KEVIN CARLOW

Cultivating Mindfulness, Peace, and Joy

Magical Minimalist Christmas

I walked a fine line this year with Christmas. And I walked it well. 

A big part of my intention with the life change I’m going through is to reduce my participation in consumerism and to increase my satisfaction and gratitude for what is already here. I also am the parent of two children aged 7 and 5, and Christmas is still a most magical time for them. So the mission this year was to thread the needle of creating the conditions for magical moments from the perspective of my kids while executing this mission within my minimalist values. 

Here’s how that looked. 

What we did not do: 

  • Burn fuel and time traveling away from our home
  • Host guests
  • Go out for parades, events, and light shows
  • Wait in long lines to visit Santa
  • Elbow our way through crowded shopping centers
  • Deal with the project of getting a family photo taken, printing up cards, licking many stamps and updating everyone’s home addresses on the mailing label file. 
  • Purchase any decorations or wrapping paper

What we did do: 

  • Used the handful of Christmas items that we shipped down with our move to decorate the house: a small reusable tree made of recycled material, four stockings, and a pine-scented candle. 
  • Practiced and played holiday tunes on our keyboard.
  • Played family board games, including the game of Clue that Kristyn purchased with her own money when she was in third grade, which yes, made the trek with us to Costa Rica. 
  • In years passed, we used a giant roll of craft paper as our wrapping paper, which worked great because we could draw designs on the paper as an additional activity. Without the craft paper this year, we used any materials in the house we could find–mostly the extra reusable tote bags we hadn’t been using regularly and a few odd pillowcases. 
  • On Christmas Eve night, we set out our final two homemade cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer. 
  • To fill Kristyn and my stockings, instead of buying a bunch of useless junk or stressing about finding legitimately useful gifts (that we somehow haven’t needed to obtain until Christmas), I just put two cans of our favorite adult beverages in each stocking. When we pulled out the cans, the kids, who know I like beer, reacted as if I’d just won the lottery. “I knew you’d get beer! How happy are you, Dad?!”  
  • The kids each received a few gifts from us (socks, underwear, water bottles, books, and fresh art supplies) and one gift from Santa (a pair of Crocs (which were on the wish list) and a friction-powered toy truck). 
  • The Crocs were worn all day, the trucks whir was heard throughout the house, and many artistic creations were produced. 
  • Instead of buying cinnamon roll dough in a can, I made this Cinnamon Coffee Cake recipe from scratch on Christmas morning. The activity acted as a perfect speedbump to slow down the frantic pace of gift opening, which was especially fitting since there were only a few gifts under the tree. 
  • One of the gifts the kids received was the book Children Who Dance In The Rain, a beautiful tale about privilege, gratitude, and learning the joy of giving and of simply living. It felt so good for the kids to be reading a book about people who have so few possessions. I could see the gears of understanding and compassion turn in my eldest’s head as we read the book a second time. 
  • FaceTimed with the grandparents and sent messages out to our loved ones. 
  • Went for not one but two family swims. 
  • Ate leftovers from our Christmas Eve Fancy Toast feast for happy hour and made a simple pesto pasta for dinner in about 20 minutes. 
  • We ended the night with a family snuggle in bed and each took a turn reading a book for the family–even the five year old! 

I’m proud of how our family celebrated the holiday season this year. When the kids walked up to the tree on Christmas morning, it was just as magical for them as any other Christmas. Their eyes were big. Demeanors were giddy. They didn’t ask to watch any screens. And clean-up was a breeze! 

There was a moment as the sun was setting on Christmas day, when my family had gone out for a walk around the neighborhood and I was home alone, staring out to the gentle glow of the Costa Rican sunset, that I realized how much I enjoyed my day. I wasn’t stressed. I didn’t have twenty jobs to do. No one needed anything from me. I was at peace. 

I had given myself the ultimate Christmas present, and all I’d had to do was try to do as little as possible and weave in just a pinch of magic. 

———————–

How do you keep the holidays minimal and magical? I’d love to hear about it in the Comments! 

The Best Beaches and Beach Towns in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

What’s the best beach to visit in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica? Which beach town is family friendly? Where is the best surf? All of these questions and more are answered below. 

Tamarindo

Town

The place to be in Guanacaste! Tamarindo is the most developed, highest traffic city in the area. It has the most restaurants, hotels, rentals, and bars, and thus it is the most visited area. 

Beach

The beach in Tamarindo is known for the surfing. It has reliable waves suitable for beginners and still plenty fun for more advanced surfers. Several surf shops offer lessons. 

 

Langosta

The quiet sister to Tamarindo. It’s just a few minutes away from Tamarindo, so you can still enjoy all that “Tama” has to offer, but your stay will likely be a bit quieter with a little less nighttime noise. 

 

Playa Grande

Town

“Grande” is a quiet surfer’s town. The RipJack Inn is an awesome hotel right near the beach with a restaurant, yoga studio, and a sand volleyball court. 

Beach

The surfer’s Mecca in Guanacaste. This is where the experienced surfers go to catch quality, consistent waves. Not recommended for first-time surfers. 

 

Potrero & Surf Side

Town

The little town that has it all. Hot spots include Potrero Brewing and Hemingway’s. 

Beach

The surf can vary a bit at this beach, but it tends toward the calmer side for the beaches in the area. The water is not very clear, and the sand is fine and a bit darker (so it can get hot). The beach has easy public access. 

 

Brasilito

Town

The town is very small and is mostly a town for the local Ticos; not many tourists stay here, although there are a few small hotels in town. There is a grassy parking area in front of the beach with a few sodas. Patagonia Del Mar boasts the town’s nicest restaurant view, and Masala serves up high quality Indian fare. 

Beach

The beach in Brasilito is not that great. The water isn’t very clear and there are very few trees or shady areas. The adjacent beach to the south, Playa Conchal, is known to be one of the nicest beaches in Guanacaste, and since Conchal has restricted access by vehicle (see Conchal below), people will often park at Brasilito and then walk across Brasilito Beach in order to access Conchal Beach. 

 

Flamingo

Town

On one side of Flamingo you have the marina, and on the other side you have the beach. Marina Flamingo is a newly completed area with a large marina of boat slips and high-end shops on the mainland. It’s all quite posh. 

Beach

The beach is gorgeous, with mountain views on each side and fine white sand underfoot. The waves can be larger, not consistent for surfing. You will find several beach vendors offering crafts, massages, and even pina coladas served inside a pineapple! 

 

Conchal 

Conchal is a beautiful beach made of tiny white shells. The area around the beach is known as “Reserva Conchal” and is an exclusive, expensive place to get into. There is a golf course as well as a Westin hotel inside. You may be able to find a short term rental inside Reserva Conchal, but if you don’t have a tee time, a rental, or a room at the hotel, you won’t be able to get in. The other way to access the beach is by walking along the sand from Brasilito Beach, or by watercraft. 

 

Las Catalinas

Town

Las Catalinas is a newer development that is quite unlike anything else in the area. It had a Mediterranean vibe, with brightly colored townhomes and walking-only paths. There are some spendy, trendy shops scattered throughout the development. There’s also a robust hiking trail system that starts at a trailhead in Las Catalinas, leading to various beach and mountain destinations. It’s a fun place for a day trip, and in general is a bit more expensive than other places in Guanacaste. 

Beach

Playa Danta is the nearby beach at Las Catalinas. It’s a beautiful beach. A moderate hike along the trails will take you to Playa Dantita, the little sister to Playa Danta, which is more quiet and secluded. Dantita is a gem if you’re looking to take a couple hike and picnic lunch on a beach. 

Avellanas

Town

It takes a little effort to get there, but Playa Avellanas is a beautiful area. Lola’s is an awesome spot to post up for the day; it’s a beachfront restaurant with many different types of seating areas, included a lofted 2nd story dining area. 

Beach

It’s a pretty good surfing beach. Nice sand. 

Summary

Guanacaste has so many beaches and beach towns, and they all have their own character. Have a suggestion of another beach or beach town that should be in this article? Let us know in the comments! 

Now get out there and enjoy the surf! 

Finding My Purpose, One Volley at a Time

As I mentally prepared to move to Costa Rica, I knew things were going to change for me. In fact, I was planning on it.

I was moving to a new country with many intentions, one of which was leaving behind certain parts of my old life. I wanted to strip away the clutter, the physical clutter of the many items that had amassed in our too-large home, the mental clutter of a challenging job in a busy life, and the overall soul/being/belief/understanding sort of clutter one accumulates from 37 trips around the Sun. The idea was do less chasing after stuff and to create more spaciousness. Space for what, exactly? I couldn’t say, exactly. 

As I would journal and contemplate and do many mental exercises, thought experiments, and soul searches to help me determine my life purpose, to help me figure out what I’d want to pursue in this next season of my life, what I yearned to do more of, who I wanted to become, who I wanted to be right now… the same smattering of ideas would emerge, in no particular order: music, blogging, meditation, volleyball, strength training, gardening, hiking, more time with kids, creating a podcast, writing a book, learning more wilderness skills and bushcraft, volunteering…

I intentionally left it open-ended as we completed the move, because I knew I was going into the unknown, into a new place with a different climate, landscape, and culture. I didn’t want to be attached to any singular narrow vision too tightly; I didn’t know what effects this major transition was going to have on me and my family. I just knew I wanted to live with more space. I wanted to give myself the freedom to do and to be whatever felt right and leave any notion of what I’m “supposed to be” and “supposed to do” in my rear view mirror.

Now that three months have gone by, I’m noticing that, perhaps unsurprisingly to some, it has been volleyball that has emerged as one of the primary endeavors I’m pouring myself into in this first chapter of my life in Costa Rica.

COACHING

What started out as a casual offer to the school Movement Director during New Family Orientation Day, that I could “pitch in where needed” with the volleyball program, has turned into a Head Coaching position of a multi-school youth volleyball club. I started my first day as Coach with 28 kids, one decrepit net with an archaic, rusty crank system, and a cart of volleyballs. I had no whistle, no clipboard, and no help, other than the handful of notes and drills I’d scratched into one of my kids’ half-used Five-Star notebooks earlier that day. Three months later, I work with another co-head coach, we’ve formed two competitive teams of 15 kids each, started an “open gym” night for all youth from the area to work on volleyball skills, and we’ve even played (and won) our first match against another club team. And I now don’t forget to bring my whistle to practice. 

One of the best experiences of coaching this youth club team so far was the night after our first match. It was a nailbiter of a match, where, in a best-of-five competition, we won-lost-lost-won the first four sets, so it came down to the fifth and final set, where we did ultimately emerge victorious with a 25-23 final score.

Our team and fans celebrating after our first match

The best part of this, though, was not that our team won, but how I felt that night. As I laid in bed getting ready for sleep, I could feel an energetic hum circulating through me. It felt familiar. I realized I’d felt this way many times before, in high school and in college, on the nights after I’d played in a sanctioned, refereed volleyball match. My mind would be reviewing and replaying the various rallies from the match that afternoon, reliving particularly enjoyable spikes or blocks and learning from unforced errors. This time, as post-game coach instead of post-game player, that electric current running through me was more subdued, not quite as consuming as when I was a young lad, but it was still there, and it felt good. For a few moments, I got to feel like I felt when I was 18. Magical! 

BEACH

I’ve also gratefully been welcomed by the small group of advanced beach players that live in my area, who turn out to be totally rad, generous, and kind people. We gather sporadically, several times per week, at either Tamarindo Beach or Playa Grande, the two closest spots with sand nets in our pocket of Guanacaste.

The volleyball sessions are organized in a small group message thread, not unsimilar to my old group text chains coordinating 2-on-2 pickup ball with the guys at the sand courts around Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis. The only difference is, in Minnesota, we’d plan things out a few days in advance, to give everyone time to finagle ducking out of work early or to “work remotely” that afternoon or to “need to pick up their kids from daycare” that day. Here in Costa Rica, the group thread to schedule a pickup session always starts with someone sending out the same one-word message: “Tomorrow?” At first this lack of advanced planning frustrated me, as it felt like it thwarted my attempts to be a good partner and dad, to communicate to my family when I’d be missing the morning get-to-school routine. However, I’ve come to learn that the reasons we don’t plan things further out here are part cultural but also part practical – sometimes big rains come for days on end, disrupting everyone’s schedules in myriad ways. If you don’t make plans, then your plans can’t get ruined. 

INDOOR

I’ve also now started playing indoor volleyball, through an introduction from someone on the sand courts. They had been lamenting how that, for weeks, they’d been trying to organize a group of advanced indoor players, but were having a hard time bringing it all together. After connecting those I’d met at the beach to the indoor crowd, we now have enough people to have epic, high level volleyball going once per week at a gym in the nearby town of Huacas. 

Amidst all of this, the school our kids attend is nearing the completion of building a new gymnasium. This is a huge deal for the school and the surrounding community. Currently the school leases a gym space down the road in order for students to be able to play volleyball or basketball. This space is hot, dusty, hot, far away from the school, and really stinkin’ hot. The new gym is being built on the school grounds and will have a roof with an open air design, which will protect everyone from the sun and provide air flow at the same time. Basically, the basketball and volleyball programs at the school are about to get a major upgrade, and I happen to have moved here right before that all gets going. This feels like yet another sign that I’m meant to participate. The volleyball-loving entity within me has taken action, and I now am on a small committee of parent volunteers to raise funds for the new gym so that it can get equipped with a proper roof, floor, and sports equipment. 

CONNECTION

And now, because of my position with the youth team, my avid playing at the beach, and my general disposition of being passionate about the sport, more and more people are getting connected. It seems like not a week goes by now where I don’t receive at least one message out of the blue from someone who got my info from someone else. In referring to my ability to bring people together, someone told me, “We need you!!” It all is making me feel like this is part of why I’m here, this is part of what I’m meant to do here, an ideal use of all my skills and past experiences that have put me in this position in this time and place.

SEARCHING FOR AND FINDING A SENSE OF PURPOSE

It feels like, and this feels scary to admit, that being “the volleyball guy” down here is my first taste of what it feels like to actually be living out my purpose. It feels like I might actually be offering one of my ideal, optimal gifts to the universe. That feeling is a feeling I’ve been searching for over the last year and a half. 

There are exercises one can do to help hone in on one’s purpose or one’s next move in life. I have done many of them. For example, Josh Steimle’s way of thinking about this is to find your “Genius Zone.” You write down a list of all the things in which you are an Expert. This can be anything from speaking English to sales to raising a five year old to the behavior patterns of chihuahuas in Minnesota. Then you identify which of all of these things is your One Big Key Zone, the one that you are a deep expert in. If your whole career has been in real estate, then real estate is probably your One Big Key Zone. Lastly, you identify your Secondary Zones. Then you make a Venn diagram. In the middle of that Venn diagram is your Genius Zone. So let’s say your One Big Key Zone is real estate, and two of your Secondary Zones are speaking Spanish and writing. Plot those three zones on a Venn diagram, and boom – writing a blog in Spanish for how to purchase your first home is your Genius Zone; it’s a project you could undertake that brings your special talents together.

Another way I’ve journaled to try to get to the root of what I’m meant to do with my life is to free write on the following prompts:

  • What do I care about deeply? What do I value? 
  • What am I good at? 
  • What do I really enjoy? 
  • Imagine it’s ten years from now, everything has gone “right,” and I’m the best version of myself I could possibly be. What am I doing? What’s important to me? 
  • How can I feel more fulfilled?

The idea after free writing on all of these questions is then is to take a step back and look at what’s on the pages, to see if any patterns or trends emerge, if, in reading any of my own answers, I feel a particular gravitation or aversion to any of them. All of this work was ultimately pointing to my underlying desire to be able to get to a point in my life where I am giving my best offerings to the universe. I’m fortunate to feel like I have several areas of passion and expertise, but it also has presented a quandary; if I pour myself into one area, let’s say writing a book, then yes this is taking advantage of one of my talents but is this really the best endeavor I could pursue? What if I get deep into a book writing project, spending countless hours of my life on it, when all that time and energy could have been better spent creating a podcast or producing a funk album or selling more solar panels? What if one of those projects would ultimately have a bigger, more positive impact on the world? How can I know what is truly the best thing for me to pursue? 

And so, with that fixation on perfecting this thought experiment, I then loop back into more analysis. Welcome to the loop I’ve been on for the last year and a half. 

When I mentioned all of this work and mental acrobatics to my unofficial life coach, he advised that I not focus so much on getting it “perfectly,” “optimally” right and simply to do three things: experiment, live in gratitude, and know that if the path feels right (if my vitality or life energy is up) then it probably is right. 

And what I have now noticed as I look back on all of those purpose-seeking exercises is that “volleyball” was in every one of those journal entries. I would always write down “volleyball” at some point as one of my genius zones or something that brings me joy. And as I reflect on the most recent three months of my life here in Costa Rica, I also notice that I’ve been prioritizing volleyball without intentionally doing so. It’s just happening. The 24 years’ worth of experience and pleasure playing this game is like its own entity within me acting on its own. I find myself raising my hand to coach a team, to drive 30 minutes to find advanced beach players, to guide a “parent’s volleyball night” at the kids’ school. It all feels so natural. It feels like it’s what I’m “supposed” to be doing here and now. 

And admitting that, saying out loud that it feels like volleyball might be my purpose right now, feels silly. Trivial. Dumb. A voice creeps in saying, “Really? VOLLEYBALL is the best you can do? A game?! You have all this privilege and good fortune and a sound mind and you’re going to use all of that for a GAME?!”

Whose voice is that? Who knows? But yeah, I am embracing this game. Why?

  • it’s a need in this community
  • it’s good for my body
  • it’s a built-in way to grow my network of familiar people in this new place
  • there are signs all around me pointing me in this direction
  • I get to access feeling like a teenager again
  • I get to help and add value to this area right now
  • I love to play

Volleyball actually is the thing I’m way over my 10,000 hours on. It is the thing I can do and do and do and never get bored of it. The thing I happily pay money to do (to pay for the indoor gym time). It’s the activity I have dreams about; I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve dreamt of spikes inside the ten foot line and of straight-down block kills. It’s the one sport I’ve been playing for more than half of my life. It’s the only thing I set my alarm for in Costa Rica.  It’s the one movement practice I’ve stuck with consistently for over 20 years, without any effort or discipline or grit. It’s been easy because it’s the one thing I truly do love. 

So why do I need to question it? To doubt it? To continue to search and chase and strive to level up to something greater? Can’t it be enough that I love a thing and it makes me feel happy and it’s good for my health and I can help the people near me with my talents, all while embracing the notion that it doesn’t have to be forever, it can just be enough for right now? Well gosh darnit, I think it can! 

If you spend a bunch of time searching for your life’s purpose, you might just find that it’s been hiding in plain sight all along. 

I Took a Two-Year Sabbatical and Tried To Blog About It Weekly; After 30 Weeks, I Realized I Was No Longer “On Sabbatical”

It’s a weird experience, feeling like you are waking up to your own life. It’s even weirder to type those words with the intention of sharing them with the internet. But that’s how I feel. Not that I abruptly un-jacked from The Matrix and have instantly awoken to a new, real world, but gradually, as each day passes, as my practices deepen and evolve, I feel like I’ve been becoming incrementally more in tune with all that my life is. I feel like I see things more clearly. When someone is upset, I get less caught up in the emotion of the moment and I can see the story behind the pain. When all I’m doing is standing in the middle of a forest, I can more clearly see the layers and depth of beauty that surrounds me, the abundance of life around me and within me. What does all this hippie-dippie gobbledygook have to do with my setting out to create 104 weekly blog posts chronicling a 2-year break from the working world and then giving up 30 weeks into it?  

For starters, it’s because, in my hard-to-describe state of feeling a little more awakened or alive or some such clichéd word, I am realizing that it no longer feels like I’m “On Sabbatical.” For many, the term “sabbatical” implies that the leave is short term and that there will inevitably be a return to the work once the sabbatical is over. I see no return in my future. From the ashes of my past and the soil in my foundation, only new growth can emerge. The idea of writing a weekly blog documenting my time away from the working world suited me, until it didn’t. What once felt like a worthy practice, an easy launchpad into the world of writing, an exciting endeavor I could one day look back on with interest, now just feels restricting. I don’t want to write because I have to write. I want to write because I want to write. 

I find it extremely challenging to write my honest to goodness Truth. I can hear many critical voices murmur as I dare to write without filter, without edit, without restraint. “No one cares.” “Why are you doing this?” “People will judge you.” “What will your parents think?” “You sound like an esoteric cloud-dwelling hippie.” These voices and their siblings offer formidable resistance. Adding to the resistance with my own arbitrary deadlines and rigid framework of “one post about my sabbatical every week” no longer feels useful. Being awake enough to myself to be able to see this is but one example of how it feels like I am no longer “on a break” but that I am metamorphosing into a new being with a new quality of consciousness. 

Even writing that sentence, an inner critic says “you sound ridiculous.” But it’s my Truth! I’m feeling ready to start documenting and sharing more of my Truth. 

As I continue to live out my days by practicing, among other things, letting my intuition, and the intuition of my partner and children, guide me, weird things are happening. Awesome things. Powerful things. Where to begin? 

SETTING INTENTION IN THE NEW YEAR

A week after New Year’s on Monday, January 9, the first day of 2023 when the holiday buzz had finally worn off for most everyone, people everywhere were likely having their first “real Monday” of work in a few weeks. Well, right now, I don’t have a “job,” but I did get to work that morning; even though I had a long list of things I wanted to do for the week, out of seemingly nowhere I felt a strong compulsion to write a letter to my friends. It was hitting me that it was now 2023, the actual year I would be moving from Minnesota to Costa Rica with my family, indefinitely. My available time to share with friends was about to start dwindling at a rapid pace. I felt a sudden urgency to prioritize scheduling a day of connection with each of my closest friends. Here is an excerpt from the letter that went out that day: 

Through practices of contemplation, meditation, and reflective writing, my values, the things I most care about in life, are becoming more clear. When I did the Brene Brown exercise of boiling down all of the things I value in life into two words (found here), the two words that emerged for me were: Time and Family.

For me, Family is another way of saying: relationships, community, socialization, friendship, connection, and of course actual family. All of these notions of interpersonal relationship and connectedness roll up to my “parent” value of Family.

When I think of Family, I think of you. Regardless of whether or not we keep in frequent communication in future years, our friendship is definitely something I value right now. And, in a way, right now is all any of us has.

When I think of Time, I know that I don’t want to waste it. But what does it mean, to “waste” time? To me, it means protecting my Time from distractions, and investing my Time living in ways that serve my values. There is no better way for me to do this than to spend my Time with Family.

And so, I’d like to schedule some Time to be with you before I depart Minnesota.

GETTING REAL WITH FRIENDS

In the weeks that followed, I utterly enjoyed my friendships. I hang out with my friends and I enjoy it–obvious, right? What’s been surprising, though, is that time and time again, this phenomenon keeps occuring that I’m not yet totally able to explain. Before, when I would see my friends, we would shoot the breeze, play games, eat some food, you know, typical friend hang stuff. But now when I see my friends, we open. Things get real.

The examples are many:

  • I went over to a friend’s house during a weekday for lunch. She had the day off and her husband works from home, so on his lunch break the three of us were able to have a chat. Instead of the typical “catching up” chat, they shared a recent story where they’d had a disagreement about parenting, which opened up into a larger conversation about their relationship, how they communicate, and how they make each other feel. There were tears. It felt to me like a big elephant in the room had been addressed and moved through. A day later, she sent me a text saying our talk was “therapeutic” and “reinforced a lot of the reasons why we love each other and are committed to raising the best family we can.” 
  • A former coworker reached out asking for advice about her career. I agreed to a lunch and she opened up about her dreams and her financial concerns. We explored what her real fears were. A few months later, she left her corporate position and now owns her own business. 
  • At a guys poker night, a friend mentioned in an off-hand comment that things weren’t going very well at home. Rather than zoom past that uncomfortable topic (like every other guy at poker did), I made sure not to leave the gathering until we actually talked about it. At one point we stepped outside and I gently inquired deeper to see how he was doing with it all. He shared more, and I could see in his body how it felt good to unload some of the tough stuff. At the end of the conversation, we embraced and he thanked me for caring and asking about his life. 
  • A previous advertising client reached out for a Zoom call to discuss her career change ideas, and at the end of the call said our chat “felt like a therapy session” for her. 
  • In the middle of recording one of my pilot podcast episodes, my guest felt comfortable enough to share a tear-filled, emotionally charged personal story. 
  • For the first time that I can remember, I had a phone conversation with my father where we both cried. 
  • A close friend keeps coming to me with news of his bad days, tough feelings, stress at home, frustrations about parenting. I see the pain. I see how I had been there a few years ago. It’s like I’ve climbed over a fence but he’s still on the other side, and he doesn’t even know there’s a fence there, and I don’t know how to help him get on the other side without telling him how to do it which will only make him avoid the fence at all costs. But at least I can see the fence now, and we’re talking about the important stuff. 
  • I go to my 20-year high school reunion and, by the end of the night, three different people tell me some version of “you are helping me remember what it is to dream for myself.”
  • We had a couples hang with another couple and they offered to talk about their therapy sessions, an eating disorder, and some challenges they have around their home. I got the sense these aren’t topics they discuss often with others; something about the conditions Kristyn and I created brought these more real topics forward. 
  • And speaking of Kristyn, all this “real talk” has some positive flavor to it as well. I keep getting more in love with my partner. Our support of each other keeps getting more and more layers of foundation. Almost like wrapping a ball in a ribbon or crochet paper. Every time we practice contact nutrition it’s like another layer of protective paper protecting our relationship. It’s becoming fortified. Once I cried to her explaining how thankful I am for who she is and that, just by her being who she is, she helps me live more in my own values. That moment was one extra fortifying layer adding further strength to our partnership.

Writing all this out, maybe crying is a theme here? (˃̣̣̥‿˂̣̣̥)

My friends keep opening up to me. Around me. Am I just seeing this now where I wasn’t seeing it before, but it’s always been there? No. It’s not just perception. Things are unfolding differently now. I’m making choices when discomfort arises. I’m choosing not to avoid, but to linger in the uncomfortableness. I’m choosing to dig into my friends’ tension with them. I’m figuratively holding their hand as we dive into the scary, unfomortable depths of their feelings, their relationships, their desires, their pain.

I focus on staying grounded, on remaining unattached to my sensations and my thoughts. I reconnect to my breath again and again, and I do my best to mirror back to my friends what they share with me, to bear witness to their stories, to aid their personal inquiry. I keep falling into roles of therapist, counselor, couples mediator. Is that just what being a good friend is? Listening, being supportive, being helpful? Or is there more to the story, here? After we have these tough conversations, I keep hearing things like “that felt therapeutic” and “thanks for letting me get that out” and “man, I wasn’t planning on getting this real over salads.”

A NEW BEGINNING

I feel like I’m onto something. I just don’t know exactly what that thing is yet. I know it feels good to show up for my friends, to invite in their reality, and to attempt to navigate the hard stuff with them as their ally. I’m going to keep doing that and see where it leads.

I don’t know where it’ll take me, but my guess is that it won’t take me back to a cubicle selling TV commercials on broadcast news that I don’t even watch.

I’m grateful to my past self for documenting the first thirty weeks of my time away from the working world. It doesn’t feel like a failure that I only lasted thirty weeks out of 104. It feels like that’s how it had to be. That writing was right for that time, and they will forever exist (as long as I keep paying to renew my domain :D) for me to look back on.

Now, though, I have this feeling that there are bigger projects to tackle, more important research and writing to do, more exciting endeavors to pursue, more value to offer the world. What it feels like now is a new beginning. A fresh start where I get to write the rules of my own life. And instead of committing to the rule of “one weekly blog post documenting the journey of my two-year sabbatical,” the new rule is “write often, and write your Truth.”

Reflections After One Week of Life in Costa Rica

We made it. Ten years ago, Kristyn and I were talking about what it would be like to start a family, and we agreed that, at some point, living in another country with our kids would be a good idea. Five years later, we took our two tiny humans on a vacation/research trip to Brasilito in Costa Rica, and we decided on the last day of the trip that this place would be our future home. Five years after that (which is right now for those who haven’t been doing the math), we’ve arrived at our new home in Costa Rica. So, in a big way, we made it. As I type this, I can see the Pacific Ocean, I hear dozens of tropical birds singing, and I can feel the warm, salty breeze of a Costa Rican morning on my skin. 

An onlooker might think, “Wow, you’ve made your dream come true!” In many ways, that is true. We had a vision and have taken many steps, both big and small, to turn that vision into reality. And yet, despite having “made it” here, the sense of “dream come true” hasn’t landed. Sure, I’ve had moments of bliss over the last few days, such as watching my kids splash around in ocean waves or taking an early morning hike up the nearby mountain to a majestic view of a tropical valley with two gorgeous beaches in the background. In between these moments, though, I’ve had this underlying sense of stress and anxiety. It takes work to set up a new life! And when you have kids in the mix and school hasn’t started yet, efficiency is but a myth. The vision isn’t fully realized yet, because in order to live the lifestyle I’m hoping to live, a life with the freedom of time, time that can be spent however I want, I first have to figure out how to eat, sleep, and survive in a new place.

These have been the themes of my first week in Costa Rica:

EVERYTHING IS A PUZZLE

There’s a lot of puzzle energy in this first week. I love puzzles, but this is a bit much even for me. I imagine this is similar to what it feels like to be a young kid, where so many of life’s experiences are new and need figuring out. It’s exhilarating, confusing, and frustrating all rolled into one. How do I navigate these grocery stores with new items in a foreign currency and language? Once I’ve bought stuff, how do I use this kitchen to prepare food in a way my kids will tolerate it? What are our rules around the pool? How do you get gas into your car? How do you buy a car? Why doesn’t our hot water work? What does this red button on the garbage disposal do? Are the pots and pans going into this drawer or that drawer? 

It’s fun having the opportunity to make these choices and set things up the way I want. It’s also daunting and draining having to make so many decisions about every little thing.

Remember when COVID first happened, and all the things you used to do on cruise control – going to work, taking your kids to school, buying groceries – suddenly got disrupted, and a whole new set of decisions needed to be made about how to do all those things? I do. And what I remember about all of that was, among other things, decision fatigue. Am I supposed to wear gloves to the grocery store? Do I need to disinfect these oranges? How do you disinfect oranges? How are we going to work with the kids at home? How can I fix my back after I wrecked it from sitting on this dining room chair to do work all day? There are tons of brand new decision trees to navigate here in Costa Rica, and while my current set of forks in the road are a bit more fun to deal with than the COVID ones, it still has a flavor of that decision fatigue energy. 

The way I’ve been getting through the puzzles and the fatigue is to remind myself of two things. One- the decisions aren’t permanent. They aren’t forever. Just because I put the cups in this cupboard today doesn’t mean they must now reside there for all eternity. Remembering that things can be changed, and in fact all things do change, has really helped me at many steps of this journey, from making the leap out of the workforce to choosing where I want to store my toothbrush. Two- there is no “right” answer. I couldn’t list all the ingredients that have gone into the personality programming cocktail that’s led me here, but man the desire to get things “right” is deeply embedded in my fibers. But when you’re trying to decide between two different brands of refried beans, neither of which you can pronounce, the truth is there is no right choice. When you’re deciding whether the shirts will go in the middle drawer or the bottom drawer, neither one of those is the correct option. Either choice will work, they both just come with a trade-off. There are no wrong choices; there are only trade-offs. 

This is a lesson that cemented itself for me on a canoe trip I took to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, where my companion and I took a wrong turn and had to choose whether we’d double-back or charge ahead into the wilderness to the next lake beyond. We chose the path less traveled (a story about which I’ll be writing more fully in the near future), which was extremely difficult and presented many hard choices about how to get our heavy packs and canoe through a trail-less forest filled with thick brambles and hidden snow patches three feet deep, but through all of it I learned that no choice we made was the wrong one, it just came with a trade-off. 

That I learned a lesson in my past life which is helping me in my current situation leads me to the next theme of the week. 

I’M IN OVER MY HEAD, BUT I’M PREPARED

I have no clue what I’m doing. There’s no book for how to do this. Sure, there are blogs and YouTube channels and Facebook groups and people in my network that have all explained how to move to another country, but there’s no book for how to move my family in my situation to my exact place in Guanacaste. I’m in way over my head.

And yet, I feel oddly prepared. It feels like my whole life has been preparing me for this week. All the camping trips I’ve been on have taught me: how to get by with little, that I need to bring my water bottle everywhere, how to use rope, one can always use more rope, and what to do when you run out of rope. Driving my first car when I was sixteen, a manual VW Jetta, prepared me to drive my new (used) stick-shift truck on these pothole-ridden, hilly Costa Rican roads. When I was in my 20’s and running my own business I first encountered Google Sheets, and with all the house projects I’m trying to keep track of now, I knew exactly how I’d keep the work organized. Every meal I planned in Minnesota has helped me to identify which foods in this foreign grocery store I can prepare in an agreeable way for my kids. The couples therapy sessions Kristyn and I have done have enabled us to get through the many stressful scenarios of the move not by biting each other’s heads off but by making little micro-moments of affection and contact nutrition. I’ve never navigated this pool before (we have a pool), but I’ve dealt with my kids bickering before, so I knew that once they started bugging each other in the pool, it meant that they just needed a new spin on their activity. Grab a couple plastic cups from the kitchen and BOOM – a new pool toy, and another half hour, is found. After I burned my hand on the roasting pan in this new kitchen because we don’t have any hot pads or oven mitts yet, I knew the right course of action was to hold some ice cubes because of the time I was a pre-teen waiting in the car for my mom to run into a store in the middle of winter, and I decided it would be a good idea to see how hot the cigarette lighter got after just a few seconds of heating up by touching it with my finger (and then immediately opening my door and shoving my hand into the nearby snowbank).

I have no clue what I’m doing here, but I know what to do. 

GENEROSITY OF KIDS 

One evening, as we returned to our neighborhood from an afternoon at the beach, one of our neighbors had set up a lemonade stand at an intersection. Their sign read “Free/Libre Lemonade!” We stop, accept their free lemonade, and strike up a conversation. Our kids offered them the couple of coins they had, but the neighbors wouldn’t accept money – they were just having fun giving out lemonade to people. After a few more minutes of chatting (the adults through the driver’s window and the kids through the rear window), our kids offered to give the only other thing they had in the car – their very prized iPod Touch (that has never had a battery charge because we don’t have the charger. They just like pretending it’s a phone/camera). They unhesitatingly gave it to kids they just met. Our kids have spent countless hours playing with this dead iPod Touch. They’ve “talked” to their best friends on it, they’ve jammed to “music” with it, they’ve bickered and fought over who was getting the next turn with it. But in this moment, this moment where they had received something for free, their response was to give back. 

I noticed how this act, this giving away of (what I thought was) a prized possession, triggered me. My mind immediately went to thoughts like, “You’re going to regret that” and “Don’t you realize how much you play with that?” and “You do know how few toys we have right now, don’t you?” I kept these thoughts to myself and traded them for a deep breath. And in the space of that one deep breath, I realized – my kids probably do know how few toys they have, and they do remember how much they’ve played with it, but the thing that’s more important to them in this moment is being able to give. It’s having the ability to do a kindness to their new neighbor, to begin a new friendship, to get that warm fuzzy feeling one gets after sharing with someone else. 

We live in a time of such abundance, and I live such a fortunate life to want for nothing, and yet I still have such strong attachment to material things. I can’t let my pre-programmed, learned scarcity mindset get in the way of my children’s innate generosity. If I can just trust my kids’ instincts, they will show me the way to live a richer life.  

BALANCING PRODUCTIVITY WITH FUN

We only have one more week until our kids start school. In a “normal” year, this would be our family vacation time. But it’s not a normal year. We have a whole life to set up. Yet at the same time, we have to get through, and hopefully enjoy, each day as it comes and goes. Striking this balance is proving difficult. I wake up every day not with the joy of living in a beautiful place nor with a sense of pride or achievement for having made it here, but instead I wake with a pit of anxiety in my stomach and chest of the overwhelming quantity of projects that need tackling. It’s an exercise of prioritizing and balancing. Which projects desperately require our immediate attention and which ones can wait until school starts? How can I start living the carefree Costa Rica life I’ve been dreaming about for years even amidst a long list of to-do’s? 

How many of my “needed” projects, though, are simply for seeking more comfort? Do we really “need” a rack for our shoes? How elaborate does that shoe rack need to be? This is one of the gifts and challenges of my experience moving to another country. Some of my project goals have more practicality than others, but it’s worth asking myself how useful these wants of mine really are. 

The kids are such helpful teachers in this exercise. They offer constant reminders to enjoy the moment right now, not to worry about the times ahead, to sink into the bliss of presence and play and connection with each other. 

There are two guys cleaning mold out of my bathroom cabinet right now. There are five other guys building a guest bedroom addition to our house. I can’t communicate with them without the help of Google Translate. I’ve got five different lists of projects I’m trying to populate. And meanwhile my kid is entertaining herself in the pool, using the resources she has at her disposal, and, with a pool noodle, a cup, a pair of goggles, and a leaf, created “Mr. Noodle,” her new pool friend, and she’s giggling hysterically. 

Kids find ways to play no matter how much or how little you have. 

On that note, it’s time to go play. 

10 Key Takeaways From The Book and Film “No Impact Man” by Colin Beavan

Colin Beavan knew he didn’t have all the answers, he just knew he wanted to try to make a difference. He set out on a quest to live within his values, which for him meant trying to live with as little waste and negative environmental impact as possible. He invited a documentary film crew and reporters into the journey he took with his family, a level of public vulnerability I find truly admirable. 

Here are my Ten Key Takeaways from the documentation of his year-long No Impact Project:

  1. The point is to try. The point is not to fix everything, to heal the world, to solve all the problems. The point is to mindfully try out the things you really believe in and see what happens. How do you want to be remembered when you die? As someone who ignored the problems, or as someone who tried to make a difference? 
  2. Every choice you make matters. Even if it doesn’t feel like it matters, it does. It doesn’t necessarily matter in the sense that buying one newspaper is going to send us all past the global warming 2°C tipping point. But if we choose to not buy that cup of expensive coffee in a disposable cup with a plastic lid and straw, it can make a change within us. We can notice what that change feels like. Maybe that change feels good and we want more of that change. And, who knows, maybe one of our friends might notice our behavior change, which might inspire them in some way, and so a domino effect takes place. Beavan points out that “the straw that broke the camel’s back” is just one straw; it took thousands of straws before it to finally be that one straw that broke the camel’s back, but each one of the straws were equally important to the process. Every choice matters. 
  3. We need a culture change. We need a way-of-living change. It’s very hard as an individual to change an entire system (say, how we get our power). But it’s not so hard for an individual to change their behaviors. You just have to make a choice.
  4. New technology is only part of the answer. Buying electric cars will still leave us in traffic jams. Powering our televisions with solar power still leaves us frittering away our lives being mildly entertained by watching other people play pretend. New technology is definitely part of the answer in the quest to save humanity, but it’s also up to each of us to decide how we want to live. 
  5. We are victims of Stasis Through Obfuscation. Corporations have an incentive to make things confusing; if we can’t figure out which type of product is really the most environmentally conscious, then an easy answer is to give up trying, pick one, and move on. It is easy to become paralyzed by conflicting information. In my life it has gone like this… One article says eating meat is bad and takes up way more resources and creates more greenhouse gas than alternatives, like tofu. Another article points out how tofu is processed and wrapped in plastic and, thus, is not an eco-conscious choice. So am I supposed to buy tofu or not? This is all a bit challenging to figure out, and now I’m feeling stressed and drained. Time to order some pad thai. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the norm. The interests of the businesses behind all these products want it to be confusing so that we give up trying and just buy whatever is most convenient. It’s important to remember that making change is hard and the way that things are right now is not our fault, but there is something we can do about it. 
  6. Set rules for yourself to make change easier. One thing I love about Beavan’s No Impact Project is that he set rules for himself and his family, guidelines that helped define the project and aligned with his actual values. These were rules like “we will only eat food with ingredients sourced from within 250 miles” or “no more buying disposable anything.” The rules we create for ourselves can vary. The point is not to try to follow his rules. He wasn’t arguing we should all live like “No Impact Man.” The point is to examine earnestly your own life, identify some ways you can do less harm and do more good, and then set rules for yourself to follow. The rules help make all the little decision-making processes we have to go through in our lives easier. If you give yourself a rule of “no more buying disposable anything,” then you can instantly look at any product and know whether or not you can or should buy it–if it’s wrapped in plastic, it stays on the shelf. 
  7. As tools we have Individual Action and Collective Action. We can make changes in our own lives and we can work together in teams. We need to do both. These are not mutually exclusive. It’s not enough to lobby politicians, and it’s not enough to stop eating meat. We need more of both of these things. 
  8. Happiness and The Good Life are not the same as economic growth. Colin illuminates how economic growth, the thing many of us contribute to with our jobs and our spending, does not necessarily equate to happiness growth. Happiness, fulfillment, contentment… pick your word. Over the last 200 years of industrial and technical innovation, consider that we may already have a lot of the technology we need. We may not really need a new iteration of the PlayStation. What if those computer engineers were instead working on ways to bring education or sanitation to those who don’t have access to it? In our own lives, how long do we pursue our own financial growth before we stop and accept that we have enough? If we realize we don’t need all the stuff, how does that impact our “enough number”? We need to find ways to have happier people as well as a happier planet. 
  9. Find your own balance between impact reduction and happiness. Every person will hit a point at the bottom of minimalism where they are not willing to go below when faced with a convenient alternative. Beavan hits this point when his child has soiled multiple rounds of bedsheets in the middle of the night, and he breaks his own rule and uses the washing machine in his building. If we all tried a version of the No Impact Project, most of us would end up with a similar breaking point. That is OK! The goal is not about avoiding all indulgences and completely depriving oneself; it’s about stripping life back to its essentials in order to see clearly what we really need and what we’re OK letting go of. We can use asceticism as a temporary tool to bring clarity to what we truly need and desire. 
  10. What’s good for the planet also happens to be good for us. It sounds obvious, but many of us, myself included, still end up making choices to the contrary. If we take the stairs instead of the elevator, we have the double benefit of avoiding electricity use and improving our physical health. If we choose to eat only local food, we get the two-pronged bonus of minimizing carbon emissions and better body nourishment. If we decide to get rid of our television, we both save on power and make room for more soul-enriching activity. Improving your life and saving the planet are one and the same. 

FAVORITE PASSAGES FROM THE BOOK “NO IMPACT MAN”

ON HUMBLY STUMBLING FORWARD INTO THE UNKNOWN

The idea was not to become an environmental expert and then apply what I’d learned. The idea was to start from scratch—with not a clue about how to deal with our planetary emergency—and stumble forward. To see what I could find out. To see how I evolved.

 

ON GROWTH VS. HAPPINESS

Growth in gross domestic product, the common wisdom says, is a good thing that all of us should work for. A growing GDP is a sign that we are all doing well, it is said, an indicator of the common good. But as I do my research, I read that the more people get cancer, the more the health sector grows. The more people get divorced, the more the legal sector grows. The more Hurricane Katrina’s there are, the more the emergency services sector grows. Should our goal simply be to blindly “grow our economy,” or should we find ways to ensure that it grows in ways that both improve the quality of life and protect our habitat? Growth in our economy doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s more money in the average person’s pocket, or that the average person is more content. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are all going on more holiday or getting more jet skis. Growth in the economy could just as easily reflect the average person spending his life savings to deal with some terrible family catastrophe. It could also mean that we are all working 10 hours a day instead of eight, that we are all spending twice as much money on our kids at Christmas because we feel guilty for not spending enough time with them.

Since 1950, the U.S. gross domestic product has grown 550 percent. Want to know how much measures of happiness have increased? Just about zero. So, in the service of a healthy economic system, many of us no longer live near our families but cross country to be near jobs. Some of us work two jobs, get more stuff, take only two weeks holiday a year while Europeans take seven. How much satisfaction do we get for all that?”

 

ON CONVENIENCE

Do we work for and pay for all this convenience in order to live our lives, or do we live our lives in order to work for and pay for all this convenience?

 

ON STRIKING A BALANCE

I would have to find, over the coming year, some sort of middle path that involved neither the self-indulgence of the unconscious consumer nor the self-denial of the ascetic. I wanted to find a way to thoroughly enjoy the fruit without killing the tree. I wanted to find a way of living on the planet’s dividends instead of its capital. … I simply wanted to see if we could learn to behave like good guests while enjoying a good life.

 

NOW WHAT?

Toward the end of the documentary film “No Impact Man,” Colin Beavan is seen wrapping up his yearlong project by getting out into the community. He speaks to 200 NYU students who are going to try living with no waste for a week. He speaks to different classes of elementary and high school students, adapting his message of mindful consumption age appropriately. He visits the garbage processing area in the Bronx, a community that receives much of New York City’s garbage. He goes to meet with his congressperson to lobby for more environmental policy. He volunteers with a group helping to repopulate with New York water systems with shellfish. He volunteers with another group that takes care of the already-planted trees scattered throughout New York City. 

He mentions how one of the most common questions he gets asked is, “What’s the one thing I should do? The one thing I should change? Should I stop disposing of plastic bags? Should I start eating organic only?” His answer: “If there’s only one thing you’re going to change, go volunteer with an environmental organization.” 

As he gets out into the community, he realizes that doing one year of the No Impact Project pales in comparison to what so many other people are doing, dedicating their entire working lives to environmental causes. He contends that the most profound impact one can have with a single act is to go volunteer with a group of people doing environmental work. It is there that not only can one do some good with their time and energy, but also that one can connect with other people, learn from them, and start to build up a sense of community. 

 I’m convinced. If someone can go for a year producing almost zero waste, shutting off their electricity, only buying food from their local area, and washing their clothes by foot in their bathtub, and their takeaway after that whole experience is that the best thing I can do is go volunteer with an environmental group, I’m listening to that wisdom. 

Join me! 

On Sabbatical – Week 29: Gratitude For Authors, Monitoring Behaviors, and Living Deliciously

I kicked off this week by making a brand new recipe for my beloved Kristyn’s birthday. 

Our favorite restaurant in the Twin Cities is Bar La Grassa. It’s a hip Italian joint in the trendy North Loop neighborhood in Downtown Minneapolis, and everything about this place is spectacular: the craft cocktails, the entire menu section dedicated to bruschetta, the mouth-watering entrees, the housemade pasta… it’s all just so damned good. Kristyn has enjoyed their Gnocchi with Cauliflower & Orange in the past, and our neighbor so graciously mentioned that she’d found this recipe from a Minnesota food blogger who created a make-at-home version. 

And so, in a fashion not unlike one of our first dates, where I first had Kristyn over to my place and made her fettuccine alfredo, I rolled up my sleeves and did my best Bar La Grassa impression, gnocchi-style, complete with a couple of bourbon old fashioned’s. 

The dish turned out absolutely delectable. What really stood out about this evening, though, was not the lip-smacking tastiness of my concoction, but instead it was the deliciousness of the vibe we created in our home. Italian guitar strumming through the speaker. Candles flickering on the table. Cabernet in our glasses. Our kids were so into the peacefulness of the setting that, when we were done eating, they allowed Kristyn and I the space and time to slow dance in our family room while they busied themselves with their winter capes we’d just dug out of storage. It was a Monday evening as parents in the suburbs, but it felt like a Friday night on the town. These little touches made the evening feel special, indulgent. Even though it was my life, it felt like I had entered a nicer, higher plane of existence reserved for celebrities and royalty. It was an ordinary Monday made extraordinary with the addition of just two potent ingredients: effort and novelty. That’s really all it takes to keep life spicy. We can induce the pleasure of novelty simply by applying a little effort to find or create newness with the things we already have. 

Side note: if you try to make the Cauliflower Gnocchi recipe (which I heartily encourage you to do), use two pans, not one, so you can sauté the gnocchi separate from the cauliflower and shallot, and double the butter. I audibled both of these decisions while making it, and was very happy with both of those choices. 

THE FORMULA OF NON-FICTION BOOKS

This week I finished Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, a book about habits. I’m very curious about the power of habits, and this book offers a multitude of insights on the topic. One of the bigger takeaways of the book is that habit formation is an individual endeavor and that one approach will not work for everyone. We each have different tendencies (based on our life experiences and genetic dispositions), and only based on our unique tendencies (such as how we respond to inner expectations versus external expectations) will a particular approach to habit creation be successful. 

One of the habits I’m forming with fairly reasonable success is to take notes of books (and podcasts) as I consume them. Rather than reading an educational book or listening to an insightful conversation and then letting the knowledge slip out of my mind as I make room for the next content, I slow down and take notes I can reference later. Of course, the process of writing the notes down is often enough to cement the idea into my brain more permanently. These notes sometimes turn into mini book reports that I publish on this blog, like The Most Important Lessons from “10% Happier” or Lessons From “Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer

As I was wrapping up my notes on Better Than Before, I noticed a pattern, a sort of formula with books, specifically non-fiction books in the self-improvement realm. The formula goes like this:

Pick a topic you’re curious about –>

Research the crap out of it, which includes: reading tons, talking to friends, and interviewing experts –>

Document everything as it unfolds –>

Observe connections or patterns that emerge –> 

Map out or define these connections or patterns in some sort of diagram, flow chart, table, list, or framework, and –> 

BOOM, there’s your book 

(Plus, you know, writing 50,000 or 100,000 words in a compelling, expertly crafted, and easy to digest way)

While it may sound a bit obvious (as I read what I just wrote above), this noticing felt like a revelation to me. All of these self-improvement books I’m reading share a common thread – they all have their own sort of framework that the author has “created” (although some authors note they haven’t created anything per se, they have simply noticed and documented something that was already there). In Katy Bowman’s book Move Your DNA, she shares a Venn Diagram she created with a large circle titled “Movement” and within it, a smaller circle labeled “Exercise,” explaining the paradigm embedded in the book’s thesis–we are too focused on exercise routines and are ignoring the much larger picture of body movement that affects every cell in our body every moment of every day. In Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the framework he put together is so obvious it’s the title of the book!

In the case of Better Than Before, one of Rubin’s frameworks is the Four Tendencies, where she groups every person into one of four buckets, based on how they respond to inner and outer expectations: Upholder (serves inner and outer), Questioner (serves inner, rejects outer), Obliger (serves outer, rejects inner), and Rebel (rejects inner and outer). She capitalizes each of these tendencies as if they are proper nouns with the same credibility and “properness” as Christmas or Egypt, even though this idea of labeling these tendencies was just a notion she came up with during the research phase of this writing project. Yet, as a reader, I noticed myself reading these labels and this framework as truth, as fact; a smart person wrote this well-researched book and is capitalizing these terms, so this must be the way things are.

The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin - Kara J Miller

Noticing patterns and creating useful frameworks and lenses to view the world through is the helpful work authors contribute to the world. It’s what transforms an idea into a useful idea. It’s what takes reams of research and converts the findings into something one can internalize. I feel like I have now noticed a pattern in how authors notice patterns, and it feels like I’ve just accessed a cheat code on how to write a useful book. 

Now the question is–do I have the courage and the discipline to play the game in which I can use my new cheat code? 

MONITORING MY BEHAVIORS

When I started training for a marathon in 2020, I stole an idea I’d seen a friend posting about on Facebook; I created a simple spreadsheet to track how many miles I ran every day. I also used the Nike Run Club app to track my miles, but apps come and go (I’ve since switched to Strava), but no matter what mile tracker app I use, my spreadsheet never changes. I found tracking my miles in this way to be extremely useful and also rather enjoyable. I’m not claiming this method will work for everyone, because not everyone shares my tendencies, but I really enjoyed having a numerical and visual account of how my weekly and monthly mileages were progressing. I was motivated by beating my previous week and by seeing my monthly miles stack up over time. I don’t know if I would have been able to complete a marathon without this system of monitoring my quantitative progress. 

This week, I returned to this idea, except I’m no longer training for a marathon. Instead, I’ve started tracking other behaviors, other practices I have decided are the practices that align with my values, that I believe in, that I want to hold myself accountable to practicing on a weekly basis. I created two separate worksheets: Mind and Body. For both of these, I’ve decided to use the measurement unit of minutes–the number of minutes I spend doing the practice each day.

On the Mind worksheet, I’m tracking: Meditation, Spanish, and Music. I considered adding Writing, because it is a Mind exercise I’m deeply interested in practicing, but I’m jotting down notes so often throughout the day, it would be too cumbersome to track.

On the Body worksheet, I’m tracking: Strength, Cardio, Yoga, and Being Outside. I’m not training for any particular physical endeavor. I am interested in developing a body that is well-adapted to a natural life over the long term, minimizing potential for injuries and maximizing healthy longevity. With what I’ve been learning about the body and movement from people like Tony Riddle and Katy Bowman, I believe that a variety of movement practices is the key to achieving my body goals, so I’ve set up a rotation of dedicated exercise practice six days a week with the following cadence: Strength, Yoga, Cardio, Strength, Yoga, Cardio, Rest. I included Being Outside on my Body tracker, because it is just so freaking nourishing to be outside, so regardless of whether I’m running, walking, hiking, playing with my kids, or sitting under a tree, I’m going to monitor how many of my daily minutes I’m spending immersed in nature. 

Time is our most limited resource. What gets monitored gets done. My intention is that by monitoring the behaviors I most want to develop into habits, I’ll have the same excitement and motivation that I did when tracking marathon miles, and eventually I’ll be living a life in perfect harmony with my aspirations. (At which point, I’ll probably change the goals again, ha!)

Probably not so coincidentally, as soon as I finished making this tracker, I felt compelled to go for a walk outside. I hiked around the trails at Westwood Nature Center in St. Louis Park, MN, and it felt invigorating. It was a cold day. I saw two other humans. I saw many deer hunkered down, turkeys squabbling, squirrels scavenging acorns, and pileated woodpeckers hacking away to prepare for winter. I felt more alive being in the midst of all these creatures working hard at their own survival.

Pileated woodpecker adding some sonic ambiance to my woodland stroll

THANK YOU TO WRITERS

This week I also started and finished the book The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, a memoir in which Flanders shares her journey of detaching from the habit of mindless shopping and consumerism. I’ve always been skeptical when people would claim to finish a book in a day or three. I’m a slow reader. But this book was a fast one for me. Upon finishing it, I felt compelled to send Cait a quick email. I wanted to thank her for writing the book, to thank her for the value I got from it (I hadn’t really considered making “internet friends” with similar interests until she mentioned meaningful relationships she’d made that way), and, more than that, I wanted to share how I related to her on several levels, to lob a hook into the water that I feel like a kindred spirit and am open to connecting more deeply than as just a reader of her book.

I then remembered hearing Dan Harris share on his podcast that one of the ways he first got into relationship with Dr. Mark Epstein was by reading his book and then reaching out to Epstein to set up a call, which Epstein agreed to.

Eureka! This gave me the idea to write the author of every book I read, as long as they are living, and thank them for the book. I don’t necessarily aspire to meet and become friends with all of these others, but as someone who’s dabbling in this whole writing business, I know how hard it is to put words down, so the very least I can do is to thank them for their effort. It feels karmically right. Plus, I’ve been in sales my whole career. I know how to do successful cold outreach, and that’s when I was peddling every business owner’s least favorite expense–advertising. It can’t be harder to write someone a thank you note. What’s the worst that can happen?

I started this new gratitude practice with Cait Flanders, and I’m looking forward to continuing this tiny way of giving back to my writer teachers out there. 

On Sabbatical – Week 28: Words of Work, a Tree Branch Hammock, and a Rabbit’s Foot

A CASE OF THE MONDAY’S

I started out this week like I have many other weeks of sabbatical–feeling aimless. Many Monday’s I will make a list of what I want to do that day and that week, and I will look at the list and feel like I have a lot to do, and I will not know where to begin. I’ve tried many productivity apps and journaling systems, but try what I may, I often get a feeling of Monday Doom: so much to do, so little time, clueless where to begin. 

Luckily for me, I have a life partner who listens, holds space for me, and allows me to process thoughts through conversation. It’s incredible how useful it can be to externalize my thoughts with another person; so often the act of putting my thoughts into words that are cohesive enough for someone else to understand reveals the answers to my questions without the other person needing to say anything. In a Monday morning conversation with Kristyn, I was able to see that I know I don’t ever want to have a “job” again, a job where someone else is in control of how I spend my day. Therefore, if my plan is not to jump into some preset system but instead to forge my own path, then of course it’s going to feel aimless because I am creating the aim as I go.

This realization brought me some relief; however, it also made me consider the following–how can I carve out a custom existence for myself without completely reinventing the wheel? How can I make this easier? Who can I model myself after? There clearly are other humans who have exited the traditional workforce and embarked on a less traditional, less linear path. And I do have some role models, but none that I want to emulate entirely. This line of thinking launched me into a vortex of studying the online presences of some of my role models, to really study how they present themselves and market themselves to the world. I started bookmarking and screenshotting websites like crazy. I subscribed to email newsletters. I worked on building up a picture of what my ideal lifestyle design really is. What do I like about the work other people have done? What gap do I see in all of their collective work, what questions have been left unanswered that I want to devote myself to? What am I uniquely positioned to do in this world, that my unique combination of skills, experiences, and interests will best serve the greatest good? How does one answer questions like this??

Surprise surprise… I went for a hike to process. During this hour-long walk, I left myself a ten-minute Voice Memo. The following mental downloads came to me. 

I may have these exact details wrong, but I liked how in the book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin tells the story of her friend who wanted to write a book, and to form the habit she scheduled the time from 11am-1pm every day to be dedicated to writing. The power of Scheduling helped her form this habit. Three years later, her book was done. I love this! I love this use of time, this way of harnessing the power of the long term to one’s advantage. Over time, if I do small, incremental actions consistently, big things get done, big change can happen. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. 

I want to have confidence of what my vision is and where I’m headed, so that I can be laying down meaningful daily bricks toward building my own Rome. I’ve learned (from many sources including The Dalai Lama, Carmen Spagnola via Kristyn, and various guests of the Ten Percent Happier podcast) not to have too much attachment to the end result, not to be focused on completing my “Rome” to some precise specifications. But, I do believe in the power of the strategy of small practices and actions done consistently over a long period of time, and it would sure be nice to have a concrete direction for my actions. For example, if my vision was to become a professional beach volleyball player, then it would very easily become clear that my daily practices need to include a ton of physical exercise, strength training, sand workouts, and the like, as well as a focus on nutrition and on studying the game. When my vision was to complete a marathon, it became crystal clear that I needed a plan, a roadmap of weekly mileage recommendations, to get me across that finish line. I followed this 16-week plan from Runners World, scheduled all the runs in my Google Calendar, ardently followed the plan as best I could (with a few adaptations along the way for the inevitable curve balls of life that arose), and presto–I ran a marathon. 

I know I don’t want a “traditional job” ever again. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what I do want. I’ve learned about myself enough over the past six months to know there are certain activities that are largely energy-giving to me (hiking on trails, making music, writing, playing with my kids, cooking a tasty meal, meditating, yoga, volleyball…), but I haven’t been trying to string them together in any productive, career-oriented way. So far, it’s been more about experimenting with different practices and behaviors and taking note of which ones feel right, resonant, important. I have been intentionally not thinking too far ahead, not worrying about practicality, profitability, or perfection, and instead drawing my focused inward, to the present. But, much like how the decision we made 4 years ago to move to Costa Rica made a lot of other decisions along the way more clear (knowing how important Spanish immersion school was, knowing we’d be changing employment, knowing whether or not a certain repair on the home would be worth it since we knew our move-out date…), I am wanting another hit of the clarity that comes from commitment to a direction. 

I then recalled what I had seen on the websites of Spring Washam, Oren Sofer, Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, Shawnell Miller, and others who are their own business, and noticed something in my mind’s eye; when you condense your life into a Navigation Bar, you are forced to pick a just a handful of words that you live by, a few choice labels you want your essence to be about. I had seen words like: Author, Books, Podcast, Newsletter, Blog, Speaking, Courses, App, Group/Club, Events. These words aren’t personal value words–those are a different set of words to live by. NavBar words can help act as useful containers for one’s work. I don’t want to simply exist and be content with stillness only. I want to do my part to make the world a better place, to make my life’s work meaningful, and to make sure I give back to the planet more than I’ve taken before I die. I want to work. I want to try. And at some point, if I’m going to find water by digging a well, I just have to pick a spot, start digging, and keep digging

What spots am I going to pick to do my digging?

What kind of work do I want to devote myself to? 

What do I want my words to be on the top of KevinCarlow.com? 

What words do I want to hang my hat on? 

And then it hit me, this idea and felt sense of being my authentic self, of living a life that I’m so confident in and unashamed of that I’m OK with it being public, that I’m OK with sharing it. A public way of living where I know I’m genuine and that I’m not being a fraud (by, for example, talking about how great being vegetarian is but then eating a bunch of meat myself, or by inwardly despising advertising but making my living from the industry anyway). If I hold that thought, of being so authentically me that I have no shame of being public with it because I am always just being me… that level of honesty, that’s what’s going to get me there.

I walked with this idea for a bit, and then I noticed a particular tree situated twenty feet above on the uphill side of the trail. One of its thicker branches was shaped with a natural hammock-like parabola to it, and this thick branch extended outward from the trunk at an easily mountable height of four feet off the ground. I marched up to it, climbed in, positioned my mittens under my tailbone, laid my head back, and immediately a sense of ease and peace washed over me as I gazed up at a sparse winter canopy and the bright blue sky beyond. 

I then uttered, “I’m now lying in a tree and looking up at the sky. And I think I need to give myself permission to write. That is what I’m holding myself back from. To ask for and to give permission to take large chunks of hours to indulge in my interest of writing. To muster the courage to write the piece about leaving Corporate America, about leaving a successful career and why. It’s time to write that. It’s time to write the harder stuff.” 

Answers arriving in a Tree Hammock

After a while I got down from my tree branch cot and, as I reached the wide open lowland area that sits right at the intersection of the narrow path that leads back to my neighborhood, I concluded the walk like this:

“And now I’m sitting here in a squat, gazing toward the setting sun (ridiculous that it’s this close to the horizon at 2:34pm), and I’m reminded of the balance of accepting that the way things are right now is totally fine. There’s so much peace and joy of sinking into… now. Today is great as it is. I don’t need to worry too much about building toward some big outcome, some epic destination. Kristyn mentioned earlier that everything I was talking about this morning was outcome-based. She’s right. I have a lot of conditioning and training from the business world about focusing on outcomes. So as I’m squatting here in my hiking boots, sinking into the soft, squishy earth of dying leaves and wet soil, I want also to sink into having a dream day, today. Whatever that means for today… going to bed with the feeling of completeness, of wholeness. That I turned over some stones today, and that the stones I left unturned were left so intentionally, mindfully. Today was not the day to turn over those stones. And that’s OK.”

TUESDAY

Morning meditations are starting to feel less like something I have to make myself do and more like something I just do. I went to bed before 10pm last night, and this morning I woke up at exactly 6:00 with no alarm (I’ve been setting my alarm for 6:15 and groggily waking up). I now have some extra time before the kids get up, and I’ve already done some stretches and am now writing this! 

I followed up on yesterday’s contemplations by revisiting some of the websites of people I like. I made my way to Gretchen Rubin’s homepage, and BAM! Her opening line hit me like a ton of bricks. The featured sentence on her homepage reads, “We can accept ourselves and also expect more from ourselves.” I’ve examined the paradox between ambition and acceptance many times, and seeing this on her site gave me a conflicting sense of validation mixed with hopelessness. In a way, I feel validated that a successful author shares in my focus on this topic, on its importance. It makes me feel more connected to her and that perhaps I am onto something significant if a successful writer is also intrinsically intrigued by this yin and yang of contentment and striving. But it also makes me feel hopeless. Who am I to attempt to do anything valuable in a realm that’s already been explored by experts, by wiser, more knowledgeable, more skilled people? Who am I to write, to blog, to podcast, to create my own newsletter? Will I really be able to create anything so valuable that the world is truly better off because of my creation, as opposed to if I’d dedicated all that time to planting trees or whatever else? Ugh. 

CONNECTION TO NATURE

On Friday I convinced my kid that was home from school to strap on the winter gear and head out to the snowy woods. Getting children out the door during Minnesota winters is a massive struggle, moreso with a highly sensitive child that doesn’t enjoy the feeling of snow pants and walking around in large, thick boots (especially when the destination is a “boring hike” and not sledding with the neighbor kids), but once we got going and started noticing nature’s interesting gifts, she quickly forgot about the comfort level of the snow gear. 

As we got to the very end of the small trail, the very first reasonable checkpoint to turn around and return home (which is as far as I could convince my kid to go), we came upon a most peculiar sight. About 5.5 feet off the ground hung the rear portion of a rabbit carcass, skewered onto a sapling. We discussed how it might have gotten there, and we couldn’t come up with any definitive theory. We were flummoxed.

Upon returning home, my child wasted no time telling Kristyn what we had discovered. It was a most unusual sighting, after all. Kristyn, in return, wasted no time with her response to this news. Without hesitation, in supremely witch-like fashion, Kristyn’s response to learning of a skewered rabbit carcass within walking distance of our house was–we need to get that rabbit’s foot. 

The back half of a rabbit just hanging around

Armed with some latex gloves and a tree trimmer, Kristyn bounded away from the house with the fervor and pace of a Black Friday shopper hellbent on beating everyone else to the best deals in town. She retrieved the foot, began the curing process, and traipsed back into the snowy lowland area behind our house to place the remaining bits in an area more easily accessible to the wildlife and the worms. Our child was understandably uneasy throughout this process, it being her first encounter with dead animal bits up close, but she fed off our energy and was curiously asking questions, and once the foot was sealed in a mason jar of isopropyl alcohol, she made sure it was placed in a location she and her sister would be able to look at it. 

My experience throughout this whole ordeal was one of gratitude and of most pleasant surprise. I was thankful to myself and to my kid that we went through the painstaking process of gearing up to get outside, enjoy the fresh air, and move our bodies along the snowy path that led us to the rabbit remains. And, moreso, I was so pleasantly surprised by Kristyn’s reaction to the situation. The idea had crossed my mind that “hey, rabbit’s feet are lucky, and we just found one,” but I did not consider actually retrieving it. Kristyn had never done anything like this before, but she acted as if we had just found a pot of gold and decided to leave it out in the woods. I was proud to watch her so highly value an opportunity to gain more connection to the land around us. It’s fun being married to a witch. 

On Sabbatical – Week 27: Beyond Thankful

GIVING THANKS IN A BIGGER-THAN-USUAL WAY

It’s Thanksgiving week! While the traditional American Thanksgiving spread has been a long-standing favorite meal of mine, the holiday had some extra significance this year, for a few reasons. For starters, I volunteered to prepare four of the side dishes for our extended family of ten. I offered this up because… it felt right. My mother in law was still rehabilitating her broken leg from a car accident a few weeks prior. I’m currently unemployed. I enjoy cooking. I love the combination of mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and cranberries (and whatever else is on the table). So, I scooted out to the store on Monday to gather supplies and beat the last-minute rush on green beans and the like. 

Prepping mashed potatoes, dressing, green bean casserole, and cornbread casserole the day before Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving this year also felt significant because I wrote a sort of prayer to be shared before the feast. I had never done this before, and I was nervous about actually saying the words out loud. The idea came to me, as many of my ideas do, on a hiking trail. I have never identified as a religious person nor as a spiritual person, but lately I have been uncovering a more spiritual side to myself, a side that is open to and invites in the notions of prayer, of contemplative practice, of the possibility of energies unseen, of the possibilities of ancestral spirits being accessible to us, if we allow them in. And so, while I was hiking around and considering what my ideal November would look like, I thought about Thanksgiving, and this family gathering felt important to me. This is also around the time of year that my partner’s father died when she was a child, so Thanksgiving has always had an extra significance, an extra weight to it, ever since I joined the Moravetz tribe. In Thanksgiving’s past, we would typically share in a brief, uncomfortable (for me), semi-automatic Grace, the same Grace (I learned) that my partner and her family would say around the dinner table as a kid. It always felt a bit awkward to me, since this was the only meal of the year where Grace would be said, and it was rather abruptly hopped into and hopped out of, and then we carried on. As the years have gone on and our family has grown with the addition of little ones, getting everyone together, at the table, waiting to eat, and attentive for a moment of unity had drifted away from the routine.

After reading Thubten Chodron’s The Compassionate Kitchen, in which she describes in great detail the rituals around food practiced at her Buddhist abbey in Newport, WA (where the only food that’s consumed is the food that is donated), I had been contemplating my own consumption practices. How mindful am I when I cook? When I eat? Am I happy with my relationship to my food? My big takeaway from this book was a newfound interest in the following notion: taking a moment before eating the food on my plate to stop and to think about and appreciate the food, its source, how it made its way to me, and how it will nourish me. For me, for now, it doesn’t have to be an elaborate series of prescribed verses or have any level of formality to it; I just want to have a more consistent state of mindfulness in the moments before and while I nourish myself.

Applying this concept to a Thanksgiving prayer, I spoke the following words into my Voice Memos while hiking, and I later transcribed them so I could read them for my family at the table: 

PRAYER OF THANKS
Let us give thanks for togetherness, for the privilege and the great fortune of being able to gather as a family. As a healthy, mostly functional family. This gift of life that we all enjoy is amplified especially when we share in that life, together.

We express our gratitude to have so much. To have the resources to enjoy such a magnificent feast. We give thanks to everyone and everything involved in bringing this nourishing food to our table: To the farmers who grew the crops, to the workers who transported, organized, and distributed the food to us, to the bird and the pig which gave their lives to sustain ours. to all of you, we give thanks.

Let us celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday as did our ancestors. Not our colonial American predecessors, but our far reaching ancestors, who would celebrate the fall harvest and its bounty with an expression of togetherness, of sharing, of generosity, and of gratitude. Let us hold their spirit in our hearts, and let us carry forward their spirits for future generations.

May we also hold space in our hearts for those who are not here with us tonight. May this family continue to grow in its ability and skill of creating space for sadness and grief. To find comfort in the discomfort of loss, or the discomfort of anything really. the presence of those not here in body is still felt in mind and heart, and so long as we tell their stories, remember their stories, they are not gone. Even though their bodies may have returned to the earth, their spirit lives on through us.

I’d like to give a special thanks for (my mother in law), who, when she was our age, when she was growing up and raising her family, worked her ass off, saved and invested prudently, and positioned her family and descendants to have more easeful lives than she had. That type of forward thinking, a down the line sacrifice that has no immediate pay off… it’s something special. And so to you, we give thanks.

May our lives be filled with joy and compassion for ourselves and for others, today, and every day.

Cheers to family!

When the moment came, when we were all sitting down and it felt as good a time as any to announce that I had some words to say, I could feel a nervous anxiety spike within me. It was like that moment in karaoke when your name is called, it’s your turn to sing, and you have to make your way to the microphone and wait until the music kicks in. There were these pivotal few seconds where I sat at the table, with my hand holding my phone under the table, having a frantic mental debate with myself. “Am I really going to do this? What if it’s too long? What if the kids interrupt me? Am I doing this for me to show off my writing, or do I actually believe it will bring the family closer together and model the behavior I wish for our family? People have already started eating; did I miss my moment?” And with one deep belly breath, I shut off the mental chatter and announced that I had written a little something that I wanted to share. 

It was much harder to get the words out than I had anticipated. I’d already spoken these words once into my Voice Memos with no problem; why was it so hard to get them out now? I found myself getting choked up in the throat and hot in the face, even at the “easy” parts of the prayer. Nerves. I’ve gotten this way before, and I realize now that it happens most often when I actually deeply care about what it is I’m saying. I could read some sort of written verse to an audience of 1,000 people, but when it comes to heartfelt, meaningful words that I’ve written, and it was to an audience of the people I care about most… woof! Much harder. I did manage to get through it, though, and afterward I felt proud and relieved. I think my family was relieved too, relieved they could stop letting their food get cold. 

I want to continue doing things I believe in, no matter how hard they are to do. 

 

I DON’T ENJOY THE OUTDOORS; I NEED IT

On Tuesday of this week, I was really having an existential start to my day. “Existential crisis” is too big of a phrase, but the internal struggles I was having felt existential for sure. It’s like my mind is a big soup pot. I’ve been throwing all of these inputs into the pot – Tony Riddle‘s inspiring barefoot runs and natural lifestyle, the Minimalists on the Ten Percent Happier podcast talking about getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t bring you joy or have a purpose, working on decluttering our own house and the umpteen steps it’s going to take to move to Costa Rica, meditating and watching my own thoughts, talking with a financial advisor about how we’re investing, managing, and donating our money, countless conversations with my partner about her learnings and about our shared trajectory – and I’m having a hard time seeing clearly through the mind soup and envisioning my actual ideal existence for right now, today.

I contemplate about this often, and there are times where it continues to elude me. It’s typically the abundance of choice that gets to me. There are so many “could’s” with how I could spend my time. Where to start? What to do now? I’m often seeking for the “right” answer to this question. I’ve learned that when I get lost or stuck or overwhelmed, it’s time to change things up and move my body. 

Piggybacking on what I’d been reminded of by listening to The Minimalists, I picked one room in our house to look for stuff to get rid of and ended up grabbing 15 junk items to dispose of. Immediately I felt a little bit better, one half-inch farther down the path of decluttering our lives. After this, I went out for a walk in the snow and sun in 35 degree temps. It’s becoming more and more evident to me that I don’t just like hiking and walking around outside; I need it.

I get so many mental downloads from the practice of walking around in nature and focusing on: mindfulness, mindful breathing, mindful steps, mindful listening. Amós Rodriguez, one of the participants on the show Alone, taught me that “my sphere of disturbance should be smaller than me sphere of awareness.” I think about this often as I make my way through the woods. The nature, the movement, and the absence of distraction clear my head, and so often do I get zapped with an “aha moment” from my own inner voice: new thoughts for what I now am almost certain is going to become a podcast, answers to my various relationship anxieties, realizations about questions I’m pondering, they all just… appear. On this particular walk, I enjoyed the cycle of walking, actively clearing the mind, getting inevitably zapped by an insight, stopping to squat and write it down or voice memo it, and then getting up and starting the cycle over again. Moving meditation is a highly effective technique for me. 

Resting the body and mind on a snowy trailside hill.

On Wednesday, after making mashed potatoes with my kid (one of the four side dishes we were preparing for Thanksgiving) I once again went for a walk, alone, this time to the nearby lake instead of the woodland trails I so often favor for hiking. This spot is where this week’s featured image comes from. There are some steps that not many use which lead down to the waterfront on the western banks of the lake, and I found a perfectly situated downed tree with a comfortable, level seat right about 12-18 inches off the ground, directly facing the sun. At around 3pm in the Minnesota winter, the view was sublime, unencumbered by bush or branches, with a clear view of the wide open, frosted lake. It’s about a 15 minute walk from my front door. I am grateful to live somewhere with access to choice spots in nature like this. I am grateful to myself for seeking and appreciating this simple, costless pleasure. 

On Saturday I again headed outside. I sought out the lakeside sit spot again, and this time I did a formal meditation by the lake, by which I mean I focused on my breath and did nothing else. Even though the temperature barely crested 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I had the sun beaming directly at me and some wind protection from the trees to my one side. The jacket came off.  The cool breeze was invigorating and the wind gusts, rather than swaying me off my perch, actually anchored me deeper into my sit spot. When my body reacted to the wind by sinking deeper into the earth, that’s when I knew I was “in the zone.” The lake was mostly frozen, but on this warm day, the area at the lake’s edge had thawed. The soil and sand were wet. The smell of wet earth and decomposing leaves filled my nostrils with each inbreath. It was pleasant, like Earth’s rich odor was nourishing me somehow. 

On Sunday, I closed out the week with a run. It was 38 degrees. I ran for about two miles, pushed through the first hump of temptation to stop and turn around (which often happens when I run without a specific length or destination in mind), and then found a patch of roadside grass that had been mowed. You know, how sometimes cities will mow a 3-4 foot swath of grass if there’s some grassland-y type land next to the road or trail? Anyway, this patch of grass called to me. There was no snow on it. The grass was almost green still. If there was ever a time and place for me to give barefoot running a try, the place was here, and the time was now. I kicked off my shoes and socks and I ran barefoot in late November in Minnesota for about a mile. First I was carrying the shoes, then I changed tactics and tossed them into the deeper grass for later retrieval. The ground was cold and squishy, but it didn’t bother me. It felt nice. Running without shoes, I immediately noticed that I paid way more attention to the ground. I took shorter strides. I used my whole foot. And I smiled. It was not painful. It was invigorating. I felt like I could have gone forever like that, were it not for the concrete separating me from my home.

NEIGHBORS ARE WHERE COMMUNITY BUILDING STARTS

My neighbors are redoing their kitchen and main floor. Big project. They needed to move a bunch of stuff around their house to get ready for the workers. I offered to help out. To my pleasure, they accepted the offer. 

I bring this up only to say this; I wish I was more neighborly with my neighbors. Like, old school neighborly. As Kristyn often ponders–why do we have seven houses in our cul de sac, and we also have seven snowblowers and seven lawn mowers? Is all this individual stuff-acquiring really necessary? How much cheaper and easier would life be if we worked together as neighbors more often? Took turns watching each others kids, took turns making meals, had a snowblowing committee and a gardening committee. Why do we all grow tomatoes in our own gardens? No one can ever eat them all! 

I know it sounds kind of perverse, but I was sincerely delighted that my neighbors let me carry their furniture up and down their stairs for an hour or two. That is what neighbors are freaking for! 

AVATAR IS NON-FICTION

One evening this week, Kristyn and I watched Avatar. I’d been wanting to rewatch this movie ever since I read its mention in the book Active Hope. Once I looked up how to stream Avatar, and was reminded it’s a James Cameron creation (the incredible Canadian filmmaker also responsible for Titanic, The Terminator, and Aliens), it leapt up to the top of my must-watch queue (which currently consists of zero other shows).   

There is so much about Avatar that I love. Other than a slight issue with a sort of “saviorism,” where the outsider protagonist is able to come into this new culture and save them from oppression, the rest of the film really works for me. The metaphors to real life are correct, even if they are portrayed with a fictional species on a fictional planet in a futuristic setting; humans are extracting precious resources with reckless abandon, disregarding who might be harmed, all for the sake of economic growth. Colonialism, capitalism, white privilege… it’s all there. These are the lessons we should be paying attention to. I hope the future Avatar movies continue on these themes and adapt them for our current times.

I also loved how the Na’vi people were portrayed (the indigenous people of the moon Pandora). They were super connected to their land; the “training” sequence showed it all. When Neytiri is teaching Jake their ways, she shows him what fruit to eat, how to fall from the top of the forest canopy and use the trees and plants to break one’s fall (a lesson which later saves Jake’s life), and they are so connected to the land that they even literally connect their minds to horse-like and dragon-like creatures through a cord in their long hair braid. There’s also a powerful scene when the Na’vi people band together to attempt to channel the power of Ewya (their sort of “source”, Mother-Nature-type energy) in a ritual to heal the human Grace, who has suffered a bullet wound. In that scene, the tribe of a few hundred Na’vi are all squatting low to the ground in a restful low squat, hands on each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth in front of the tree of souls. Watching this was like watching the definition of connection to land for me. 

Avatar Eywa

I mostly am mentioning our watching of Avatar because of a comment Kristyn made as we debriefed after watching. As we were discussing how the metaphors and symbolism in the movie are so spot on, she remarked, “Movies like The Matrix and Avatar should be considered non-fiction.” After a chuckle, I realized I think she’s onto something. I’m not an uber-fan of science fiction, but I’ve enjoyed the genre my whole life, and I think the thing that separates the great science fiction and fantasy stories from the lesser ones is that they are basically non-fiction – they are so relatable and the themes are so resonant to our actual lives. I wonder if that’s how scriptwriters and novelists think; I’m going to create a fantasy world with some interesting characters as the “container,” and then inject a bunch of actual scenarios, emotions, and problems from everyday life. There’s probably a little more to it than that. Or is there? 

NATURALLY BETTER RESEARCH – A SURPRISING FIND 

As I embark on this Naturally Better journey (I am still defining what that even means), I felt compelled to poll my friends and followers (all four of them). I created a survey and sent it out to my network. I’ve done this on occasion in my life, creating a survey and badgering people to fill it out. I enjoy learning how other people think, and, sometimes, I like doing it in a measurable, quantifiable way (as opposed to having a bunch of anecdotal conversations).

One of the reasons I enjoy surveying people is that I like to get data to compare myself and my own thoughts to a larger group. I like to learn if I am an outlier or if I’m closer to average. When I sold advertising for a living, countless times I would run into objections that sounded like this: “Does anyone even watch the TV news? I don’t,” and, “The only time I watch the news is at 10pm, so that’s when I want my commercials to run,” and, “Has anyone ever clicked on those Google ads? I always skip right past those.” Everybody thinks they are average. Every person thinks they are in the middle of every bell curve. Nobody thinks they are special. Nobody thinks they are different. We all consider ourselves “the average consumer,” “the average homeowner,” or “just another parent.” The truth is – we can’t all be average at everything! This is why I like gathering more data points. A data point of one (i.e. my life, my experience), while it may be a very important data point to me (because it’s me!), is still only one data point. I am not statistically significant of the market or of all people. When it comes to getting good sleep, maybe I’m pretty average, but when it comes to weekly exercise, maybe I’m more disciplined than most people, even though to me my routine feels “normal.”

With my first survey that would help inform my future work with Naturally Better, I wanted to keep it short. I asked three multiple choice questions, all with the same multiple choice answers. I wanted to learn what fundamental aspect of our everyday lives people want to get better at most. Then, I wanted to learn how that changes if they change the focus from themselves getting better to the future of humanity getting better. 

The results of the survey are below. If you’d like to take the survey yourself before reading further, you can do so at this link – Kevin’s Simple Survey. If enough people add to the responses, I’ll republish this article in the future with the updated findings. 

Question 1

Here are the results to the first question – If you could instantly be better at one of these, which one would you pick?

 

When people were asked about their own self improvement, their top choices were Exercise more regularly and Experience fulfilling relationships more often and more deeply. So people want to get better at Exercise and Relationships above things like Sleep, Meditation, Eating, and Living in Harmony With Resources. 

Question 2

I then asked – If you could pick a second one, which one would you pick?

Here we see much more of a mixed bag. Sleep got the most votes, but it’s pretty spread out. My takeaway here is that once you get down past our first burning desire for improvement, we are individuals that have different growth edges. 

Then came the kicker – Above all else, which of these does our world need us all to do the most for the long term benefit of humanity and life as we know it?

Question 3

Here we see a huge shift in the responses, with the overwhelming winner being: Live in greater harmony with my resources. 

I have two takeaways from this.

First, it’s worth noting that when we focus on self, our responses are more varied, but when we focus on all people, our response was much more uniform. As we widen our perspective, as we zoom out beyond self and community and country and politics and get all the way out humanity, regardless of our backgrounds and identities, we tend to agree. This notion gives me hope. 

Second, I find it very interesting that when we look at our own lives and we examine what we want to get better about ourselves, most say the top priorities are Exercise and Relationships, but when we think about what’s most important for the long term collective, we say it’s Resources

This begs the question–why? Why aren’t our personal aspirations more in line with what we know is needed for a viable future for our grandchildren? I could theorize, but instead I plan to have some conversations about this with people smarter than I to see what can be discovered here.  

One thing I do now “know” from this utterly unscientific survey of a mere 31 of my friends: no one gives a rip about meditation and journaling. 

10% Happier: The Most Important Lessons from the Dan Harris Odyssey of Mindfulness and Compassion

After first coming across the Ten Percent Happier podcast just a handful of weeks ago, and subsequently devouring the first 50 episodes with an aggressive appetite for more and more magnificently mindful conversations with some of the most interesting, knowledgeable, and well-practiced people on the planet, I could not wait to receive Dan Harris’ book: “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story.” 

Above all else, the book was a truly enjoyable, satisfying read with excellent pace and a brilliant balance of substance and humor. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about meditation and who enjoys laughing along with others as they poke fun at themselves. 

OVERALL REVIEW IN A NUTSHELL

With utterly entertaining fashion, Dan Harris takes us from curious, sincere inquiry to outright belly laughter on his skeptical, sarcastic, and transformational journey into the world of meditation. Including pivotal conversations with industry titans, plenty of amusing and sometimes self-deprecating anecdotes, and deliciously flavorful turns of phrase at every turn, 10% Happier is an enticingly crafted story that invites the skeptical reader to learn from Dan’s quest to discover what lies on the other side of practicing mindfulness and compassion. 

THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON FROM 10% HAPPIER

In my view, this passage from page 207, when Dan is reflecting on his most recent conversation with Dr. Mark Epstein, offers the most valuable takeaway from the entire book: 

Striving is fine, as long as it’s tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control. If you don’t waste your energy on variables you cannot influence, you can focus much more effectively on those you can. When you are wisely ambitious, you do everything you can to succeed, but you are not attached to the outcome—so that if you fail, you will be maximally resilient, able to get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the fray. That, to use a loaded term, is enlightened self-interest.

Too often we focus on outcomes. The business world trains us to value them. Success is defined by delivering the outcomes of quarterly shareholder profits, monthly sales quotas, and employee performance reviews. A goal is only good if it’s a S.M.A.R.T. goal, with an “M” for Measurable. We judge our own progress with measuring sticks, benchmarks, and finish lines. We operate from a state of incompleteness, and only if we can get the next promotion, get a three-car garage, or get that next thing our neighbor now has, then we will have made it. Then we’ll be able to slow down. Then we can accept what is, that we have and are enough. We have preconceived ideas of the path we are on, of the way things are “supposed” to go. We have expectations of specific end results of our actions, results that will leave us satisfied with the feeling of achievement.

Yet, if we lean fully into acceptance of the way things are, if we develop apathy toward progress and idle our way through life, if we become cushion-perched gelatinous meditation blobs peacefully content with every single waking moment of every single day, then we can clearly see how life will become difficult for us. We are living, human creatures. We have basic survival needs. At some point I’m going to have to admit that my “desire” for a drink of water or my “feeling” of a hunger pang are actually “survival needs.” And humans have found that collective living is easier and better than independence, so we can share jobs and specialize to survive with less hardship. As our community “improves” and “progresses” from working together (first as tribes and then growth all the way through to modern society), at what point do we agree that we are no longer “progressing,” but instead we are over-striving, over-shooting, over-producing, over-consuming, and spending not enough time simply being and enjoying the abundance of here and now?

How can we reconcile accepting life as it is in this moment and also wanting to make things better for ourselves and for others? 

The wisdom in the excerpt above from 10% Happier offers an answer to this contradiction that has plagued me for years. My partner Kristyn has heard me debate with friends ad nauseum about the seemingly unanswerable paradox of these two diametrically opposed traits–acceptance and ambition. It’s the same worldly challenge that New York Times Bestselling Author Gretchen Rubin refers to on the featured image of her homepage: “We can accept ourselves and also expect more from ourselves.” Clearly this notion has been considered by many of us bipedal sapiens. 

Do everything you can to succeed. Do not attach to the outcome. 

In the book, renowned meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein offered to Dan a useful prompt to use whenever this topic arises in oneself: ask “What matters most?” 

If, in any given moment, you are torn between striving for the next thing and sinking into the presence of now, ask yourself, “What matters most?” Your inner voice will reveal the path. 

Wise ambition. That’s a goal worth pursuing. 

AN APPENDIX THAT’S ACTUALLY USEFUL

Unlike the useless tube at the junction of your large and small intestines, the Appendix in 10% Happier bestows readily digestible utility. In addition to answering a slew of FAQ’s, Harris has conveniently cataloged wonderfully brief meditation instructions in the back of the book. The Appendix covers short steps to getting started with: Mindfulness Meditation, Body Scans, Walking Meditation, Compassion Meditation (aka metta), and Open Awareness Meditation. The instructions are about a half-page each with all meat and no fluff. 

HOW TO BUY THE BOOK 10% HAPPIER FROM AN INDEPENDENT BOOK STORE

You can purchase 10% Happier from an independent book store near you by clicking right here

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