The Year of ReinventionThe recent barrage of crises in national housing, the global economy, and key industries like banking, health care and automobiles, kicked off 2009 on a precarious and fearful note. Yet, as we turn the corner on the second half of the year, the concern over a second depression has largely subsided. And, with a new administration at the helm, hope is the mantra of the day. With our financial system and leading industries facing major overhauls, the time is ripe for personal reinvention as well. For some individuals, this opportunity has been thrust upon them by the loss of a job or home, a substantial pay cut, or a shattering drop in savings or retirement values that were tied to the stock market. For others, the anxious climate has simply shined a glaring light on years of living in a fog of seemingly endless abundance. Since it is not likely that we as individuals will benefit from the government’s bailout binge, the responsibility for stimulating our own economies and day-to-day lives falls squarely upon our own shoulders.
Our collective love affair with financial success has been revealed as the superficial and transient sense of security it has always been. As Jennifer Louden, personal coach and author of The Life Organizer, notes, “The things we counted on to define ourselves and give our lives meaning have gone away or are going away.” She adds, “I believe that the invitation in this great global meltdown is to turn away from the things that normally give us a feeling of safety and security. We habitually transfer our well-being to things that are ‘out there’—career, money, possessions, relationships. But well-being is not out there, it’s always here [within].”
Author and women’s wellness expert, Deborah Kern, Ph.D explains, “From a global perspective, what’s happening is that old dysfunctional systems are crumbling, as they need to, because they are not working. Any systems that are unilaterally patriarchal are dying, and giving way to a more partnership based model.” The old systems of fear and domination are transitioning to a new paradigm of cooperation and interdependence. The current financial and environmental situations highlight this perfectly. The tremendous international impact of last September’s Wall Street crisis, and the now impossible-to-ignore worldwide environmental implications of our addiction to oil are a testament to this truth. We can no longer pretend that our actions aren’t affecting others, both as individuals and as a country. We are realizing in no uncertain terms that we are not separate. The upside of this is that we are also not alone.
My family experienced the initial economic downturn quite poignantly, because, in the wake of Hurricane Gustav, we were simultaneously experiencing a tremendous gasoline shortage. For the first half of October, most of the stations in our area had no gas. When one station would finally get a delivery, people would wait hours to fill up their tanks, and be grateful to pay upwards of four dollars a gallon for it. The transit system saw a huge rise in bus riders, and bicycles and pedestrians filled the sidewalks. We opted to become a single car family for the time, utilizing only our most fuel-efficient car, and driving only when and where absolutely necessary. It was a powerful lesson in conservation, and a reminder of just how vulnerable we are to Mother Nature.
Despite the rising cost of gas and food, my husband and I initially found ourselves relatively unaffected by the financial fiasco. We work non-traditional jobs, don’t have company 401Ks, and make a practice of living within our means and not accumulating credit card debt. But by mid-winter, the crunch caught up with us. Just two weeks before my last day of work for maternity leave, my husband’s employer eliminated part of his responsibilities, and a considerable chunk of his income at the same time. Between this cut and my unpaid leave we watched our projected household income get slashed by about a third. Despite all my bodywork and yoga training, all my studies of mindfulness and meditation, by the first weekend of my semi-retirement I was in a panic. All I could think of was what I was going to have to give up. I had already postponed my career and given up my income, now we were going to be living on even less? I kept imagining myself as a sleep-deprived stay at home mom, without even enough spending cash to meet a friend for coffee. Fear had definitely taken over.
Obviously, operating from such a negative emotional state prevents one from thinking very clearly. (Could I have been any more dramatic?) Nevertheless, its important to know how can we shift from a feeling of powerlessness and victimization to becoming proactive creators of the lives we want to be living. Louden suggests, “The first place to start is in our bodies.... Feel your feet on the ground, just notice, here is the world, today is a new day. Being a victim is one of the challenges we have to give up. We can choose our response. Are we going to collapse? Or can we say, ‘Wow, this is hard and scary, but I’m not going to let it crush me.’”
Louden’s advice echoes that of mindfulness guru Thich Nhat Hanh, who teaches bringing mindfulness into every moment by being present, by devoting 100% of your attention to the activity or the company at hand. When Kern feels overwhelmed or challenged, she stops and asks herself, “What is good right now?” The practice of stopping, even momentarily, to acknowledge and accept what is, and to be grateful for it, keeps us grounded in the present and aware of where we are. Try it! Right now, pause and acknowledge all that you have and all that is right in your world. Take a moment to feel grateful. Simply shifting your attention to what you already have, and to what is good and right in your life right now gives you a sense of power, and helps you operate from a place of gratitude instead of greed. This also helps you come face to face with your current state of health, wealth and happiness. Because, as Kern observes, “You can’t hate where you are and get where you want to go.”
Amy Jo Karn, an Oakland-based artist, was working part-time for a small business after the birth of her daughter last year. But the job, which served her well during late pregnancy, became increasingly dissatisfying in the months after she returned. She wasn’t using the skills she valued most in herself, and the pay wasn’t substantial enough to really make it worthwhile to be away from her daughter. Besides, she longed to return full time to more creative endeavors, her pet portraits and a burgeoning interest in freelance graphic design. She recruited a colleague to give her a few lessons in Adobe Illustrator, and when an opportunity arose at her job for her to request to be “let go” she took it. With some childcare help from her mom, Karn is now making 80% of her income from creative endeavors. She says, “It does seem a bit foolish to quit a regular paycheck job in the midst of this awful economy, but so far so good, and I’m much happier. I feel less stressed, and I get to be there for all those little milestones with Laurel (her daughter).”
Karn’s story illustrates what Kern sees as another step in the process of reinvention: daring to dream. Instead of making empty New Year’s resolutions each year, Kern goes through a practice she calls futuring (see below). She says, “I really believe that people don’t take enough time to dream. Instead of creating their desires, they stay focused on what is and so they continue to create what is.” She encourages clients to “stay in that desire, to really feel it.” She says, “Resist the urge to dwell on why it can’t happen and instead determine what needs to be done to make it happen.” For Karn, this meant putting more energy into her art business, taking the time to learn a new skill, and recruiting the support of her mom and her husband to help her make the leap. The benefits have had a ripple effect on her whole life: because she no longer commutes, she saves money and reduces emissions. She has more freedom and flexibility with her schedule. She’s even experiencing benefits to her health since her stress levels are lower and she can nurse as needed throughout the day. Though self-employment is undoubtedly scary at times, it is also very empowering. And unquestionably, her daily life is much more meaningful and fulfilling than it was just a few months ago.
Another key component in the process of reinvention is developing a more healthy relationship with money. In their seminal book, Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin write, “In fact, we moderns meet most of our needs, wants and desires through money. We buy everything from hope to happiness. We no longer live life. We consume it.” Clearly, over-consumption has caught up with us. In truth, it’s been catching up to us for a while now, but we’ve successfully ignored it. We’ve ignored our tendency to spend beyond our means, and to overindulge not only in material goods but also in food and drink, and in precious natural resources. Our collective attempts to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ have landed many people in debt, taken a toll on the environment, and along the way, have sacrificed our connection to a more meaningful life. As Buddhist monk and peace activist Hanh explains in his book, The Art of Power “We are what we consume. If we look deeply into the items we consume every day, we come to know our own nature well.”
The fact is, most of us consume and spend pretty unconsciously. But whether we are spending time or money, our choices reflect our values, and directly affect how meaningful and fulfilling our day-to-day lives are. Taking a step back to honestly look at where your time and money are going is an excellent exercise to bring more awareness into your habits, and the first step to bring about change. Dominguez and Robin advocate keeping a log of every cent that comes into and out of your life, every day, every week, every month. Though perhaps overkill, the exercise provides you with an unbiased account of where all the money you earn is actually going. The same can be done with time (see exercise below). Realizing that you have a $75 per month coffee habit or are only spending an hour each day sharing quality time with your spouse or children can be a powerful motivator for change.
As Don Caron, Senior VP of Wealth Management at Smith Barney, argues, “You have to be honest with yourself. It’s like being frustrated with your weight but never stepping on the scale. If you don’t know, you can’t make changes.” Caron advises clients to take a hard look at their income versus their spending habits and to ask themselves, “What kind of life do I want? Do I want to live on the ropes, or do I want to live comfortably?” He adds, “Like your health, it is important to take a holistic approach to your finances. Look at what your money means to you, what it means to your family, and always have a focus on what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Back in the wake of my own emotional meltdown, my husband, who could find the silver lining on even the cloudiest day, brought me back to reality. We sat down and took an honest look at our finances. Then we explored ways to reduce our bills—taking advantage of dropping interest rates to refinance our home, for example—and shifted some money from my savings to be used as a spending fund during my time off. He reminded me of the more important work I would be doing in running our household and being able to devote all my time and energy to the new baby and our four year old daughter. Yes, we had to make some sacrifices, but taking an honest look at where things are really helped take the edge off the fear. Once I saw the forest for the trees, I was able to embrace the challenge to live a little differently, and started seeing opportunity where I had previously only seen lack.
Money, after all, is simply a means to an end. In and of itself, it does not provide nourishment, good health, security, safety or joy. Yet we rely on it, obsess over it, and let it cause all manner of stress in our lives. When money or credit are scarce, we are forced to become more resourceful. The trick, of course is to see this as an opportunity rather than a curse. We can get creative with what we have, learn to do things for ourselves, or reach out to a neighbor who might have a skill or a tool they are willing to share. We can learn to do more with less. As Hanh writes, “We have to eat, drink, and consume, but if we do it unmindfully, we may destroy our body and our consciousness, showing lack of gratitude toward our ancestors, our parents and future generations.”
The election of Barack Obama showed the world that we as a nation are hungry for hope and change. In his inaugural address, Obama called upon all Americans to usher in a new era of accountability and responsibility. Since his election, his administration has sponsored and encouraged various ‘service days’ to encourage community service and citizen involvement in creating change. These tenets—accountability, responsibility and service are a sharp contrast to the “go out and shop” mentality of the last few decades. Indeed, our culture of consumption has wreaked havoc on our bodies, finances and the planet. What we need now is to reinvent ourselves and the way we live in the world. Our definition of success, our relationships to work and money, and our connection to others and to spirit are deeply in need of a fresh perspective. Simply reading this piece and walking away aren’t enough. We must take the time to really do the work. After all, as Annie Dillard once said, “How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.”
Establishing priorities - compliments of Dr. Deborah Kern
The first step is to write out all of your priorities. Make it detailed, and specific to you and your family. Now look at your planner or day timer. If you don’t have one, create a 24 hour log and note where your time is actually going. “For most of us,” notes Kern, “We are spending time on things that aren’t really our priorities. The minutia fills up our days and doesn’t leave enough room for priorities.” If this is the case for you, try scheduling in the activities that reflect your priorities. Start your day with yoga or meditation. Schedule in lunch or dinner with your spouse. Allow time for making personal phone calls to friends and relatives so that you can stay connected. Kern has found that if we don’t schedule in these activities, they often slip out of our day.
Futuring - compliments of Dr. Deborah Kern
This exercise allows you to dream and envision your life, as you want it, ten years from now. The first step is to create postcards or sheets of paper with the following years written on them: 2019, 2016, 2013 and 2011. Place them in the hallway or another large room in chronological order. Standing at the base of 2011, move all the way to 2019 and picture your life in that year. How old will you be? How old are your spouse and children? Where will you be living? Will you still be working? Where do you vacation? What does a typical day look like? Then move back to 2016, and imagine what you will have to be doing at this point in order to have the life you dream of in 2019. Then move back to 2013 and again, imagine what will have to be happening three years from now in order to accomplish what you see in 2019. By the time you reach 2011, you will likely have some clear projects and plans in mind for what will need to be done in order to achieve your dreams in 2016 and 2019. Kern says, “Taking the time to complete these exercises helps fuel the specific steps that need to happen now.”