“The world turns softly
Not to spill its lakes and rivers.
The water is held in its arms
And the sky is held in the water.
What is water, That pours silver,
And can hold the sky?”
–Hilda Conkling, Poems for a Little Girl, 1920
Everything is completely out of control and I can’t do anything about it.
Sometimes these types of thoughts march through my mind like an invading army. Usually they arrive on the heels of the first wave of stress hormones that wash over me after something happens that I perceive as a “big deal”.
They also spring up like mushrooms after a rain shower when I get an honest look at some area in my house or out on my farm where I haven’t really focused my energy for quite some time. I’ll look around and see a whole bunch of chaos and messiness. We’ve all been there, when our heart sinks as we peer around a messy garage and comprehend the immensity of the work that lay ahead. Like a cat circling a can of tuna, we can’t get those areas that “need a little work” out of our heads.
We strive for complete control over our lives and surroundings.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this desire. I love tidying up my bedroom and putting away clean clothes, even though I know they will be covered in pig poop and dirt minutes after I start my morning chores.
Like all things in life, cleanliness and dirtiness comes in waves. Energy travels in waves. The more energy we put into a system, like our closet, the happier we are with the subsequent orderliness of it. The less energy we put into other areas, like our yards, the more entropy and chaos reign over them. These are all natural systems, but we put judgements on them according to our standards and tastes.
If our standards and tastes are not met, if we perceive that something is out of place, we let our stress levels rise and allow worries to gnaw at us.
Stress causes a significant amount of preventable disease. If our perceptions are the cause of most of our stress, then we can avoid the majority of those diseases. By avoiding those stresses, we care for our mind and body.
There are major stresses and minor stresses. If we have PTSD from being in the military, being robbed at gunpoint, or living through an earthquake, then obviously we need some professional treatment for those traumas. These big picture stresses are considerations beyond the scope of this piece.
What I’m talking about is the day-to-day stresses that add up and multiple, until they become an angry troll living in the back of our minds. As big as these trolls seem, they are made up of tiny little angers and irritations. Sometimes these angers and irritations can be directed at ourselves. When we look at a messy room, we may think: what is wrong with me? We may think: why can’t I take care of that like a responsible person? We may have a hundred other thoughts like that throughout the day. But the fact is, beating ourselves up does nothing to take care of the problem, and can boost our stress level and cause us physical harm.
What we’re doing there when we question our own value as a human being is making a whole bunch of judgement calls on situations that aren’t necessarily good or bad in themselves. They just are what they are. Instead of beating ourselves up we can easily learn to prioritize and control the situations in our immediate sphere of influence, while letting go of those things we cannot control.
While I’m no Marie Kondo I do appreciate her ideas.
One way I take control is to tidy up. We all need to declutter at some point, and Marie believes that we should discard any objects in our life that are not sparking joy within us, and treat the possessions we keep with the utmost of respect. Utilizing her advice while I was going through a divorce and moving twice in one year, I was able to rid myself of over 30% of my possessions that I did not need. I still have a few more waves of decluttering to tackle before I can find peace with my belongings, which I believe is the end goal of Kondo’s strategy. Marie is a big proponent of using what you have around for storage – essentially to refrain from heading to the nearest big box store to buy “organizational helpers”. She also loves to fold, in a particular way.
As parents, farmers, homeowners, or some other type of adult with many responsibilities and not a lot of cash to burn, we have a lot of things that may not bring us joy, so I take all of Kondo’s wisdom with a grain of salt.
Once we have our houses in order to some degree, how do we go about tackling our day to day schedules in ways that are both productive and meaningful? I’ve found that having expectations is the biggest hangup with that process. Ridding myself of expectations means that literally any day can turn into a great day, even when accidents happen or events go awry.
To take control of my day I like to follow a modified version of Tim Ferris’s 5 Most Important Morning Rituals to Win the Day. Starting off my day with these 5 basic actions helps almost any day be a better day. Without expectations, a day has no limits.
Firstly I like to make my bed. This is an oddly important action, and it affects my productivity level almost without fail. This action signals to my self the mood of the day and alerts my mind that this day is going to be productive, because the first task of the day is done and it was painless.
Secondly I meditate in some fashion. Meditation of any sort will help clear out the cobwebs and help me get ready for what the day has to offer. It will help even out my emotions and gain perspective on all that my mind is obsessing about. It reminds me that my reality is controlled by my thoughts and my actions.
Thirdly I drink some hot coffee or tea. A warm caffeinated beverage is a soothing way to start the day and gets the pistons pumping. No sugar though, as that will set you up for a crash and burn in energy levels. I try to avoid all refined sugar all the time for that reason.
Fourthly a little yoga or exercises is key. As a farmer I don’t worry too much about this action because I have to do physical labor in the morning regardless of the day, but yoga or more intentional body movement will help give my day focus and a sense of control over my own body.
And finally, I have to empty my head in the morning. Morning Pages or any other form of journaling is an essential practice for me every day, so that I can empty all of my monkey-mind chatter, examine all the judgement calls I made about my behavior the previous day, write down in reality all the to-do lists I’m writing in my head, and so much more. Once it’s out of my mind, I can finally let it go. This is perhaps my most important practice, as I am a highly imaginative person. I have a lot of ideas and worries gnawing at me day or night, and they all need to find expression in one way or another.
Meditation and writing practices are my bridges from my physical reality to my mental world and are my two final ways to take control. Leo Babauta has twelve wonderful points of advice to help with our mind’s obsessive need for control.
The overall theme of his advice is to go with the flow. With practice and a sense of humor, we can learn to adjust our reactions to the flow of life, instead of trying to control it at all times. Many things happen that are out of our control, but we can learn to adjust our position on our way down the river.
I just learned to kayak on a small river a few minutes drive down the road from my farm. The beauty of the river and the peacefulness of being in the water was transcendent, and I am now a kayaking convert for life. Like any life-changing event I’ve ever had, it took someone to spark my interest (my girlfriend) the tools to make it happen (her Kayaks) a place to make it happen (the river) as well as an openness to new experiences and the absence of expectations. The ideas I’ve shared here have helped me immensely and inspire me on a day to day basis. Give them a try, there is really nothing to lose!
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