Friday, December 31, 2010

Inviting Change: The Power of Less (book response)

[I have decided to post a few notes about a book before I mention it in my monthly newsletter. This is not a review of the literary value of the book, but rather a record of the response I had while reading it.]

The new year invited me to think and read about making positive changes. That's what New Year's resolutions are all about, right?

I was reminded what dangerous territory the idea of change is for me.

My adult life has been organized around coping with changes thrust upon me by living with a chronic illness. What with changes engendered by living at the turn-of-the-century and living through an uncertain economy, etc., most human beings are coping with enormous amounts of change. The new jargon for grace in response to change is "resilience." Building skills in this area is a survival mechanism for all of us.

But what about inviting change? I've been spending time recently with a book called The Power of Less, by Leo Babauta.

I was attracted to the book because Babauta is the author of the popular blog Zen Habits. I hoped he would not get too aggressive and heroic with his advice about how to make changes.

The book does, indeed, take a gentle and sane approach to change. Babauta encourages us to identify what is essential in our lives and eliminate the rest. It is about simplification.

I enjoyed and was inspired by the first 60 or so pages and then found myself getting into trouble. It took me a few days of processing (I'm not the fastest heifer in the stampede) before I realized my difficulty and made accommodations.

Babauta's Power of Less Principles-- and his explanation of them-- are fine:
  1. Set limitations.
  2. Choose the essential.
  3. Simplify.
  4. Focus.
  5. Create habits.
  6. Start small.

In the second part of the book, "In Practice," he gives examples of how to apply the principles in various areas of our lives. I found myself getting more and more frustrated with this section, until I identified my difficulty.

My problem, it turns out, is that I have little control over the practicalities of my life. I can't, for instance, get up half an hour earlier and create a new morning routine without inconveniencing several people. I have to have help to get out of bed, get dressed, have a cup of tea… I have to have help with pretty much everything on his morning routine list. I ran into similar trouble with many of Babauta's suggestions.

I returned, as I often do, to the safety of the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Babauta's book encourages us to think about goals and projects. To his process, I need to add:
  1. Identify tasks wherein I have control.
  2. Identify tasks with which I would need to ask for help.
  3. Decide with which tasks I am willing to ask for help.
  4. Identify potential helpers.
  5. Ask for help as decided.

My experience is that asking for help comes with a cost. If I have consciously decided to ask for help and accept the cost, then I will find it easier to make the changes I want to make.

Babauta's emphasis on focused, small, present-oriented changes makes it a good fit for someone like me who is working within limitations. As with most life processes, however, I have to take a little extra time to tailor his suggestions to my specific needs.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Working with a Broken System

What does living with disability teach me about working with a broken system?

This week I had the opportunity to bang into two broken systems.

First, the public health nurse who came to do my annual PCA evaluation (wherein she evaluates whether I still need the services of a personal care attendant) asked if my husband and I had discussed getting divorced so that, when I have to quit work, I will be able to continue to have a PCA. Second, I rode Metro Mobility, our local paratransit system and waited for my ride for an hour beyond the promised pickup time.

As I was bumping along in the bus, I realized I'm going to have to get better at working with broken systems. The good news is I'm not alone.

I googled "broken system" and discovered that I am surrounded by them. Our financial, immigration, education and healthcare systems have been described as broken…and that's just the first page of results!

So, hmm, what do I know about broken systems? Oh, right! I live in this body, which some people would no doubt describe is a broken system. Can't get much closer than that.

Learn as much as you can handle

Knowledge is power. The more I learn about how this system works, the more resourceful I will be in response.

On the other hand, there is more to know than I can take. I have to look at the big picture and make some guesses about what knowledge will be the most helpful. I have to learn a piece at a time or I get too overwhelmed.

Identify the experts

There are people who already know a lot about the system. If I can figure out who they are and talk to them, they can help me learn more quickly and efficiently.

I also need to remember that some of the experts do not have titles or letters behind their names. They are, as jargon has it, "consumers"-- those folks who have wrestled with the system from the inside out.

Notice what's working

Broken systems are so obviously broken that it's easy to miss what's working. I need to pay attention to what goes smoothly and easily. When I find those things, I need to:

  • celebrate!
  • thank the folks who are doing a good job
  • think of ways I can strengthen these pockets of righteousness. (See "advocate" below.)

About what's not working...

What's glaringly obvious about a broken system, of course, are all the things that are wrong with it. When I bump into those things, I can ask two questions:

  1. Can I make it better?
    If yes, then hahloo hahlay, I should just have at it! If no, see question #2.

  2. Could I fix it if I had help?
    If yes, then I can rally the troops and take action. If no, see question #3.

  3. Do I know who can make it better?
    If yes, then I can contact them, let them know what I see is wrong and tell them any ideas I have about how to fix it. This is called advocacy. Unfortunately, many of the consumers of broken systems are unable to do it because of lack of knowledge and resources (including personal energy). If I can do it, I should! (Real Genius fans say it with me: "it's a moral imperative.")

    If no, then I can do research to try to find out who can influence this system.

What if it just stinks?

Suppose I can't--even with help--do anything, my advocacy efforts have come to naught and the system is still broken?

Sometimes, the best offense is a good defense.

I need to protect myself, body, mind and spirit.

Having learned about the system and identified the experts and influencers, I can figure out what rules (nonsensical though they may be) are in place that might help me get what I need.

I can bear in mind that broken systems often don't make sense; it's not necessarily that something's wrong with me.

I can cultivate a state of mind and spirit that allow me to exist amidst the chaos. I need to put some thought, creativity and effort into creating my "bureaucratic happy place" whence, faced with the inequities and complexities of the broken system, I can retreat.

As it turns out, I have a lot of ideas about working with a broken system. Isn't it great (sarcasm) that I will have so many opportunities to practice them!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Trusting in Here and Now

Art Every Day Month, Days 27-30

It is December. I am embarrassed to admit I have been wondering what to do about December for days. Art Every Day Month is over. Will I stop making art? Will I stop the other behaviors (meditating, exercising) that I connected with making art?

I have to laugh at myself. I decided to make art every day. There was no one making me do it and there is no one grading me on my participation. My thought, "where do I go from here?" is only a thought. It pulls me into a future that has not yet arrived. If I stay in the here and now, I will be all right.

Here is what I did the last four days of November.

  1. Texture again
  2. Experiment with an object
  3. Meditation on Strong Feelings
  4. Following the Hand 11-30-10
Today is December 3. I painted yesterday and the day before (in a new notebook I bought). I painted because I picked up the brush and painted.

With the new notebook, I created some new rules.
  1. I don't have to create something new every day. I can add to a painting done on an earlier day.
  2. I don't have to use only one piece of paper every day. (I bought three notebooks.)
  3. I don't have to blog about what I create every week, nor do I have to scan and post the results.
I have thoughts about where to go (and not go) from here with my painting that have been generated by what I've done over the last 30 days. (Day 28 was an experiment that definitely gave me some ideas.)

Those are thoughts and ideas. I can welcome them with "curious attention" (as one of my favorite meditation guides would say).

When it comes to continuing to paint in the coming month, I just need to pick up the brush.