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Saturday, October 20, 2012

All you need is less

Yes. Less.

This has never been so true as nowadays in this fast-paced, consumerist world.

As in some sort of conspiracy, every piece of reading I lay my hands on these days emphasizes the power of less. This might be partly related to the books I recently finished:

By Denis Grozdanovitch: L'art difficile de ne presque rien faire
(my translation: the difficult art of doing almost nothing)

By Dominique Loreau: L'art de l'essentiel (Jeter l'inutile et le superflu pour faire de l'espace en soi)
(my translation: the art of the essential - throw away the useless and the superfluous to gain space within yourself)

By Jon Kabat-Zinn: Wherever you go, there you are (a book on meditation and the importance of here and now)

As you will see, the "Less is more" principle applies to many areas of our lives.

Less speed

We keep chasing our own tail like a dog caught in a frenzy. Why? What's so urgent? Is it? Really? Sometimes I look at all of us rushing in all directions, and it almost looks like we're anxious to die! Whoa. Slow down. Sssslllllooooowwww dddddooooowwwwwn. Breathe in. Breathe out.

(If it helps, listen to this song.)

Less stuff

We SO don't need all we have. We SO don't need all the things we don't have but plan (or hope) to get. Yet we think we do. Why, I'm not sure. It might have something with the pressure society puts on us (media included - see below).

Why do we feel such a need to consume all the time? Is it normal that not a day goes without us buying something? (Whether it's for us or for someone else)

Do we really have to spend that much (or that often) to stimulate the economy? Do we really need to consume products and services all the time to have a functional, dynamic society? Even the experts are beginning to question it. Whether it's for our own sanity or to save the planet, let's cut down on stuff.

Also, why do we hold on to old stuff we don't even use? This fall I will put to use some good advice I read about excessive stuff. I will get rid of everything I haven't used or thought about in the past year. (Beware if I offer you my junk! Be strong! Say no!) It feels daunting to eliminate, but most of what we keep, we do for all the wrong reasons. Out the clutter, in the peace of mind. From now on, I will acquire less. Keep less. Give less. When I really want to give, I will give my time and my attention, instead of stuff.

Less media, less advertising, less constant stimulation

I'm not inventing it. It's been studied: TV makes us fat, it makes us dumb, and, according to some, it can even make us aggressive. Notwisthanding the often questionable contents of TV shows themselves, a third of our screen time is spent watching adds that only make us crave junk food or objects we don't own yet (and that, in most cases, we don't need at all... no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves we do).

Advertising can be extremely insidious. Among other notes from the teachers, I just go a yellow slip that looked like any other teacher message, and that said in bold, underlined letters "Please return this slip to school". The message was signed "Your teacher". My first reaction was to read it right away, thinking it was something urgent and/or important. On the back there was a space for my name and address. When I looked closely, however, I noticed it was an advertisement for a subscription to a kids' magazine. I have nothing against kids magazines, mind you, but I thought the way it was presented was misleading. They were taking your name and address even if you were not interested. Why, do you think? To send more advertisement, that's why! Let's not be naive here! They were not asking for any money now, either. Which is never a good sign, by the way. We're constantly bombarded by all sides, and now this? Enough already.

Less food

We all know that when it comes to "treats", or anything that's not really part of a food group (booze, bad fats, anything sweet, etc.), moderation is best. But research has also shown that eating less food overall is correlated with longevity. It might be a good idea to leave the table with a not-quite-full stomach. Recently I saw a super centenarian on TV (he turned 114 years old if my memory is good), and when asked about his strategy for living a long (and healthy) life, he replied: "I don't eat very much." It's worth a try anyways! If it doesn't make you live past a hundred, it will definitely help with digestion, that's for sure!

On food and other pleasures, I'd like to share my recent reading of epicureanism. Contrary to what we tend to think, Epicurus did not encourage human beings to indulge in limitless pleasures. He did believe that pleasure is the greatest good. But to attain pleasure, he said, we should aim for a modest lifestyle. There is a limit to being controlled by our desires; and so Epicurus advocated a simple life. (For more on the topic, see this link.)

Less parenting

I'm realizing it more and more. We "parent" too much.

First, we put our kids in innumerable extracurricular activities. I was reading "Have a new kid by Friday" (which sounds more utopic than it is; the book is actually full of good advice) and one of the first pieces of advice the author gave in case of recurrent bad behavior was to cut down on those countless classes, courses and clubs our kids are registered in. I have also read numerous articles about the importance, for children, to experience boredom. As one author put it, "It is only when they are truly bored that children actually get to listen to their own thoughts". Which, it's easy to understand, is the path to creativity and introspection. With nothing to do (and no electronics to keep them disconnected from the here and now), children - oh miracle - start thinking. What comes out of it can be fascinating.

Second, we talk too much. (And I know my own mother will love this one.) We repeat. We explain. We negotiate. Constantly. Enough! If you've explained it once, why would you have to re-explain it all? Children are smarter than we think. They know what they're supposed and not supposed to do, and they know why. Let's not insult their intelligence by repeating it over and over again (well unless they're toddlers, but that's a different situation).

Deep down inside, we all know it: actions speak louder than words. But for some obscure reason, we don't feel good about letting our kids deal with the consequences of their actions. It's as if we don't want them to experience discomfort. So instead, we keep talking. Blablablabla. Their mind is already miles away. We're not teaching them anything at all.

This week, I had a good opportunity to apply my "less talk, more action" theory. My eight year-old daughter forgot her water bottle at school (for the hundredth time this year already). I quickly found another bottle in my cupboards for the next day, and put it in her lunchbox while reminding her that she now had to bring back two bottles. As you can guess, on the next day, she came back with... none. (Someone over there will soon be able to start a collection.) My first reaction was to get upset, to tell her how annoying it was (she is very forgetful of her things and I have grown increasingly tired of it - understandably I think). My second reaction was to dig in my cupboards to try and find a third water bottle she could now use. Then I thought to myself "Wait a minute, mama. What's the best way to teach her to remember to bring back her bottle(s)?" And that's when I decided to send her lunch with no drink at all (there is a water fountain at school anyways). Guess what: the 2 bottles quickly came back!

Children really don't do that well with too many possessions. My youngest daughter, who is 6 years old, owns more clothes than really is necessary (and a good part of it is my fault). You would think that this overabundance of options makes it easier to pick an outfit in the morning, but what it does in fact is make it overwhelming: we have been fighting about clothes every single morning for a few weeks now (if not more). It was driving me crazy. I tried different strategies: letting her pick her clothes, or picking her clothes myself, the night before; limiting the options by removing all out-of-season clothes (or else she would go for tank tops in January and velvet/corduroy/thick whool in the summer). But it did not help; she was still unhappy (and so was I; who likes to be whined and screamed at first thing in the morning?) My little angel always had a very precise idea of what she wanted to wear, which of course she did not own, like a yellow polka dot dress with a pink ribbon around the waist, and nothing else!!! One morning, I decided I had enough. After she left for school, I went to her room and emptied her closet and dresser, leaving only the PJs and the underwear. When she noticed, that night, I told her that from now on all her clothes would be in my room, that she would not have access to them, and that I would put an outfit on her bed for the next day every night while she slept. I dreaded her reaction. But she had almost none. It's been a full week now, and not only does she put on the outfits I pick for her without complaining, the first thing she does when she sees me in the morning is to hug me (as opposed to throwing a tantrum). How refreshing!

Less toxic relationships

We need to take one serious look at our relationships. Too often, we get caught in routine (and, incidentally, in co-dependency) and become blind to the fact that certain relationships do us more bad than good. Do you have such relationships? Do some frequently turn out to be more unpleasant than pleasant? Does the mere idea of talking to certain people make you tired? Does frequenting some leave a bitter taste? Then why do you keep seeing those people? Why do you call them? Why do you get caught in their unhealthy ways to interact with others? Protect yourself. Take your distances. There are wonderful relationships in this world, and those are the ones we should nurture. Period.

Less complaining. Less worrying

By now we all get it (I hope): Sh*** happens, and it happens regularly. Better get used to it. Better not get ourselves all worked up. Being overly upset in the face of life's vagaries and contingencies only means one thing: we are still so self-absorbed and self-centered that we believe (in some sort of magical thinking) that nothing bad should ever happen to us. Proof: when something bad does happen to us, our first thought is: "Why me?" Well, why not, I say. Why would I deserve all and only good things when there is so much bad stuff in the world (happening to innocent people most of the time, by the way)? That makes no sense. When we think "Why me", it's only our ego talking. Shut it, ego. Life will bring bad stuff. Better get used to it. Also, for heaven's sake, let's not worry about things that haven't even happened yet. Instead, let's practice, no matter what spiritual allegiances we have or haven't, the Buddhist virtue of detachment. Or, as Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek writer, aptly put it, let's tell ourselves: "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

What we do need more of

The only things we need more of (apart from love, of course), are:

- quality down time: slouching in front of the TV doesn't count, drinking neither. Talking a nice, relaxed walk, or a bubble bath, doing yoga, listening to pleasant music, meditating, praying, observing nature, rocking in a rocking chair (which has been shown to have great physical and psychological benefits! Really!), knitting and crocheting (our grandmothers had it right!)...  those do count. Fifteen minutes a day might be just what the doctor ordered.

 - exercise: everyone but the kitchen sink knows it: exercise has countless benefits, and I think I've emphasized them enough on this blog in the past, but just to be sure: pretty much anything you're dissatisfied about in your life, like high stress, anxiety, depression, poor body image, fatigue, aches and pains and discomforts, low quality sleep, unhealthy habits, unsatisfactory sex life... name it... it's almost certain that regular exercise can improve it drastically. (For malfunctioning washing machines, though, you will have to call a specialist.) Everyone has time for exercise. My friend K works "full-time and more", has 3 young children and a dog, her extended family (on both sides) lives far away... yet she still manages to work out. You can do it too. Exit the excuses, and put on those sneakers. Now.

- fruit and vegetables: research has shown that regardless of your other life habits and genetics, eating generous portions of fruit and vegetables significantly decreases your risks of the most common serious health problems that plague North Americans, namely heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. So go ahead and grab those greens! (Or reds. Or oranges. Or blues.) Bon appetit!

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