Building new habits

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If you do something on a regular basis, it eventually turns into a habit. Or so I expect. I guess you just have to start somewhere even if in the beginning it is easier said than done. The goals I set for myself this time are more of a mental kind:

1. Be more mindful of ordinary things, small things, daily things, beautiful things.

2. Develop the feeling of gratefulness.

3. Give proofs of love.

4. Act as I want to feel (for some reason, that’s the hardest one for me).

5. Ask before buying anything what value it brings to my life.

6. Find my creative self in daily things I do.

7. Be less fearful of failures of any kind.

8. Don’t expect praise.

9. Nip the negative thoughts in the bud.

10. Live gracefully.

The idea is that I’m going to make a conscious effort every day to do one or more of these things from the list and see if it becomes gradually easier to act and think like this naturally.

 

About atoms and the past

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Here’s a thought. Astronomers are historians. Historians of the universe. They dig into the past for evidence so as to get insight into the origins of our universe. Through their telescopes they search the sky for traces of a distant past. They read and interpret the light.

We need memories of the past in order to live in the present. We seek to know our origins, where we are coming from, who we are and where we are going. It’s the fundamental question of humanity. Simultaneously, just like astronomers, each of us wonders at some point of our lives about our past(s) – people, places and circumstances which years and years ago (or maybe fairly recently) gave a start to who we are today.

We seek the past so as to locate ourselves in the present. Each of us is a universe, a constellation of stars, an accumulation of ever-changing and renewing atoms, impressed with memories.

Memories of the Future

A year ago or so, a phrase suddenly popped in my head – “Memories of the Future”. I had no idea where it came from or what made me think of it. It just appeared.

As I often do on such occasions, I decided to google it just to find out that somebody else had already thought of this phrase and coined it as a title for a short story some 80 years ago.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky . I know, you have no idea how to even begin to read this name. He was born in 1887 in Ukraine to his Catholic Polish parents and later on moved to Moscow in 1922. His breathtaking philosophical stories, full of surrealist imagination and irony, had never been published in his lifetime. They were considered too unorthodox to bypass the censorship. The editors consistently rejected his fiction on the account that it was “untimely” or did not submit to the demands of socialist realism. As Krzhizhanovsky himself joked, he was known for being unknown. His writings remained unearthed, stacked up in a lower berth in the State Archives, until around 1975 and were first published some 15 years later.

So I decided to buy a collection of his short stories, which carried the same title: “Memories of the Future”.

A character in one of the stories of Krzhizhanovsky says, “If a title is right, the whole text will hang on it, like a coat on a peg”. Apparently, Krzhizhanovsky was, too, obsessed with titles – he even published a book on the art of composing titles (the only book of his to have been published in his lifetime).

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I was shocked I had never heard of him before. His writing is so good that you want to extend the pleasure of reading; you want to savor it. There were some stories and images that I will never be able to get out of my head. The Eiffel Tower on an escape, a man getting lost in an ever-expanding space of his small room, a character in a story running away from an author, literary critics being defined as beings with a poor sense of identity who seek to hide away their non-existence, a passenger getting on the wrong train and ending up in a place where night is day and the backs of all facts have been broken. It reads like a mixture of Borges and Kafka, yet it definitely carries its own authentic feel and mood.

I live in such a distant future that my future seems to me past, spent, and turned to dust. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

I am still startled that I discovered him by complete chance. Or perhaps it was not a complete coincidence since I have been for some time drawn into themes that have something to do with temporal dimension, the sense of passing time and memories.

In the end, Krzhizhanovsky was right: his writing, considered “untimely” in his own lifetime, becomes contemporary now.

Guilt-free un-productivity

I have a bad habit of scrutinizing and evaluating how well the day went by counting how many tasks (which are often piled up in endless lists) have been completed. The more work has been done, the better (or the more valuable) the day appears to be. This creates a problem on the days when I have a foggy mind or I don’t feel like doing any work. Yet instead of having a break and relaxing I feel immense guilt about not doing what I am supposed to and not being able to concentrate. All forms and shapes of procrastination begin to take root, which only increases the feeling of being unproductive and ineffective.

I realized that what really helps me to overcome this pattern of reasoning is the courage to stop thinking along the lines “the value of my time is measured by the amount of work done”. It is not that things do not need to be done. They do and whether we want it or not we just have to mobilize and get them done and over with. But sometimes it simply does not help to force oneself to an activity when it is clear that nothing good will come out of it. You know you will not be productive or you will waste a lot of time and energy to complete the task in this particular time, while a much better result could be achieved more easily and spending less time after a little guilt-free break. For instance, you may have a walk in a park or you may make yourself a cup of tea and read a chapter from your favorite book. The essential part of this break is that it should be absolutely guilt-free, not shaded by the thoughts of how many more “useful” things you could have done in the meantime.

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Note to self: Learn to recognize and cherish the value of time spent not working. Although work can be at times inspiring and provide meaning to our lives, but work is not all there is to life.

‘That is all’

Today I put myself to the task of noticing how the present moment looks and feels like. Here’s what I found.

The bliss of a slow autumn Sunday. Pale sky, silhouettes of yellowing trees outside, sound of wind; life goes on.

Neighbors chattering outside the door, quiet radio buzz, crisp air coming through an open window, iridescent afternoon sun, heather shrubs on the windowsill.

Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, that is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

About fleeting moments

Lately I’ve been watching and re-watching the films of Jonas Mekas – or of the so-called “godfather of American avant-garde cinema”. The all-time favorites of mine are As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000) and Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971–72). His films are built as video-diaries that seek to capture the beauty of what is ordinary – what appears, at first sight, to be the most mundane and ephemeral moments of our everyday life.

This week I’ve had an unexpected chance to attend a public talk with Mekas himself. When somebody commented on his immense “archive” of footage and asked how he chooses among all of it what deserves to be included into a film, he replied “I’m not an archivist. I’m not a collector. […] There is no rationality or order in my choices. […] There are no flashy things, no big drama in my films. The beauty of ordinary moments is hardest to capture”.

Here’s a small excerpt from his film:

So it made me wonder: is this the right strategy to follow if we want to notice the fleeting beauty of the mundane and the evanescent in our own lives?

Let me ask you something. How many times today were you distracted by your experience of the present moment? I suspect that the count is critically low. Our minds are constantly busy thinking about the past and worrying about the future. We multitask. We make lists of things to do and worry when they are not done. We spend lots of energy feeling unsatisfied with our lives and we try to fix this by spending our hard-earned cash and buying stuff that we do not need. It gives us a brief satisfaction until we just want the next thing. Who has time for “the present” when there are so many things to be done, so many tasks to be fulfilled? It’s almost as if you have to put up a front of a “busy person” if you want to be accepted as a respectable and worthy person. You should always be in a rush and let everyone know how stressed out you are by a never-ending flow of duties. And don’t forget to feel guilty if you are not busy enough and actually have the time to experience “now and here” – to be mindful.

Contrary to our fixation on the “doing” mode, the films of Jonas Mekas are a meditation of being in and noticing the present. They flow gently and quietly, filled with random moments of daily life. And exactly because there are no big flashy things in their storyline, these constellations of ephemeral randomness reveal what’s beautiful in our own mundane lives.

I’m getting a video camera to record my story of the ordinary.

An experiment

“She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”

      – Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

This blog is part of my experiment in trying to be better at living. At shaking off fears, unnecessary worries (plenty of those here), capturing the beauty of the fleeting moment, overcoming depressive thoughts, boredom and frustration.

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I have to admit I have been dealing with these issues quite poorly until recently. I was used to the strategy of “walling off” everything that puts me into a stressful situation. I incessantly tried to “work it out”, find a solution, a fix for my problems. And somehow it did not seem to help. It made me feel even more frustrated because I had to admit I could not deal with the issues as I would have wished to. It was out of control and it worried me.

After I have stopped pushing myself hard in order to work it out, I realized that the main problem was that I fell victim to some widespread (and also false) ideas about how an appropriate, “correct” life should look like. Everybody around me seemed to do the same, so I just followed the pattern. A 9-to-5 workday at your desk, most of which you probably spend procrastinating, checking Facebook and feeling completely uninspired and unmotivated (because you have to sit at that desk form 9 to 5); rushing to gym because you need to stay in shape which consequently makes it into a duty rather than something you would do willingly; seeking for a relief from stress by shopping for things that you don’t really need and that won’t make your life better in any way.

The same amount of work could be probably done in half the time spent at the office, and, as a result, you would have more time to try out new things, to develop yourself, to spend more time with the people you love. Fitness and health could be maintained by spending more time outdoors, walking or jogging in nature and simply gratifying yourself less with rich foods. You would also be surprised to find out how little stuff you need if every time when you are about to buy something you would stop to ponder – do I really need this and what value does this bring to my life?

Our lives are full of unnecessary stuff and useless conventions that only create more burdens instead of making our human condition more bearable and meaningful. This blog is for anyone who recognizes the need to rethink how we spend our (scarce and valuable) time.

Illustration by Virginia Kraljevic