Observation, Observation, Observation

Last Monday, I asked you to do a week of observation on one aspect of your life. How did that go? Do you feel more observation would be helpful or did you exhaust your topic? Did the experiment lead you to want to do more observation in other areas of your life? Did it help you ask questions you hadn’t asked yet?

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In permaculture, before a designer creates a plan for a piece of land, she will ideally study that piece of land for a full year so she can observe it in every season. She will track how much water, in the form of rain or creeks, flows through the land; where the arc of the sun is in each season; where the predominant winds (that could bring pests or fire) come from and move across the land; how the outside world interacts with the land; how often each segment of the land is used by humans in the regular course of their day; what species inhabit each segment and what are their resource needs and what roles do they perform in the ecosystem. She will analyze the soils in different locations along with the water quality. She will become as familiar as she can with the land and the humans and animals that use it in the hopes that she can ultimately make the land richer and healthier for all concerned.

Similarly, it may take a full year to effectively implement the “Observe and Interact” principle in areas of your personal or professional life that involve thought or behavior change. As humans, our routines vary throughout the seasons due to changes in the weather and available sunlight, holidays, school schedules, sports schedules, even television and movie release schedules. Electricity that gives us light and helps us heat and cool our homes for year-round comfort and the globalization of our food production that makes it possible for an American to eat a fresh strawberry or tomato any day of the year have made our ties to the seasons less visible, but when you look, they are still there.

As we’ve already discussed, the observation phase is one that is easily ignored in the design process due to our impatience to fix, re-invent, or simply change for change’s sake any area of our life that is not as fulfilling as we expect it should be. We want to be always moving forward and don’t like to sit with discomfort or uncertainty, but deep observation and the ability to withhold judgment and refrain from making quick decisions are exactly what we need to insure that the solutions we ultimately devise will have the greatest likelihood of success in creating enriching, long-term, healthy, life-sustaining solutions.

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Shiny, Happy Person

jar of glassOn Monday, I posted about the first permaculture principle, Observe & Interact, and asked if you’d like to choose an area of your life to observe over the coming week. How’s that going? Are you having difficulty refraining from labeling what you observe as good or bad? Do you want to explain immediately why the thing you have observed happens? Do you have the urge to jump forward to a “solution” rather than just staying with the process of observation?

I consider myself to be a fairly self-aware person, but I know that if I am not clear with myself that I am only observing, I will be judging myself left and right and planning little changes (or, more likely, dramatic ones) at every opportunity.

Which is why it is helpful for me to have someone partnering with me in my observations, as well as in the behavioral experiments that will follow. At various times in my life, these partners have consisted of friends or my husband, but since August, my observation partner has been my therapist. And because depression was the main reason I had sought help, it only made sense that my first project be that of observing my depression – in the hopes of eventually diminishing it. It is true that once you start observing a phenomenon, the phenomenon shifts. The mere act of finding a therapist, taking an hour each week to focus on my well being, and being able to talk to someone about why I felt so sad and overwhelmed helped the depression begin to lift.

I knew from experience (observation!) that focusing on the behaviors I wanted to change was not the most effective way for me to make change. A strategy that seemed more useful to me would be to focus on filling my life up with the things that make me happy rather than trying to rid my life of the things that made me unhappy. The hope was that the happy things would slowly squeeze out the unhappy, depressing things and the balance would tip.

So then began the process of observing which things, people, activities, and ideas in my life already brought me some happiness. It turned out that despite my longstanding night-owl nature, getting a full night’s sleep actually made my life easier and happier. It also turned out that eating a vegan diet with recipes from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 21-Day Vegan Challenge brought me both pleasure and satisfaction. The recipes were quick and easy and always, to my surprise, really flavorful. I already knew that yoga made me happy, so I began doing it three nights a week with my husband in our living room and found the practice even more rewarding. It was one more thing I could share with my husband and the gentle moves and deep breathing helped me release stress at the end of my work day. Similarly, I knew that exercise, writing, spending time with my family, being outdoors, and cuddling with my dog all made me happy.

So next came the process of implementing these things in my life in small doses to determine how much of each thing is enough to make me happy, how much lands me in overwhelm, and what is the right balance of all of these things so that I feel I’m hitting all the right notes and recharging my energy instead of draining it.

This is where I still am and probably will be for many months. Things are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still much experimentation and skills-building to be done.

Of course, the easy, and maybe even advisable, strategy would have been to begin taking an antidepressant immediately. I went so far as to obtain a prescription from my doctor, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin this course of treatment. Research has shown that 30 minutes of exercise is as effective at reducing depression as medication, and since I needed the exercise anyway, it made the most sense to me to try to figure out a mechanism that would help me get to the gym on a regular basis. So, I hired a personal trainer and have worked with her for the past six weeks. She has helped me get stronger and stay focused on improving my physical health. There have definitely been days when I would have stayed in bed if I didn’t have her waiting to meet me at 6:30 a.m. One day I hope to have such a strong exercise habit that her assistance is no longer needed, but for now, I’m still building the systems I need to help me self-regulate and I am happy to pay her for her service.

Even though I have moved on to the “interact” portion of this permaculture principle, it only works if I also continue to observe my feelings and thoughts throughout the process. It’s fun to think of my life as a series of little experiments and it reduces my anxiety level because if something doesn’t cause the desired effect, it is not the end of the world; I can just try something else.

Shiny, Happy PersonOne last tip I would like to offer, if you are observing something in your own life and want to experiment with behavior change, is to make sure that even the ways in which you are tracking your observations and data make you happy. I found that creating a check list of every activity and behavior I wanted to participate in caused me anxiety and focused my thoughts on all the things that I didn’t accomplish on any given day. Counting calories and fat and carbs was too complicated to keep up with and made me feel deprived. So instead I found a tall, pretty juice bottle and a bunch of glass beads in various colors that I had bought for an art project that I never started, and began using them to track the behaviors that made me happy. For example, if I ate a vegan meal, I dropped a blue bead in the jar. If I went to the gym, I dropped in a green one. The small pink beads were for writing sessions and the large clear ones were for tackling an activity that scared me. This is fairly simple to keep up with (I played around with much more elaborate schemes, like trying to use the beads to make an image but knew, again from experience, that they would end in failure) and it’s shiny and colorful and makes me happy when I see it. Plus, dropping one of the glass beads into the jar makes a satisfying “plink” that is reminiscent of how good it felt to put a quarter in my piggy bank when I was a child.

I hope your observation experiment is going well, and I would love to hear about your process! Please leave me a note below, and I’ll be back on Monday – provided I survive tomorrow’s Camp NaNoWriMo novel-writing marathon! (Wish me luck!)

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.

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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 🙂

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.