As I Watch My Father Die

At age 57, I made the decision to leave my seaside home in Santa Cruz, California and move into a converted 192 s.f. studio within the home in Silicon Valley where my parents have resided for the last 38 years.

Eighteen months later, I am their Attorney-in-Fact and manage their daily affairs for both business and health care. My distant siblings are largely uninvolved in their daily lives.

Because I’m single and my four children are all adults living on their own, I was in a position to make this choice. I have surrendered this stage of my life -what I once thought would be my time, to be fully present in theirs.

Currently, I am the chef, chauffeur, resident physician, pharmacist, estate manager, and errand boy.

As I watch my father die, I observe

As I watch my father die, I observe his painful decline and despair. And despite the incredibly emotional impact of this up close and personal view of his final months, it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. It has been, as a dear friend recently reminded me, the greatest gift he could ever give me.

Prior to getting home oxygen for his pulmonary fibrosis.
My once strong protector now looks to me to be his.

I observe that although he isn’t in physical pain or undergoing the exhausting rigors of chemotherapy that some I know are presently enduring, his daily skirmishes with Alzheimer’s Dementia and Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) are painful in their own way and each are losing battles – both are incurable and largely untreatable and they deplete his energy reserves by the minute.

I observe that Alzheimer’s robs him daily of his short-term memory; He cannot recall anything said more than two minutes previously. a few months ago it was about 30 minutes but in recent weeks he has declined overall very rapidly. It also has robbed him of the ability to appreciate the tender moments my mother clings to, such as their recent 65th wedding anniversary.

As the day of celebration neared, I purchased a card for him to personalize and give to her. To her surprise, and mine, it was blank when she opened it. He cried a little and said he didn’t know what to do with it.

I observe how IPF is an equally cruel malady that makes its presence known with every labored breath. IPF is the gradual hardening of the elastic tissues within the lung tissue. Over time, his lungs have lost the ability to expand and contract with relative ease. Instead, he breathes rapidly in and out restricted by ever-stiffening resistance. It’s an activity that itself exhausts him and makes him even more short of breath.

His disease states simultaneously limit his ability to recall the names of those he is too weak to converse with. 

From my front row seat, I observe how difficult it is for my mother, his spouse of 65 years, to let go. She battles with the simultaneous foes of grief and one of its subsets, anger. She’s angry because his incessant demands create within him a continual sense of unmet needs. She struggles to keep up as she is 83 and not as ambulatory as she used to be.

Granted, she has her own challenging aspects as well, and they are too many to mention here. However, her struggle is nonetheless real to those who see it and have shared it. Conversely, those who cannot see -or choose not to see- cannot come close to understanding the world she inhabits.

As I watch my father die, I learn

As I watch my father die, I learn how I will approach my own mortality and death. It would be dishonest to write that my dad’s approach to his own mortality is one of bravery and compassion. I’d rather that was the case, but it isn’t. He operates with fear and dread. His faith, that once offered hope and comfort, provides neither to him these days and he’s declined my repeated offers to arrange for pastoral visits. 

After getting home oxygen but still declining.
After getting home oxygen but still declining.

While many of his better qualities are expressed in my own life -compassion for those in distress, a natural love and appreciation for small children, and a Southern gentleman’s chivalrous tendencies- we differ in our approach to life and death.

His view of mortality is laced with overt doubt, negativity, and the gradual loss of the will to fight. 

He knows the he is near the end and often tells me so. Most mornings, after my return from the gym, he and I sit in the living room and share some coffee and limited conversation. He always asks if I’ve heard from my children and inquires about my grandkids.

Recently, he’s become more emotional and often cries as he thanks me for for what I do for him. Often we are both crying. He tells me that he knows the end is near and then asks me to make certain that my mother is taken care of after he’s gone.

Still, we are different in many ways as well.

Whereas he was happy to spend his post-retirement years in the same city and literally in the same chair for nearly 20 years, I will, when these final responsibilities are over, become mobile and travel lightly without encumbrances of mortgages and or a garage full of stuff.

Whereas he is afraid of dying and has been very guarded in discussions about his mortality and approaching death, I confront my own mortality more or less on a daily basis. 

Whereas he feels imprisoned, I feel the opposite.

Whereas he is focused on his own suffering (and understandable so), he is teaching me to focus instead on those around me, both now and with a thought to the future. 

When my own time comes, unless I am taken in an instant, I hope to teach my own children what it means to die with dignity and with confidence in a life well-lived. It is a theme I visit every day that I breathe.

As I watch my father die, I grieve

As I watch my father die, the child inside me grieves the loss of my protector. There is one memory, a very early one, that means everything to me. We were in Tennessee, the state of my parents’ youth and coming of age (as well as my birthplace) visiting grandparents and family. We were in a relative’s house, my paternal Great Grandmother’s I think, and I was very small.

My father was holding me against his chest and talking to the adults in the room. I remember to this day the immeasurable safety and security of that moment; how loved and protected I felt listening to the rich timber of his voice as it resonated through his chest and into my heart. 

I knew that he would always be my protector and nothing bad would happen if I were always in this place. But that moment, like all moments, passed and it was never to be repeated. It was the one time I felt the safest in the world.

As I watch my father die, I grieve the loss of his love for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His love for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren has no limit. As the sun sets on his life, it is perhaps the greatest sadness that I have ever experienced – for my own grandchildren I can only hope to be as loving and devoted as he was to his.

As I watch my father die, I have tried to capture these last months photographically in my Instagram account. It’s my hope that my children, grandchildren, and siblings will remember him in his more active and happier days but still never forget that life is so fleeting and so brief and they too, one day, will wither like a leaf in Autumn and leave their loved ones behind.

It’s my hope they will take his example of selfless love, ever-present compassion, and pay it forward as he did so many times.

Taken six months ago before his decline. It was the last time he was strong enough to go out to a restaurant. He enjoyed himself that day and for that, I am glad.
Taken six months ago before his decline. It was the last time he was strong enough to go out to a restaurant. He enjoyed himself that day and for that, I am glad. I love you, Dad. Always.

Living Out of ‘One-Bag-for-Life’

Could you live your entire life out of just one bag?

What if you had to go -and I mean right now because the river is flooding your house- and you didn’t know if you’ve ever return.

What would you take?

For minimalists like Ev Bogue, who live out of one bag all the time, that’s never a question.

A ONE-BAG APPROACH TO LIFE

My minimalist hero -though he would bristle at the idea of being so identified- remains Ev Bogue. Ev is a technical writer living in Mexico City but a few years back he wrote a popular blog called Far Beyond the Stars. An archive of his blog is still available here.

The one element of Ev’s example that still sticks with me is the simplicity of living out of one-bag-for-life. It feels right to me and it always has. When I’ve traveled around using the one-bag-only approach, I’ve not only felt lighter but more confident knowing that everything that I truly need and that matters most to me is with me.

Ev Bogue
Ev Bogue

But Ev takes this one-bag approach to a whole new level. It’s not just one bag for a trip, but one-bag-for-life. His philosophy and practice is simple. Look at all the stuff you own and decide what you would need to take with you if you really had to go NOW…place it all in a sturdy bag and then get rid of everything else.

This minimalist, ascetic-like approach to life has always resonated with me. Even before I knew what minimalism was, I was already in; I was always looking for way to declutter and organize (these are not not minimalism), yet I still had way too much stuff.

It was about ten years ago when I decided to move in with a woman and move to Santa Cruz that I realized how heavy stuff really weighs on my mind. In moving her stuff, I found myself moving boxes of college notes and folders that she clearly hadn’t looked at in 15 years. Why are you keeping this stuff?, I asked. She said she might look at it…someday.

From that moment on I’ve downsized my own belongings in a gradual but continual manner.

MY SEARCH FOR THE ONE-BAG

vandal-bag-camo
The Vandal by Mission Workshop in SF

For the last seven to eight years, all of Ev’s belonging fit into a single bag. I’ve seen his choice of bags evolve over the years, as have mine. If the photo on this page is accurate he’s using what appears to be a Mission Workshop Vandal 40-60L backpack. It’s a pricey bag at $365 before any extras, but like Ev I feel it’s always better to invest in quality.

In January of this year, I took a series of Amtrak trains across the country and then flew back in stages. I first picked up traditional backpack to use and found it lacking. I returned it to REI (they have a no questions asked type of return policy).

I opted to take a Swiss Gear Day Pack (pictured at the top) for the three weeks I was on the road. When I returned I knew I needed something roomier and larger.  

img_1829
My Osprey Farpoint 40L bag

I went back to REI and bought a red Osprey Farpoint 40L backpack. I used it for a vacation to the East Coast in May of this year and it performed well. What I like about this bag is that the interior is bright green and that aids in locating objects packed in the bottom. Bags with black interiors are the worst for locating items in a hurry.

The Osprey doubles as a suitcase and a backpack with built in and hide-a-way shoulder and waist straps. It’s not as high in terms of quality as the Vandal, but it will do for now.

HOW DO YOU DOWNSIZE TO ONE BAG OF STUFF?

That’s the $64,000 question that most of us continually ask. Ev’s answer is clear. 

“Put what you need to ‘go’ in your one bag and then rent a dumpster and throw away all your crap.”

Most of us have way too much crap. It goes without saying that downsizing from a three bedroom two bath house to a single bag would not be possible, not even psychologically healthy for most. The best way actually isn’t to throw all your stuff away, but to get rid of it over time. You’ll be surprised how fast and addicting downsizing can become and you’ll love the way it makes you feel.

In my case, I’ve been downsizing continually for the last ten years. I’m still not down to one-bag, but I’m close. I have some luxuries that I can afford to keep for now like a 27-inch Apple display and flatscreen tv for steamed content. But when my final responsibilities are concluded with my parents, the one-bag-for-life might be a possibility and not that much of a stretch. I don’t have a storage unit, I own about 40 pieces of clothing, and I live in a 192 square foot room in a singe-family home. I don’t have a car any longer and ride my BMW R1150GS for transportation.

Here are some suggestions for getting down to a one-bag-for-life approach to life

  1. Decide if it’s feasible for you. If it’s not, then forget it. But if you’re like me and the pull of your stuff weighs on your mind, you’re probably a good candidate for the on-bag-for-life approach to living.
  2. Read The Life-Changing Habit of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. The Japanese concept of minimalism is called tidying, hence the misleading title. Marie will give you a system to use in order to begin downsizing your stuff by category. It requires some dedication but it will help you identify what brings you joy and what doesn’t. 
  3. Know that it’s possible. Here’s a photo of what I carried with me on the train journey using the small Swiss Gear bag.img_0754
  4. Set an end date for achieving your goal. If you don’t have a goal, nothing will get done…you already know that. Downsizing to one-bag-for-life is no different. Set a goal of six months less and get busy.
  5. Donate, Sell, and Dump. You probably have many items that can be donated to a charity or a service like Goodwill that will clean and resell your stuff to others. For your larger, more luxurious items like my Apple display or my TV, selling these on Craigslist or smoother web service is a doable. Finally, there will be some stuff that’s just plain crap and worthy of a call to 1-800-GOT-JUNK or some similar service.
  6. Set milestones and celebrate them. When you reach a milestone such as getting your clothing down to 100 things, have a party! Invite your friends over for a pot luck and maybe they will also take some your junk off your hands. Celebrate the achievements – it’s a positive life skill anyway!
  7. Research your options for bags. Scour YouTube for backpack, messenger bag, and other travel reviews. I can’t stress this enough. I was completely sold on the Vandal bag until I watched a video review, I then I had some doubts. Plus, what I like and need may not be what you like and need. Do the work on this knowing that the perfect bag doesn’t exist. Likely you’ll upgrade along the way and that’s a cool part of the process.
  8. Take a test run. When you’ve got your belongings down to the one-bag level, try it out. Get out on the road – take a train trip or a flight to somewhere to visit friends. I did this on a motorcycle trip from Silicon Valley to South Carolina and then back to California. It worked for me and everything I needed was on the bike.

IT’S NOT FOR EVERYONE

Living the one-bag-for-life approach isn’t for everyone. Most of us are still caught up in the age of consumerism that teaches us that we need ten of everything. I still fall victim to this marketing trap and have to continually weed out belongings that are either redundant or no longer serve me. I know that if I don’t, stuff will again creep into my life and crowd out my personal space. 

Could you live this way? If you had to, what would you take with you if you indeed ‘had to go now?’ It’s a question worth grappling with and if you have some thoughts on the matter that you’d like to share, please do so. 

Minimizing to Less Than 40 Items of Clothing

For a few months now, I’ve been ruminating on cutting down my wardrobe to what I consider minimalist: five shirts, three pants, two pair of shoes, and a couple of jackets. But it hasn’t happened. My wardrobe is one of those things that eats at me. I’m not sure why, but I’m determined to further reduce my items of clothing to these levels -or as close as I can get- by the end of the year.

So I’ve been thinking about it… but have done nothing ….until now.

Motivational Trigger #1

bbootcampRecently, I’ve was introduced to Timber Hawkeye, whose excellent book, Buddhist Boot Camp, has been occupying my reading time this week. Timber is an author and follows a Buddhist path that’s similar to mine. In watching one of his YouTube videos, he made this statement:

I like making one decision that makes all my other decisions for me.”

He gave the following examples of how one decision makes future decisions for him:

  • Shaving his head weekly: he doesn’t have to worry about buying hair products or how his hair looks
  • Owning only five t-shirts: he always know what he’s going to wear and he’s long past the point of caring what people think of his wardrobe

While I’m not going to shave my head, his last example really struck home for me. I consider myself a minimalist but I have to admit that I’ve been increasingly bothered by the amount of clothing I still have. Timber’s comment got me thinking and wondering why I hadn’t been acting on this urge to minimize.

Motivational Trigger #2

Last night I was watching some YouTube videos and came across Zeke Kamma filmmaker and writer who was reviewing a collection of clothing from various companies that seemed perfect, not only for my upcoming journey but for life in general.

I was intrigued by the four-way stretch fabrics, the odor-repellent, quick-drying Merino wool blends, and this further motivated me to check into the alternatives. Today I did just that and bought an entire new wardrobe. Well, if you define an entire new wardrobe as:

  • 5 SS black tees
  • 2 LS v-neck tees
  • 4 pair of wool socks
  • 3 pair of boxer briefs

These items will replace most of the items listed below.

Before: 74 Items

For you young studs living in college dorms with less than 25 items to your name, 74 items of clothing must make me seem like a clothes horse. But I can assure you that most 58 year-old men (and most likely you in a few decades) are married, have a double-wide closet of suits, ties, overcoats, and shoes and a whole tier of drawers containing carious socks and underwear collections. 

Here’s what I started with earlier today:

  • 15 t-shirts (band shirts, plain tees, etc. mostly SS)
  • 4 dress shirts (2 LS, 2 SS)
  • 4 slacks (business attire)
  • 2 travel pants (1 black, 1 gray)
  • 2 pajama pants (2 lightweight gray cotton/poly blend)
  • 7 jeans (demin – black, dark blue, light blue, etc.)
  • 5 pullover heavy-knit sweaters
  • 2 vests (both fleece, 1 super casual, 1 dress casual)
  • 3 jackets (2 motorcycle with armor, 1 all-purpose light, 1 rain repellant/travel windbreaker)
  • 4 hats (1 fleece beanie, 1 newsboy cap, 2 baseball style caps)
  • 6 underwear (3 boxers, 3 boxer briefs – TMI?)
  • 10 socks (black cotton)
  • 10 pairs of shoes (1 hiking boots, 1 dress boots, 1 dress/casual oxford, 1 slippers, 1 sandals/shower, 1 MC boots, 1 all-terrain lace-up boots, 1 running shoes, 1 casual slip-ons, 1 Keens)

The number of items (74) seems far out of my minimalist range, but the redundancy factor the mix represents is what’s most bothersome. Currently I have a lot a redundancy in my wardrobe and it’s this that I’m taking care of today. I mean, do I really need 7 pair of jeans or 4 business slacks? No, I do not. I can’t stand wearing business shirts so why should I own four of them?

FullSizeRender 4

A shot of the bench chest I use and its contents before I minimized it. My pants and jackets are in a single wide coat closet as are my shoes.

The one type of redundancy I don’t mind concerns my motorcycle gear. I have cold weather gloves and warm weather gloves as well as rain gloves. I have two helmets, one street style helmet and one off-road style. I have two safety vests (and I don’t like either of them… so they’re most likely going to go bye-bye in favor on one that I do like and meets the safety standards I require).

After: 37 Items

While I’m keeping some items like my vests and caps, the shirts and pants are undergoing a complete overhaul. I’m minimizing both the number of shirts and pants and their redundancy. Layering is better than additional sweaters so sweaters and jackets are going to a few homeless camps nearby and the rest will be donated to my local thrift store.

Here’s what I’ve got now:

  • 5 black t-shirts from MinistryOfSupply.com 
  • 2 LS crew tees from WoolyClothing.com
  • 1 dress shirt, white oxford
  • 1 pair of black slacks
  • 2 travel pants (1 black, 1 gray)
  • 1 pajama pant
  • 2 jeans (1 black, 1 light blue)
  • 2 vests (both fleece, 1 super casual, 1 dress casual)
  • 3 jackets (1 motorcycle, 1 all-purpose light, 1 rain repellant/travel windbreaker)
  • 4 hats (1 fleece beanie, 1 newsboy cap, 2 baseball style caps)
  • 3 pair of boxer briefs from WoolyClothing.com
  • 4 pair black wool socks from MinistryOfSupply.com
  • 7 pairs shoes/boots

This is the first pass at my major wardrobe minimization. By January 1, 2016 I’ll make another pass.

After the first pass, this is what's left.

After the first pass, this is what’s left. Later in the week I’ll minimize these further.

You Could Do This, Too

Do you have an interest in minimizing your wardrobe? One of the most instructive and inspirational blogs on living with less is written by Courtney Carver over at Be More With Less. She’s the creator of the Project 333 program that challenges women (men can also do this) to live with just 33 items of clothing for three months. 

Beyond Courtney’s site, there are tons of minimalist YouTube videos available to help you learn more about the rewards of living with less and how feeing it feels to own less clothing and stuff in general. 

50 Things? 75 Things? 100 Things?

[Originally published from Seattle International Airport, Nov. 6, 2015]

There are those who can fit all of their worldlies in a backpack. There are those who count their belongings and limit them to 50, 75, or 100. Then there are those who don’t think the number of belongings one possesses is as important as the reason one possesses them. This is the diversity of the minimalistic lifestyle.

The Many Faces of Minimalism

If you do a Google search for minimalists, you find all sorts of folks. You might find folks like Ev Bogue who lives out of a backpack and has for a very long time. You might find Joshua and Ryan who left their six-figure corporate gigs, sold everything, and moved to Montana to start a publishing company. 

You might find Leo in Davis, California who lives out of one backpack most of the time while having a family and six kids. You might find Joshua (a different Joshua) who blogs about minimalism while raising a family, or Courtney who lives with less in Utah with her husband and daughter. You might find me in San Jose, California who lives in a 192 square-foot room with my dog while running a busy consulting business. 

There are as many varieties of minimalism as there are people to adhere to the lifestyle. Minimalism isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of definition. It’s largely person specific based on what each person feels they truly need.

Minimalism is not a style, it is an attitude, a way of being. It’s a fundamental reaction to noise, visual noise, disorder, vulgarity. Minimalism is the pursuit of the essence of things, not the appearance. Minimalism is beyond time. It is timelessness. It is the stillness of perfection.” — Massimo Vignelli

The Correlation Between Minimalism and Clarity

I have a working hypothesis that minimalists experience more clarity than non-minimalists. I think possessions and things and stuff weigh on our minds. Perhaps it’s a subconscious weight, but it’s there. The proof for this is the billion-dollar storage business in the US. Rather than part with their accumulated junk, most Americans will willingly rent a storage space to store it. They visit it from time to time like a sick relative in the hospital. I used be one of these people.

I was a maximalist. When I had a storage space full of outdated possessions, I had no idea that the minimalists lifestyle even existed. All I knew was that I had too much stuff, felt overwhelmed by it, and desperately wanted to be free of it. And then one day I experienced a pinnacle moment of clarity. I fell on hard times and lost my storage space due to non-payment of the monthly rent.

You know what I felt? Total relief. After all, it was junk. The unit held mostly useless items like old toys that the kids never payed with, old clothes that I should’ve donated to Goodwill long before, and a lot of stuff I had no business keeping. When I lost the space I was surprised by the sudden burst of clarity and awareness that resulted. I suddenly felt lighter and less stressed. After that, I found Leo Babauta, founder of ZenHabits – his writings, books, and courses change my life forever.

If You Want More Clarity, Box Up Your Crap

If you experience overwhelm from time to time, you might need look no further than your immediate environment. Check to see how much crap you’re surrounded by. I’ll bet that the more stuff you have in your immediate vicinity, the more stressed you feel. 

This is why when we are beside the ocean, in the mountains or trekking the desert, we feel more calm, serene, and more at peace. Just think about how your life would be different if your home was as peaceful as the woods or the beach in the early morning fog? 

Try putting all of the things in your dorm room, office, bedroom, house, into boxes. Clearly label them and then either put them in a closet or somewhere else out of sight. Then, as you need things, unpack only what you need at that time.

You’ll find that you not only need less things than you thought you did, but you’ll experience more clarity and calm than you did previously as well.

You don’t have to get down to 50, 75, or 100 things to be a minimalist. You just have to decide what’s essential for you and feel the life-changing calm that accompanies it. You’ll then be free to determine what to do with your unnecessary crap.

Sell it, donated it, recycle it. 

photo: missionworkshop.com/vandal

How Living With Less Helps Sharpens My Focus

I’ve always been drawn to a life of simplicity. As a child growing up in the 60s and 70s, I didn’t have much in the way of personal belongings. It wasn’t because we were poor, it just wasn’t my thing. I was very different from my siblings. I was the middle child, bookended by two rebels. My sister was the fiercely independent child while my brother just didn’t give a shit about anyone else. And there I was in the middle, learning from the two extremes on either side. As the Scottish folk/rock band Stealers Wheel put it in 1972…

“Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, Stuck in the middle with you.”

I was also the saver among my siblings. As a child I resisted squandering my allowance and the money I earned mowing yards on trinkets and cheap toys, choosing instead to save it and buy something of quality. In the absence of any parental teaching about money management, I learned to focus on something of value and do what was necessary to obtain it. There is little quality in clutter.

As I grew and matured I wasn’t fond of knick-knacks, chotskis, and extraneous stuff in general. Over the years as I moved around the state of California educating myself and working, it was not uncommon for me to discard entire rooms of stuff in order move less stuff. It became a habit. In fact, I’ve made it a habit to downsize with increasing frequency even though I don’t move very often.

Today I live in a 192 square-foot room and ride a motorcycle for transportation. I have everything I need. With my children grown and raising their own families, a life of simplicity and less stuff is my normal operating mode. However, even as a minimalist I still encounter periodic interference in my ability to focus. Usually it’s because of mental clutter. Keeping my mind clear of needless thoughts is a skill I diligently practice.

It’s not only physical clutter that dulls my focus, but mental clutter as well. It’s why I meditate and practice mindfulness – both of these practices help my to keep mental distractions to a minimum.

The Age of Distraction

In Leo Babauta’s book Focus, he refers to our present age as the Age of Distraction and I agree. Accompanying all of our technology increases and advances are the many items associated with them. For example, when you buy a smartphone the box contains the phone, a charging cord, a wall unit, and earphones. That’s four items; three more than you bargained for.

Our inboxes feel like a crowded elevator. We have too many unread PDFs residing on our computers. We are interrupted hundreds of times each day by notifications from email providers, social media outlets, and all the rest of our content sources that push information toward us.

Yes, Leo had it right when he called this the Age of Distraction. From the packaging of goods to our online spaces, we are bombarded with messages and stuff that don’t ask for yet to which we make ourselves continually available.

Distraction blurs the lens of our focus. When we’re distracted our focus is dull instead of sharp and blurred instead of clear.

How I Experience More Focus

I’ve found living with less distraction and less stuff enhances my ability to focus. When I can focus clearly without obstruction, I get more done and get more clear on what it is that’s important in life. Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists wrote:

We must fix ourselves. We must create the disciplines necessary to be alive in this complex world. We must become aware of what’s going on around us so that ultimately we can be aware of what’s going on inside us. Only then will we be able to know what’s truly important. Click here to read the full post.

Living with less is my key to better focus and greater productivity. My professional life is multi-faceted but centered around writing: I write this blog, a second blog, write and publish non-fiction books, and run a successful consulting business. Monitoring my environment is key. In order to keep myself focused, I monitor my physical environment by living with less stuff. I also monitor my mental environment by meditating and practicing mindfulness.

The Take-Home Messages

  • The key to a sharp focus is clarity
  • Clarity comes from less distraction
  • Distraction arise from cluttered environments
  • Cluttered environments prevent us from knowing what’s important
  • Not knowing what’s important leaves us listless and unfocused 

It Isn’t Rocket Science

It’s what I’ve learned over nearly 58 years of experimenting and applying what I learned. If you want to gain a sharper focus, I’d encourage you to begin looking at your environments, both physical and mental and, if needed, get busy decluttering. I recommend this post on The Minimalists’ site to get started.

The Journey Toward Minimalism and Living Small

I’m not sure when I first encountered the concepts of minimalism and living small but I think it was very early in my college experience. I attended a Christian university in Southern California and it was there I discovered the historical accounts of the Essenes, Hindu mystics,  and Buddhist monks who took voluntary vows of poverty to live with less.

Still, even though by all accounts it was a life of deprivation, I was strangely drawn to their minimalist style of living. It was decades later, after I’d accumulated a huge house full of stuff, that I was able to appreciate the simplicity of living with less.

Like many middle-aged men with families, I, too, thought a fancier car, a bigger house, and more money could address the unhappiness I felt with my life. In vain attempts to quell my unease I purchased items I didn’t need on credit and soon ran up about $5,000 in consumer debt. With some help from my parents I was able to get out from under the weight of that debt. It taught me a powerful lesson.

 If I can’t afford it outright, I won’t buy it.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and pictured here in his Palo Alto home, was a minimalist.

With the exception of educational debt, I’ve not entered into a long-term consumer debt agreement since. I don’t have any credit cards and instead rely on a rather simple lifestyle. My motorcycle is paid for as is my son’s Jeep. My monthly expenses are minimal compared to those of the households in my area here on the Central Coast of California. For years I compared myself with others because of not being a homeowner. My parents, siblings, and just about everyone I’ve ever known own their own home.  It caused me no little amount of suffering.

It wasn’t until I started reading about those, like Henry David Thoreau, who were choosing to live life deliberately – a life that was an alternative to living the lifestyle of consumerism and owning more for more’s sake- that I started my own journey.

Minimalism Is the New Black

About five years ago I started reading more about modern minimalism.  I read blogs about owning less and living lightly. It seemed that minimalism was rapidly becoming the new black. Owning less, including property, suddenly became cool. Steve Jobs was a multimillionaire and yet he chose to live simply without furniture and relatively few possessions. Even with a fortune at his disposal, he chose to live smaller and lighter.

I started following individuals like Colin Wright, Ev Bogue, Leo BabautaTammy Strobel, and others who embrace the same ethic. They were enjoying life, living it fully while deliberately living a smaller life, owning less, and focusing on the truly important. I, too, wanted to own less and live more lightly.

Though I call myself a minimalist, I feel I still have too much in my life. I’ll go through phases where I’ll purge my house of unnecessary items and it still seems as if the backlog of crap is endless. I get disheartened and stop. But then I’ll start again.  I’ve not yet attained that same level of light living as some of my friends, but I know that it’s where the journey will take me.

Minimalist Living is a Journey

The journey toward becoming minimalist is exactly that. It’s a journey. It’s one that requires constant vigilance to keep from giving in to impulse buys, opening credit card accounts to gain sky miles and travel points, or spending lavishly on new gadgets. I have to remind myself that I’m still on this journey and it’s not over until it’s over.

Will I ever reach the goal of owning just 100 Things? I don’t think reaching that goal is as important as being on the journey itself.

Everyone who strives to live a minimalist life does so to rid himself of the extraneous. As Leo says, to focus on the essentials. The essentials are all we really need and I will remind myself of that tomorrow when I again being purging my extraneous possession in order to find the level of living small that suits me.

When Things Fall Apart

I wrote this post back in August 2014. I reread it recently and thought it still had lessons to teach me, and perhaps you as well.

Things do fall apart

In our lives, things fall apart: We lose jobs, we lose housing, we lose people we love. In those times,we feel lost as well. We feel that we are tossed here and there and long for a soft place to land. We are but blades of grass blowing in the wind.

Life has a way of showing us who’s boss and, as if we needed to be reminded, it isn’t us. 

Often our first response to this type of stress is to grip ever tighter and attempt to control our immediate surroundings. But this is rarely a strategy that results in an end to the free fall nor does it create the soft landing we seek.

Free fall gives way to uncertainty

When I lost my job in December of 2013, I was shocked into the reality of uncertainty. I was uncertain of what to feel, who to blame, and where to go next.

It took several months to get used to the idea that I was no longer a member of the highly functioning team I’d created and built over the last eight years. It felt as if I’d stepped out of a plane and was plummeting rapidly toward the earth without a parachute.

Gradually however, the initial sensation of impending doom gave way, not to comfort, but the realization that uncertainty wouldn’t kill me. It might be very uncomfortable for a while, but I would survive.

It’s been nine months since the day my position and that of my entire team was eliminated and I still feel the uncertainty, but with less intensity. I can’t say that I’m used to the idea of being unemployed, but I’ve been fortunate to transition to consulting, marketing the same skills to a wider audience.

Feeling alone and adrift

When our lives fall apart, we often feel isolated and alone. We tend to retreat from our usual social encounters causing friends to worry about us and nervously adopt a habit of checking in on us to see that we’re eating and not drinking too much.  

We fool ourselves into thinking we are, indeed, alone and isolated. We may dip into the pool of self pity on occasion, telling ourselves that being a bit miserable is part of the process. 

Isolation is always a self-imposed reality. No one forces us to withdraw, to retreat from our circle of friends, or to become a hermit. We choose this. It might be a source of comfort for a while, but it doesn’t last. 

Uncertainty gives way to being

For me, the feeling of uncertainty that followed the period of free fall immediately after my job fell apart, eventually led me to a place where I chose conscious being instead of cloistered isolation. I opted to strengthen my meditation practice by purchasing a zafu (cushion) and zabuton (mat).

I chose to create a period of the day that was always allocated to meditation and reflection. I chose to walk more and even get a new, and personally significant tattoo. Making these choices helped me take action and move forward.

When things fall apart in our lives, we slow down and lose our forward momentum. Making a conscious choice to move forward helps us grow out of the uncertainty into a state of mindfulness, consciously choosing to be fully present again.

Things will continue to fall apart

If I know anything for certain it’s that everything is impermanent. Everything is in flux and is ever-changing. My current state of being mindful of my new reality could change tomorrow. 

One of the lessons that I had to learn was that change isn’t unwelcome and it’s not always detrimental. I wished things would stabilize and remain the same. But you and I know that this is folly. Things will continue to change, to evolve, and at times fall apart.

The key to surviving and growing from these inevitable and unpredictable changes is to live mindfully in the present and when change occurs, approach it from the viewpoint that we have a new present moment and deal directly with what comes our way. 

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