I want to talk about the pleasures and difficulties of being deliberate. But first, four somewhat gruesome stories:
• My wife was in a hospital a few years ago visiting her mother, who was recovering from surgery. The woman in the next bed had broken her hip. To her great surprise, it began with merely taking off her pants, as she had done thousands of times before. But this time she missed the hole, became entangled in her underwear, then teetered over like a drunken flamingo. In her late fifties, she couldn’t believe that such a simple act, done without thinking so many times before, could be so life-altering.
• Last year, a friend went walking and before she was out of sight of her home she stepped off the sidewalk and fell. The fall was hard. Both her arms broke and one shoulder dislocated. It happened in an instant. The pain was spectacular. Recovery took months and kept her from doing the simplest self-care tasks. It also kept her from painting, which she does extremely well.
• One more: An employee of someone I know was descending a small staircase from his porch a few years ago while pulling off a t-shirt. With the shirt around his head, he became briefly disoriented, lost his footing, fell down the stairs, broke his arm, and impaled himself. He was incapacitated for weeks.
• Several years ago, a busy professional I know in his early fifties at the time, took a misstep near the top of a flight of stairs in his home and fell all the way down, seriously concussing himself. It took several years for him to recover adequately enough to practice his profession at close to where he was before the fall, but he's likely never to be fully recovered.
Why Being More Deliberate Matters
I think it’s safe to assume that young people fall all the time while pulling off their pants. In fact, I remember the experience. Rushing was involved. Desire was running high. Alcohol was almost certainly involved. Young people can usually laugh off a pant-induced fall and get on with the business at hand.
Older people are another matter.
Jane Brody, the New York Times columnist, wrote last February about just this problem:
"More than a quarter of individuals age 65 and older fall each year, and falling once doubles their chances of falling again, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A fall that may be run-of-the-mill for a young person (as in the lyric 'Pick yourself up, brush yourself off and start all over again') can be very dangerous for the elderly.
"One fall in five among older adults results in a serious injury, and older people are less able to recover from the trauma physically and emotionally.
"Although broken bones are usually regarded as the most common serious consequence of falls, even if no fracture occurs, a fall can result in irreversible harm to an elderly person’s health, social interactions and psychological well-being."
Brody goes on to list ways to avoid falls, from exercise and Tai Chi for greater strength and balance to eye and ear checkups, better lighting, better footwear (and don't walk around the house in socks), and even a risk-audit of your home terrain.
I think she missed the most important strategy of them all: being deliberate.
Finding the Granularity
Reducing the likelihood of falling is just one of the the benefits of deliberateness. It’s also a way to elongate time, appreciate life, and experience the granularity.
Granularity is the antidote to Reactive Life Syndrome, a state of perpetual rushing that many of us seem to get ourselves into, and not where I want to be for the precious time remaining to me.
In his book How to Live a Good Life, Jonathan Fields describes it thus:
"In a world where awareness and intention long ago lost the battle to mindless surrender, we’re not even the exception. For years, if not decades, we’ve been living with an undiagnosed condition: Reactive Life Syndrome. Living each day not by choice, but by default. Doing what we can simply to keep up and tread water. It’s not about getting ahead, but rather about desperately trying not to fall too far behind."
Most of us understand this all too well. We live in a work-worshiping, hyperactive society where productivity is so often the measure of one's worth. We are tempted enormously by the lure of the screen, usually the one in our hand, and we are held emotionally captive by the dreaded FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that is fed by social media and all else a curious mind is prone to tracking. The tracking never ends, as it would in a normal hunt, because new prey appears relentlessly as we gallop onward over non-stop horizons of information and opinion and entertainment. The sheer breadth of choice is both paralyzing and energizing, but in an edgy sleepless kind of way. The commercial howl is emotionally deafening (and, I believe, intellectually retarding). And the cult of self-actualization is like a snake charmer for humans. It has many of us under its luring spell.
At least, that's what's happening to me, minus the social media.
The Busy Mind is An Equal-Opportunity Employer
We normally think of working people as the busiest people, and thus the most distracted. Young parents, in particular, routinely have to accomplish more every day than they can do comfortably. Stressful lives are prone to rushed distractedness, or mindless treading of water to keep above the line.
But now, several years after stopping full-time work, I find it in myself too. I think it’s because a vacuum pulls in what it can, and there is no shortage of “content” in our lives to keep our minds busy. The internet is a giant garden stuffed with ripe fruit, and not just facts and images but stimulating questions, dialogue, and debate. The curious mind need never go hungry, or even pause to take a breath. If we have a tendency to be busy-minded, and we usually enjoy a full mind, we are certainly alive at the right time in history.
The risk, of course, is that we will busy-mindedly hurtle through our lives and, at the end, sadly wonder why we didn’t slow down and smell the roses, taste the coffee, and feel the breeze on our flushed faces.
The Self-Defence of Calm
(This is a slight aside: One of my great fears is that the many hours I spend reading and trying to assimilate new knowledge might actually be wasted time. I don't think I can hold it all in. I'm fully capable of reading a book and not remembering its contents a few months later. So as productive and enriching as reading and thinking might be while we are in the act, what, actually, remains afterward? And was all that time and effort and busy-mindedness worth it? I don’t know the answers. I fear them.)
I do know that willfully and steadily resisting the deep seductions of excessive reading, thinking, and ruminating is, for me, increasingly worthwhile, self-defensive work. And that getting into calmer, quieter, and more reflective states of mind — feeling the moments, the stillness, and the miraculousness around us — seems to me an essential balancing. Finding and sitting inside the granularity is a way to not be swept along in the rush that wants to peel years from the calendar at an alarming rate.
How To Get Granular
There are proven paths into the granularity.
Meditation is one. I do it. I’ve wanted to write about it for a long time, but it’s one of those subjects which is so important to me that I actually avoid writing about it for fear of not doing it justice. It’s one of those hard-to-describe experiences, like psychedelic drug trips, that can, in the writing, seem tritely otherworldly and thus not for most people. So if you write about it, you can do the opposite of what you intend, which is to recommend it highly as a simple, practical tool for all of us.
Perhaps I can get at it through fall-avoidance.
Regular meditation, for me, has a number of mind-training benefits. One of the most utilitarian is our ability to experience moments with less distraction and more noticing, to live in those moments and not on their edges in a distracted rush. After meditating with some regularity, I am more deliberate in my daily existence. I'm less on autopilot and more aware of the small stuff, like making my bed, brushing my teeth, chewing my food, having a conversation, standing up and walking across a room, and taking off my pants.
Flipping the Switch
Honestly, I think I did all of those things for most of my life without thinking about them. I don't mean actually thinking with ideas about them, I mean being deliberate about them, literally feeling the experience of picking up a coffee cup or fully tasting a mouthful of food. The implications of all those years of mindless multi-tasking when it comes to, for example, driving a car or having sex, are a little scary. Was I there? Are any of us living our lives when rushing and juggling an over-abundance of thoughts?
I was talking to a friend (and committed meditator) yesterday about this journey into the granularity. He, like me, is finding that deliberateness, invoked by his daily meditations, is beginning to inhabit the rest of his day. He read me this quote from a book he's reading entitled Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana:
"One of the most memorable events in your meditation career is the moment when you first realize that you are meditating in the midst of some perfectly ordinary activity. You are driving down the freeway or carrying out the trash and it just turns on by itself. This unplanned outpouring of the skills you have been so carefully fostering is a genuine joy. It gives you a tiny window on the future. You catch a spontaneous glimpse of what the practice really means. The possibility strikes you that this transformation of consciousness could actually become a permanent feature of your experience. You realize that you could actually spend the rest of your days standing aside from the debilitating clamoring of your own obsessions, no longer frantically hounded by your own needs and greed. You get a tiny taste of what it is like to just stand aside and watch it all flow past. It's a magic moment."
My friend later added in an email: "I like the idea of 'flipping the switch' and making meditation continuous. Also the stance that mindful mind is not rocket science — it’s very familiar."
The Thrill in the Practical
As practical as it is, the thrill of improved consciousness is also worth proclaiming. More than anything I've ever experienced, experiencing moments in life meditatively reveals the beauty of our world, and of almost every part of it. In fact, open-minded exploration reveals the beauty of almost anything to which we turn our attention. This morning, for example, I was briefly taken by the interior of my bathroom — the marble tiles, the brass fixtures, the shine of the thick coating of white paint on the 90-year-old window frames. Nature, of course, is a riot of gorgeousness. It too only requires noticing. In this way, we can be endlessly fascinated by our world (and, I must add, heartbroken by its desecration). We can fall in love a million times.
This is not overstatement: inhabiting moments more fully helps us relish what we would otherwise take for granted, revel in the ordinary, and quell the discontent of routine because, through a discipline of the mind (that's as simple as doing daily pushups, really) we are immersed at will in appreciation.
What a skill!
(When you think of it, there might not be a more positive action when it comes to personal motivation in the fight to resist climate catastrophe. Combine meditative noticing of the natural world with the grandchild lens and we've got reason beyond reason to act.)
Doing Nothing is Hard Work
Before I sound like I have it figured out, allow me to say that my intentionality ebbs and flows. I could very well become a victim of my pants next week. For me, a cultivated state of noticing is always as much an aspiration as it is an accomplishment.
But aspire I do, and maybe that's the important thing. If we want something and practice it, we are likely to get closer to achieving it.
Not having to work much helps. Not having too much on my agenda helps. Not getting mired in the guilt of non-productivity helps. And it helps to value what I've been talking about. Lots of people think of doing nothing as being like half-death. But doing nothing, as someone said to me just yesterday, is hard work if "nothing" is your mental attempt to find the granularity and deep-dive into deliberateness in your daily life, even if you're not occupied by much else. Emotional equanimity is hard work in driven people with intense personalities. (I know a few of those, myself most intimately.)
Pablo Neruda wrote this about that in his poem, "Keeping Quiet":
“If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves...”
Let Your Pants Be Your Test
If this all seems obvious or frivolous, ask yourself when the last time was that you took off your pants and teetered.
Let your pants be your test. Calmly measured pant removal — balancing solidly, considering each movement, pulling firmly out of one pant leg then the other, touching your feet back to the ground without feeling even momentarily insecure — is one signpost of a calmly measured life.
Although there is a problem.
I read recently that the safest way to doff and don your pants is... to sit down or use a wall for support.
When I read that, my ego arose like a prodded scorpion. "Sit down to take off my pants? You've got to be kidding. That's for the very old. I'm not there yet. I'm strong and well balanced. I can still take off my pants standing on one leg, goddammit."
You see the problem. Fragile mannish indignation. And fear of being seen while sitting to remove my pants — or worse, to put them on — especially in front of other men. It wouldn't be the first time that a fragile mannish ego led to an injury.
So the bigger problem, and a familiar one, is wrestling my ego to the ground.
That too is a major growth goal, and, at the moment, largely aspirational.