When I first sat down to write this post, I immediately left the window open, got up, and started tidying. I tend to tidy when I have other things I want to do, even if they are important. One way to think about this is as procrastination. Another way is to think of it as clearing the space necessary to focus on one thing, other distractions having been removed. It’s a way of focusing, or simplifying. Sometimes I feel guilty for not getting on with the main task, but at other times I just go with it, knowing that once I have mentally readied myself, I will get to the main task and it will flow.
This sensation of ‘flow’ is something that sportspeople and musicians (to take two examples) sometimes talk about; it’s when your technique at doing something has reached a level where you cease to consciously try. We have all watched someone who is really skilled making what they are doing look effortless. It is one of life’s real pleasures. On some level, in that moment, it is effortless, though of course you don’t see the hours of practice. On this, I’m influenced by Pam Lunn’s 2011 Swarthmore lecture, Costing not less than everything. Here’s a short quote; although she’s using the idea of ‘practice’ in a different context, it is a good description:
The point of a spiritual discipline lies in what the Buddhists call it: practice. It is practice in the same sense as training in sports, or playing your scales and doing your five-finger exercises if you are a pianist. It is not exciting, mostly it is not interesting, often it is dull and tedious, but you do it regularly and faithfully because without it you cannot do what you deeply and truly desire to do – break that world record, play that difficult sonata.
The other idea I want to introduce here is from another book I have been reading: Thomas R. Kelly’s 1941 volume, A Testament of Devotion. This is a classic of Quaker writing, and the ideas it expresses are compelling:
Western peoples are apt to think our great problems are external, environmental. We are not skilled in the inner life, where the real roots of our problems lie. For I would suggest that the true explanation of the complexity of our program is an inner one, not an outer one. The outer distractions of our interests reflect an inner lack of integration of our own lives. We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us … [A]ll too commonly we follow the common American method of getting a quick decision among conflicting claims within us. It is as if we have a chairman of our committee of the many selves within us, who does not integrate the many into one but who merely counts the votes of each decision, and leaves disgruntled minorities. The claims of each self are still pressed … We are not integrated. We are distraught. We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all.
The claims of ‘many selves’ are what I wrote about in the first post of this series. What I mean by decluttering is the kind of integration that Kelly mentions. The decision to simplify can be a fearful one, and it’s best undertaken when it feels the necessary thing to do, when on some level we are ready. When it flows, in other words. In my case, decluttering my possessions happened when I had to do it: I could no longer stay in my house and I was moving to a new country, and things had to go into storage. It flowed not because it had to be done, and so I had to be ready, though it was hard. ‘Readiness’ and ‘necessity’ may not be so far apart, at least if there are no ‘disgruntled minorities’.
Decluttering time is more complicated. I want to do it, but it won’t flow. One self feels attached to things that another self wants to let go of. I want more time to myself, but I want to be available to others. Deciding not to spend time on something is a statement, at least to yourself, about its value to you. If that something is spending time with a friend, the statement is about how much that person means to you. That can feel awkward, and it’s a judgement I sometimes avoid.
I think the spiritual practices here have to do with letting go of the easy things and seeing how that feels. Some of my volunteering has been a relatively straightforward way to start; they were not long-standing commitments, and so they could be shed more easily. The time I spend online was another thought. Social media and instant communication make me quickly and immediately available, but if they also lend themselves to shallow interactions – a poor return on the time spent. I don’t yet feel sure that deleting my profiles and claiming all that time back is the right move, but I have pruned my Facebook friend list. It was surprising how effortless it was to remove 180-odd ‘friends’, without even having to make difficult decisions. It was a good bit of tidying.
But like all tidying, it merely focuses you on other things. I need to transform some of my own attitudes, prioritise some of my relationships. Those are the harder choices, which involve thinking about who belongs in the past, and who belongs in the now.