Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

Archive for the tag “Life”

memorials are for the living

Life After Death

A few years ago, we thought my Dad was going to die. He had an unexplained malady, they were going to try and operate, but frankly it didn’t look good. However, he had time to get his affairs in order, to talk to all of us kids about various items he was leaving behind. He did a very good job of both preparing us for what seemed likely to happen, and also setting an example of a man brave enough to face “what dreams may come…”

I, on the other hand, did something fairly selfish. You see, while I don’t exactly make it a secret about being polyamorous, I also hadn’t been quite forthcoming about the true nature of relationships I had at the time. I got it into my head that he needed to know about them.

The truth was, I was the one who needed him to know. It was important to me, and so I told him, and I suspect that he would have preferred not knowing. Or, at least, not having it pointed out so thoroughly.

As it is, the surgery revealed that things were not nearly as serious as we feared, and so my father is still alive and well today. And there have been no real repercussions from my deathbed confession. I have, however, learned that part of being a responsible and loving person is knowing when to simply keep your mouth shut. At some point I will have to face death again – his, or someone else who I love. I hope that I will do better.

The Unbearable Inadequacy

Recently a very dear friend of mine lost his father in a tragic and unexpected accident. I can’t even pretend to know how he feels. Empathy, as I know it, involves telling someone you have some common understanding of what they are experiencing.

But I don’t. I tried to find some way to communicate something to comfort him, because I love him, and I know that this must be terrible. For all my writing, all my research into happiness and empathy and compassion and love and life and practice, I did not know what to say. My family has a tendency to mask our pain with humor, but I didn’t want to fall into that habit of avoiding the issue.

Really, what right do I have to intrude on his grief? It is a solitary and intimate place, and no one can feel what he is feeling. The best I was able to do was to witness it, as much as possible from hundreds of miles away. I never knew his father, but I have known this comrade through some of our worst times and some of our best.

I wrote what I knew: that his father had raised a son who I could love as a brother, as a friend, and who has been such a positive force in my life that I can’t imagine what it would look like without him.

It was hopelessly inadequate. It always will be; that is the nature of death, I believe, that we who still live simply have to do the best we can until time makes it somehow easier to bear.

Requiescat In Pace

“Rest in peace.” I have to tell you that this doesn’t mean what you think it does. There’s this idea that it’s somehow wishing those who have passed away a pleasant journey, or hoping that they have finally laid down the burden of life.

But it’s not that at all. If life were actually a burden, most of us wouldn’t cling to it so tightly, even when we’re miserable in it. I’m not saying it’s impossible for death to look more attractive to some – we all know that happens.

As far as we’re concerned, though, once someone is gone there is nothing but peace for them. We are the unquiet ones, trying desperately to reconcile the world that was with the world that is. We are the ones who want things to be different, and the rest we so desperately seek is the acceptance that somehow they are not all gone.

That’s why we have memorials. And they can come in many forms. About a month ago, my friend Bob in Hawaii went into the hospital for what we thought was a routine procedure. It turned out to be anything but, and he never came out.

I have been honored to receive some of the tools he took joy in, along with a few of his remaining cigars, and a shirt with a funny saying on it. I treasure these, and I honor his memory by thinking of his gruff laugh and his ready smile and his wicked humor. I try to be the person that he saw me as, worthy of a great deal of his valuable time and energy and friendship.

But it’s not for him. He’s gone. It’s for me, make no mistake. It’s still a selfish act, whether it was saying what wasn’t needed to my father or saying what doesn’t help to my friend or saying goodbye to Bob in my head as I smoke a cigar.

Memorials are for the living.

Troubled Times

too much or just right connection

The Augmented Self at Rest

Credit where credit is due: I first considered the idea of the “Augmented Self” during a conversation with my good friend J.P., a stage manager extraordinaire from Toronto (among other things). He and I were discussing how often we are carrying on simultaneous connections through various media – the instant gratification of a face-to-face conversation with various other kinds of gratification extending outwards via chat, text, or email (in order of delay). At the time (and forgive me, JP, if I misquote) he said something along the lines of:

It’s not that I need to be connected all the time. It’s just that sometimes, when I’m connected in the right way, I can feel more myself than when I’m not.

I’ve always loved that phrase: “I can feel more myself…” That’s what personal development is all about, right? The tools we use to connect over distance – from the pen and paper through Google Hangouts – aren’t evil in and of themselves, they are simply tools, and can be used (at least, in JP’s case) to enrich his life by keeping him connected with others.

Like me. Many’s the time he and I just suddenly pop into each other’s lives, like a virtual Kramer/Seinfeld, just to share some thought or question. He’s at the airport, I’m I my desk. I’m at the airport, he’s backstage. Quick connection, say what we want to say (or just hang out) and then disconnect.

But What About Being Present, Gray?

I hear you! Doesn’t this idea of having a virtual connection take away from the Good Buddhist practice of being present fully in the moment? Isn’t that what we strive for?

Yes, but – I am hazarding a guess that you don’t necessarily always need to be fully present with whatever’s right in front of you. For example, I don’t need to sit there and watch the task bar change color bit by bit as a video is rendering. My mind can be more usefully engaged – and before you say “use the time for some personal reflection” (which is something I would probably say, too) let me put forth the idea that if you shift to “personal reflection” that is no less a distraction than “outside connection.”

Further, let me make another suggestion: if you have significant connections with people, places, or events that are far away, and you have the tools to still be present in some manner with them – aren’t you actually being more present as your authentic self if you maintain that connection?

Let Me Give an Example (or two)

I was a horrible person a long time ago when I was engaged to a lovely young woman. I had actually proposed to her after dating for a year, and wisely, she had said no. She then proposed to me a year later, and wisely I said no. But after three years of dating, I wanted to make sure that my next proposal was going to work.

So I played a very dirty trick. At Thanksgiving Dinner – with my father, stepmother, sisters, and daughters all there – I planned to pull out the ring. Not only that, I put my biological mother on speakerphone in order to have her “present” when I popped the question.

Now, here’s the question: was the moment made better or worse by that virtual presence? Ignore the emotional manipulation involved in putting my poor fiancée on the spot; as I said, I was horrible. But with all the facetime, video conferencing, etc that goes on – are we really worse off?

In another instance, I was part of a performing troupe here in Madison and we got a great gig. Then we got another great gig in Chicago the same night. We realized that we could do both gigs if we split the troupe up – but it was the first time we’d done that, and one of the gigs was a bit of a step up for the whole group, and we were nervous.

I remember that night exchanging many text messages with my fellow performers both here in Madison and in Chicago as both gigs were triumphantly done with outstanding skill. I remember the sense of exhilaration and pride I felt as not only the people I was with but my friends hundreds of miles away all made our art. I felt more connected thanks to the immediacy of things than I would have if I’d heard about it later.

How Much is Enough?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t unplug – by no means. In fact, tune in next week for an essay on just how much I think we need to unplug at times. What I’m saying is that there is a power to choosing what to focus on – whether that’s choosing to watch TV, text your friends, skype your daughter, and surf YouTube all evening, or spend an evening in a sensory deprivation tank with everything but your ears turned off, listening to Peter Gabriel’s Passion.

It’s all a matter of degree, and the only person who can truly decide whether you are augmenting or distracting from what’s important is you.

So pay attention. As much as you can afford to, anyway.

what is your battle cry?

Come on, you sons of b****es! You wanna live forever?”
- Daniel Daly, Motivational Speaker

I'm in the upper left, making my War Face, circa 1989.

I’m in the upper left, making my War Face, circa 1989.

I have a guilty pleasure, which I can cheerfully lay at my Dad’s feet. I enjoy some pretty violent movies. I was raised on spaghetti westerns, weaned on Dirty Harry and cut my eyeteeth on Arnold and Sylvester. I’m not the only one; there’s a reason my older younger sister used to practice in a ballet studio with a large portrait of John Wayne on the wall.

And I’ve done my share of passing it along – as I armed my middle daughter years ago to go and participate in the live-action-role-playing Ring Game (a re-enactment of Lord of the Rings done every year here in Madison) she asked me if I had any advice. “Come back with your shield,” I told her, “or on it.”

Huh?” she said, quite legitimately, and I explained that was the way Spartan mothers had said goodbye to their sons before they went off to battle. She was inspired enough to actually be named one of the most “hard-core” players that year (that windy, cold, rainy year…). In fact, they gave her whatever role she chose the following year, which is why I can claim to be the father of Arwen. Which either makes me the lead singer of Aerosmith or the star of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Fill Your Hands, You Sonuva -”
- Rooster Cogburn, Equestrian

But enough pandering to the film geeks amongst my readers. The point is that I went to a very bad movie, one that was embarrassingly filled with glorified action sequences of violence and brutality painted over with a thin veneer of honor and duty and then dusted with a fine gloss of historically inaccurate heroism and sadly inadequate feminism. I won’t even honor the movie with a name; it would be like describing the last time I ate a twinkie. There’s really nothing redeeming about it.

Except. There was this one part, a climactic scene, in which the leader of one of the armies watches her troops engage their foes. She sees some fall; she sees some triumph; and finally, she’s had enough, and she draws both her swords and screams:

“I am not here to be a WITNESS!”

…and charges into the fray.

That, frankly, made the entire movie worthwhile. Because I leaned over to my partner and whispered “That is a good battle cry.” Not that I have anything against witnesses, mind you. But just imagine saying that every day, before you walk out the door. Before you go to your job, before you enter that classroom, before you open up your computer. Imagine, as the bard says, taking arms against a sea of troubles and oppose and end them.

There are lots of great battle cries – Stan Lee’s “Excelsior!” comes to mind. Some are not so good – “Remember the Alamo!” pretty much relies on the fact that you actually won’t. “Confusion to the enemy!” and “Dum vivimus, vivamus!” are two of my favorites from the realm of science fiction. Ok, yeah, and also “By the Power of Grayskull!”, but I’m kinda biased.

What’s the battle cry for your life? What gets you to charge into the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Trust me, you need one. Because, as both Sergeant-Major Daly and Marshal Cogburn will tell you, fortune is a…

Well, you get the idea.


appreciate your present by writing to your past

A Letter From Me-Now to Him-Then


 A while back I started this exercise of writing an imaginary letter from myself at half the age I am now. You can read it here. It was a pretty harrowing thing to try, and I actually put off writing the second half simply because I didn’t know how to talk to Me-Then. The blog went on hiatus, then, and it was one devoted reader who told me that this was the one bit of unfinished business that made her feel a bit cheated. 

Well, we can’t have that, can we? So here we have the letter from me to the man I was back in 1992.

Dear Me,

I’m really glad you wrote me, even with a letter so filled with sad things. I forget sometimes just how hard that time was for all of you – M, the girls, and others you don’t know about. Watching the girls grow up and go through their own trials has given me an appreciation of how hard it must have been for Dad and others to see you where you’re at.

But hey, that’s some good news for you right there: I forget. It probably doesn’t help much where you are now, but it gets better. It gets amazingly better, in fact, in ways you can’t even imagine. But since I also hate hearing that kind of thing (if I can’t imagine it, why bother telling me?) I’m not going to dwell on it.

Instead, I want to tell you take that apology and stuff it.

You have nothing to apologize for. You are doing the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt. The fact is, that hand is pretty strong. Right now it may feel that the Corps destroyed you, but it actually put the finishing touches on a resilience and resourcefulness that you’re going to need in the next couple of decades. You’re right, you and M aren’t meant to be, but that distance will eventually turn into a friendship and shared pride as you watch your daughters and (spoiler alert!) grandsons grow up.

The thing that you don’t realize, buddy, is that you are fighting hard for two things: one, your children, and two, yourself. You are facing the beginning of one of the worst economic times in U.S. history with no job skills valid outside Croatia, and you are focused on keeping that home secure for your daughters. It’s going to be hard.

But you still play guitar. You are starting to get interested in that medieval re-enactment group that will let you dance, sing, act, teach your children to shoot and throw sharp pointy things at bad people and play dress up. You’ll make wonderful friends, and that combination of creativity and fatherhood will give you an authentic voice to share astonishing beauty.

It won’t be easy. It will, in fact, truly suck for a long time and in ways that you can’t ima- wait, I said I wouldn’t say that again. Trust me, though, until you’ve actually smelled mouse droppings inside your oven when you’re trying to bake cookies…spoiler alert again, there. But basically, I’m not saying the worst is over. Not by a long shot. That would be silly to even suggest, even if I did want to cheer you up, which I really don’t.

No, it’s going to be hard, and painful. You’re going to screw up, a lot. The one good thing I can tell you is this: from where I’m sitting, it was worth it.

And that’s why, bucko, I’m not going to give you one shred of advice. Oh, believe me, it’s tempting. Don’t go out with her! That job looks good but it’s a Bad Idea! Ashlei isn’t really over at her friends, she went to that party! I made up that last bit (no I didn’t) but you get the idea. There are experiences ahead of you that I wouldn’t go through again for any amount of money.

But anything I tried to change – any experience I tried to spare you, any lesson I tried to teach you before you taught it to yourself through some mistake – runs the risk of changing where I am right now, sitting here writing you. Are you kidding me? I have work I believe in, I have people I love surrounding me while still giving me space, I have created and learned and still work on challenges that keep life interesting while not being desperate. If I tried to change your path, we might not end up here, and it’s not worth that risk.

Seriously, my dear self, would you want to miss seeing the incredible adults your daughters turn into? Do you have any idea just how awesome being a Grandpa can be? You are going to meet and love amazing, remarkable people, some of whom will drift in and out of your life at the most unexpected times. You know that trapped feeling you have now? You’ll end up traveling around the world, young man, so much that you’ll have to cut back just to give yourself a chance to feel home. You’ll have work that is fun, work that is meaningful, work that is rewarding, and occasionally you’ll have work that is all three. And let me tell you, that’s when you’ll really get tired.

It’s far ahead of you. Frankly, the path from where you are to where I am is so twisted and unlikely I couldn’t guide you on it if I tried. But you don’t owe me an apology; rather, I owe you a debt of gratitude for taking on this challenge and meeting it head on in the decades ahead of you.

OK, fine, I suppose the least I can do is try and say some things that you could use right now. Er, then. Here’s a short list:

  1. Knowledge is power. Keep learning everything you can, because the most unlikely skill may end up being what puts food on the table.
  2. Don’t stress about your career. The job that puts food on your table now doesn’t exist then. See #1.
  3. I don’t wish I’d worked more, or harder. I wish I’d spent more time with family and friends.
  4. The time you spent with your family and friends is enough.
  5. When you make that horrible mistake that ruins everything – it didn’t. Put your head down and keep going.
  6. It’s ok to give up. To quit. To decide you can’t keep going. Just stop. And then put your head down and keep going anyway.
  7. Yoga sucks. Do it anyway.
  8. Stop reading so much about zen. Start doing it more.
  9. You will never know when you’re saying something – in words or example – that your daughters will remember for the rest of their lives. So stop worrying about telling them how they should act and just show them by being yourself.

By the way, don’t worry about saving that list, because even the stuff I knew when I was you (like #3) I didn’t pay attention to. That’s ok; like most truth, it’s true regardless whether either of us believes in it.

Thank you for what you are doing, and for what you’re going to do. You seriously rock, buddy, and I can’t wait until you get here with me and I can show you just how incredible this life is.



So. Like the last entry, I ask you all: what would you tell your former self? Angsty teen or struggling young adult or 30-something, what kind of a conversation would you have?

Cultivate a Love-Filled Life

Curating Your World with Love

“Is there a song that makes you catch your breath when you hear it but you don’t know why?”

This random question from a friend spurred all kinds of thoughts. Of course they started with the songs and artists themselves…Seal, Peter Gabriel, Melody Gardot, the opening bars of “Bourbon in Your Eyes,” the Daft Punk medley by my current musical obsession Pentatonix

But I found myself also taking apart those songs and wondering what is it about them that touches me? Why do I get the same chills from “Hushabye Mountain” as I get from the 2nd movement of Schubert’s Mass in G as I get from the movie “Tango”? What are the common elements?

It’s kind of a useful exercise. As I narrowed it down I was able to phrase it in terms such as “tight low grooves” and “pure harmonies.” Tango music in general, as well.

But words actually fail where the sensation really exists. That same feeling I get from those beats and tones is why I like watching cigar smoke curl up to the ceiling, why I wear cufflinks, why rough housing with Harvey or holding my partner as she sleeps all feed my soul. It’s what I get when I watch “I Wanna Be Ready” from Alvin Ailey’s “Resurrection”, and what I feel when I taste my favorite lasagna.

It is a quality that I’m not a good enough writer to express. That’s ok, though, because it’s my quality, it’s what I like. What I would suggest, in this Spring weekend that isn’t quite warm enough to live up to the name, is that you take those easy things you love and dissect them. Figure out what qualities they have, and find those qualities in other things. Surrounding ourselves with the qualities of what we love – doesn’t that sound like a worthwhile use of time?

“How many times do we lose an occasion for soul work by leaping ahead to final solutions without pausing to savor the undertones? We are a radically bottom-line society, eager to act and to end tension, and thus we lose opportunities to know ourselves for our motives and our secrets.” – Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

Love. Life. Practice. Rinse, repeat as needed

Writing is.

Budapest /III/

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
– André Gide

It started many months ago, in a laundromat in Amsterdam of all places. My friend Erik said to me “Gray, you are traveling all over, talking with so many different people, learning so many different things…why don’t you share them?”

That’s not an exact quote. Actually, I think we were discussing methods of monetizing blogs, etc, and his point was more along the lines of “You’ve got all this great material, good lord, why aren’t you writing books and such and making money at it?”” Which is a good point, when you think about it. It’s been a common self-criticism of mine: If yer so smart, why ain’t you rich?

But after a year and a bit of almost perfect attendance, writing everything from strange allegorical parables to whiny-middle-aged-white-guy rants, I began to feel that I had nothing original to say. That other people were saying the same things I was, but saying it better, and to wider audiences, so why bother? Worse, I was beginning to feel that a lot of what I was saying might not actually be right in the first place…in a world where productivity is swiftly becoming the vice-of-choice for the privileged, did I really want to encourage more of it?

Yeah. I do. I’ve been on a hiatus, but only from the writing. I still voraciously read the blogs and listen to podcasts like You Are Not So Smart and think Fascinating. I wonder if others have connected this idea with that idea,. Or I’ll hear someone talking about some great and fascinating idea…except I happen to know of some other research that is showing that that particular idea isn’t quite what we thought it was.

Most of all, though, I think it’s the correspondence habit that changed my mind. One of the more successful changes I’ve made to my daily routine is that most days I set aside a half-hour to write a letter. Sometimes it’s to people I talk to almost every day, but there have been letters to past mentors, to relatives I barely know, to friends who I’ve lost touch with. Occasionally I get an email thanking me for them; even more rarely (thanks, Ali & Kristen!) I get letters back.

But here’s the thing: it’s not for them. It doesn’t matter if the letters get lost. What I’ve learned is that I’m not writing these for them, to make them feel better or for any other reason but that it makes me feel good.

On so many levels! I have an old cigar box (from P.J. Hajenius in Amsterdam, as it happens) which holds some heavy stationery (gray, naturally) and a few classy black envelopes along with the silver gel pen to address them. There’s a nifty “G” stamp and a silver ink pad. Or I have some heavy parchment paper that I can fold into its own envelope and decorate with strange stickers or cigar bands or just use Sketchnote techniques to create something new.

I have a nice heavy fountain pen. I often have a cup of coffee as I’m writing. But most of all, there is a satisfaction in the crafting of thought to ink to paper and sending it out into the world. It’s especially easy if you don’t have any expectation of return from the person you’re sending to. This is for me, and if you, the recipient, happen to like it too…well, that’s a happy bonus, I guess.

And that’s what’s happening with this blog. I’m not writing it for you, dear reader (neither one of you!). I’m coming back to it for me, and if you like it, find it useful, feel like commenting, I’m more than happy to hear from you. Heck, you can even buy me a cuppa coffee via my @luvlifepractice twitter account.

But what I suggest more than anything else? Go buy some forever stamps. Get out some paper and a pen (no need to be fancy; if you want talismans, you’ll find them). Write somebody. Don’t stress about who; when I wrote those two words, somebody occurred to you, and that’s who you should write. Just do it. Don’t think about it. Write something, anything, fold it up , stick in the mail.

If you don’t feel good about it, I will gleefully refund you double the cost of reading this post. Satisfaction guaranteed.

Ideals Get You What You Want

Go Big or Go Home

I believe I mentioned this once before: my favorite part of any book, movie, or story is the “all or nothing” moment. Take Point Break, for example (I’ll wait while you roll your eyes)(also, SPOILER ALERT). There’s a part when the FBI agent is chasing the bad guy, and the bad guy jumps out of the plane with the last parachute.

The FBI agent takes a moment to let that frustration sink in…and then screams it out, and jumps out of the plane after the bad guy. No parachute, but he’s got gravity on his side, and how hard could it be to just fall faster?

I won’t tell you how it ends, because that doesn’t matter. It’s just that balls-out I’m going for it moment that has such appeal to me, and I’m not even sure why. In fact, what I do know is that it’s dangerous in the way it lures me towards things. As a kid, when we lived near the Palisades Cliffs, I always had this draw towards the edge…wondering what it would be like to just run and jump off. Not suicidally, you understand – I knew it would be a bad idea. But there was this draw…

It’s why I started my own business back in 1999 (I still remember my lawyer’s response: “You did WHAT?“). It’s why I excelled in the Marines in some cases, and was a cautionary tale for the others in my squad in others. It’s why I have traveled more in the last seven years than in the previous thirty-seven, and why I won’t do CrossFit. There’s a danger to that tendency to want to go big or go home.

Ideals are the Only Way to Get What You Want

Grandson Harvey in SuperHero Costume

PowerGrandson says: “I’m sorry, I don’t have time for reality today.”

In my last post about how “do what you love and the money will follow (but only if you do it passionately)”, a friend & reader posted the comment Sounds incredibly idealistic to me. Then again, there really is no one true way, is there? I have to say that my response, upon some thought, is Yes, there is one true way, and it is exactly that: idealistic.

The thing is, I think that we tend to mistake “idealistic” for “unrealistic”. Which I suppose it could be considered, but I think it could also be better considered to be “the best way.” For example, my friend who made the comment has her own business (along with a “normal” job) and also is a devoted mother and grandmother. Along with that she has an amazing social life which includes a great deal of influence in the science fiction fan world. In case you think that means a bunch of nerds in a basement reading comic books, well, yeah, you’re right, but it also means things like the annual DragonCon, which draws 3,000 exhibitors and 52,000 attendees, roughly.

How does she do that? Frankly, I have no clue, but I suspect that she simply does it because that is the life she has chosen for herself – her “ideal” life. I’m not saying she has everything she wants, but she strikes me as being someone who is pretty clearly on a path to get what she wants. She works hard – I know, because trying to find time to chat with her, much less see her, is just about impossible – and another way to express that is that she works passionately to get to that ideal that she has for herself – and part of the reward for that is money.

At this point I’m probably projecting a bit too much – I actually don’t know enough about her motivations to speak with authority. But I can tell you that this is part of why I admire my children so much. All of them have their ideals, and tend to go to extremes to get them. For my eldest, for example, it was throwing some gear in a backpack and taking off to California. I don’t think things went exactly as she planned, but she sure does have some great stories to tell about what happened when she just went for it. And she came back with a pretty awesome grandson, too, so it worked out pretty well for the rest of us as well.

Middle daughter is doing the same thing, tackling the challenge of medical school in the face of some pretty stiff obstacles. My youngest daughters also chose the road less taken, opting for some life experiences both here in Madison and in far-off Atlanta before they choose their (first) careers. As a parent, of course I see some of their choices as being unrealistic – but I also see that they are coming from idealistic goals. Even if I don’t share their beliefs – and believe me, in some cases I really, really don’t – I absolutely cheer on their ability to believe.

Because what’s the alternative? To just go along with something less than ideal? To just surrender to what seems inevitable? Here’s the thing: if it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen anyway. So you might as well fight against it, on the off chance that it’s not inevitable. If we only reach the moon while grasping at the stars, isn’t that better than not grasping at all?

Yeah, it is unbelievably idealistic. But why would you be anything else?

“…why diminish your soul being run-of-the-mill at something? Mediocrity: now there is ugliness for you. Mediocrity’s a hairball coughed up on the Persian carpet of Creation.”
― Tom RobbinsHalf Asleep in Frog Pajamas


what is the purpose of what I write?

Break Time

I’m sorry, am I late? Sometimes I lose track of time…

In all seriousness, I do apologize for the hiatus. It was semi-intentional; the busiest week I have is Memorial Day Weekend, and has been pretty much for the last ten years. This year was particularly heinous, and by Monday, when the thought came “Gray, you should post a blog,” the response was a pretty-much instantaneous “No.

I needed a break. For a few reasons:

  • I needed, for a few days, fewer responsibilities, even from myself;
  • I needed to evaluate if I was just blathering on or if I was saying anything here of value or substance;
  • I needed to discover if I would miss writing; and,
  • I was idly curious if anyone would notice.

The results were, in order: a particularly giddy sense of freedom, undetermined, yes, and yes. Interesting point on the last one, though: while apparently many people noticed, hardly anyone said anything. Two text messages, one oblique, one direct, and one person who, when I said “I’m taking a break from the blog, not sure if anyone will notice,” looked at me and said “I’ve noticed.”

With a non-judgmental smile, because she’s like that. But I was surprised at the effects of the break. It’s true, life is easier when you’re not writing three days a week on constrained topics (if “life” can be considered constrained). It’s also true that now, as I type these words, I feel a sense of rightness and this is what I do.

The question is, am I doing it right?

The Question:

So I ask you, dear readers, what have been my posts that you’ve found most or (let’s not presume) least helpful and/or entertaining? Personally my favorite is “The Keeper of Lost Things.” If you can’t think of a particular title, vague references will also help; one reader told me she enjoys the posts where I have data to support research and logical conclusions (sorry, this isn’t one of those posts). If, on the other hand, you like the armchair ramblings of a nascent Grandpa, let me know.

Basically, I want to keep writing, but I want this blog to reflect value and a purpose, not just making something up because it happens to be Monday. In a sense, it’s like a microcosm for life, I suppose: you reach a point where rather than just going day-to-day you want it all to lead in some particular direction.

You can only wander so long before you eventually end up somewhere.

Let Life Organize Itself

Fighting the Waves

Wu-Wei: Letting Life Organize Itself

Wu-Wei: Letting Life Organize Itself

As a follow-up to my previous post, which dealt with evaluating your habits before you decide to change them, I’d like to talk about self-organizing processes. Specifically, let’s take the same principle from the level of individual habits and up to the big picture. Your environment is the result of innumerable factors that combined to put you where you are, and those factors are all changing, disappearing and appearing every moment. Might it be smarter to sit back and let life organize itself into the way things should be?

In Taoism (and the pedant in me begs you to pronounce that “T” like a “D”) there is a concept called wu-wei, which is variously translated as “non-dual action” or “non-action.” Some writers call it the second most important principle in all Taoism, second only to the Tao itself; others see it as an excuse for laziness. It’s a hard one for someone raised on the idea of “…taking arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them!” 

However, a practicing Taoist might reflect that seas have both storms and calm, and that if you simply are a clever sailor and ride out the waves they will actually end themselves. Rather than fight the waves, the smart sailor cultivates the skill of navigating them, because she recognizes that every calm is the prelude to another storm.

The Strange Process of Open Space

One of the neat parts of any Open Space conference is the creation of the agenda. The facilitator leads people through a fairly simple exercise that takes a blank wall (affectionately known as the “What the heck are we gonna do?” space) and turns it into a grid full of class sessions that people are passionate about (also affectionately known as the “How the heck are we gonna do all that?” space). The process is remarkable to see – at one of the first ones I facilitated, a “regular” conference organizer watched with a slightly resentful look on his face. “It took me six weeks to come up with the agenda for our last conference,” he murmured to me. “You just did it in fifteen minutes.”

It’s not magic. It’s setting up a system that has the essential elements of time, space, and passionate people, and then just stepping back and letting it work. For beginning facilitators, that “stepping back” is the hardest part. In fact, in the guidebook Harrison Owen recommends you deliberately stick your hands in your pockets or go for a coffee, because if people are hesitant to put something on the wall the natural urge is to encourage them, or set an example, or call on someone.

It is absolutely essential that the facilitator do nothing. My mentor, Lisa Heft, told me once of a long three-minute silence that seemed to drag on forever. Eventually, though, people realized that nothing was going to happen unless they moved…and gradually the wall filled with sessions. That is always what happens, if the facilitator has enough patience to let it. And the process of letting people create the day through their agenda rather than the agenda creating the day for the people – that makes incredibly magical events.

The funny part for facilitators, that we talk about with each other in puzzled tones, is the clients who come to us either before or after and say “But…how can a bunch of people just organize themselves?” The answer, of course, is simply this: how could they do anything else? At any “regular” conference the agenda is not an inevitable force moving people; they have to decide to attend classes, speeches, etc. Usually they do, through the clever process of not making anything else readily available. But most people who regularly attend conferences have at least one example of a side conversation, a coffee break, a chance meeting in the hall that turned into an immensely productive and beneficial learning experience. That’s self-initiated, coming out of the confluence of time, space, and opportunity.

The entire world of humankind is self-organizing, Harrison would say, whether it knows it or not.

Does Life Organize Itself?

The idea of wu-wei is not one of laziness or procrastination. It’s more like a libertarian view of personal development: just as much work as necessary, and no more. Rather than learning what to do next, you learn when to stop doing. You learn how to create the time and space in your life for the opportunities to present themselves.

This is anathema to most productivity methods. There is an entire school of thought which says you must constantly be doing, hustling, that nothing will be given to you unless you go out and take it. It’s an interesting philosophy, and entirely at odds with reality. By their very existence, everyone alive has had something given to them – whether that’s nourishment and shelter as an infant or a scholarship to a college or the chance to excel past their disadvantages. If you can accept the reality that life is far more complicated than it’s possible to comprehend, it follows that any system that claims to “organize” or “make sense of” life can only do so by ignoring vast quantities of facts and processes.

That’s fine; it is, in fact, part of the process of your life organizing itself into the life you want. But it’s possible that you’re making that process more difficult than it needs to be, through trying too hard. You may not notice the things that make you happy because you’re too busy thinking about the things that don’t, or the things you don’t have that should.

Time. Space. Opportunity knocks, but you have to be able to hear what’s at the door to be able to open it.

evaluate before you practice

Time Tips from XKCD:

a comic graph from XKCD asking:

from XKCD: Why It’s Important to Reflect & Evaluate Before You Practice Change


I’ve gotta be honest: I don’t know enough math to really understand this comic ( though I appreciate hearing about it from Karl). I believe the point, though, is that the first step in productivity is to make sure that whatever process you’re putting into place is really necessary. The lifehack threads are full of promises: Lose weight! Save money! Save time! Learn how to relax twice as much in half the time in order to be three times more productive! But rarely do they include the first step: evaluate before you practice.

The problem is that the changes themselves come at a cost. I’m experiencing that right now with my attempts to be more mindful of spending. I have a tiny app that is simply a budgeting record. It records every transaction along with simple categories which theoretically would give me a better idea of where my money is going.

The problem is that those few seconds after each transaction have an awkwardness around them that makes it inconvenient to record the purchase. In addition, being a freelance type with multiple income streams means that my influx of money is not terribly predictable, neither does it always fit into neat categories. Wrap all that into a big “try to be more mindful of your surroundings and spend less time on your phone” general life goal and you have a big problem with establishing a habit.

So I continue to try different methods to set up an environment – a portable environment, since it has to come with me – for keeping track of my money. And it’s going to take time, both in small increments and in the larger scheme of things, trying to understand the ways that my spending habits are currently functioning and how I can improve them.

Take the Time to Evaluate Before You Practice or Change Habits

I’m pretty sure I need to improve my money skills. Trust me on that. But what if I decided to add in time tracking? There are apps that help you log every minute of your day, and many productivity gurus will tell you to do just that. Should that be my next step?

I don’t think so, for one very big reason: time is not an issue with me. I recently spent fifteen minutes writing a short piece, off the cuff, and it turned into one of the most popular pieces I’ve ever written for the specialized audience it was intended for. At the same time, there were articles I’ve struggled for hours over that have barely made a ripple.

Lesson learned: time is not the factor in terms of my writing. If I took the time to track every minute of my day, and then optimized it so that somehow I was dedicating more time to writing…there is no guarantee that my writing would improve.

On the other hand, maybe putting myself in high-pressure fifteen minute production environments would be worth it…

The moral of the story is this: systems tend to self-organize into optimum modes. So before you go changing the habits of a lifetime, check and make sure they need to be changed. It’s possible you’ve set your life up the way it is for a reason.

Put another way: if it works, don’t break it.

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