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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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.

Perma-wha???

When I decided to write a novel about a character who disappears down the permaculture rabbit hole, I had only a vague sense what permaculture was. When I arrived in Los Altos, California last month for my permaculture design certification course, I still had only a vague sense of what that word might mean. In fact, several days into the course I had no concrete definition, only a strong feeling that it somehow encompassed much of what interests me.

So, now that I have a bonafide permaculture certification do I know what permaculture is? I would say, yes. Mostly.

For me, permaculture is a lens through which a person might view the world and her place in it. My own definition is that permaculture applies principles observed in nature to the design of the human world with the goal of creating a regenerative environment and healthy, sustainable culture. In short, permaculture is a way for humans to work with the rest of nature to support a good quality of life for all Life on this planet.

Bradford Pear Blossoms, Easter 2013

That’s a pretty tall order, but I think as more people adopt this lens of viewing their own lives in relation to the lives of other living beings and systems, we will more closely approximate the harmony permaculture aims to deliver.

One of the biggest take-away lessons I got from my permaculture training is that “sustainable” is no longer a good enough goal. We must instead adopt the goal of regeneration. We have to repair the damage that has already been done and look for ways that our new structures and systems can enrich the environment in which they exist, rather than continue to deplete it. Think about it: what if the buildings we live and work in cleaned the air and the water (just as plants do) and produced more energy than they consumed? How amazing would that world be?

If all the world’s people consumed resources at the same rate as we currently do in America, we would need 5 Earths to provide that standard of living. The rest of the world is not likely to stop trying to catch up to us, so those of us in highly “developed” countries must lead the way in reducing consumption and pioneering ways to live happily within the Earth’s means. The Earth is, after all, a single ecosystem, a single living organism. We have to consider the health of every system within it if we hope to maintain that ecosystem and continue the evolution of Life on this planet.

I understand how truly monumental that task is. How can we ask an amorphous group of individuals and corporations called “society” to willfully change its habits and learn to live within its means when it is difficult to do these things on even the personal and family level?

So that’s where I’m starting from with this blog. In the coming year I will look at the twelve permaculture principles that permaculture co-originator David Holmgren defines in his book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability and I will try to implement these principles in my own life–in my interior, mental life; in my personal habits; and in my home. I will also share ways people around the world are implementing these principles on the community level. This really will be an exploration for me, as I don’t yet have a well-defined set of goals for what my life might look like at the end of this first year of implementation. I do know that I need to learn to live within a financial budget, an energetic budget (think learning to say “no” when necessary and giving up my perfectionist tendencies), and a caloric budget. And I know that there are certain foundational behaviors I need to develop to make me more resilient, more prone to happiness than depression, and more able to focus on the positive rather than the negative. So I will start there.

What about you? Have you been toying with the idea of respecting a new, self-imposed boundary or two? Or maybe you already lead a well-disciplined life and could offer advice on how to motivate oneself to live within one’s means and resist temptations? Wherever you find yourself, I hope you’ll check back in and share your experiences and comments! Next week, we’ll start with the first principle, Observe and Interact. See you then!

And if you can’t wait and want to know what’s coming, check out this fun song by David Griswold.
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