Regaining the lost value of reflection

I don’t know about you, but all through my teen and adult life I’ve felt like I am just chasing the next thing.

In secondary school we needed good grades to get into the high school speciality of our choice, and if we didn’t do vocational high school/trade school, we’d need to chase grades again to get into a college or university.

Once at the college or university, competition increased even more, and it was an ever-stressful spiral of reading, exams, next semester, reading, exams, next semester. At work, this did not decrease. If anything, it became even worse, chasing multiple deadlines, following up with colleagues and helping people.

The danger of not catching your breath

I don’t know about you, but I was strongly influenced by my parents as a teen. My choices, although I did not realize it at the time and thought many of them were my own values, we heavily laden with conservative ideas of “safe employment” and “value to society” (to them interpreted as me pursuing a STEM field and being heavily depressed, even though my love for growing plants and creating had been there all along).

As Jim Carrey so aptly put it: You can fail doing the thing you don’t want, so you might as well do the thing you love.

The problem was, after years of always chasing the next thing(tm), I was no longer in touch with what I wanted! I had stopped listening to myself because it was safer to be numb and just get through one day at a time.

That is no way I want to spend the rest of my life!

Reflecting is hard work

Especially if you haven’t done it in a while. If ever. It takes practice, like an atrophied muscle you’ve neglected for so long, finally stretching and growing again.

Tools that can help

When I first started doing the Free Permaculture Course, I also started receiving a few mails from course creator Heather Jo Flores. The emails were valuable and relevant to me, so I signed up for a couple more.

During this extraordinary situation we find ourselves in, I got an email advertising all the courses she provides using the pay what you want (PWYW) abundance model, available for free, but asking for a donation from $10 to $50. One of them was the Find Your Eco-Niche (not an ad or an affiliate, I just got so much value from this content, I want to share it with you).

Over the last handful of years, I have slowly woken from my numb slumber mentioned above and realized that my childhood dream of living off the land and growing most of my own food in a sustainable way is not an impossible pipe-dream. But what I specifically wanted to do in order to earn a living was still a mystery to me. I wanted it to be ecofrugal, valuable to other ecofrugal-minded friends and especially do no harm to our precious environment. But how do you narrow it down from there?

Attitudinal principles

While the questions you reflect on obviously depend on what you want to figure out, there is one permaculture principle/tool I have learned that I have found especially valuable. They are often called the attitudinal principles, and goes something like this:

  • The designer limits the yield
  • The problem is the solution (you don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency)
  • Mistakes are tools for learning
  • Make the least change for the greatest effect
  • Information is a resource

There are a lot more principles than this, and different people will have different interpretations and different numbers of principles. But I’ve found that these five really help when I want to try to look at something from a different angle.

The Easter I did nothing but write

Like so many working from home right now, I am often left exhausted and feeling like I am not doing enough at the end of a workday, leading to blurred boundaries between office and downtime. Luckily for me, there were a couple national holidays coming up during Easter, so I planned to do the course then.

You have to do the work!

I’m a good student. I say that without any hint of smugness or arrogance. I simply mean that I am good at sitting down and being fed information from books, presentations or videos. It is what I have been doing most of my life after all. To shut up, sit down, and listen. There, that’s a good pupil/student/robot.

I don’t know about your country, but the Norwegian school system does not encourage independent thinking at all.

So as someone used to ingesting information, the Eco-niche course of three daily articles of a short video and an article initially seemed like not a lot at all. How could this teach me all I wanted to know?

That’s when you notice the worksheet, an innocuous looking link to a PDF with questions and prompts for you to reflect on.

Again, when you’re used to questions that have black and white answers, it doesn’t seem like a lot, just a few pages. But once you sit down and think about the questions honestly, you realize the answers can only be found deep within yourself, and it is hard work!

A student meets her edge

I thought I could blast through the worksheets in a few days. Maybe even do more than one in the same day!

Boy, was I wrong.

It was not that the worksheets took so much time that there was none left for another (although they certainly took a considerable amount of time once I committed to doing them honestly and properly). But rather it was because my brain felt so stretched and used in a way it had not before, that I could not do another while still honoring my commitment to do them honestly and properly.

All honest reflecting is like that, especially if you haven’t done it in a long, long time.

The good news!

Yes, it is true that our busy lives and an unhealthy obsession with productivity make it difficult to carve time to sit with ourselves. But the good news is that it gets better!

As I write this, it is five weeks since Easter and my first, honest foray into deeper introspection, and I have already noticed that it has gotten a lot easier. I have been able to find small wins and solutions in interpersonal issues that would previously just make me recoil with anxiety and dread. My values and goals get more refined and able to take more factors into consideration.

Where I previously would honestly answer “I don’t know” when asked what I want to do, I am now able to slowly start the process of listening to myself.

It can be difficult when you’re stuck working a job that is not in alignment with your newfound values (I hear you), but it is better than not doing the work at all. If I hadn’t started the work, I might never be able to carve a path towards what I really want.

Working on paying off our debt and not accruing new debt were easy decisions, we knew they would provide us more freedom down the road. It was a black and white answer and we took it. What to do with that freedom and how to actually get where we wanted to be a much more difficult path.

Give it a try

So I encourage you to try to set aside even five minutes to do some honest reflecting. For me, I’ve found that journaling is not quite enough, as I will avoid difficult reflection and often reiterate things that happened and how I felt. For me, honest reflection begins with being faced with one or more difficult and targeted questions. As I experience small wins, I am more able to use the tools I’ve learned to reflect on more difficult, personal problems.

It’s a difficult skill to learn and to master in earnest, but well worth the effort if you are willing to put in the time. And the best of all, you do all the work, it doesn’t need to cost a dime!

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