Here are some writings to assist in your exploration:
Totally free activities, in which no one pays before, during or after, can be surprisingly rejuvenating and rewarding, including on subtle deeper levels of being.
Some of you have asked about my Essential Principles, which I use as foundation for much of my work. These are a set of eight principles with associated practical subheadings – an attempt to synthesize and condense what I consider to be the very best from the entire body of existing knowledge about human personal development from virtually all schools of thought now and throughout history.
“Over the years it seems that your work has become more spiritual or focused on deeper subjects that often leave me in a curious state. I feel fascinated and often relieved to even address mysteries and challenging ideas that I don’t have the chance to look at or talk about elsewhere. But at the same time I’m often at a loss about what to do with these or how they fit into day-to-day existence.”
“Since you’ve touched on it, could you address in more detail physical health and well-being?”
Past and future, and all their accoutrements (worry, struggle, expectation, desire, ambition, discontentment, nagging strategies, anxiety…) vanish. And one is left empty, with nothing except a fluid open sensation…
Refuel with Free Fun
“You’ve mentioned the importance of ‘Refuel with free fun.’ What do you mean by this?”
Free, in this sense, means that you don’t pay for the fun on either side, before or after. That can be taken literally on the simplest level, as in finding joyful activities that don’t cost money, such as creatively assembling leftovers instead of going to a restaurant, going for a walk in the forest instead of on a treadmill in a gym, having an earnestly moving conversation instead of watching a movie, and deep, long kissing instead of three scoops of ice cream or shots of whiskey, for example. The idea is to invent from the abundance of what you already have, instead of just paying for and consuming what’s commonly sold.
But not paying on either side implies other, more important resources than money. One’s conscience, for example. This would mean that the chosen activity is free from reactive guilt and/or worry. One can refuel and find relief and joy, substantial fun, by making someone you appreciate happy instead of demanding that they make you happy.
For me, the free part is rather easy. Refuel and fun are more elusive. These require creative, discerning experimentation over time to determine that you’re not just doing something that is supposed to be fun and cause refueling, but in fact isn’t and doesn’t and you may not have noticed. In many cases, there’s fun to be found temporarily in the moment, but what you pay after is disproportionately more, causing depletion instead of refueling, which is a pretty good definition of addiction if you do it consistently.
So, finding activities that qualify for each of the three components — refuel, free and fun — probably takes some conscious study of actual impact over sequential time, otherwise known as maturity. In other words, the process to find such an activity involves some invested work to earn the right to free play. Totally free activities, in which no one pays before, during or after, can be surprisingly rejuvenating and rewarding, including on subtle deeper levels of being. A few that I’ve found that are consistently, perfectly free, fun and refueling: gardening, making my children laugh, playing with my dogs, engaging wild animals, swimming with friends in an ocean or lake, and making fun of some of my close friends who are very good at receiving that in the right spirit, know how to laugh at themselves.
This last example is not just a joke, as I have the luck to know a few persons who have a tremendous talent for receiving humorous criticism such that they and everyone else in proximity has fun and refuels — laughs, learns, strengthens intimacy and trust, releases weight and self-consciousness, immediately shifts perspective and finds joy, without demanding any additional work to smooth out pride issues. As an aside for those who enjoy poetic metaphors, making fun of these friends is a kind of integration of all the techniques listed above — gardening, making children laugh, playing, engaging wild animals, swimming with friends.
The other side of the equation in terms of free is that the activity does not require unwanted self-conscious discipline, or an anticipated need for sacrifice (cost). Like, for many of us, a breathing exercise or similar ritual is not always fun and free beforehand, as one may have to work a little to carve out the space and time for it without feeling exclusively inspired to do so. One has to pay some before, and sometimes during, such as consciously applying patience, at least until one gets to a certain freedom with it. Totally free would mean you want it before, during and after; it only brings joy and reenergizes. At the highest level, real mastery, the free, fun and refueling is across the board in all directions, including indulgent childlike playfulness and deeper resolution within one’s conscience and soul, across time (before, during and after) and across space (for everyone). Starting with simple activities and spreading those out across a wider, more challenging spectrum is a worthy creative pursuit.
But I fear that I’m making a simple phrase unnecessarily complicated. I guess the idea I’m trying to get across is to find ways to creatively exploit what we already have around us but have not really noticed and celebrated as we can, instead of mindlessly pursuing stereotypes and synthetic replacements that we haven’t noticed don’t actually work, that ultimately cause depletion of resources somewhere along the way and probably aren’t that fun, anyway. Just noticing the difference is halfway there.
© 2016 Darrell Calkins
Some of you have asked about my Essential Principles, which I use as foundation for much of my work. These are a set of eight principles with associated practical subheadings – an attempt to synthesize and condense what I consider to be the very best from the entire body of existing knowledge about human personal development from virtually all schools of thought now and throughout history. (I know, that sounds like a pretentious and overly ambitious project, and it probably is.) I’ve spent about 30 years working on this and have cross-checked all information a number of times with experts in various fields and those I consider to be the wisest and best representatives I’ve met, which is not to say that it’s perfect, but at least the research and homework have been done.
I’ve assembled these principles into a sequence that I think corresponds to the natural process of human development, from the simplest, most fundamental needs through increasingly sophisticated yet indispensable concepts and skills. The central context or idea behind these is to help define and lay out a clear path toward the universally sought life of complete well-being, fulfillment and ultimate success. I hope here to delineate some of these principles for greater understanding and practical application, so your questions and comments are more than welcome…
1) Be Well
Be a healthy animal. Establish a practical well-being program based on versatility. Pattern yourself according to real, natural rhythms and cycles.
Okay, that sounds simple enough…and ultimately it is. Notice the first verb: Be…which is where we want to start and end. What makes for a healthy animal is fairly easy to identify. Simple dynamics set by nature are profoundly influential, all of which can be studied in any species that actually lives in nature: consume the amount you use for energy; move when and how your body yearns to; sleep and rest to rejuvenate, not more or less; hold your posture so that it harmonizes with gravity and circumstance; breathe naturally and voluptuously; recognize and follow need more than want. Take these simple indicators and follow them through creative experimentation to expertise and you will be a very healthy animal.
Establish a practical well-being program based on versatility. The human body is designed to be extremely adaptable; we perform best, feel best and produce the best results when we are challenged and engaged through the widest spectrum possible. In terms of daily practical choices for outgoing energy (exercise, walks, manual labor, conversation…) and incoming energy (breathing, eating, restful gathering, receiving information…) explore the entire landscape of each day’s innate potential, including in-between, transitional moments. Variety, range, surprise, adaptability. A formal program design should include and emphasize agility, strength, precision, stamina and timing, practiced and played out through any and every engagement possible, but most certainly when exercising…exactly like great stick and silk or wrapper work.
Pattern yourself according to real, natural rhythms and cycles.Such as…spending energy when you have it, and gathering when you don’t; eating when you’re actually hungry, and stopping when you’re not; getting up when you wake up; resting when noticeably tired, even if only for moments of quiet breathing; stretching, deep inhaling and sighing the instant you feel inclined; creatively making the most of weather and seasonal variations; seizing and exploiting moments when you’re inspired to play or create; sing or dance when you like the song you’re listening to; stop, listen and look long at beauty that compels you; spontaneously engage what naturally calls to you; and whenever, wherever you find a sensation of deep well-being, prioritize it, fall into it and luxuriate in it as long as possible…
These are all clues and suggestions, from expert sources, that require personal exploration and experimentation to make them yours. Being well is an art, and like all art, technical skill should eventually be forgotten and fade into the background as the artist becomes increasingly liberated. Organic flow results, in which experiential knowledge integrates into the moment-to-moment fabric of living, and one finds oneself just being.
© 2016 Darrell Calkins
bringing it down to earth
“Over the years it seems that your work has become more spiritual or focused on deeper subjects that often leave me in a curious state. I feel fascinated and often relieved to even address mysteries and challenging ideas that I don’t have the chance to look at or talk about elsewhere. But at the same time I’m often at a loss about what to do with these or how they fit into day-to-day existence. I often feel surrounded by people and activities that demand a different set of values to even keep up or fit in with.
Many of your writings and your conversations often return to or end on this theme of ‘bringing it down to earth.’ I see the importance of this and want to find my way to more of it. Could you walk me across that bridge with more detail or specificity? What does that look like in a messy, drab, diminishing, disorienting world?”
That’s a nice bridge you’ve already created yourself, from deeper context and meaning through sincere intent to down to earth in the messy, drab, diminishing and disorienting world. You do understand from the outset, though, that you’re articulating a fundamental existential question that better minds and souls than me have been trying to design solutions for over millennia?
Let me try to just move across your bridge in simple, precise steps…
Context: Why am I alive and what is it that I need to do in my life?
If we lose sight of this, or perhaps more importantly, lose sincerely heartfelt interest in the subject, all that’s left is struggling with or trying to avoid messy, drab, diminishing and disorienting and the thoughts and emotions born from those –- fear, anxiety, worry, confusion, meaninglessness and purposelessness.
So, right away in terms of bringing it down to earth: We need specific, frequent rituals that plug us back into recalling, for lack of a better phrase, the meaning of life, the feel and music in that. Such rituals can be anything in which we stop, experience and look clearly at what we love and value most, or even simpler –- emptying out everything in the way of those.
Look for activities that by their nature open and expand heart and mind: quiet breathing, meditation, walking, generous conversation or contemplation; choosing consciously to fall under the pace and rhythm of the daily grind so as to rediscover the size, shape and music of life. By music I mean the “spirit of the game,” which is what all spirituality ultimately points to – “I hear the voice” (of Nature, God, beauty, truth, love…). Hear it and move onto or into. That can take as little as 15 or 20 minutes, although as one gets better at practicing, it’s possible to hear throughout the day when one simply chooses consciously to listen. You can do it over a cup of coffee, one long, slow breath or looking and listening openly, freely at anything that really compels you or someone you love.
Sincere, truthful intent: The practical link between “I hear the voice” and qualitative engagement.
One brings the music and meaning of life into the task at hand. This is where things get tricky, because if one does not “buy” the value in what they’re doing it’s very hard to find music and meaning in it. But we all can find music and meaning at least in engaging what we love and value most in any given day. If you can see and feel clearly what you love and value, this is simple, the inspiration and motivation are already alive and present, and generous, clean, wholehearted intent is easy to find and fairly easy to hold to. “I really want to engage and give something back.”
Qualitative engagement: Progress and accomplishment with anything and everything depend on how much quality one brings to the show.
What makes for quality, if one breaks it down, is spectrum and depth of virtue –- creativity, grace, concentration, integrity, patience, discipline, tenacity, attention to detail, etc. These gathered and injected into any activity will produce superior quality, whether that be sewing an oriental rug, making love, creating art, trimming roses, giving a speech, driving a car or conversing with a stranger one just met. Consequently, they can be practiced and improved anywhere anytime. Those who practice more, simply by conscious choice and attentiveness, have a superior spectrum and depth of qualities to call upon, and consequently produce superior quality in what they do.
You still with me and is this down to earth? Find remembrance of context through investment in authentic ritual, experience music and meaning in what you’re engaging, and then inject your virtues into it.
Messy, drab, diminishing, disorienting world: this is the world we often see and experience; we transform or evolve it into something else by moving across the bridge in simple, conscientious choices. Even the smallest moment in passing has everything innate within it to bring (and warrant) our own cleanliness, brightness, expansiveness and clarity.
I like these little contrasting yet complimentary quotes, which are perhaps useful here to help bring some music down to earth in envisioning how this works:
“I am proud to have been in a business that gives pleasure, creates beauty, and awakens our conscience, arouses compassion, and perhaps most importantly, gives millions a respite from our so violent world.”
“I like it when a flower or little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so fucking heroic”
And your own, “I often feel surrounded by people and activities that demand a different set of values to even keep up or fit in with.”
Yes. It’s like the world is covered with concrete and we’re looking for a little crack somewhere so as to give pleasure, create beauty, awaken conscience, arouse compassion and give respite from the so violent world. Perhaps we need to be a little more heroic in down to earth ways.
© 2016 Darrell Calkins
Well-Being – A Letter by Darrell Calkins from Re:
“Since you’ve touched on it, could you address in more detail physical health and well-being?”
Anyone can lay out some kind of ideal physical program, exactly what you “should” do, so I don’t know if I can offer much help in that department. As I’ve mentioned too often before, we are governed, and specifically our physicality is governed, by fairly strict rules, which are easily observable in nature. We have some freedom to manipulate some of these, but really not by very much. Everyone knows, or at least has the information, about the horrors of ignoring health issues and expecting your body to do what you want it to do with the least investment in it. Another “authority” telling you what you should do is not the answer.
Beyond this, ironically, many of the institutions that run the economy, such as medicine, education, law and even psychology are largely dependent upon failing health. If you add up the amounts of money exchanged in the control, anticipation and reaction to failing health (insurance, pharmaceutical research and products, reactive or compensatory medicine, related legal issues, consultation and therapy for those who are unwilling to improve their physical health and claim or believe the problem is elsewhere, etc.), you end up with an enormous chunk. To keep that moving, we need people to be sick. Then we have the extreme social emphasis placed on the pursuit and maintenance of a lifestyle based on making money at any cost, often at the sacrifice of health, sanity and well-being. Few persons would place money at the head of their list of values, yet in actuality, the amount of time and energy invested in making or spending it far exceeds investment in anything else. Getting down to the gym a couple days a week and having low-fat milk in your morning latte isn’t going to make much of a dent in a system or lifestyle that is essentially, well, unwell.
How to maneuver through all this, and be truly well, is no small trick.
Setting aside more profound issues, such as the value of attending to one’s conscience, performing work that is engaging and purposeful, and noticing why you’re alive in the first place, the real problem is finding a way to create and sustain a lifestyle that allows for and supports your real, nonnegotiable, physical needs. Many needs are unique to the individual, such as how much solitude one requires to remain sane—and that is a physical need, not only a psychological one—but there are some basic ideas that are pretty much universal. Please remember in all this that I’m not trying to design some ultimate program, which is a lot easier to do but would be absolutely abstract. One has to think in terms of balancing the reality of one’s circumstance with the components of one’s being—finding a way to harmoniously blend the two.
To do that well, some sacrifices and adjustments are inevitable. And that implies going up against the walls of opposition, both internal and social. No one will improve his health significantly without accurately perceiving priorities, knowing clearly what is at stake if those are not attended to and what is to be gained if acted on correctly. That’s the basic homework before any change can come about. Then that knowledge has to be transformed into a sustainable motivation. “Look, you’ll feel and perform better,” “You can do it!” and, “You’re going to get sick and die if you don’t,” are already out there in many forms as motivational information, with a long-term success rate of less than one percent.
Having said all that, one could look at this entire dynamic kind of like being in prison, with enormous limitations and impositions, but still with some freedom to be creative. Each item on the list I gave as priorities for physical well-being—posture, breathing, exercise, food and rest—are possible to manipulate and progress with in any situation, including an actual prison. If you want, I can pick each of these apart, but I’m not going to sell you on their value; that’s something you must discover yourself.
Posture is, I think, probably the most underrated of all items on this list. Besides having been identified recently as the single most important factor in what men find sexy in women, the list of how correct posture influences internal organs and systems, and also mood and general energy, is very long indeed. Your internal environment depends on the efficiency of the flow of elements within it. Obviously, this includes oxygen, blood, hormones and nutrients, but also all interaction between nerves and the brain. The spine, which is your foundation and support, has a natural position that guarantees the efficiency of movement and interaction of the related elements. Your internal organs are all right alongside the spine and depend on its correct position to function well. Any prolonged restriction or deviation from this natural position will result in some, at least partial, dysfunction. Over a long time, the results can be devastating.
The typical image of a depressed, lazy and tired person is someone hunched over and inert. Often, the assumption is that if one had more enthusiasm and inspiration, he would then stand up straight and move. In many cases, this equation is backward. But, as with everything related to one’s physicality, balance is the key. An overly erect and rigid posture may convey confidence and power to some, but it also causes a subtle accumulation of tension and rigidity on various levels, including psychological and emotional. Check it out. Find someone who looks like they have a steel rod up their ass and spend a few minutes with them.
For myself, I like the image often used in ballet classes, where one looks for the sensation of being gently pulled up from the top, not the front, of the head. That is, you’re not looking to hold the posture by contracting muscle; the sensation is one of lift and space between the vertebrae. Open chest, for sure, but also a slight indentation at the base of the spine, which I experience as a falling forward and down of the lower abdomen, causing a subtle backward tilt of the pelvis. Careful of too much muscle in the upper or lower back, and let the shoulders fall directly down, not forward or back. Someone with great posture gives the impression that they have an unusually good relationship with gravity, as if they float a bit (even with their lower body solidly into the ground).
And while floating (even with your lower body solidly into the ground), it becomes a lot easier to breathe well. As with posture, I’m not a fan of control. The body knows what to do when given the chance. Of course, if you’re sitting at a desk all day long, it doesn’t really have a chance, so you’re obliged to compensate for the absence of freedom. And I believe freedom is the word here. Weak, forced or restricted breathing will cause the same thing with whatever you’re focusing on at the desk or anywhere else. “How was work today, honey?” “Weak, forced and restricted.” The quality of one’s breathing has a remarkable capacity to penetrate any and everything one is engaging.
I’ve already discussed breathing elsewhere, so I won’t spend much time with it here, and there are some decent books on the subject. Indeed, the essential dynamic underlying almost every elite and esoteric physical art is work with the breath, so there’s information available. I would only add that it’s unfortunate that so much work is done with it, and not much play. Laughter has got to be the single healthiest activity one can perform. Just think how healthy you would be if you could sincerely laugh at that which now oppresses you. I’ve mentioned before that one good measure of someone’s depth of spirituality is how long it takes before they become offended. Imagine laughing hysterically at the criticisms, complaints and impositions you receive. At the least, you’d be breathing well.
When you’re not laughing, though, your breathing should be sexy, like posture: voluptuous, uninhibited, graceful and natural.
Which also happens to be a good list of qualities for an exercise program. In my experience in working with professional athletes and dancers, I’ve often been surprised by the evident lack of real versatility in their physical maintenance program. Almost everyone tends to exploit what they are good at, or what comes easiest, and ignore what they really need. Any authentically whole physical exercise program must include an evenly distributed focus on the full range of the human body’s naturally existing potentials, no matter how specialized one wishes to be. Otherwise, injury, malaise and nagging restrictions are inevitable.
The human body, like the human mind, is best at versatility and adaptability. This is our greatest skill and our greatest chance to unlock natural potential. What that means in terms of physical movement is that a fairly equal amount of time and effort should be allocated to the widest possible range of activity. That includes strength, flexibility, precision and endurance, but it certainly doesn’t stop there.
For example, virtually every elite training program lacks real range in dealing with speed (or timing, really) and transition. And every program lacks true development of spontaneity. The memorization of specific movements and sets of movements certainly has a value up to a point, but the human body, like any other animal, does not naturally move in geometrical patterns. If a body is consistently trained to do so, the first movement out of what is familiar is not only awkward and ineffective, it is likely to cause injury. The same with speed. Your body has at least five speeds. I don’t know how many yoga practitioners I’ve worked with who had no idea at all of how to move naturally and well outside of their practiced range of speed (second gear and sometimes first), which is unfortunate, because often exactly what they are looking for is on the other end of the spectrum they’re working on. The exact same thing is true for a number of athletes I’ve worked with who specialize in timing, like baseball hitters, or martial artists (forth gear and sometimes fifth); they never conceived of the idea that to understand how time works, and how to master dealing with it, one must have exceptional attention to detail within a single second, and that necessitates slowing that second down so that it looks like a few seconds. At least half of that work involves knowing how to move slowly and precisely, and being completely comfortable doing so. As with all forms of specialization, one lives and analyses data within a frame, unaware that the solution is most often just outside of that frame. Never underestimate the depth of your subjectivity.
What does all this mean for the average person looking to construct an effective physical exercise program? Think versatility. We don’t live in nature and interact with it such that surprising and varying situations demand of us a full-range of skill in response. But we are genetically designed for that, and we function best in some version of it. If you always walk on a sidewalk that is flat and straight, of course the structural support in your ankles, knees and hips is not prepared for uneven terrain. And if you never have to climb a rocky hill or tree, you don’t have the true upper-body strength to handle spontaneous adjustment. You may be able to bench press 300 pounds, run a marathon, or sit in a full lotus for an hour, but those are not transferable to a million other more important physical skills, and very probably are a cause of more problems than not. I’m all for ritual and repetition in exercise, but if that does not include the consistent requirement for real adaptability and versatility, in space and in time and with real objects, it’s a lot more irrelevant than one and one’s fellow specialists would believe.
I understand, of course, that the common person usually exercises to improve image rather than well-being. But that’s not the subject of this letter.
Onto food and diet… What can one say? You can go to any bookstore or library and find conflicting advice in any two books sitting right next to each other. There’s probably some truth in each of them, although, like exercise, it’s a good idea to take a real look at the person who is giving the advice and determine if you like what you see. Then crosscheck it with someone who is completely different from you to get a more objective view. I think the real crux of this subject is mostly about how one relates to food. Obviously, the purpose of food is to provide energy. If you’ve wandered so far away from that fact that it’s mainly a ritual of sensual self-indulgence, distraction and entertainment, it’s not going to make a big difference if what’s on the plate comes from the health food store or the local fast food restaurant. The healthiest people I know are mainly those who don’t really care that much what they’re eating. But they have a real gift for knowing why and when to eat and why and when to stop.
Again, balance and compromise between circumstance and essential need is where the focus and creativity must be placed. I’d stress here creativity and experimentation, trying different combinations and then really taking the time to notice how you feel and perform afterward, over time. Certainly food is fun. But like anything else that’s fun, it has its limits and has a dynamic in place in which you have to pay one way or another for the fun. As with drugs, if you feel great for an hour and then fall apart or are numb for the entire day after, that’s not a dynamic that supports well-being, health or happiness. If you haven’t noticed that, or can’t figure out how to negotiate the variables, I believe that just falls into the category of stupidity.
There’s a notice on my pack of cigarettes here that states, “Smoking kills.” Now, one could place that notice on anything—cars, steaks, televisions, rivers, people, religions, flowers (the Autumn crocus) or scarves (think of Isadora Duncan). What actually kills is bad discernment. Food as a weapon against oneself is hard to support as technique or way of life.
Of course we should enjoy the delights of food and eating. I still remember well the most enjoyable meal I ever had: a tart green apple with a piece of Gruyere cheese. Having not eaten for five days, I found the sensations extraordinary. I recall actually feeling a significant jolt of energy and perception within thirty seconds of the first bite. I assume I have the liberty to write something like this without it being construed that one should fast for five days. I’m simply trying to point out that truly enjoying anything requires a good sense of proportion, which includes the capacity to go without. “A balanced diet” is not so much about protein/fat/carbohydrate ratios. The real ratios to consider, at least for the typical American or European, are energy consumption/expenditure, pleasure/actual need, food/everything else.
Now and then my otherwise delightful three year-old daughter panics when she isn’t given her dessert right away after dinner. My usual comment to her is, “Hey, relax; it’s only food.”
Last on the list here is rest, and believe me, I need some after writing all the above. I look at the idea of rest as rotating one’s qualitative focus, not just doing less or changing activity. The role of rest is recovery. If you keep pushing the same quality button (fast or slow, concentrated or dispersed, hard-working or lazy…) for the same component all the time, of course it’s going to become depleted, just like if you keep working a single muscle in the same fashion or don’t use it at all. Eventually, it’s going to collapse and take everything else with it.
In my experience, most people are actually seeking recovery from the monotony and anxiety of qualitative repetition. This applies to body, emotions and mind. And that monotony and anxiety involves inertia just as much as over-use, meaning inertia in some areas and over-use in others. People generally believe that stress is responsible for depletion, but apathy and uninspired systematic repetition are equally responsible. Or rather, systematic repetition produces as much or more stress and anxiety as anything else.
Recovery through sleep isn’t going to happen if the majority of the components of your being aren’t getting enough stimulation or resistance to work against. Your brain may be tired after work, but if your body and emotions haven’t been challenged through the day, they’re going to keep irritating you even if you’re asleep. They don’t need rest; they need work for real recovery to take place.
Rotating activities will help, but the goal there should be to experience and express a full-range of qualities by all components in proportion to their potential and need.
Well-being, or wholeness, implies integrity and harmony between all existing elements, providing freedom for the whole. If you’re ignoring a high percentage of the elements of your entire being, and the range of qualities they can naturally engage, there will be no real recovery or progress until you do. The typical relentless worker is just as lazy as the typical indulgent idler; they’re both just going through the habitual motions. To break the repetitive pattern, and discover more energy and effectiveness, one simply must stretch out in all directions, rotating focus and application of the qualities that make up one’s natural versatility.
A last note: your body has all this information already. Physical well-being necessitates listening to what you already know, and then taking it seriously enough to act accordingly. When you wake up and feel the impulse to arch your back, stretch and exhale with a loud sigh, for God’s sake, do it.
© 2016 Darrell Calkins
Last week my daughter and I were spring cleaning the downstairs floor of our house. The place is big, made of five-centuries-old stone walls and oak beams, so months of accumulated dust, fuzz, wood particles, cobwebs, bat droppings and other curious signs of decay can be intimidating. As we were moving from corner to corner, I was enjoying her increasingly serene attitude, which spontaneously evoked a short story I had read when I was her age but hadn’t thought of for years (whose title and author I cannot recall).
In the story, an older woman offers to pay a teenage boy from next door to cut her lawn once a week. He agrees, and she shows him the various tools he’ll need – a manual push reel mower (perhaps some of you can recall these; they have a rotating cylinder of blades that move as fast as you push the thing, making a very satisfying signature sound and sensation as you go), hand-held garden weeder, lawn edger and grass shears. She mentions that she’ll pay him between $3 and $5 each week, depending on the quality of his work: $3 for a good job, $4 for excellent and $5 for impeccable. And that he should set the price depending on how well of a job he believed he had done. Anyway, months go by and the story mainly chronicles the boy’s reflections and considerations during and around his lawn cutting until his final success in being paid $5.
I still think I’ve never read a better crafted subtle introduction to the idea of serene fulfillment in meticulous accomplishment. What begins as a boy struggling between his lazy sloppiness and his ambition for achievement slowly pivots into the wonders of losing oneself in attention to detail. Relaxing into the certain specific speed in pushing the mower to get perfectly cut lines; losing track of time while crawling on hands and knees hunting weeds; surrendering into awkward, uncomfortable yoga-like positions necessary for superior placement and angle; forgetting everything else while watching blades of grass arc up and over the shears with each quick snip …
I recall my intrigue and even natural impulses in this direction at the time, although these were always suffocating under the manic “Get it done and get it done now” demand in virtually every arena of my life, from school to sports to work and everything else. It took me probably another ten years before I had collected enough accidental experiences of falling into the moment to begin to really take the idea seriously. Or maybe not even the idea, but the value of the experience.
In fact, actual experiences of this kind were almost always born from rudimentary, initially boring activities. And the process or labyrinth to go through before finding them was the same each time: nervously irritable anticipation, anxiously staring at the goal as if it were the promise of release from prison, tensely accelerated effort to get there faster…before initial hints of relief through thoughtless repetition over time…and the slowly guiding sensations of mind and emotions acquiescing to the actual flow of reality, gradually leading to, opening into extended moments of effortless perfection.
I say perfection because it is only within such moments that everything imperfect disappears, leaving just stripped-down absolute harmony. Past and future, and all their accoutrements (worry, struggle, expectation, desire, ambition, discontentment, nagging strategies, anxiety…) vanish. And one is left empty, with nothing except a fluid open sensation, similar to becoming the sound from a tuning fork piercing through space.
Having studied for decades the history and techniques of various cults of serenity, I’ve been able to gradually construct a viable philosophy around these experiences. Or, perhaps more accurately, convince my mind that they should be prioritized even though there are a lot of other conflicting, important things to do. Looking back on that long road of self-convincing, though, it seems like what I learned was as much a hindrance as a help. For one, I could never completely buy the worth of pursuing serene fulfillment, which in itself feels like just a more sophisticated form of groping for self-gratification. But falling into it through full attentiveness to labor in the moment has always felt sane, clean, natural. Recognizing actual value, knowing where such experiences fit within the hierarchy of possible human experiences, has come mostly through witnessing the downfall of other experiences relative to my original hopes and expectations I placed upon them. (Values mostly evolve through erosion, and suffering through it.) I stumbled upon all the obvious clues when I was child, but it just seemed too simple and ignored by others to take seriously.
What draws me now to this line of contemplation is the remarkably deceptive accessibility to such magical moments. They’re really quite easy to find. It can sound intimidating: the organic integration of unselfconscious meticulousness for its own sake – perfection as a state of grace – into consummate resolution through accomplishment from that – creation of beauty. It might take a while to familiarize oneself with the subtleties of these two, redefine them through observation and experience, perceive the difference between the real thing and sexy bogus imitations. And even more time and erosion to give in to the process of valuing them enough to be guided by and toward them. But it’s not that hard to find a dirty corner somewhere to start.
© 2016 Darrell Calkins