Some Ideas About How Environments are Restorative


Lately I’ve been reading about what makes environments restorative — those secret spots we go to feel whole, or grounded, or to be reminded of who we really are and what it’s really all about. What is it about those places? And are they only places? Or are they also the things we do when we’re in them?

There’s a good bit of literature out there already and I’m only scratching the surface of it at this point. However, I’ve scratched down enough to articulate some distinctions between the ideas people have and so I thought I’d write them up in an effort to share what I’m learning and also to watch how my understanding of these concepts evolves over time.


Attention Restoration Theory (ART) is an idea by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, and I’ve blogged about it before. In ART, your attention is depleted by the demands of an environment and to restore it, you must get into an environment that has certain very specific features or conditions. It must feel like you’re 1) getting away, 2) that where you’re going is explorable and structured enough without feeling overwhelming or unsafe, 3) that what you want to do while you’re there is socially and physically possible, and 4) that it holds your attention without depleting it. This last quality, called fascination, is the magic of ART. It’s where the restoring bit happens.


Stress Recovery Theory (SRT) is an idea by Roger Ulrich. In SRT, one experiences stress and seeks out a restorative environment to recover. Nature, in particular water and vegetation, are especially restorative because from an evolutionary perspective, we perceive them as a resource rich (we will be more likely to survive near water and vegetation so it calms us). SRT is highly dependent on visual perception, and is a theory that relies on emotion: when we enter an environment, our bodies (and hearts) respond first, then our brains. We may cycle through memories and think about a space once we’ve had that initial emotional response, but the emotions are primary, and if we feel preference or aversion, those instincts will lead our way. In SRT, certain qualities of an environment are likely to cause us to calm down. The aforementioned water and vegetation are two (he calls these “natural features”), but there are others such as complexity, structure, depth and ground surfaces. These words have special meanings that I may blog about later, but essentially they all result in the perception that an environment is non-threatening, lacks tension, and is interesting.


And last, there’s Information Processing Fluency Theory (IPFT — sounds like a Myers Briggs score). This is a theory by, as best I can tell, Yannick Joye. I’m just digging into it and it’s far less cited or popular (and far newer) than the other theories, but here’s what I perceive the idea to be. Joye thinks we are not restored by nature, per-say, but by environments that are easy to process. This agrees and disagrees with parts of ART and SRT. For example, both theories suggest this concept in their own ways (“fascination” in ART is close, so is “complexity” in SRT), but neither theory relies on it the way IPFT does. Joye thinks nature’s restorative because it’s easy to process and he thinks it is easy to process because there is much “self-similarity” thanks to how fractal-based nature is. (I’ve got to admit that’s kind of clever.) What this does for restorative environments is that it opens up what’s eligible. Now, we can look at built environments as naturally restorative if we are (for a whole hosts of reasons, I’d imagine) highly fluent in processing the information within them.

So there. That’s what I’ve got today. I’ve a ton of reading and thinking still to do about all this, but how very interesting it is to explore these ideas and see how they respond to 1) contemplative space (as opposed to restorative space) and 2) pervasive and persuasive technologies that abound in nearly every space we go. More! Soon!

If you want to dig in more, might want to give these papers a read:

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169–182.

Ulrich, R. S. (1983). Aesthetic and Affective Response to Natural Environment. In I. Altman & J. F. Wohlwill (Eds.), Behavior and the Natural Environment (pp. 85–125). Boston, MA: Springer US.

Joye, Y., & van den Berg, A. (2011). Is love for green in our genes? A critical analysis of evolutionary assumptions in restorative environments research. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 10(4), 261–268.



Using Zettelkasten and Tinderbox to Document a Literature Review

As a designer, I developed a design process that I trusted in times when I was thrown a gnarly problem and wasn’t sure how to solve it. Trusting in my process gave me something to do toward a solution. It was working the process, never some brilliant stroke of insight, that got me through to a place of originality and creativity.

As a scholar, I must develop an academic process that I can trust for the gnarly problems I’m thrown (or more likely, that I create for myself). To develop this process, I have sought to understand how others discover articles, read them, take notes about them, reference those notes, and write something original and creative as a result.

I have realized lately that a process is emerging. I am trusting it and it seems to be working. In reciprocity for all those who have shared their processes for me to discover, I have decided to share a bit of my own. Warning: this is very rough. I sat down and recorded four parts over the course of an afternoon. There’s no editing, no retakes, just me talking through what I’m doing right now. It’s highly boring and at the same time, I’ve sat and watched many similar videos as I was trying to find my own path and found them invaluable.

The tools I mention in these videos are:

Nearly 45 minutes of walkthrough follows in the following four Youtube videos… enjoy?



Restorative Environments

To create a map of restorative space on UW's campus, I’ve been researching what makes space restorative and I've come across the following framework from the Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. Big caveat before reading: Work in progress alert. I am constantly learning and reshaping my understanding of these concepts.

Rachel Kaplan is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. Stephen Kaplan, also a professor emeritus at UM, passed away this summer. Together and individually, they’ve authored many seminal works exploring how and why access to nature matters to human health and well-being.

 Researchers Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, Photo Credit:  University of Michigan

Researchers Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, Photo Credit: University of Michigan

 Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework.  Journal of Environmental Psychology ,  15 (3), 169–182.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169–182.

So, what exactly is getting restored by a restorative environment? According to the Kaplans, it’s attention. They argue that attention is a limited, deplete-able resource and certain environments, nature being the best example, can fill that depleted attention reservoir right back up (they call this attention restoration theory). In order for an environment to restore one’s attention, it must have the following four qualities at once: being away, fascination, extent, and compatibility.

The first quality is that the environment gives a sense of being away. For an environment to be restorative, it must feel like you have escaped or withdrawn from your ordinary (attention depleting) environment.

The second quality is that the place you escape to must be interesting, it must have fascination. Fascination is tricky because there are fascinating things that are not restorative, for example a train wreck or some trollish Twitter thread. Fascination in the Kaplan’s sense is a magical (that’s my word) quality of an environment where your attention is held but not drained. To better approximate this non-draining quality of fascination, some use the phrase soft fascination (like a walk in nature) as distinct from hard fascination (like a riveting television show).

In addition to being away in a fascinating space, the third quality a restorative environment must have is extent. That is to say it must feel like “another world” entirely from the one you’re escaping. To have extent, this “other world” must be explorable without being overwhelming. Places with extent strike a good balance between 1) having lots to explore, and 2) giving you the freedom to do so, while 3) also having enough structure so you feel safe, without 4) feeling like they’re full of restrictions and rules. It should be noted that the extent doesn’t have to involve physical space, it can be an internal experience, too.

And then on top of everything, the fourth quality a restorative environment must have is compatibility. There must be a rightness to how you want to use the space and what the space is for. If you found a spot that met the other requirements (it was away from it all, had soft fascination, and plenty you were eager and safe to explore), but wasn't made for that purpose or didn't accept your presence there, it wouldn't be restorative. Indeed, it might be quite stressful or frustrating. To be restorative, the space has to work for you and you have to work for the space.



Introducing Contempla-tech

Mostly, I lament the unintended consequences of technology that make our devices and apps addictive and distracting. I feel vulnerable to their promise of connection, social validation, and self-betterment. While I am wary of the creepy advertising, mysterious algorithms, and indicators that my conversations and search history are being monitored, I still carry my device everywhere and often find myself mindlessly poking at it in hopes of a reward.

I have become especially complain-y and pessimistic about the viability of apps and devices that promise to make us more mindful. I have little hope that their values will survive uncorrupted in a market that requires them to vie for our attention, data, and reward-driven habituation. Yes, it’s complicated. Tech is good and bad and many points in between at the same time. But mostly, for me right now? It's pretty bad.

To balance my perspective, I have challenged myself to discover bits and pieces of technology that enable me to live a life I want to live — specifically, a life with more integrity and presence. By and large, these won’t be features a design team thought up and built, they'll be minor and unintended aspects of our apps and devices that invite, enable, or facilitate contemplative experiences without meaning to. Right now, I'm calling these features "contempla-tech" as in "contemplative technology.” As I discover examples, I'll document and share them here. Here's the first one.

Setting a password with intention

In 2014, I began setting a New Year's intention (as opposed to a resolution) at the recommendation of my friend Frances. I also decided to change my password to that intention so that I'd be reminded of it every day. It's worked beautifully. I've set five intentions in the years since and they’ve been a transformative force in my life. Typing out my yearly intention each day regularly reminds me of it, and I’m not sure how committed to it I’d be otherwise. If I had software that took away my need to type passwords, I would feel impoverished. Those pauses where I must type my password to continue have become an opportunity to remind myself to become the person I want to be.

An Invitation

Has technology surprised you by fostering slowness, presence, mindfulness, or compassion in your life? Was it intended or unintended or maybe a both? Please tell me about it.



Reading is Useless: A 10-Week Experiment in Contemplative Reading


This morning, I published a reflection on a 10-week "contemplative reading" experiment I conducted last quarter. By contemplative reading, I mean I paid attention to the experience of reading itself alongside paying attention to the text I was reading. It was a transformative experience for me and I hope that I'll continue to prioritize this way of reading as my coursework continues. Here it is:

Reading is Useless: A 10-Week Experiment in Contemplative Reading

I hope you are enriched by this reflection. Please let me know what thoughts or experiments it inspires in you.



Reading Strategy: Annotations


The above image is a page from Thomas Merton's book, Love and LivingI would like to use it as a reference to demonstrate how I'm annotating my academic reading these days. 



Strategy 1: Underlining passages that resonate. 

I'm a heavy underliner. I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it as if I weren't smart enough to only highlight the most important things. Or, that I wasn't skilled enough to remember everything. But now, I look at underlining as a way to relate to the text. Almost the same as if I were to nod my head in understanding while talking to someone. 


Strategy 2: Highlighting confusing parts.

As I mentioned last week, I've started a shameless habit of marking anything I don't understand while I'm reading. It could be that I get the gist of it, but wouldn't really be able to explain it. Or that I have no idea at all and need to look it up, which was the case here. I see these highlights as evidence of paying good attention and being curious. 


Strategy 3: Marking when I'm distracted.

A habit I picked up with the Pomodoro Technique is to mark when I felt an internal pull of distraction. I mark this with a dash (-). You can also mark when you experience an external pull of distraction (like a phone ringing or a person stopping by). I mark that with a hash (#). In this reading, I got distracted internally at exactly that point in the text. 


Strategy 4: Marking when the bell rings.

As I mentioned last week, I've been working on a practice of contemplative reading and part of that is playing a bell of mindfulness every three minutes using an app on my phone. I mark each time the bell goes off with a small circle. This helps me be present to the bell and it also helps me see patterns in the pace of my reading.


Strategy 5: Annotating my thoughts.

I used to write in the margins, but since there's hardly ever enough room I've begun to make notes in a different place and note them in the readings with a circled letter of the alphabet. Sometimes I type my annotations and sometimes I write them in my Bullet Journal. For this reading, I wrote in my journal. The annotation simply says, "R. Don't follow ballgame." I wrote this because I feel I get the first two points (there is no me or there is nothing), but I'm not sure what it means that "me seeing me" means I'm not in the ballgame. Is it that "I" don't participate in life because the true self is the one observing the self in the ballgame? Yeah, not sure. But the annotation will come in handy when I talk this over with my advisor.


Strategy 6: Marking key points.

I mark key points with an asterisk, which is probably the most helpful strategy of all those listed. It's helpful when I write the reading note and it's helpful when I'm in conversation with others and my mind is scrambling to remember what I found particularly important about a text. It's very easy to spot while skimming several pages and a good reading strategy in general to be looking for key points while you go.



Reading Strategy: A List for Auntie Mame

After I read an article or book chapter related to my studies, I try to write a reading note immediately after. It has the following structure:

  • Summary
  • Commentary
  • Quotables (with page numbers)
  • Questions

Reading notes help me reflect on the reading as a whole, crystallize my thoughts a bit, and give me something to refer to in the future. This quarter, I've also been experimenting with contemplative reading. What I mean by that is being determined as I go, but I'm aiming to achieve the following:

  • Give myself 2-3 times the amount of time I'd normally give myself to read something
  • Be present to the sensory/emotional/social/intellectual experience while reading
  • Read with compassion for myself, the author, the world

So far, this experiment has been a lot of fun. I've used a meditation app to play a bell of mindfulness every three minutes while I'm reading, which invites me to be present to my posture and to notice if I've gotten lost in thought or the content. It's made my "non-contemplative" reading feel a bit more spacious and it's inspired an additional two categories in my reading notes.

The first category is called process and it's simply a description of how life unfolded while I was reading. Where I was, how long it took, any interruptions or memorable events, etc. 

The second category is called Patrick's List and it is a list of everything I didn't understand while reading. Instead of feeling bad about not understanding a concept or argument, I open to what I truly do not know. I highlight words and phrases in gray (as opposed to yellow, which indicate passages that resonate) and at the end of the reading note, I go through all the gray highlights and make a list. The practice reminds me of the following scene from one of my favorite movies, Auntie Mame. 

For example, here is the list I made while reading Donald Wiebe's The Failure of Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion this morning:

  1. What is meant by “God-talk” and how it is different from ‘god-talk’ and talk about God (gods).
  2. What exactly “Ultimate, Transmundane Reality” is. And what “Supermundane” is.
  3. What “exclusivist theologies" are.
  4. What “Christian atheism” is
  5. The sentence “‘ontic reality (existence) of the “Focus” of religion." on p. 403
  6. The distinctions between historical, systematic, theoretical, foundational, and Confessional theologies.
  7. The word “countenance” when used as a verb.
  8. What the “theological agenda” is universally assumed to be.
  9. The meaning of the words philological, sui genesis, epoche, inter alia, students qua students.
  10. What happened at the World Parliament of Religions in 1890s.
  11. What “the truth question” refers to, exactly.
  12. What “theological suspicion” is.
  13. What the “descriptivist doctrine” is.
  14. What ecclesiastical means, especially in reference to control or domination.

There is no shame in Patrick's list, only evidence of paying good attention and being curious. It is in this spirit that I write my lists. As I type each entry I sound out the long words and say them in my head as Patrick would, with a spirit of inquisitiveness and innocence. It keeps me honest with myself and gives me so many starting places to explore the literature, should I want to. Besides, as Auntie Mame says, I shouldn't need these words for months and months. 


Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries


Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries

I just returned from a three-week trip to Chicago where I was a scholar-in-residence at Skokie Public Library. I took the Empire Builder out and back, a three-day train ride each way. I brought my bike and cycled over 500 miles getting to and from Skokie each day. In addition to getting very tan and very opinionated about Chicago's car culture and bike infrastructure, I experienced an overwhelming sense of rightness and belonging. TL;DR I am filled to the brim. 

This trip was a windfall of riches in experience. Each interaction taught me something. Skokie librarians are downright amazing people. The library itself is full of heart, every ounce of it feels activated.  Together we imagined and practiced what a contemplative culture might look like. We meet, talked, and experimented. I am still feeling out the boundaries of my gratitude. They are far and wide. 

One interaction, in particular, a conversation with a retired Chicago cop who attended a program I ran on a Saturday morning is the inspiration for this post. She taught me many things that morning, and one of them was helping me realize the power of photography to reflect on and appreciate your life. These photos give in many ways. The process of taking them allowed me to slow down and appreciate the moment I captured. The revisiting and deciding which to share allowed me to remember and appreciate the experiences again and also in new ways. Captioning and sharing them with you connects us across time and space. And in the future, I will be glad to revisit these memories and experience all the emotions they rush in. 


 Montana Sky Country

Montana Sky Country

I'd never gone on a multi-day train ride before and I loved it. It's a humane way to travel, one that nurtures a culture of trust. You're trusted as you board. There's no security theater. You trust others to not take your things when they're unattended. You trust each other to care for the common spaces (bathrooms, trash cans, aisles, etc.) while you're traveling together.

 The sun rising near Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

The sun rising near Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

You're trusted to be nice to each other.  During meals, you're seated with whoever came right before or after you. I met such interesting people, all of whom were very different from me. I found common ground with each of them and will remember their faces and our conversations for a long time.

 The sun setting in Whitefish, Montana

The sun setting in Whitefish, Montana

It's truly amazing (and also kind of wrong) that we can travel so far so quickly on planes. A train ride gives you a sense of the distance you're traveling. The time zone changes are gentle. You experience the gorgeous and the mundane of trackside towns and forests.

 Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park


 There is probably nothing more evocative of my time on the trip than this photo.

There is probably nothing more evocative of my time on the trip than this photo.

In exchange for pet sitting a very sweet 19-year-old cat for a week, I had accommodations in Chicago, right downtown in Printer's Row, for my entire residency. This choice afforded me the opportunity to build a true friendship with the colleague that offered her home to me. I also made a couple friends in their tight-knit community. 

 Pausing at one of my favorite spots along the lake shore. A bank of flowering Black-eyed Susans.

Pausing at one of my favorite spots along the lake shore. A bank of flowering Black-eyed Susans.

It also meant that I biked 20-miles one-way to and from Skokie each day. It was an interesting choice to make, but looking back on it, my time in the saddle was such a rich and alive part of the experience. I wouldn't have wanted it another way.

 A perfect day, especially appreciated after a string of very wet rides.

A perfect day, especially appreciated after a string of very wet rides.

My first ride was during a thunderstorm that began at about 5:30 in the morning. It was torrential and I was soaked through after riding two solid hours in it. After that, I thought it could only get better but turns out another storm awaited the very next day. I experienced so many challenges along the lake front and the streets I found to Skokie (Ardmore, Kenmore, Granville, Lakewood, Pratt, Kedzie, McCormick, and Main). Menacing cars, impatient cyclists, oblivious rollerbladers. It was truly difficult each day in its own way. But, like my commute here at home, which is also two hours and involves 10 miles and a ferry ride, there's so much to be gained by accepting the challenges presented. It is a different experience to ride in the rain when you aren't upset that it's raining. In many ways, my ride afforded countless opportunities to practice acceptance.


From the first minute to the very last of my time in Skokie, I felt something I rarely experience: belonging. Over the course of thirteen days, I participated in 51 engagements — "Mindful Meet-ups" with staff, departmental meetings, walk & talks with individuals, pop-up programming for the public, and more. I directly interacted with lots of folks — from over 70 Skokie staff members to nearly 20 leaders in other area libraries to ~40 members of the public.  It was a very full 13 days.

 A goodbye gathering on my last day.

A goodbye gathering on my last day.

I left with more questions than I arrived with, which is just what a PhD student needs. Together we explored contemplative culture, programming, and spaces. There's so much to play with and learn about what's possible.

 Drawing "internal weather reports" with Skokie patrons. (Photo by  Max Herman )

Drawing "internal weather reports" with Skokie patrons. (Photo by Max Herman)

I think more than any other question, though, the one that's most on my heart and mind at the moment is about how contemplative practice creates and sustains community.  I am sure that wherever my work is leading, it will involve understanding how we bring our whole selves to everything we do, and how our whole selves are incomplete without understanding who were are together.  

 A post-it note left by a member of the public. I couldn't have said it better myself.

A post-it note left by a member of the public. I couldn't have said it better myself.

So much gratitude for this experience. So much more to come.


Get Freer with Freewriting

This quarter I've been exploring freewriting*. I've discovered Peter Elbow and Marion Milner and Pat Belanoff. I've introduced a freewriting activity into the undergraduate design thinking course I TA-ed for, I began a research project with Morning Pages writers, and I'm noodling on an idea for a collaborative freewriting tool that would help groups through stuck or stymied moments in their creative process. I've also played with my own freewriting, experimenting with new methods and tools.


This morning, while reading Belanoff's Nothing Begins With N**, I stumbled on her list (p. 27-29) of ways to make your writing more "free," which in turn may make it more original, clarifying, cathartic, and (ironically) structured. Here are a few of her exercises (paraphrased by me) that I thought were especially easy to try:

  1. Write for longer and longer periods of time and more quickly. For example, set a timer, write, and then the next time you freewrite, set the timer for the same amount of time, but write more than you did the time before. Or set a word count and time how long it takes you and try to beat it the next time. As you go along with this practice, increase the timer or word count from time to time (ha!).
  2. Get everything out of your head and onto paper (or the screen) in 3 minutes. List making is fine for this activity.
  3. Freewrite about the process of freewriting instead of freewriting about whatever you're working on or through.
  4. Freewrite only questions. Ask every question you can think of.
  5. Freewrite for five minutes, then put that writing aside and rewrite what you just freewrote. Wait five minutes. Try to rewrite your freewriting once or twice more. Afterwards, look at the writings and compare them. Did your ideas evolve? What was consistent? What was lost?

More to come from me on freewriting and especially that Morning Pages study. Still figuring out what and how to blog my academic journey and this morning's reading struck me as simple and straightforward to share. If you have thoughts about freewriting, please tweet or email them to me.

* Here's a typical prompt for freewriting from Elbow: The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can't think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write "I can't think what to say, I can't think what to say" as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop.

** I love the story of how this book was titled: A student who was being encouraged to freewrite said "I have nothing to say," to which the instructor replied, "Nothing begins with an N."

Now is a time for courage.

Now is a time for courage.

To people like me, average and privileged: Now is a time for courage. May this moment be like the hill I bike to get home — unforgiving and hard, but strength building and on the way to a better place. Give yourself time and space to digest this loss. Speak your truth to those you trust. Write, pray, cook, cry, smile at strangers, give and take hugs, be you. There is a role for you to play in whatever comes from this. Your job right now is to figure out what that is and have the courage to be it.

To those who may feel more threatened and marginalized than ever: Now is a time for courage. May this be the villain at the end of the story who is on his last breath. May you have the  strength to keep fighting and may you trust those of us who are ready to fight for you. Your wounds were centuries in the making and they will be centuries in the healing. I truly believe our lives are playing out on the healing part of that path. Raise your voices. We are listening and many of us are ready to do our part. You are not alone.

To people who supported Trump: Now is a time for courage. May you feel heard. May you rest in whatever relief this outcome gives and may you pay close attention to the unrest that exists within you as well.  May you have the courage to participate in righting whatever wrongs unfold from this. 

I’m pretty sure that everyone in America is feeling the same thing right now and that’s fear. We may be afraid for different reasons, but we are afraid all the same. May we be united instead by our courage. If there’s anything to truly fear it is that we won’t open our eyes and hearts in this moment. Fear is moving closer to truth. Fear is a prerequisite for courage. Now is a time for courage.


Question: What is contemplation?

In an effort to share what's on my mind and also invite dialogue and collaboration* with others, I've decided to occasionally post illustrated questions to my Twitter account. 

I posted the first question "What is contemplation?" on July 20th with the following illustration:

To my delight, a new friend that I met at Sketching in Practice, Brad Ovenell-Carter, took some time to enter in dialogue with me by responding with this:

Brad asked, "Do we understand 'contemplation' better by taking it apart or by practicing it?" I suspect this is something that the people who already research mindfulness and contemplative practice grapple with all the time. I haven't even started yet and I am already torn between wanting to be rigorous and scientific and wanting to truly understand, which I recognize may end up being a personal journey. I hope both are possible. I tweeted back:

To which @braddo replied

Encouraging me to read "Meditation in a Toolshed" by C.S. Lewis, which I did and found inspiring. On his recommendation, I'd also read a post on Brainpickings about Alfred Kazin, whose journals I instantly downloaded to my iPad thanks to the wonders of having a university NetID. I tweeted back:

And found myself arriving at my next question, which I posted this morning: "What contemplative practices might inform my future research?" The twitter conversation for today's question is already unfolding to reveal new connections and ideas.

I'll be sure to chime back in with any insights I come to regarding experimenting with looking along and at my own practices and where they lead me. Feel free to pick up any of these threads and contribute your thoughts. You don't have to be as provocative or talented at drawing to be part of this discourse. 

And much gratitude to @braddo for extending my thinking here. There are fewer greater gifts. 

* I'm enabling comments on this post if you'd like to think together about this publicly. Of course, you can also email me or dm me on Twitter if you'd prefer to keep the conversation private.


A Guide to the Personal Retreat

Recently, I led a staff retreat day for Literary Arts, a wonderful organization in Portland, OR. In preparation for the day, I created handouts for each of the activities I'd planned to do.

I snapped a photo during the Morning Pages workshop and posted it to Instagram. On a phone call later, my friend and colleague Sarah Lutman said she wished she could've been there. I mentioned that I had handouts from the day that I could send her and she was eager to receive them as she was already planning a personal retreat day and might use some of them as inspiration. In that moment the idea of converting those handouts into something any individual might use for his or her personal retreat was born.

I've since edited the handouts so that they apply to individuals and also added some instruction around planning for and filling a day of personal reflection. It is with gratitude to Literary Arts, Sarah Lutman, and each of the idea creators represented within (most especially the ones I know personally: Anton ZuikerDave Gray, and Nick Sousanis) that I present to you the first version of A Guide to the Personal Retreat. I hope and intend to update it with added suggestions and activities in the years to come.

A Guide to the Personal Retreat

This 12-page PDF guide contains advice and instruction for creating your own personal retreat. It will help you plan and structure a seven-hour day and fill it with reflective activities that I've vetted through my own personal retreat experiences.

Here's a list of the activities included in the guide, each linked directly to their original creators:

As requested in the guide, please send your questions or any stories (and images!) about your retreat to


Some ideas for moving towards uncertainty:

LET GO of any fantasies of perfection you may be holding. Let go of the illusion that you can control what happens or that you can control what others think. Accept that you have less control than you think you have and less control than you wish you had. 

ALLOW yourself to go towards that which makes you uncomfortable, that which you don’t feel ready for, that which you don’t know how to do. Allow emotions that arise, even if they increase your discomfort and anxiety. 

TRUST that you are evolutionarily designed to adapt. Trust you already have what you need to handle pain, disappointment, embarrassment, and loss. Trust also, that others are made to adapt as well.

And, most importantly, PERSIST despite failure. Growth and learning are more often than not the direct result of simply continuing to try despite failing to succeed. 

Being with uncertainty is PRACTICE-BASED. It’s something you can try to be with in small ways that add up over time. Discomfort (from within) and resistance (from others) can be signs that you’re there. Do not be surprised if you find it to be both harder, and also more doable, than you thought possible.

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Practicing Sabbath

I began to get interested in the Sabbath last summer when a friend and I found ourselves walking around Vancouver one night after sundown. We'd sought after a somewhat faulty Evening Primrose Bush at dusk and were walking the long way home when she mentioned that that Sabbath ends when the first three stars can be seen in the night sky. Using the night sky as a time piece to set about or end a practice intrigued me, and when the opportunity to practice it came about a few months later, I was primed. 

That opportunity arrived in a book called Judaism's 10 Best Ideas, which I picked up at the library this winter. It suggested five "to do's" and five "not to do's" in observing the Sabbath in today's world. I've listed my slightly modified version of those suggestions below.

I've been practicing since the end of January, missing one week due to a trip (ironically, to visit the same friend in Vancouver!). I've found the practice thoroughly worthwhile. I look forward to it every week. It doesn't feel at all like following rules, but rather being gifted a reprieve from the demands of everyday life. I'm always a little sad when it ends and also comforted to know that nothing, except my lack of prioritization, will keep it from coming around next week. I've had experiences that would've never happened had I not allowed myself to be still, and my brain enjoys the break. I try to keep the Sabbath from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown, but some weekends I've made it Saturday sundown to Sunday sundown due to difficulties with scheduling. I'm okay with that flexibility, but I'm trying my best to not compromise on the full 24 hour commitment. 

I am not Jewish, but the book I read suggested that I didn't need to be, so I feel okay about it. YMMV

Five Do's

  1. Do commemorate and bless the Sabbath with candles at the beginning and end. Use candles that feel special and only use them for commemorating the beginning and end of the Sabbath period. I google "shabbat times Seattle" to know when to light them. 
  2. Do stay at home. As a general rule stay close to home (nature/neighborhood walks are okay IMO) and only leave when doing so would mean honoring another one of the Sabbath do's or don'ts, like...
  3. Do spend time with friends and family. Make an intentional effort to see friends and family. This also includes being extra neighborly, even if that means smiling or waving with intention to people as they drive by.
  4. Do read things that edify, challenge, or make you grow. Walk to the library (or your bookshelf if it's too far), pick any books that appeal to you (as I did when I found the book on Judaism in the first place), carry as many as you possibly can home, and leaf through (or dive into) them throughout the day.
  5. Do spend time alone.  Even in the company of others, use some time in the day to be by yourself, reflect on the previous week, and contemplate where you are in your life.

Five Don'ts

  1. Don't work. This includes reading books that seem interesting but are ultimately related to work, discussing work, and even thinking about working. Think of this rule as the one that lets your brain rest.
  2. Don't use screens. Power down laptops, iPhones, tablets, tvs and don't turn them back on until after Sabbath is over. This is a bit risky in that you may not be able to be contacted (I'm okay with that and it's a huge relief for my brain and attention muscles). Do what feels right for you.
  3. Don't consume packaged entertainment. Avoid movies, television, podcasts, and music. Spend time in the yard, play, create art, make up games, read, have conversations, meditate, cook, and/or simply sit and think to entertain yourself.
  4. Don't buy things. Don't spend any money on Sabbath. (I make two personal exceptions here: The first exception would be to give someone money if they desperately needed it (this hasn't happened to me yet). The second exception is to participate in the farmer's market. I thought significantly about this and came to the conclusion that the FM, which in my neighborhood falls on the Sabbath, is important enough to my life to make an exception. I've deemed it okay to spend money there as long as those transactions are treated in the spirit of community and relationship building.)
  5. Don't travel.  There will be times where this is unavoidable, but when it's not, travel only by foot.  Experience the world at walking pace, or even slower. 


  1. Make your own list of guidelines for how you want to incorporate and honor a day of rest into your week.


  1. Don't be a perfectionist about any of these guidelines. If you mess up or end up, for example, talking about work for an hour before you realize it's probably not a Sabbath-sort of conversation, simply acknowledge that and move on. 


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Mindful Email

I'm currently reading David Levy's book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, and doing the exercises recommended. The first exercise is called "Observing Email" and it instructs you to check email for a dedicated length of time (like 20 or 30 minutes), log observations you make, create personal guidelines from those observations, and then share what you learn, which is what I'm doing today.

Last week, I logged eight sessions across four days, which was over four hours of email time. I quite enjoyed logging my experience, especially during the first five sessions. I was less disciplined with ending my email checking in the last three sessions — I'd reach inbox zero and then keep email open instead of closing it and proceeding to another activity.

Here's a samplE of some of the observations I made:

  • Doing email feels like whack-a-mole.
  • Find myself in the middle of an urgent series of tasks: see something opportune, schedule it, inform the person of my commitment, repeat.
  • Feeling pressure to say yes to all the people that have requested my time.
  • When I dread the contents of an email, I want to postpone it/snooze it/do other things. 
  • I need a notepad beside me while I check email to write down things I need to remember so I stay in email.
  • Feeling trepidation at responding to one email and therefore the recipient knowing I'm available and needing to respond to their other emails. 
  • I am not at all paying attention to my body or posture.
  • Felt the desire to go to Facebook immediately after opening a message I was avoiding opening.

And here's a list of things I learned about myself:

  • I am in and out of my calendar a lot during email. It's hard to do email without it because many emails are about scheduling.
  • There are lots of things that can take me off task while in my inbox, especially newsletters and social updates that link to the internet.
  • Checking email can emotionally derail me.
  • Sometimes I dread email when the reality of my inbox is actually not dreadful.
  • I have a tendency to avoid emails that are long and complex and prefer to keep the ball in the air with shorter, more manageable email volleys.
  • Sometimes email involves using a number of different devices and websites.
  • Emails come in tides and waves. Sometimes they accumulate quickly, other times they seem to trickle in.
  • Email seems to be an emotionally "felt" experience for me, even though I have a hard time noticing my posture, breath, or physical senses. 

The exercise also instructs you to read over your observations and synthesize them into guidelines. For me, this was the most helpful part.

Here are the guidelines I came up with:

  1. My email craft* requires certain tools:
    • a good calendaring app that does not require me to exit email to schedule things
    • a notepad and pen for jotting down tasks so that I can stay in email instead of following up on every task right away
    • my mobile device handy for certain information needs (sometimes optional)
    • a mouse because I enjoy using one (sometimes optional)
  2. Email can be an emotionally volatile space. I must notice my emotional state before opening my inbox and agree to the likelihood it may be altered by what I find (otherwise, I should check email at a different time).
  3. To keep distractions at bay, I need to close my email once I've achieved inbox zero and re-open it with intention.
  4. When people or newsletters email me things I'd like to explore, make a note of it instead of exploring right away. Similarly, when people request I do something, it's okay to make a note to do it and then email them to say I'll get back to them later.
  5. Treat lengthy or complex emails (or emails I must write but don't exactly know how to) as I do anything else I'd typically avoid: get them out of the way first, using a pomodoro if necessary.


I found this exercise not only fun, but also enlightening. I recommend it and am already considering observing social media time using the same methods.

* A note about craft: Levy argues that we should consider our digital life a craft like we consider woodworking or playing a sport. That it requires practice, certain tools, and refinement. There's an entire chapter about this coming up, so I'll likely blog more about it later, but I love the idea.




The Participant is Present

Marina Abramovic is exploring some interesting ways to get her audiences to digitally detox. 

  • She worked with Igor Levit, who performed the 86-minute long Goldberg's Variations uninterrupted and by memory, to an audience of prepared listeners. To prepare them, she offered lockers outside the music hall where they were instructed to put all devices and watches. Once in their seats, everyone was given noise cancelling headphones and instructed to sit quietly for 30 solid minutes before the performance began.
  • She ended this TED talk with a short "The Artist is Present" experience where she asked audience members to stare into one another's eyes for two minutes.
  • She's experimented with rice counting as a way to create presence and independence in individuals.
  • And she's envisioning a museum-like institute where people must sign an agreement promising to stay for six device-less hours without leaving. While there, she imagines people going through different chambers where they would (re?)learn how to walk, drink water, sit, stare at each other, and lie down. 

Thanks to Note to Self for pointing out this particular rabbit hole.




Contemplative Arenas

I'm reading Thomas Merton's journals lately and telling everyone about them.

After one such telling, my friend Meredith pointed me to a novice monk that studied under Merton, James Finley. Finley wrote Merton's Palace of Nowhere, which is nowhere to be found in the libraries around me. My local library does have an audio book Finley created some years later, which isn't the same as the other even though it's titled similarly. In Thomas Merton's Path to the Palace of Nowhere Finley talks you through Merton's journals with a specific lens on how he lived a contemplative life and I've been enjoying it.

Key among my takeaways so far is a better understanding of what makes an experience contemplative. I use the phrase "contemplative practice" with increasing frequency lately and no one (including me) is exactly sure what I mean. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Understanding it from Merton's point of view is a start, so here goes. According-to-what-Finley-learned-from-Merton, contemplative experiences are spontaneous, require trust that the experience is indeed real and revelatory, and tend to occur in the following situations, or arenas:

  • When you're in nature and connecting to a stillness or natural phenomena.
  • When you're truly connecting with another human.
  • When you're completely alone.
  • When you experience art (broadly defined).
  • When you're in meditation or prayer.
  • When you're viscerally aware of your own suffering (physical or mental).
  • When you're aware of healing from whatever you were suffering from.
  • When you're reflecting philosophically about something (like writing or daydreaming).

Finley has his own words for these arenas, "Experience of Nature, Human Intimacy, Solitude, Art, Prayer, Suffering, Healing, and Philosophical Reflection." Seems like a good start. It will be interesting to see how these Christian-based observations compare to other sources.


Big news, everybody.

In October of 2014, I posted this image to Facebook and told everyone that I was leaving my job. I said, “I'm leaving because my gut says to leave and that's pretty much the only reason I have.” That was true then, and it’s true today as I write to tell you of another similarly gut-based decision.

Last summer, I experienced an “aha” moment, where I realized that much of what’s come before has positioned me well to do something I didn’t previously know was possible. I met a researcher who studies information and contemplation, and began discussing what it might look like to research that area myself. 

I talked with mentors, faculty, students, former students, and friends. I wrote reams on what I care about, where I’ve come from, and who I am. I began to make out a body of water—a field of research—into which I want to dive deep.

I applied to be a PhD student at the University of Washington, I moved out west, and I crossed my fingers. Last Thursday, I was notified that I’ve been accepted. 

I never expected to be an academic. I never knew studying something like “contemplative practice and information” was even possible. But I feel my whole life has led me to this opportunity and I plan to take outrageous and exquisite advantage of it. 

Classes begin in September. Until then I’ll be working work with some of my favorites, resting my brain a bit, and steadily continuing to build and refine my own set of contemplative practices to carry me through the harder parts of this new endeavor.

Thank you for those good vibes and prayers a few weeks ago, especially those of you who sent them without hesitation or knowledge of why I needed them. They mattered so much, as do each and every one of you.

How I Use TextExpander to Avoid Using the Words Should and Just

Don’t should on me, I won’t should on you, and most of all never should on yourself.
— Frances Ulman, PhD

I began using TextExpander, née Textpander, in 2006 because it helped me save time and reduce typos in my code. The software logs your keystrokes and when you type a certain combo of them — e.g. ddate — it automatically replaces it with something more meaningful, like the actual date — e.g. December 17, 2015.  You can set these replacements up to be simple, BEck automatically changing to Beck, or more complex, substituting dynamic info or even pasting the contents of your clipboard. 

I’ve used it all sorts of ways, but I’m writing this post to share with you the way I’ve found most beneficial: I use TextExpander as a method for questioning my use of words I’d rather avoid. Specifically, the words should and just.

I create snippet for the word I want to avoid — e.g. should — and I tell TextExpander to replace it with that word followed by a question mark — e.g. should?.

It’s easy enough to delete the ? if I want to use should, but it requires me to consider it first. After a while, I added a snippet for the word SHOULD in all caps, replacing it with should in lowercase for times when I’m sure I want to type it and don’t want to be bothered. The small step of holding down the shift key still requires me to be intentional about its use.

I added the word just recently, after a couple tweets I made in a moment of frustration with my use of the word seemed to have some resonance with my friends and followers.

This blog post isn't an endorsement of TextExpander, though I obviously like it and find it useful, but rather it is an exploration of ways we can use technology to help us become who we want to be.