Intentional Living: Create Empty Space

A question was posed by a dear cousin of mine this week on Instragram: “How do people get good at the ‘mindful living’ thing?” Not easily. “Does it ever come naturally?” I find that no, it does not. It takes a lot of work, which makes mindful living intentionally slow. For myself, I prefer the term intentional living. In my personal journey, I’ve found that it’s quite difficult to do. Once in a while, I find myself slipping, too, getting caught up in life’s quick pace, getting tangled in the feels.

I figure we could all remind each other how it is that we get to intentional living. How it is that we slow down. Since it’s not something that just happens because we wish it upon ourselves, we need to remind ourselves to reset, and re-orient towards the path we want to be on. There is a process in making an intentional life, with actionable steps along the way. An experimental journey, there are little equations that are reproducible, just the same as with any science. Having this lifestyle requires creating an environment for this lifestyle. This is where I suggest we all start. Because without the proper environment, a mindful life will struggle to thrive.

The Challenge: Creating Empty Space

I discovered ‘slow living’ closely after I discovered the process of de-cluttering. It only makes sense that the two come hand-in-hand. The aftermath of creating space in my life resulted in a slowness. Something that was once filled now had an emptiness to it, and because of that, there was either an opportunity to fill it with more, or to keep it intentionally empty.

Becoming Comfortable with Emptiness

Poor emptiness! The word itself has this negative connotation around it. It seems as if we are all terrified of emptiness. We associate the word with having “less than”. I mean, just look around. Every surface in our homes is filled with stuff. We don’t want an empty shelf, or an empty table. We are uncomfortable with sitting in emptiness. We turn on a TV, we turn on music, we grab our phone, or we open a book. We break the silence. We do everything we possibly can to fill empty space. At least for myself, it was an almost immediate reaction.

Having empty space gives us a place for eyes to rest. Gives us space to expand, or to enjoy, or to feel peaceful. That space and time of nothingness is where we unpack things. It’s where we process thoughts and create ideas without being distracted. It’s the environment that we need to help facilitate all other modes of intentional living.

The challenge

Empty one surface in your home every week for a month. It may be a dining table, a bedside table, a coffee table. It may be a drawer or a shelf, in your closet or your pantry. It may be an entire wall wherein you remove all of the picture frames and decor hanging from it. Remove every single item on the surface you have chosen, and live with it empty for the entire week. It’s a practice to start to get you to feel comfortable in the emptiness.

The mindful part? Pay attention to your reactions to that empty space. Listen to the stories you tell yourself. Do you feel weird at having an empty dining table? Do you ask yourself if guests who come over will think your unprepared, or boring, or dull? Do you start to fear that others will think that you have too little, because a shelf is empty? Are you scared that people will think you don’t have enough things? Pay attention to the voice inside our heads telling us why we think there ‘should’ be things there. It’s a great start for realizing the motivations behind the stories and reasons that explain why we are so uncomfortable with the thought of emptiness.

Additionally, there is an added benefit to this experiment, and that is the realization of what stuff we actually miss and what stuff we don’t. Living with it for a week, you will soon see which things you hardly miss, and which things you miss dearly. It brings awareness to the items you actually value. So often, we live with stuff just because it’s there and that’s how it’s always been and we forget what their roles are in our lives (if there ever was such a role). Doing this experiment gets you asking questions and makes us more intentional about the things we keep. It gives you an opportunity to just put back the things you really like, or the things that you use.

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  – William Morris

And you could, as well, miss everything you put away, and that’s fine too. But this is when you should interject and dig a bit deeper and ask yourself, “Why is it that I miss the stuff I miss?” And if you enjoyed this process, maybe start to apply it to every surface. Just remember to take it slow, a week at a time, otherwise, you’re back to a fiendishly hyperactive life.

New Norms: Saying No to Secret Santa

As we continue with the holiday season (Christmas is less than two weeks away!), I continue reassessing the traditions that come with it. I find myself participating in festivities for the sake of tradition, which is never a good reason to participate in the first place. Tradition keeps people repeating the same thing over and over again, is based mostly on emotions associated with the past, and usually involve rigid practices. There is no room for creativity with tradition, no room for forward thinking. Awareness sheds light on the fact that it isn’t really I who wants to partake in the yule tide carols, just like I realized long ago that it wasn’t really my choice to go to church. But every Sunday I woke up and went to church and sang in the choir for 12 years. I attended every single Easter Vigil Mass, Palm Sunday Mass, and Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, until there came I point where I felt it strongly in my heart that it was not my own decision and to continue doing so would be fraudulent. I still live a selectively Roman Catholic lifestyle in terms of ethics, but without the absolution and the rituals. I took some of the lessons with me, but got rid of those that did not serve me. Likewise, I carried that mindfulness over to the holiday season. Picking and choosing which parts of the holiday I still want to keep for myself is difficult to do without feeling like much of a Grinch, if it weren’t for the core group of like-minded people I’ve surrounded myself with to support me.

I vividly remember going out to lunch with a high school best friend the week before Thanksgiving. Prior to high school, I moved 10 times in my life, so the high school friends that I kept in touch with over the years are technically my longest friends. Everyone else before high school, I have lost touch with, mostly because I was young, and partially because pen pals stopped being “a thing” in early 2000s. There are only a few high school friends that I still talk to today, and they are the people who have the same views on life as I do. Those who I grew apart from I don’t have contact much with, because like tradition, keeping in touch with someone for old time’s sake is, to me, a waste of time.

But I digress. My high school friend and I met up for our occasional lunch dates on a day that I had off. Typical of our usual dates, I would drive to her work place and she would take her lunch break after I have arrived, so that we could go and grab something to eat. We were sitting outside in sunny California weather, when she brought up the topic of Secret Santa at the workplace.

“I hate Secret Santa,” she said to me. She explained that every year, her workplace does Secret Santa with a minimum spending limit of $25. However, people at work don’t really know each other on a personal level. So every year the presents are the same, generic presents, usually alcohol-related or Starbucks gift cards, or if you’re unlucky, an item that you don’t even want. My friend doesn’t drink alcohol, like myself, so I can see why the alcohol bit is a turn off in the first place. Plus, she said something that made an imprint in my memory. “If I want Starbucks, I can buy myself Starbucks. I don’t need someone to be required to buy me my own coffee.” She was so frustrated with the whole thing and with an exasperated sigh, she told me, “So this year, I told them I wasn’t going to do it.” I kind of just looked at her, until something in my brain clicked. You can say no. I think I had that OMG-AHA! moment, and she laughs lightly and says, “So far, I’m the only one who said no. Let’s see what happens.” She shrugged and I laughed with her and told her that she was a genius.

The funny thing is, as early as October, I sent my extended family on both sides quite a long email about how I do not want presents for the holidays this year because I was trying to be more mindful. Every year, I get about 20 presents from my extended family, mostly stuff I do not want or need, and within the first few months, I have to find a way to de-clutter it all. So I wrote to them explaining that there is no need for presents and if they wish to gift, to consider maybe donating to charity. So the concept of opting out isn’t new, but for some reason, I never thought to extend that to other groups of people, with other traditions.

So off course, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, someone came around my work handing out little pieces of paper for our Secret Santa. They asked me to list three things on it, and to return it to them at the end of the day. I grudgingly took the piece of paper, and remember thinking about it, folding it up, and tucking it in my lab coat, as if in slow motion. During downtime throughout the day, I kept thinking, what do I want? I even took out a little black notebook from my purse and a pen to jot down ideas. I came up blank. I couldn’t really think of what to ask for, because the few things I wanted, I had already asked my parents and brother and sister to get for me. And then I thought of it. What I want is to not participate this year. If I had to rack my brain to come up with even ONE thing to ask for, I do not actually WANT that one thing. I only want it because I was told that I need to want something.

I texted Mike right away and told him that I was asked to do Secret Santa but that I don’t feel like doing it. That same day, Mike had been debating about going to a work lunch outing. One of his managers was leaving, and the team was going to go out to celebrate, at lunch, AND after work at Happy Hour. Mike didn’t want to celebrate twice, spend twice as much money, and twice as much time. He had been talking to me about this the last few days, and I told him, well, you could skip the lunch? I could tell that he felt the pressure to join the entire team to take their manager out to lunch, but that he really did not want to go out twice. So when I texted him about my Secret Santa dilemma, he texted back and said, “Okay, don’t do it. I told them no to the lunch thing. You can do it too.” And just like that, I texted Mike a quick “Thanks!” and texted my high school friend saying, “Guess what! I’m saying no to Secret Santa too, just like you! I don’t want to spend $50 to buy someone a present when I can’t even think of a single thing I want someone to buy for me.” To which she said, “$50?!?! People ARE insane.”

I did not mention the Secret Santa to my coworkers for the rest of the day. Towards the end of the day the office manager asked for my slip of paper. I looked at him and simply told him, “I’m sorry. But I cannot think of one single thing I want to ask for. I don’t want to participate in the Secret Santa.” Surprisingly enough, he just smiled and said, “Okay!”

And the snowball kept on rolling. Here are other things we’ve done to change up so called traditions.

  • Me, Mike, and the sister in law trying to convince Mike’s mom’s side to drop Secret Santa. When we got a lot of push back, convincing them to decrease spending from $50 to $25.
  • Texting the girlfriends and asking not to exchange gifts this year.
  • Cutting our spending on our family members’ gifts by half. Asking family members if we can split their gifts with other family members.
  • Switching up which extended family gets Christmas Day.
  • Not agreeing to attend my family’s yearly Las Vegas trip.
  • Backing out of some family Secret Santa’s, AFTER the names have been drawn. Telling them to re-draw names, because we no longer want to participate in gift exchanges for parties we aren’t even able to attend.
  • No longer continuing the tradition of buying Christmas decoration during Christmas time. Exception: The Christmas tree. Still debating if it was a worthy purchase, but enjoying its scent and bareness. Likely to be a continued tradition.

Here are traditions we still kept:

  • Gift exchange with immediate family members and one secret santa exchange with our core group of ten friends
  • The aforementioned Christmas tree
  • Occasional Christmas music

Decisions still to be made:

  • Will I attend the holiday party this year? I am absolutely dreading it. I was talking to Mike last night about how much I did not want to go. I work at two different offices, owned by the same guy, but with two completely different Christmas parties. One is more reserved and polite, and the other is just straight up rowdy. This year, I am working with the latter on the day of the party, which means that is the party I am invited to. Every year, they go out to a restaurant or bar as a group, and there’s lots of tequila shots being passed around. Stories of people getting hammered and blacking out continue on to the following Christmas. Stories of continuing the party afterwards at some club. I would rather go home and read. I’m leaning towards skipping out on those “festivities”, though I’ve already had multiple people questioning me whether I can make it. It’d be nice not to.

Grateful for my high school friend, Mike, and the sister in law for being of the same mind. Grateful for our families who have been very open and accepting of our new no gifts rule. Grateful for change, and the ability to think for myself. Grateful for old traditions, but even more so, newer traditions.

How is your Christmas changing?

Thoughts on: The Blackest of Fridays.

Today is a sad day, and will likely continue to be a sad day for me for the rest of my life. It is with a heavy heart that I reminisce on past Black Fridays that I regret ever participating in. Growing up, my family held a huge emphasis on acquiring material goods and symbols of social status and wealth. Hence, Thanksgiving was never the real holiday. The real holiday was the day after turkey day, Black Friday, and it consisted of doing only one thing. Shopping.

I remember as kids, we were told to go to bed early on Thanksgiving so that we could wake up early to hit up the stores for their sales. Me and my cousins would all wake up early and, in a flurry of excitement, get dressed and pour over discount advertisements at the breakfast table while we ate left-over food for breakfast. Then we would all hop in vans and be driven to the outlets and malls by our parents and dropped off. We would separate into groups, with me managing the money my parents gave for myself, my sister, and my little brother. We spent the whole day walking, visiting every store and checking out the best deals. We wouldn’t make our decision until the end of the day, when we have exhausted every deal out there and picked the best deal that we saw, or the item we ended up most wanting that day. Some days, we would go to multiple outlets, then return to the outlet with the store with the supposedly best deal. What a waste of gas and precious time. We weren’t going out there to shop for something we actually wanted. We went out there with a mission to spend a certain amount of money that we were given on something that gave us the best-short-term-longing-feeling. And we HAD to spend it that day, otherwise, we would “miss out” on a good deal, and that money would be “wasted”. Talk about experiencing the real FOMO as early as 13 years old.

In addition to being taught awful habits regarding spending money, as well as de-valuing money throughout this entire process, you would not imagine the stress we went through on the blackest of Fridays. First world problems, I know, but seriously, it’s a true problem! We ran ourselves ragged, searching for the perfect thing. I was holding all the cash for my siblings and myself, and they would be running back and forth to me asking for a certain amount of it, and returning the change, and asking me how much they had left. I was a walking calculator zombie, not a human being. And then imagine the amount of thought and aggravation that went into deciding what to buy. The constant doubt of whether I was spending my money “wisely” on the best deal possible. The debate between getting a bang for your buck, or something you actually like (I say “like” and not “want” because I doubt we truly “wanted” any of that stuff. Don’t get me started with “need”). And oh, the comparisons afterwards! We would sit together at the end of the day, at In N Out or some other harmful fast food restaurant, and discuss what we spent our money on and how one deal was better than the other. It would pretty much be a show of who got the best thing, as if that was a measure of our self-worth, as if it was equivalent to our best life accomplishments.

Rather than spend time with each other, we spent time alone, in our own minds, as well as physically. The parents would drop off the kids and the kids would separate from the parents. In order to pursue and peruse our different interests, the kids would break up into groups. A group would enter a store, and then the individuals would look on their own. The only time we ever came together was when we wanted to gather all our resources or divvy up allocated money. Sad, sad, sad, I told you this was sad.

And now, Black Friday begins on Thanksgiving Day in the evening. I think of future generations and wonder what they will learn from all of this. I understand getting a good deal on something you may need, but watching videos of people line up, race through the doors, kick, shove, push, fight, I mean, is that really what life has turned into? It’s like the scene from Mean Girls where the shopping mall turns into a jungle scene. Now that I’m becoming less and less attracted by typical American consumerism, I sit back and can’t help but feel slightly disgusted with my past self. Our day of thanks is slowly turning more into a day of thanks for things rather than for things-that-truly-matter.

This year, Mike and I made sure to set aside time for our family and friends, the only things that really matter to us. We opened our doors and offered our home to everyone, as a way to say, “This is what we want to spend our time doing. The doors are open for you to come into our lives any time.” We have no desire to go out today, on the blackest of Fridays, to shop for ourselves and buy things we do not need. I have no desire to be surrounded by demanding customers and exhausted teenage clerks. I am not trying to depress myself the day after Thanksgiving. We both have the day off, and I think we are going to go out on this beautiful 85 degree weather (in late November! Thank you California) and enjoy the outdoors, at the park or the beach. Something to acknowledge all the blessings we have in our lives. And to spend time with each other, after spending the past few days with everyone else.

If you must go out there and get some early Christmas shopping done (I am still an advocate of getting to do lists checked off), then please consider shopping for meaningful gifts. Companies have started using Black Friday as a way to give back to charities and communities. Consider the following companies, so that at least the money you spend is used for a greater good somewhere where they don’t have money to spend.

 

Pantagonia – 100% of sales* to grassroots organizations working to create positive change for the planet in their own backyards. We’re determined to use every means at our disposal to defend our world’s climate, air, water and soil. In these divisive times, protecting what we all hold in common is more important than ever before.

 

Everlane – This year’s Black Friday fund goes towards building an organic farm in Vietnam, where pesticide use is so out of control that it is difficult to find safe food.

 

Check out more stores, here, and here, if you must. Or better yet, volunteer your time to an organization this holiday season, and give back what you can. Consider making a donation to a charity under someone’s name. More meaningful gift guides to come in the future, perhaps.