Observe and Interact

First Lilac BudsTake a deep breath. Really, take a moment to take a deep breath and slowly let it out. As you do, pay attention to what happens in your body. On the in-breath, what part of your body rose? On the out-breath, did the air escape from your nose or your mouth? What was the breath’s rhythm: did you breathe in and out for equal lengths of time or was one half of the breath longer than the other? Were you aware of your heart beating or any sensations in your body? How would you describe the sounds of your breath, on both the in and the out? If your eyes were open the first time, try the breath again with your eyes closed. Do you notice anything different with your eyes closed?

Simple, right? Just breathing and observing; two of the most fundamental aspects of being alive and being human. In our every day life, most of us are healthy enough that we can forget about our breathing. Thankfully, it is an automatic process. To a large extent, much of the observation that is critical to our survival is also automatic. We are continually monitoring our environment, making observations, and rapidly making judgments and altering our behavior without even being aware we are doing it.

Yet, both breathing and observing are also highly complex actions. How many processes go into keeping a body breathing? And how many philosophers have argued over the question of who is doing the observing and what is the relationship between the observer and the observed? Practitioners of yoga and meditation spend hours and years and lifetimes “following the breath.” Farmers, artists, designers, and scientists spend years “learning to see” and honing their ability to make and accurately record observations.

Observation must precede action if one wants her actions in the world to be meaningful. Therefore, observation is at the heart of permaculture, the art of using principles observed in the rest of nature to design the human world. In fact, “Observe and Interact” is the first permaculture principle. However, we are a society of fixers and doers, and observation does not look like fixing or doing. In actuality, observation is a skill that takes both effort and focus, but from the outside it could be confused with laziness, inaction, indecision, or procrastination. So we skip ahead and often try to solve problems without first really observing what the root causes are. Have you ever tried to adopt someone else’s solution to a problem – whether it’s a weight-loss strategy or a wealth-building strategy or a household organization system – only to find that their strategy does not adapt well to the ways in which you and your family live? In the end, you probably felt even more discouraged about the problem, as well as disappointed in yourself for wasting all the mental, physical, and even financial resources that went into implementing the strategy.

First Lilac Buds 2

As time-crunched adults with shrinking attention spans and long to-do lists, we have to actually make a conscious choice to observe a specific thought process, behavior, or relationship in our life before we attempt to label it as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “toxic,” “adaptive” or “disruptive” – and especially before we attempt to make any efforts to improve, fix, or alter it. As simple as it sounds, making this commitment to observation might not be all that simple.

Want to try it? What is one area of your life that might benefit from a little observation? Why not choose one thing and give it a little extra attention this week? You can be as rigorous and scientific or as casual about the process as you’d like. You can write your observations down or just keep track of them mentally. Feel free to share some of them in the comments section!

Also, you might find it helpful to post your commitment to this observation somewhere in your home, office, or car, because, if you are anything like me, you have a short attention span and might forget you want to participate in this little experiment ūüôā

I’d love to hear how the experiment goes for you and what challenges and discoveries come up!

I’ll be back later this week with a post about how I am using Observation to help me understand how depression manifests in my life and to test strategies for building a foundation that will help me be more resilient and depression-proof in the future.

Results of the Lifestyle Test Drive – Part 1

I am on day 6 of 9 of my summer vacation. ¬†If my plans had gone as intended, I would be writing this happily from a location a few dozen yards from the Atlantic Ocean on a beach or a pier or a bench on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. ¬†But, plans being what they are, I am writing from my couch in my living room instead.

Lessons Learned:

#1: DO NOT go to the beach in North Carolina in the summer. ¬†EVER. You will just get sweaty and sticky, your pores won’t be able to breathe through the 50+ sunscreen, your hair will get tangled ¬†and always be sticking to your skin or blowing into your eyes, and you’ll be oxygen-deprived from the high humidity content of the air while you bake in the wind-whipped, outdoor sauna. ¬†You will not feel sleek and sexy. ¬†You will feel bloated and lumpy and grimy and will spend the majority of your time dreaming of standing under one of the cold water, outdoor showers just to feel a little relief. ¬†Do not be fooled by weather reports that always promise it is five to ten degrees cooler at the beach than anywhere else in the Piedmont. ¬†They are not taking into account the high humidity that will make your experience one of true misery. ¬†Do not listen to the stories of fellow Carolinians who claim they go to the beach in the summer and love it–they are insane or flat out lying. ¬†And, most importantly, do not forget that a summer Outer Banks beach experience is similar to childbirth: if you remembered it accurately, you would never do it again. ¬†Tattoo it on your arm or your forehead or backwards across your six-pack abs so you can read it in the mirror: Do NOT go to the beach in North Carolina in the summer. EVER.

#2: DO NOT CAMP on Ocracoke Island! You will suffer all of the above, plus you will be under constant attack from the millions of mosquitoes who reside at the beach regardless of the high winds and the high heat.  I am not joking or exaggerating when I say you will kill two or three or more mosquitoes with every slap of your hand against your own skin between the hours of 8 p.m. and 10 a.m.  Go ahead and cede the island to the mosquitoes now.  There is no need for further bloodshed.  The mosquitoes can have Ocracoke Island during tourist season.  Go to the mountains (where the weather report always promises the temperature is ten to fifteen degrees lower than in the Piedmont) or the North Woods and let the Ocracoke Island bloodsuckers feast on someone else.

#3: When you are test-driving the new lifestyle you want to create for yourself, test-drive the parts that will comprise the biggest percentage of your time–not just the parts that seem most fun. For example, the lifestyle I am working toward is one of writing, traveling combined with ecological/environmental (most likely volunteer) projects, some teaching, and a handful of clients of some kind–people I can help with writing or marketing or editing or social media & Internet skills or increasing their creativity or creative productivity.¬†¬†Of course, the part that seems the most exciting–and that I can visualize most clearly–is the traveling part. ¬†So for this vacation, I decided to camp for 3 nights on Ocracoke Island and do my own personal writing retreat–to see if I could keep my hand moving across the page, to get some new creative pieces started, to break me out of my routine, and to seriously test-drive the kind of writing and traveling combo I envision. ¬†Since I am writing this from my couch instead of the beach, you probably have guessed that I spent 7.5 hours traveling to Ocracoke Campground where I spent 14.5 hours in almost constant and complete agony and then spent 7.5 hours traveling back home. ¬†During the 29.5 hour “adventure,” I wrote only half a page in longhand in a college-ruled notebook while I was waiting to board the ferry that was going to get me the hell off that god-forsaken island.

My point: if writing is the goal (and it was the primary goal of this week, although the travel part was running a very close second), then write. If a lifestyle–and an income–is going to be built around writing, you better be willing and able to write anywhere, especially at (or very near) home. ¬†Instead of test-driving the travel part of my dream lifestyle, I should have test-driven the “can I get up and write for 4 to 12 hours per day at home” part of the lifestyle because that is the biggest component of what I’m aiming for and it is also the most difficult. ¬†The upshot: I will spend the last four days of my vacation testing this component.

[Side note: prior experience has shown that while I am able to write in my journal and start new projects while traveling, most of the writing I do for public consumption takes place after a trip is over, from home.]

#4: Plans don’t have to work out as expected to be of value. Even though I had to cut my camping trip short and I wasn’t able to write much while I was away, the adventure did serve several purposes. ¬†It got me out of my every day routine and away from clocks and computers and cell phones. ¬†I reminded myself I was on vacation and had no schedule, and just knowing this freed me of stress (while I was traveling, not while I was besieged by bugs) and allowed me to follow the rhythms of the day. ¬†I met people I wouldn’t have otherwise; I faced my fear of bridges six times and was almost relaxed driving over the three I crossed on the way home; I introduced my dog Kaija to boats and got to see how happy she was to be running and playing on the beach; I got sunshine and blue sky into my eyes and saw two shooting stars; I got to say hello to the lighthouses I love so much; and I got to think thoughts my every day life probably wouldn’t have produced. ¬†Plus, I got to test my fortitude (I can survive one night of anything, right?) and my flexibility. ¬†Turning disappointment into something more positive (I can go home and write in air-conditioning all day and all night–alright!) and being able to “go with the flow” have not always come easily to me, so I am grateful for opportunities to practice those skills.

And now I’m home, unpacked, surrounded by temperature and humidity-controlled bliss and sitting happily on the couch next to the sweetest (and bravest!) little dog in the world. (Would you have wanted to spend the night in a tent (followed by the car) with a crazy person who turned on a flashlight every two minutes and slapped the walls and ceiling with great force?) Not to mention, my writing hand has been moving continuously for one hour and twenty-three minutes. ¬†Life is good!