“What we hope ever to do with ease, we must first learn to do with diligence.”
― Samuel Johnson
For three days, the idea of living with ease has been tumbling around obsessively in my mind. I think I broke through to something last night over dinner with a friend, so allow me to snap you back in time with us. Enter: bourbon and good conversation.
The lights are low, and we are the only ones perched at the bar. Our journals are spread out on the stone countertop. Our phones are irrelevant, we don't even know where they are. The bartender is busy filling orders, and the other guests in the restaurant feel a million miles away. We've created a cocoon. It exists outside of time, we don't know how many minutes are passing. We don't know the hours.
I wrestle things down with her. "I'm struggling with something."
She picks up her pen and flips to an open page, ready.
"When I hear the word easy I have a big response. It feels cheap and slimy. It makes me think of people who cut corners and don't want to work for anything. It makes me think of a spoiled brat. Part of that is because of how I was nurtured; I was taught the value of hard work, and I'm annoyed at anyone who thinks life should be handed to them on a silver platter."
She sipped her bourbon.
"But another part of me can rationally acknowledge the truth about ease. The kind of easy that feels like peace; like moving with a river instead of swimming against it; like being in sync with the natural rhythm of life instead of storming through in opposition."
"You know what? It makes me think of permaculture."
I look up and to the left, which is always what I do when an idea is coming.
"Good permaculture design is meant to create sustainable, easy agriculture. When a permaculture designer plans a garden, they do all the hard work on the front-end. They study where the sun rises and sets on the plot of land, they map which way the watershed runs, and they explore what the land is already doing naturally. They determine if any earthwork needs to be done, if swales need to be dug, if beds need to be raised.
They consider the state of the soil. They note what needs to be planted so not to deplete the nutrients of the earth, determine where nitrogen-fixers are needed, decide where the full-sun plants go, where the shade-plants go.
Beyond these logistics, they consider the homeowner. The plants they use most, like cooking herbs, will be planted closest to the house. The next layer might be stacked with vegetables, then fruit trees.
They structure a water system so when the rain comes, it cycles through the entire garden, not a drop wasted. They collect extra rainwater in a barrel up high for when the dry season comes. It's built up high because that enables them to work with gravity instead of against it when it comes time to release water into the earth.
It requires great attention to build something designed for ease.
Once the design is set and the work is done, the gardener will have very little to do for upkeep. Weed things out, replace plants when they have finished their cycle. Small tending to keep things on track; to maintain the system of ease.
Essentially, a permaculture designer is mimicking natural ecosystems. They're creating self-sustaining gardens with the end goal of ease in mind. The objective is to make every decision with intention so the natural flow of things can take over without resistance."
She scribbled a few words in her journal and turned to me, "You know. Before I knew much about gardening, I planted a raised bed in my back yard. I just threw it out there, on a slope. I planted beautiful things and watered them when they needed it. I filled the box with rich compost and gave them space in the sun.
But after a few short weeks, everything was dead. The rainfall scattered the soil and compost along the slope; it ran straight through the raised bed and swept all of it, slowly, down the hill."
We both smiled.
That's what cheap easy looks like. Buy a planter box, throw some compost in, plant your flowers. Water and sun.
That's cutting corners. That's the kind of easy that gets a reaction out of me.
It's easy to do things that way; it doesn't require research or much knowledge. No attention necessary, no consideration for the flow of things; no understanding of the way nature works.
It's easy on the front end, it doesn't require much, but in the end, it dies because it is not sustainable; it dies because although it was easy, there is no ease about it.
I think it is the same with us.
To live with great ease requires that we live with great attention.
If it is your goal to live with peace; to be in harmony with your self; to feel like you can move through life with relative ease even in the face of great tragedy, then you must live with intention and attention.
This begins the work of answering the question: What does it look like to live with intention and attention?
I can't answer that for you, but for me, a few things come to mind. First, in order to live with intention, I have to know where I am on the path. Am I out of whack or am I living dead center? Here's how I can tell:
- Pay attention to totems. Do you remember the movie Inception? Remember how Leo had a little top he used to spin to let himself know which realm he was living in? I have little totems like that too. They tell me when I'm out of sync with myself. Mine are:
- All of my houseplants are dead. When this happens, I know I'm moving too fast and I need to find my rhythm again.
- The fridge is empty and there's nothing to eat. This is another sign that I'm living too far off in la-la-land and not taking care of myself.
- I can't answer the question, "How are you?" When someone asks and I stumble around with a response, it's because I don't know how I am, and that isn't a good sign.
After I've evaluated where I'm at, I make a move forward.
- Do what brings joy. When my totems tell me I'm out of sync, I immediately return to one of my sure-fire things. They're the things that, no matter what, bring me back to my self. Things like:
- Be outside. Plain and simple sunshine, a slow walk, no phone, bare feet.
- Stream-of-conscious journaling. I write three pages by hand every morning with no judgement and no agenda other than letting my mind spill onto the page however it wants. Usually by the end, I've discovered some ugly thing in me that needs attention, or an unspoken desire, or a secret idea that needed to be released.
- Cook a meal. There's something about being in the kitchen for hours--chopping, peeling, listening to music, drinking wine, and sizzling garlic--that does it for me. I can't be rushed, I can't be under pressure. I just want jazz and pinot and good ingredients.
- Other things are: sketching, gardening, meeting with a close friend, wandering aimlessly through Target, going for a drive, reading, listening to music with my eyes closed.
Once I've done my little back-to-self practices, I dig my heels into the ground and make it serious work to become present in my life, to make decisions with awareness.
- Live with extraordinary intention. This is next-level living. This is mindfulness. This is a practice that moves away from simply reacting to what happens, and focuses on how to move through every circumstance with heightened awareness and deep knowing. It's a life-long practice and there are countless ways to go about it, but here are the tools in my belt (so far):
- See a good therapist. I cried yesterday when telling my husband how thankful I am for my therapist. I don't know where I would be without her. I've seen her now for just over two years, and I can't fathom my life without her insight. My perspective on myself, life, and others is infinitely more gracious because of her. If you're having trouble finding a good one, keep looking. The right one is out there.
- Listen to anger. Last night my friend said, "Fear is a liar. Anger always tells me the truth." I agree. Anger is a friend; it tells us when something isn't right; it points the way. It lights something up on our radar and says, "UM HELLO ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION OVER HERE BECAUSE I. AM. PISSED." And when we turn our ears to listen, we learn a lot. Anger is a wilderness guide. He knows the way.
- Say no. Whether your a Christian or not, I think you'll love this story. You know the one where Jesus is in the city and a woman grabs hold of his robe because she's sick and needs healing? In a huge crowd, Jesus turns around and asks, "Who touched me?" which was insane because there were literally hundreds of people touching him. My journal-scribbling friend sees that story this way: He knew when energy leaked out of him. That woman didn't just touch him, she was taking something from him, and he felt it.
Being in tune with when life-force is leaving you helps you figure out when to say no. If you leave a coffee date and feel totally sucked dry every time you hang out with that person, don't do it anymore. Locate the things that are killing you and stop doing them.
- Be unflinchingly honest. Honesty is the most brutal, most enjoyable thing about being alive. I have gathered around tables and shared my greatest failures. I have disappointed my husband. I have let my family down. I have surprised myself with what's truly inside of me. While there is a lot of pain in honesty, there is unspeakable liberation.
- Surround yourself with people who are wiser and smarter than you. I feel like one of the best tricks I've ever gotten away with is somehow sneaking into the community I am a part of. They're all brilliant. They're insightful, wise, passionate, and inquisitive people--every one of them. Being in a crowd like that calls me higher. It calls me to question everything, to consider the way I think, the way I live, and the way I impact the world around me. It calls me up.
So what does it look like for you to live with intention and attention?