Oct 30, 2009

World Gym: Making the Most of Our Beautiful World

A friend mentioned the idea of a world gym the other day and our conversation got my wheels spinning. The concept of a world gym as it relates to voluntary simplicity is simple - if we view the natural world around us as our own personal gym, we might be more apt to get active and be happier as a result. It's all about a shift in perspective. Instead of complaining about not being able to find a close parking spot somewhere, challenge yourself to park as far away as possible from your destination, take a few deep breaths, and enjoy the benefits of a little sunshine and extra walking.

What do you think? How do you maintain your fitness by using the natural world around you as your gym? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.

Oct 28, 2009

Start Somewhere. Do Something.

Procrastination is a specialty to mine. One of the most pertinent lessons I've learned about voluntary simplicity and social justice is that when it comes to some things, there really is not time to wait. So start somewhere. Do something. Here are two things you can do now to start simplifying your life, while simultaneously contributing to a more socially just world.

1. Educate yourself about the food you use to fuel your body. Read The China Study.Read Fast Food Nation. Watch Food Inc. Do all of these texts have social and political agendas? Sure they do. For the most part, they are political and social agendas I happen to believe in. You can and should read them with a critical eye. I try not to take in any information I absorb at face value any more. Ask questions. Visit your local farmer's market. Talk to the farmers and ask them about their farming practices. Plant something. Find out about CSAs in your area. Buy organic AND locally grown when at all possible. The organic produce section in my local grocery store keeps getting larger and larger and the price differential between the organic and non-organic products keeps getting smaller.

2. Buy used, borrow, and share goods whenever possible. Really. Advertising is a powerful, powerful thing in U.S. society. Most of what we are told we need we would probably be better off without. Think critically about what and how you buy things. Boycott buying from companies that exploit workers. If that seems to daunting, pick one company that you frequently purchase goods from and research its business practices. Share what you learn with those you love and then adjust your purchasing, or lack there of, accordingly.

Oct 26, 2009

Personal Challenge #2: Yoga and Quiet Contemplation (Week 1 of 4)

For the next four weeks, my personal challenge will focus on inward simplicity. I am committing to ten minutes of yoga and/or quiet contemplation every day for the next four weeks.

For some, this challenge might not even seem worthy of the title "challenge." However, in our modern day of technology and constant productivity, I think it is easy to forget the value of slowing down. (Speaking of slowing down, Leo over at Zen Habits just wrote another great post today about the Slow Food Movement. Check it out. It's great.) Anyway, I read an article not too long ago about the intention of breath that made me realize that even when I think I'm slowing down or resting, rarely do I take the time to just breathe and be.

I'll be updating my progress on this challenge every Monday for the next four weeks, including reflections on what I've learned and how it connects to voluntary simplicity and/or social justice. Please join me in this challenge and share your progress in the comments section. I'm also looking for tips from those who have a lot of experience with yoga, meditation, or any other form of quieting the body and mind. Share away.

I've been very inspired by the comments, feedback, and advice I received in response to my Paring Down the Stuff Challenge. I will continue to donate or give away 10 items a week until I am down to a place where I feel comfortable and at peace with my stuff. Stay tuned for future posts related to my progress...

Oct 21, 2009

Lessons Learned about Saving

I knew, a few years back, that I wanted to take a year off of full-time work to finish up my last degree. I also knew that I needed to be able to save up a substantial amount of money in a very short period of time to make this wish a reality. Before I set my mind on this goal, I had never been much good at saving money. At all. And yet in six months, with a little effort and a few lifestyle changes, I was able to slash my expenses and create a savings account with twelve months worth of living expenses. I adjusted so well to my frugal lifestyle that I didn't even spend all I had saved last year and still have six months' living expenses in a nice CD earning some interest. I'm not writing this to brag about my ability to save money, but I did want to reflect on my accomplishment to say that if I can do it, anyone can. I will admit that there were certain circumstances in my life that made the accomplishment of my goal easier than the challenges that a lot of people face. Aside from some astronomical student loans, I didn't have any other debt at the time. I was also living rent-free. Yet I had been living this way for two years already and hadn't managed to save the money. So what changed in my life that helped me go from being a consumer with no savings to a frugal spender with a substantial amount of savings? I can point to two things that jump out at me the most:

1. If you have a tangible financial goal to work towards, it makes saving money a lot easier. Pick your goal, whatever it may be. My only suggestion is that it is somehow tied to your own happiness and freedom. If you cannot make the connection between your financial goals and your personal happiness, I think it's a lot harder to have the discipline to save and cut in the ways you need to. For me, the dream of being an almost-full-time student for one last year of my life was all the incentive I needed to buckle down, cut my expenses, and save away.
2. Write down every penny you spend. Writing down every penny you spend can be an eye-opening experience in and of itself. And if you are able to connect your expenditures to your values and goals, or lack-thereof, I think you can learn even more about yourself and why you are in whatever financial situation you are in. There is so much that is out of our control when it comes to financial circumstances, but there is also so much we CAN do to control where we spend our money. I truly believe that how and where we spend our money speaks volumes about what we value and what type of world we want to leave to future generations. A few changes I made right away were that I cut out daily trips to Starbucks (now an expensive cup of coffee feels like a luxurious treat instead of a daily habit) and stopped going shopping. I wasn't a big shopper anyway, but I found that anytime I walked into Target, the lure of persuasive advertising and the feel that there was something that I just needed to have would get the best of me. So I stopped. I can honestly say that my life was only enriched as a result. I found that instead of feeling deprived, I became empowered by taking control of my finances and understanding where my money was going and why.

Oct 20, 2009

Don't Get Organized?

Don't get organized? That's right! The Happiness Project just published a great post that advocates getting rid of things instead of organizing them. I found this post compelling. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Oct 19, 2009

Changes: Paring Down the Stuff Update Week 4 of 4

"Everyone thinks of changing the world,
but no one thinks of changing himself."
- Leo Tolstoy

I committed myself to a "Paring Down the Stuff" challenge for four weeks. The premise was simple. I was to give away, donate, or otherwise recycle ten items a week. The challenge itself was pretty simple, but I did learn a lot about myself in the process. I found that every week it got increasingly harder to find ten items to part with. This was unexpected for three reasons. First of all, as I've written before, I've already donated over 50% of all my personal possessions in the past year or so. Secondly, I like giving things away. It gives me a little rush. Third of all, I write and think frequently about simple living and I know that I still have a long way to go in so many areas, including paring down my things.

So, why was it so hard to find 40 items to part with? I can't answer this question, but I can reflect on the words of Tolstoy, who wrote that "everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Although I don't agree wholeheartedly with Tolstoy's claim, I will contend that it is often harder to look at your own life than it is to talk about larger societal problems. That being said, this is what this personal challenge has taught me:

1. Most of the time, it is easier not to buy things in the first place. Yes, getting rid of things can be fun. But culling through my clothes again and again has reminded me that had I not stepped into the store to purchase some of these items in the first place, I would not have to be sorting through them... and getting rid of them... and wondering how much money I have spent on unneeded clothes over the past decade.
2. We all have a weakness when it comes to accumulating stuff. Mine happens to be books and things related to exercise and fitness. Of course, since exercise and reading rank in my top five preferred activities, I feel okay about this... right now. I actually had a lot of fun going through books, reminiscing with myself about what I've learned from all I've read, and what I've been able to teach others about life through the medium of great literature. Oh, and the exercise stuff... I was able to get rid of some old race t-shirts, but for some reason I still think I need to have two weeks worth of exercise clothes in stock. You know, just in case the washing machine breaks or something. I don't like to work out in sweaty or stinky tops. Before you pass judgement, remind me about hand-washing clothes in the sink, or suggest that there are worse things than wearing the same running top two days in a row, I want to remind you that I said I had a long way to go with some of this stuff...
3. Consciously thinking about our spending and accumulating patterns can teach us a lot about ourselves and our role in advancing social justice in our world. I believe we need to advocate for a more equitable distribution of resources throughout our world. And I think we need to use our buying power wisely, making sure that when we bring items into our home we are making a positive and proactive statement about the kind of world we want to leave for future generations.

Have you been working on your own "Paring Down the Stuff" challenge? Share your successes, challenges, and tips in the comments section below. And stay tuned as I embark on a new personal challenge next Monday. Without revealing too much, this one is going to be a shift from the focus on my external environment.

Peace and Simplicity,

Oct 16, 2009

Now and Then...

... life necessitates a little blogging vacation. I'll be back next week with regular daily posts.

[image available at travelblog.org]

Oct 11, 2009

Paring Down the Stuff: Week 3 Progress

Here's an update on the third week of my first personal challenge, which is to get rid of (through donation or other means) ten items a week and then reflect on the process and its implications for both voluntary simplicity and social justice.

I'm not feeling that inspired by my challenge this week. Maybe it's just that my energy seems to be elsewhere right now. But since I told myself I would commit to a month on the challenge, and because I still have a lot of treasures to give away, here we go. My ten items this week are as follows:

1-2. Two t-shirts
3-5. Three pairs of socks
6. 1 paperback novel I just finished reading

That's it... I got to six items and just couldn't come up with anything else to give away. So I gave the challenge a rest and started thinking. Then I wrote...

So, I was feeling pretty lame about my progress this week. And then I happened upon this article by Penelope Trunk entitled Five steps to taming materialism, from an accidental expert. She got me thinking about how much most of us have and how little most of us need. I think that most of my barriers to my challenge this week were mental, not physical. I somehow convinced myself that the reason I couldn't come up with ten things to give away was because I had already given away over 50% of my possessions in the past year or so. I convinced myself that I just didn't have that much else to give away. Really, that couldn't be further from the truth.

Wayne Dyer talks about giving away the things that you most love, instead of your "junk," as a way to detach from the material. So, I found four books that I really love and I added them to my donation pile. Then, I went back to my bookshelf and found three books that I really didn't like and swapped them out for the ones I loved. I KNOW that's not what Wayne Dyer was advocating, but it got me to my ten items and made me realize that most challenges in life are as much about perspective as anything else.

It became much easier to give away items when I really started taking stock of what I treasure and why. The Holocaust memoir Night was in my stack of favorites, but I just couldn't bear to part with it. It became very easy, then, to donate another book taking up space on my shelf that didn't carry with it the same sentimental value. I have taught Night to high school sophomores for a number of years and through the process have been continually inspired by the compassion and intelligence of fifteen-year-olds to talk about and wrestle with some of the deepest questions about the human condition. That is all really the topic of a future post, but it did prompt me to get to my ten items this week.

1-2. Two t-shirts
3-5. Three pairs of socks
6. 1 paperback novel I just finished reading
7-10. Four other books that, when all was said and done, didn't mean anything to me by comparison.

What have you given away recently and what have you learned in the process?

[Image available at boston.com]

Oct 9, 2009

What I've Learned...

Tomorrow I'm running my first half-marathon. I've run on and off throughout the years and competed in a couple long-course triathlons. I have a background in swimming and water polo, having both competed in and coached both sports. I enjoy rock climbing with my mom every once in a while, and love to cycle and hike when I have a good partner to keep me company.

However, over the past few months running has taken over as my primary form of exercise. And I have really come to enjoy the simplicity of the process. You can do it virtually anywhere. It requires little fancy equipment, aside from a good pair of shoes and some comfortable attire. If the weather's nice, you can run outside. And if the weather isn't, you can still usually run outside if you're willing to brave the elements (which sometimes I am not). You can run in the mountains, at the beach, in your neighborhood, in the park, in the city, in the country... Well, you get where I'm going with this. I'm not yet ready to claim running as my favorite form of exercise, because nothing competes with how happy at at home I feel in the water, but I am finally able to say I enjoy the process and I value the simplicity inherent in it.

Running has taught me to pay attention to my body and the world around me. Running on the beach at high noon with temperatures nearing 90 reminded me how powerful nature really is. And running in the local park, with leaves beginning to fall and people enjoying the simple pleasures of the day, reminded me how connected we are to our earth and to each other.

Whatever happens out there on the course tomorrow, I'm looking forward to it...

Oct 8, 2009

What I Believe

I believe in an educational system that values critical thinking above rote memorization, creativity above test scores, and thoughtfulness above compliance. I believe in schools being community centers where people enjoy spending time, sharing ideas, and expanding their world-views. I believe in giving every young person a fair shot, recognizing that not all children come to school equipped with the tools needed to navigate the U.S. educational system. I believe that it is the job of educators to give students what they need, without judgement, chastisement, or resentment. Most of all, I believe that everyone has a story to tell, a life to share, and a future worth believing in. I envision an educational system that values these stories, lives, and futures in ways that give young people the hope needed to believe in their own dreams. And I believe we have a long way to go.

What do you believe? Share your thoughts by hitting the COMMENTS tab below this post.


[Image available at campuscenter.com]

Oct 7, 2009

Reducing Grocery Costs without Sacrificing Quality

I'm working on finding a balance between reducing our grocery spending, while also maintaining a vegetarian (nearly vegan), gluten-free diet full of healthy, tasty foods. I stumbled across this post at Choosing Voluntary Simplicity today that outlines seven grocery shopping strategies that work for someone who advocates living a simple, healthy life. In addition to her seven tips, here are some other things I try to keep in mind:

1. Only clip coupons for items you use. Since I try to stay away from most processed, packaged foods, most of my coupons are for household items (toothpaste, etc.) instead of groceries. I used to keep a fully-stocked coupon file of coupons for items I might possibly buy one day if I could get them for next to nothing. I've found it doesn't need to be that complicated. I've simplified my coupon-clipping and saved both time and energy in the process.

2. Shop mostly in the perimeter of the store. These are where you will find your fresh, non-processed items. 90% of the items in the isles is overly processed junk. Really it is. Read the labels. Challenge yourself, if you haven't already, to eliminate high fructose corn syrup and overly-processed grains from your diet. You won't find much up and down the isles that you can eat.

3. Whenever possible, buy organic and locally grown. Use your buying power to make a statement about the types of foods you want and need your local grocery store to carry. Better yet, shop seasonally at a local farmer's market and buy directly from the farmers themselves.

4. Eat at home. Cook from scratch. People who have known me my whole life might have a hard time believing that I am enjoying spending time in the kitchen, cooking from scratch. But I am and thanks to the help of Susan and her website Fat Free Vegan Kitchen, I have mastered a couple of pretty good meals.

5. Become or remain a vegetarian or vegan. There are so many reasons I believe in a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but looking at it simply from a financial perspective - meat and dairy products are expensive. Really expensive. And if they are not expensive, they are probably not free-range, grass-fed, or organic. I will come back to this point frequently in subsequent posts, especially as I continue to transition from a vegetarian to a vegan. I'm getting really close, but more on that later.

What do you do to save money on groceries without sacrificing quality? Leave a comment and let me know.


[Image available at freehypo.com]

Oct 6, 2009

Paring Down the Stuff: Week 2 Progress

Here's an update on the second week of my first personal challenge, which is to get rid of (through donation or other means) ten items a week and then reflect on the process and its implications for both voluntary simplicity and social justice.

For some reason, this week it was much harder to find ten items to get rid of. Here's what I ended up getting together (I still have to drop off the donations in their respective locations):
1-2: 2 paperback books I've already read;
3: Old SAT study book;
4. A t-shirt from a triathlon I completed a few years ago;
5. A road map;
6-12: Duplicate copies of Cliff Notes (Yes, I still have a hearty collection of Cliff Notes that have ended up being pretty decent teaching resources).

I don't know why it was so difficult for me to find ten items this week. I still have way too much stuff and I know I have a lot more to give away, but I found it hard to go through clothes, books, or other personal items. I kept finding myself doing the "well, maybe I might need this one day" rationalization. That being said, I did find some resources to help me out this next week. Here's links to a few of them:

Do you have a great resource to share on how to sort through stuff, get rid of things, and/or pare down your personal possessions? If so, please leave a comment.

Voluntary Simplicity Resources

Curious as to what this voluntary simplicity thing is all about? Here's a collection of resources I've put together for your perusal. There's a lot going on out there in the world of voluntary simplicity, and I think it's exciting to see how some of the concepts you'll read about in these resources have started to enter the mainstream media. I'll definitely be writing a future post on how voluntary simplicity is becoming more mainstream in a future post. But for now, here's to some happy reading and thoughtful perusal.

The simple living network is full of resources, including books by some of the founders of the voluntary simplicity movement and a free on-line newsletter that is published once every couple of months.

A definition of simple living can be found here. How does this definition align with or diverge from your own thoughts about simple living.

Choose simplicity explores the differences between voluntary simplicity and frugality.

What is voluntary simplicity? Read this article by Linda Breen Pierce here.

Check out the voluntary simplicity course that the Northwest Earth Institute has put together.

And if you are interested in a model of a locally-run group, check out the San Diego Voluntary Simplicity Group.

Oct 5, 2009

One More Day...

Tomorrow I will post an update on my "Paring Down The Stuff" Challenge. I need one more day on this one...

Oct 2, 2009

Keeping it Simple and Starting Small

When it comes to nutrition and exercise, all the information out there may seem like these are areas of anyone's life that are bound to be anything but simple. I agree that we are bombarded with conflicting information that is often benefiting the special interests behind the information more than the people the information is claiming to want to help. That being said, it doesn't have to be that complicated. Really, it doesn't. Chris Lopez of Fit and Busy Dad wrote a great guest post on Zen Habits not too long ago that covered 7 essential rules to optimum health. Along those same lines, I'd like to offer a couple of my own tips for keeping exercise and nutrition simple and starting small. I will be coming back to this topic again and again in later posts, especially because exercise and nutrition are two things I am very passionate about.

1. Start moving. A little movement is better than nothing, a lot of movement is better than a little. You don't need to join an expensive gym, buy a lot of fancy equipment or a whole new exercise wardrobe, or stock your shelves with the latest exercise DVDs.

How about starting with a nice long walk after dinner? Or maybe take your kids to the park to play instead of taking them to the movies or buying them a new video game.

Now, if you already consider yourself an athlete, the gym membership, or new weight bench, or new exercise top may be in line with what you want to help increase your performance. But the reality is that today many people are far too sedentary. The reality is we just don't move enough. And often times the movement we do do is offset by bad choices, misinformation, and hype. I cannot tell you how many people I see at the gym (yes, I do have a gym membership, but that will be the topic of another post) who come in, drinking their high-calorie energy drinks and polishing off their chemically-laden "nutrition bars." Many of them then jump on the treadmill for a while, or do a circuit on the weight machines, and then leave... Often, it is these same people who wonder why they are still obese, or out-of-shape, or both.

I am NOT faulting these individuals. But I am suggesting there is another way, a simpler way to start and maintain an exercise routine. Start walking. Today. If you don't have a good pair of running or walking shoes, make the investment. Instead of visiting the nearest corporate shoe store to find the best deal, visit a local running store. More often than not, local running stores are staffed by trained professionals who will take the time to make sure you find a shoe that fits correctly. And then, start walking. Ask a neighbor to join you, or your spouse, or your kids. Or walk alone and enjoy the solitude. Walking is great exercise and it is simple exercise. Start small and enjoy the journey.

2. Eat whole foods. Period. Anything that comes out of a box or bag in fancy packaging is not whole. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans are just some of the many whole foods that are available to most everyone. If you have access to a local farmer's market, check it out. Meet the farmers who are growing locally in your area. And ask them if they take food stamps. If they don't, organize or join a grass-roots effort to make this happen. Good, wholesome food should be accessible to everyone.

At the grocery store, stick to the perimeter of the store. Avoid the isles. Avoid the diet foods. Don't buy into the corporate, profit-based model of food that has overtaken our food industry in the United States. Educate yourself. Read about the benefits of whole foods; subscribe to blogs, like this one, that feature wholesome, easy-to-make recipes. As anyone who knows me can attest to, I am no genius in the kitchen. However, every vegan, gluten-free recipe I've tried from Susan's collection has been wonderful.

Eating whole foods does not have to wreak havoc on your budget either, especially if you choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Meat is expensive. Vegetables and fruits are not. If you feel like you cannot give up meat, make sure you know where your meat is coming from. Read a variety of sources, and question everything. Do not just assume that because the meat comes in a package with a picture of a pasture on the front that the meat you are buying came from anything that even remotely resembles a pasture.

Start with where you are at and commit to making one small change a day, or a week, or a month. Your body and your planet will thank you.

Peace and Health,

Oct 1, 2009

Listen to Children

One of the biggest challenges plaguing our educational system today stems from the simple fact that we do not spend enough time listening to the young people that we are supposed to be educating. Children are smart. They have interesting lives to share and heartfelt stories to tell. They have beliefs, and truths, and dreams that need to be nurtured. They have ears to listen with - and they DO listen, even when it seems like they are only staring out the windows, sending test messages on their phones, talking to the people next to them. They listen and they absorb information and they watch and they learn and, I think, they hope that we really have the tools to help them in all the ways they need to be helped and the hearts to care in all the ways they need to be cared for. What would happen if all of the people making the most important educational decisions in the United States today took the time to talk less and listen more. I wonder if we wouldn't start to see some of the changes that we so desperately need. I wonder what kind of humility these kinds of leaders would possess and what kind of respect they would earn from the young people they serve.