gets it.”

I cast a few shy and furtive glances over my massive bowl of quinoa and kale in his direction. The woman with him was exceptionally stylish and utterly normal in a chic sort of way, all at the same time. Naturally, my confidence waned. That sort of woman is kryptonite to the rest of us. Then he asked one of the servers: “where are you from, man?” His voice had that pleasant tone of the spiritually-inclined, with the unmistakable New York accent layered underneath. As a Bronx native I appreciated the accent. But his voice, like his fashion, was made all the more cool by way of funky juxtaposition.

In the end, the “unflappable New Yorker who’s unfazed by celebrity” part of me won—but not by much. I didn’t go up to Mr. Simmons—I was content to have had my chance sighting of someone whose entrepreneurial pursuits and devotion to meditation I’ve admired for some time. But, there was another reason to cherish this small moment. My belief in the existence of mere coincidence is fading. Perhaps coincidences are small miracles—brief conversations between your psyche and the swirling flow of the universe. I’m taking my small miracle to be a blessing of sorts for this project. Amen.

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. (Albert Einstein, The World As I See It)

On Myopia – Mission 1, Day 2

I wouldn’t have thought I would sense a difference on Day 2. But I do. There are several, but one in particular stands out.

The simple act of changing your habitual basket of stimuli opens you up in unexpected ways. What precisely you add to your basket of goods is somewhat irrelevant. I added yoga—but it just as easily could have been knitting or puppeteering. I feel more engaged, focused and clear. Is it that the synapses in our brains are a lot like our eyes? Your eyes take you at your word, based on your life filled with narrow deeds, that you no longer need the flexibility to perceive the expanse of the world around you. Stare at a computer screen all day long, you will become nearsighted. Experience the same two or three things day in and day out, you will become myopic in a different way.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

Catching Soap Bubbles – Mission 1, Day 1

Last night I went to Jivamukti Yoga in Union Square for their 9pm open class. Having decided on this mission and blog less than 12 hours prior, I was unprepared. I bought clothes on-site from the sale bin, rented a mat and was even pleasantly surprised with a budget-friendly beginner’s rate.

This oddball scheme will be worth it for yoga last night alone. On one level, it felt so good to do something, anything. A deeper analysis confirms that it is good I did something supremely physical. Our bodies were meant to move and do all sorts of wondrous things. Yoga is not a bad example of this. I felt powerful and graceful. I was reminded of my old track & field days. I smiled when I broke a sweat. I saw my legs stretch out strong from a shoulder stand and it was as if I were looking at art.

Last night I officially confirmed that I have a problem letting go. The young and serene yoga instructor told us to set our intention for the evening’s practice. As I put my hands together near my heart in the anjali mudra (palms pressed together as if praying), I set my intention of letting go with a fervor worthy of a pilgrim at a shrine. I asked to let go of doubts of the past, fears of the future and expectations from the present. My mind took my solemn intention as license to think about everything. From whether the pain in my side was a tumor to all the emails I need to send tomorrow. I will be the first to admit that I have a special talent for worry and overthinking. The more I tried to let go, the more the doubts and fears poked me in the ribs. The more I tried to get a spiritual benefit from the practice, the more pedestrian and mundane my thoughts became. And then something happened as I moved from delicate pose to the next: I forgot to try to let go and without my noticing, I did just that. Then the Universe (God, the Divine, whatever), to ensure I knew I was having a moment, played Otis Redding over the studio’s speakers. Perfect.

Intent cannot be pushed or forced or bullied. Think of it as catching soap bubbles in the air….the harder you try, the less successful you will be. (Deepak Chopra, The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire)