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Mapping Areas of Possibility

This post is inspired by the ongoing thought experiment: What if task management software was designed to help us be our truest selves instead of helping us be as productive as possible? I’ve previously shared two strategies: “Be a Good…” lists and crafting tasks as messages of kindness from past to present self. Today, I would like to share a method for reorganizing projects and tasks to better align with the life we want to live.

Please note: This method applies to any software that invites the user to organize her tasks into projects and folders. I’m using OmniFocus for this, but the process would work in many popular apps. As for handwritten lists, it may be a little less appropriate, but it would work if you are creating collections in the Bullet Journal style.

Areas of Responsibility

A popular method for figuring out task management structure is to map areas of responsibility. In the Getting Things Done methodology, David Allen suggests that you create “a complete inventory of everything you hold important and are committed to.” He goes on to suggest moving down each area and creating “reminders of key areas of responsibility, your staff, your values, and so on.” The lists below are examples from his book about what a complete inventory and drilling down into a key area might look like:


key areas

Career goals:

  • Team morale

  • Processes

  • Timelines

  • Staff issues

  • Workload

  • Communication

Complete Inventory

  • Career goals

  • Service

  • Family

  • Relationships

  • Community

  • Health and energy

  • Financial resources

  • Creative expression


These lists can inform how tasks and projects are organized. Given the above example, it is natural to create project folders and contexts that align with those areas. If I follow this advice and create a map of my own areas of responsibility, it looks like this:

responsibility.gif

Using these areas, I might create a project for my design methods class this summer under teaching, and put the map of restorative space I’m designing under research. My role as an Of/By/For All board member might go under global service. An acupuncture visit could go under health. This framing accommodates pretty much anything I can think to do and much of the software that I’ve explored fits well within it.

Areas of Possibility

Consider, however, what happens when we decide to map areas of possibility instead. Instead of creating an inventory of all the areas of my life, I create areas of possibility by asking myself what life I want to live into. I move from an “inventory” mindset to an inherently creative activity. I must imagine what my life could become. Heres what I get when I map areas of possibility:

possibility.gif

These areas reflect a combination of factors that are significant to me right now. Some are heavy on my heart and mind (like good health and spirituality), others are exciting and energizing (like creating a life of writing and teaching), and others are more oriented toward the contemplative (like appreciating the miracle of being in alive still and in the first place). To create this list, I imagined my future self, looked at the quality of her life, and described it with these sentences. It is important to note, however, that those imaginings were informed by a steady observation of my life as it is today and what it reveals about who I am becoming. In other words, mapping areas of possibility is observational, not aspirational.

In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” The areas I’ve mapped above were created in that spirit. For example, the area labeled “my everyday working life feels like the general exam” was inspired by reflecting on how right it felt to write eight hours a day everyday for two weeks during my general exam—how wholly satisfied I felt at the end of each day, even the hard ones, and how easy it was to re-engage each morning. Noticing that about myself revealed a possibility to live into a life that may be particularly right for me. The area labeled “I appreciate how precious human life really is” was in response to the contemplative practices I’ve held for years and the chief lesson they’ve taught me, which is, in Mary Oliver’s words, “doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” It is inspired by small moments, like when I look across the room at my wife as she does yoga and appreciate that her life is limited and one day I will not be able to do something so casual and fleeting and wish that I could.

In mapping responsibilities, Allen drills down into each area to explore its key features. Doing this in a map of possibilities might look like:


I appreciate how precious human life really is:

  • I stay present to life as it unfolds.

  • I appreciate those around me, realizing I will lose them.

My everyday working life feels like the general exam:

  • I cook all my meals.

  • I take daily walks or ride on my bike for fun.

  • I write for hours each day.

  • I exercise my mind and thoughts to their limit.

  • I approach answers to big, complex questions.


Considering the two lists above, writing this blog post might fit under a project folder called “The Writing Life,” which would support me in “writing for hours each day.” Preparing for a visit from a friend might fit under a project called “Life is Precious,” which would support me in “appreciating those around me, realizing I will lose them.”

Translating Map Into Structure

For a long time, I organized my tasks into a folder structure that reflected areas of responsibility (left), but now I’m organizing based on areas of possibility (right). The magic of this organizational tweak is that now certain projects feel like they don’t belong and I have to reckon with that, including reconsidering them altogether.

 

Areas of Responsibility:

Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 9.40.05 AM.png
 

Areas of Possibility:

Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 9.39.56 AM.png
 
 

 

My areas of possibility have become folders in OmniFocus: “I am in good health,” and “I feel at peace with my spirit” have turned into a folder “Healing Happens”; “My everyday working life feels like the general exam,” has turned into “The Writing Life”; “I am in relationship with others as a teacher” has turned into “The Courage to Teach” (a nod to Parker Palmer’s sage advice about teaching); and “I appreciate how precious human life really is,” has led to two folders, “Life is Precious” (present-oriented) and “For and With” (care-oriented). It has also changed the way I organize my tags. For example, my “Agendas” tag used to be full of people organized by area of responsibility. Now I am reminded of how I want to engage with people. For example, Marilyn is now under “Cherish” and Chickens are now under “Care.”

 

Areas of Responsibility:

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 4.41.35 PM.png
 

Areas of Possibility:

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 4.45.03 PM.png
 


Organizing my folders this way helps OmniFocus serve as an ally in me becoming my truest self. While I’d never put a task, “Look at Marilyn” under a project “Appreciate my Wife” in my folder “Life is Precious” and check it off when it’s done, the structure of my projects now serves as a reminder that the work I do each day, ticking off this box or that box, is my life. By being thoughtful about how I use this technology, I can make the life I want to live available to me right now by changing the content of those boxes.

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Kinder To Do Lists

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Kinder To Do Lists

As a person who loves to cook, I look at my pantry as a place of possibility. I see beans and cornmeal, cocoa powder and almonds, pasta and capers and I want to create—to cook. I was thinking recently, what if my pantry were like my to do list? Instead of being a place of potential, it would be a list of things I need to do, many combined with others in ways that don’t make sense.

 
Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 9.50.34 AM.png
 

I began to wonder… how might I organize my to do list so that it makes me feel the way I do when I look at my pantry? How might it become a place that gives me a sense possibility, where I want to create—to work. I’ve been playing with this idea for a couple months and have come to some preliminary conclusions.

(1) LANGUAGE MATTERS

For those of us that use digital tools to manage our to do lists, it is especially important to consider how we use language in creating to do items. When items start with verbs (e.g. Use, Soak, Cook, Combine, Check, Cook, Eat), they become commands. This results in computers commanding us to do things. They control our time and our agency in subtle (and sometimes overt) ways.

I’ve begun to use new language when I enter items into my to do list (in my case this is OmniFocus, but these suggestions would work with most software, I imagine, and also with handwritten lists). In the example below, I’ve shifted the language of each item in a sample list:

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 10.11.25 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 10.21.17 AM.png

When checking off an item that begins with “You promised to email Maria…” I feel as though I’m being a person who follows up on her promises. When checking off “Email Maria,” I feel as though I’ve just won another round of whack-a-mole. It used to be the case that I often felt disappointed in myself at the end of the day, despite the work I’d done. Now I actually feel better and I wonder if it is the new language I’m using. Checking off items now adds up to something more than winning whack-a-mole. It has become evidence that I am fulfilling promises, following up on good ideas, remembering my intentions—much more rewarding to me than “being productive.”

(2) FUTURE-Self compassion

Right now I am mostly treating OmniFocus as an external memory for my intentions. I try to craft my to do items so they remind me of who I wanted to be. I also try to give my future self agency to decide to do something different. A lot of my items begin with “You wanted…” or “You thought…” or “Consider…” so that I can decide what to do when I want to do something. Let’s take a real list as an example. In my old way of creating a list of things to read, each item would contain the name of the article and I’d check it off once I’d read it. Now, my reading list looks like this:

 
Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 10.53.56 AM.png
 

(3) A practice of kindness

While it’s much quicker to rattle off commands in a to do list, I’ve experienced a couple of interesting benefits crafting them this way. First, it gives me a chance to practice kindness every time I need to add an item to my to do list. Like centering on the breath to self-regulate attention, having something “to do” centers me on self-compassion over and over again. In turn, I become the recipient of kindness (from my past self to my present self) every time I look at my to do list. This provides a chance to experience gratitude and gives the gift of choosing what to do with my time.

 

 

I’m not at the point where opening OmniFocus brings as much excitement and possibility as looking at my pantry… perhaps I love cooking more than working and so it never will. However, I open the app with curiosity about what it is I thought I might like to do, which is such a different experience from feeling overwhelmed by all the things that need to be done.

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Some Reflections on Slow Technology

 
A few years ago, the meditation app I used was outmoded by an iOS update and the following warning appeared every time I used it.

A few years ago, the meditation app I used was outmoded by an iOS update and the following warning appeared every time I used it.

 

Most of the technology we use helps us do things better and faster. A car gets us where we're going with freedom and speed. A microwave cooks food in minutes, where if we used a stove or, even slower, an open fire, it could take hours. An email sends a message in seconds. If we were to put that message in the mail instead, we'd wait days for it to arrive. If we carried it by hand, or even on a pony like they used to, it could take a very very long time.

But valuing faster and better above all else creates a way of life that can miss out on life itself. For example, think of all the things you speed past in a car on your way somewhere. Or, think of all the things you might see and learn and do if you walked instead. Think of the learning that happens when you burn something you've cooked, or the primal and empowering experience of building a fire. Think of how differently you’d write an email if it took massive effort to get it to someone. Technology, which was born out of industry, war, and office environments, rightly prizes efficiency and function, but somehow we haven't fully integrated the fact that we live significant parts of our lives in homes and backyards, families and friendships.

A concept I've been reading about lately, slow technology, challenges these values and asks the question, what if we designed technology for the experiences we have while using it? What might change if we reconsidered the idea that everything needs to get done as quickly as possible? Lars Hallnäs, a well known researcher of slow technology, has a popular paper he wrote with Johan Redström called Slow Technology — Designing for Reflection. There's also paper that's barely been cited that I really like, On the Philosophy of Slow Technology. I’ve recently read both (plus a few others) and I'd like to use this post to share what I currently understand about slow technology — both as an exercise in my own learning and also to serve as a reference in the future when I discuss the concept in panels and presentations. Prepare to dive into some specifics here, but trust me to not be overly academic about it.

There are three concepts I think are important to understand when it comes to slow tech:

  1. Slow tech is not developed, it is enveloped.

  2. Slow tech values different things than we're used to.

  3. Slow tech may be beneficially frustrating.


DEVELOPMENT vs. ENVELOPMENT

When technology is developed, it is solution-oriented.

 

We have a problem:

getting from here to there

feeding ourselves

communicating w/someone far away

Technology solves it:

with a car

with a microwave

with an email

 

But when technology is enveloped, it is experience-oriented. We consider things beyond what it would take to send a message, feed ourselves, or get us here from there as quickly as possible. Instead of saving every bit of time we can, we intentionally fill it with playful, reflective, or profound experiences enabled by technology. With slow technology, we can ask how the experience of using technology enhances our lives. It's not what the technology does, it’s who, how, and what we are while doing things with it.

VALUES

When technology is enveloped, it's like we draw a big circle around our use of it and everything in that circle becomes alive and worthy. Hallnäs points out that normally, we don't value anything inside the circle if it's not efficient or functional, but he suggests that there are all sorts of valuable things inside. For example:

  • We might value understanding how the technology works and why it does what it does.

  • We might value how the technology inspires or requires us to reflect on it (or ourselves).

  • We might value being thoughtful about how we apply or use the technology.

  • We might value increasing our awareness of the consequences of technology.

  • We might value craft — our masterful and artful use of a technology.

When we value things like reflection or craft — when efficiency or ease of use is not our number one value — we design technology differently. In fact, we might design it to be purposefully difficult or mysterious. Why would we do this? Because the experience of being human is not a race to the end of our lives. We might consider designing technology and tools so that the use of them gives us meaning along the way.

BENEFICIALLY FRUSTRATING

Another well known researcher of slow technology is Will Odom. He wrote a paper about design called, Designing for Slowness, Anticipation and Re-visitation: A Long Term Field Study of the Photobox that explores what we do when we encounter and live with a slow technology.

The Photobox is a wooden box that sits in a prominent space in a home and every once in a while, it quietly prints a photo from the digital photo archive of the people who live there. They open the lid, look for a photo, and usually don't find one, but every once in a while (four or five times a month), they do.

Odom studied how folks experienced having the Photobox in their homes for over a year and he found that at first people were excited and eager to use the Photobox, but they soon became frustrated because of how slow and recalcitrant it was. This frustration lasted up to six months for some. Eventually, though, all households (admittedly there were only three), arrived at a place of acceptance and appreciation of the Photobox and its slow and random ways.

Perhaps more importantly than feelings like excitement, disappointment, frustration, and acceptance, were the lived experiences that accompanied them. First, users had to be with their emotions. Short of chucking the Photobox out a window, their impatience had no recourse with the machine. And when new photos arrived, some were surprised by images they'd long wished to forget and they had to experience that. One user began to put the photos under her pillow, another couple put them on their fridge. The device gave presence and potency to photos of a former life lived, enabling thoughtfulness and reflection — all arguably good things that may never have been possible with a “fast” approach.


THIS APP MAY SLOW DOWN YOUR IPHONE

While I tend to be cynical about technology doing much good in a marketplace that ruthlessly vies for our attention and manipulates our behaviors and attitudes (more on this joyful topic, soon!), the idea of slow technology is inspiring to me. It makes me wonder what it would be like to have technology on my side instead of constantly wrestling with it to achieve my goals of being self-aware, loving, and present to my life while living it.

The following papers might be fun to dig into if you’re the sort to do such things…

Hallnäs, L. (2015). On the Philosophy of Slow Technology. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae-Social Analysis, 5(1). Retrieved from http://www.acta.sapientia.ro/acta-social/C5-1/social51-03.pdf

Hallnäs, L., & Redström, J. (2001). Slow technology--designing for reflection. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 5(3), 201–212.

Odom, W. T., et al. (2014). Designing for Slowness, Anticipation and Re-visitation: A Long Term Field Study of the Photobox. In Proceedings of the 32Nd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1961–1970). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

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Some Ideas About How Environments are Restorative

mountain.png

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Trains, Bicycles, and Libraries

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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. 

THE TRAIN

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

THE BICYCLE

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.

THE LIBRARY

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.

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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.

FOR EXAMPLE, I'VE BEGUN TO FREEWRITE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY COMPOSITIONS BY PUTTING ON THE CAPS LOCK AND WRITING WHATEVER'S ON MY MIND FOR A LITTLE WHILE BEFORE GOING BACK TO 'REGULAR' WRITING MODE.

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."

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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.

 

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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.

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