I’m in the middle of a minor existential shake-up (“omigod, not another one,” I hear you say). It began a short while ago when I was browsing through some blogs featured on WordPress and came across one that opened with a quote from a writer called Annie Dillard who wrote: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I found this somewhat unsettling because I am acutely aware that I seem to spend a lot of my days simply running on autopilot. Not long after, I chanced upon these words again while I was reading a weekly online newsletter that I subscribe to called Brain Pickings. The author of Brain Pickings made reference to Dillard in her review of the book On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. She summed up Dillard’s overall message rather succinctly as “presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity.”
So, with that in mind, I have since been mulling over what would constitute for me a life well spent. I am still riddled with the protestant work ethic, so a day spent not-busy is a day wasted as far as I have always been concerned. On days when I haven’t been too industrious, I feel guilty and promise myself that I will do better tomorrow. But this mindset hasn’t really been working for me for some time now because I can’t shake the nagging feeling that there has to be more to life than chores. When I brought in the laundry the other day and sat matching socks and folding underwear I despaired that my life would never amount to anything more than good housekeeping! So I’ve decided that I need to shake some old habits and create some new ones which make being present a priority. I need to pay attention goddammit!
When Milo died I was inconsolable. All I could see in my mind’s eye was a frail old dog on his deathbed and that made me feel so very sad. Then I tried to think of more happy times spent with him when he was younger and more himself. I found some photos of him looking healthy and alert and stuck them on the fridge door and now every time I look at them I smile, instead of cry.
All it needs is a mental shift. Taking that into account, I’ve decided to replace all my “to do” lists (which make me feel guilty when nothing is ticked off and give no sense of accomplishment when something mundane is actually completed) with “to be (or not to be)” lists instead.
I think it’s about being proactive rather than reactive. For example, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time tidying up clutter and searching for misplaced things. So instead of fretting about what chores need to be done I’ve been making a concerted effort to be better organised. If everything has a home and is put there immediately upon entering the house and returned there after being used, I wouldn’t have to waste so much time tidying up and looking for lost stuff.
I’m also trying to focus more on enjoying life than getting things done. I’ve decided to be more playful. I’m always complaining that I don’t have enough fun in my life, as if pleasure is something that I need to go out and get. However, all indications are that happiness comes from within not without. (I should know that, I’ve got the t-shirt!)
The other day when I went to commune with my chickens, Layla got very jealous and kept charging at them, especially when I picked a handful of grass to feed them through the wire fence. I picked another bunch and offered it to her saying “you don’t eat grass you silly dog.” Her response was to grab the grass and munch all of it looking at me most defiantly, as if to say “I would rather eat the grass than let you feed it to those despicable creatures.” She then went down on her front paws, stuck her bum in the air and wagged her tail madly, inviting me to play with her. Now usually I would have shouted at her for intimidating my hens but this time I imitated her and we landed up rolling on the grass together, with me laughing wildly and her behaving just like a puppy. It made me realise that the opportunities to play are there, we just have to pay attention.
I shall leave you with an extract from last weeks Brain Pickings newsletter – a review of Waking up – a Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris.
Harris writes: “Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others… Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.”
Noting that the entirety of our experience, as well as our satisfaction with that experience, is filtered through our minds -“If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life – you won’t enjoy any of it.”
Harris sets out to reconcile the quest to achieve one’s goals with a deeper longing, a recognition, perhaps, that presence is far more rewarding than productivity.
He writes:“Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.”
Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.
(the emphasis is mine)