The Life Organizer
A Woman's Guide to a Mindful Year
By Jennifer Louden, Alicia La Chance
New World Library Copyright © 2007 Jennifer Louden
All rights reserved.
What Is Life Organizing?
* * *
What if there was a way to organize and guide your life that more closely resembled lying back on an inner tube as the current carried you along (with you occasionally adjusting your course because you want to smell a wild rose onshore or because you hit a bumpy stretch) rather than a furious, exhausting upstream paddle? What if self-mercy and listening to your authentic desires were your truest guides, far more trustworthy than gauging how much you accomplish in a day or what you earn? What if feeling confusion and uncertainty was actually a sign that you were on the right path? What if you could erase your sense of never having enough time or energy by cultivating a constant loving connection to yourself?
I have been focusing on just these questions, both personally and professionally, for more than twenty years. In general I noticed that most people seem to approach the process of organizing (whether a day, a project, or a life) by setting a goal, breaking it down into doable steps, and then staying the course until reaching the bull's-eye. This method can be very effective in certain situations — I'm not suggesting that you abandon it — but it's only half the story, and we're starving for the rest, for a heart-based, spiritually informed, trusting story. We want to make room for, must make room for, chaos and interruption and accept that most of the time we don't know the big picture and we can only discern what to do one step at a time. This way of improvising our lives is built on our knowledge that we are creating our lives through how we think, how we react, and where we put our attention. We find that the most direct means to create a life that fits us is to embrace each moment as it arises.
I wrote this book because I want to develop this alternative way to shape a life and because it is one way to bring down the Berlin Wall of busyness, the ever-growing belief that to be successful, we must do more and do it faster, a story that is literally killing us. Be warned: this is a subversive way of looking at time. Once you embrace it, you can't go back. The old models will never wholly fit or satisfy you again; they will always be too much about willpower and force, about your private agendas and the mind's endlessly inventive stories.
The way I'm proposing in this book is frightening at first. It asks you, over and over, to trust, to loosen your grip on life, to soften with compassion and love toward yourself and others. It asks you to stop and feel, to tune in to what you really want and what you already know. To act with more boldness on your hunches and your values and to track with more clarity the outcomes of those bold actions. To serve all of life. This process is infinitely rich and it requires trust in your own experiences, in your own lived knowledge. "Test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21) may become one of your mottoes, as might "But all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things will be well," as Dame Julian of Norwich said.
Why is this approach toward creating our lives emerging now? I think it is because of the generation of women who were children in the 1970s and 1980s and watched their parents wear themselves out for a paycheck and are realizing they don't want to live the same way; because we're making spirituality part of our daily lives rather than something we do only on Sunday or on the meditation cushion; because we are honoring intuition and other ways of knowing; and because we've reached the boiling point. We can't live in perpetual exhaustion any longer. We realize that our modern lives aren't totally working, personally or for the planet, so we ask ourselves, What can we create to help us survive and thrive?
Whatever the reasons, more and more women (and some men) are rejecting the overstriving, forcing, rushing, making-life-happen mode and developing a more intuitive yet grounded way to discern and sort the choices available to us. On the surface, it doesn't always look that different, but inside, it feels like the difference between a business suit and organic cotton pj's. I believe, with my whole body, that it is part of the change so many of us are already making or are yearning to make, and yet we have little idea how to talk about it, how to build on it, and how to make it practical. Here's how three women who have been using some of these principles and ideas have described it:
Poppy: "It's about living with greater awareness, cherishing yourself, and finding balance so as to be the most 'you' version of yourself that you can be. It's about becoming."
Wendy: "It's about honor, in several senses of the word: 1) Honor (as in respect) for ourselves, our needs, our bodies, our desires, our wishes. 2) Honor (as in truthfulness and integrity) about ourselves, our needs, our desires and wishes — whether they are 'good' or 'bad' — and in our behavior with others. 3) Honor (as in recognition and reverence) for the goodness and power within us, for the world's goodness and power, and for the Great Divine Entity (whatever you want to call him/her/it/them)."
Helga: "For me, it is about my search for sustained happiness. Aspects include feeling pleased, content, glad, satisfied, and comfortable. It's being happy with myself and what I have in my life. I'm on a journey toward resting comfortably within myself, in the sense of being my own safe place or refuge while staying interconnected with all living things. It takes me to the basics I need for the journey. To be consistently happy I need to know who I am (all parts of me, with no judgment); what I want (body, mind/spirit, heart); how I can be who I am (peacefully); and how I can have what I want (without doing harm).
"Life organizing is also about supplying the questions that get me there a bit faster. And, since the journey does not have an end, life organizing accompanies my twists and turns to always get me back to the source and to what really counts."
"Trust the Life Process"
There is a caveat: this new way of creating our lives can get derailed if we connect it to balance, as in, "If I could just figure out how to balance all these parts of my life, all these demands on my time, and all these interests, I'd be okay." When we're in this frame of mind, we'll always be searching, often more and more desperately, for the holy grail of balance; but we're never going to find it with the eyes or the tools we're using. Balance becomes a girdle, a rigid form into which we try to squeeze ourselves so that our lives will (finally!) be the perfect shape and we will (finally!) be right, safe, and on top of things. Yet this notion of balance is a false ideal that moves us further away from wholeness and ourselves. Real balance comes only when we are in loving touch with ourselves.
The new framework that we are hungering for is what I call "life organizing." I've spent the past thirteen years observing and articulating tools we can use to create humane lives that we love. These tools have emerged out of my work with thousands of women and from observing what friends, mentors, and prominent women in our culture are forging. My search led me first to design a new kind of date book, then to write my last book, Comfort Secrets for Busy Women, and finally morphed into an engagement calendar and an Internet forum. In truth, I kept trying to let the damn project go. Hadn't I done enough with it? Women were reporting good results. Why couldn't I leave well enough alone? But I knew there was more to be articulated about this new way of being that I saw so many of us trying so hard, sometimes so desperately, to master. Finally I outlined its principles as follows:
A heart-centered intuitive way to shape our lives by listening to the still, small voice inside, by seeing life as the supreme creative act, a wild ride of choosing, improvising, and trusting our desires.
An ability to live from the belief — at least some of the time — that we are beloved and that there are forces much larger than us to be rested upon.
A way to use all that we've learned to sort through and choose from the many options and interests that can overwhelm us daily.
A map, created over time, of our gifts so that we can clearly see, honor, and offer these gifts to the world.
The remembrance that we know enough now to have a life that works — we just forget or doubt it or let our wisdom be buried under demands and erroneous stories of what life should look like. Or as Lain Ehmann, writer, business owner, and mother of three, said, "I don't need someone else's solutions; what I need is a process for finding my own solutions."
A way of planning our days that takes into account the true form and flow of a woman's life — rarely linear, always forged in connection, deeply influenced by our bodies, intimate with the often-difficult dance between what we want and what our life requires of us.
Above all, a capacity to be guided by self-kindness and the unfolding beauty of life actually experienced.
When to Do It
When you awaken
When you are ready for bed
When you need to make a choice
When you are stuck, bored, depressed, or as flat as stale pita bread
When what you "have to do" feels hard, heavy, or plain impossible
When everyone wants a piece of you
When you want to help or serve others
When you are sure there is no way forward or no way to create what you want
When you want to bring something new into being
When you feel everything is up to you
When you are yearning for connection
Though I knew on a deep level that this is what we all yearn for, after writing a rotten first draft and a better but still hazy second draft, I wasn't getting much closer to articulating how to get it. I simply couldn't pin down all that I wanted to convey, the grace that permeates life when we actively surrender. Then these words from The Biology of Transcendence by Joseph Chilton Pearce leapt off the page and sent chills up my arms: "Transcendence, the ability to rise, and go beyond limitation and restraint, is our biological birthright, built into us genetically and blocked by enculturation.... Once we have been faithful in small works by which we learn to trust the life process, larger and larger works become possible." I then clearly saw that I wanted this book to champion the evolution of applying our spiritual understanding and our values to choosing and shaping a life you love — a life that shines because it fits you, a life that is, by its very nature, balanced because it is aligned with what you most treasure and enjoy. A life that matches your insides, a life guided by something larger than you and yet always chosen by you.
Yes, it is possible.
But What Is It Really?
The life-organizing process consists of — and of so much more than — five steps you can use when planning your week or your day or your few moments. They are:
1. Connect: Moving your energy is the gateway to wisdom, a great place to start.
2. Feel: Tuning in to your heart, which knows what your next step is, gives you information that your head can't.
3. Inquire: Asking a mindful question opens up possibilities you literally couldn't see before.
4. Allow: Opening to your next step — allowing love, inspiration, and knowing to come into your body and heart — informs and directs you in this new way.
5. Apply: "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives," writer Annie Dillard once observed. Without action, without decision, you remain in possibility, which is safe and beautiful but eventually enervating and boring.
Whenever we codify anything, our minds like to get all persnickety about the "right" way to do it, and our attention gets stuck on that instead of on our actual experience. Don't focus on the five steps or the Life Planner — focus on your experiences.
It is also — and it is more than — a physical planner you design that encourages you to discern and track your spiral of growth, your choices, and your gifts using the five steps, as well as six additional concepts we'll get to in a bit. Why do I say "and it is more than"? Because I want to be very clear that this isn't the only way to live from the inside out. That would be absurd! That's the key characteristic of life organizing — it is always evolving, and it is unique to you.
We are making it up as we go along — and this is crucial to remember, because it will feel like that, and that's perfectly normal. This is fluid and flexible improvisation, and more often we know it by what it is not rather than by what it is. It's as if we were sketching in the faint outlines of a barely perceived possibility or layering rich pigments, step-by-step, to create a vivid reality-in-the-making. We are consciously participating in shaping the unique work of art that is our lives, and as with all works of art, there are a bizillion ways we could go. My attempt to distill what we are experiencing into five steps and a planner will hopefully never become a "should" but rather will be a recognition: "Oh, that's what I've been doing" or "That's the extra piece I need to put this way of relating to my life together." Another important characteristic of life organizing is that — as with all spiritual practices — it works best when it is woven into daily life. It helps you remember that choice happens in every moment; the most brilliant artist is sustained in her art by daily practices that help her keep following her gut.
When you start to embrace life organizing, you will be:
What Life Organizing Is Not
Something that must be done every day or done to make you good or right
Elaborate or time-consuming
About believing anything
Saving time and energy by accessing greater sources of knowing than your conscious mind.
Increasing your creativity and energy by accepting and embracing your quirky, dented, perfectly imperfect individual self.
Seeing yourself as the creator of your life instead of as a victim; focusing on what you want to bring into being instead of on the problems you need to solve.
Trusting and investigating your desires, engaging with them as a way to identify your gifts and contributions to the world.
Discovering a whole new way to approach questions like "Should I eat this?" or "Is this wasting time?"
Honing your ability to accept what is happening now, without cluttering the moment with the past or future or with judgments.
Finding and living your life, instead of someone else's (the biggest time and energy saver of all!).
You organize your life both in the moment and when you need a longer viewpoint — of your day or your week or your month. The process of gaining a longer viewpoint is similar to sitting down with your calendar or day planner, and in fact, many women work with their Life Planners alongside their traditional calendars. Life organizing in the moment brings the big picture into the now and works in many situations — from helping you choose what to do next, to reducing stress, to helping you live your values. Use the five steps to lead you into the process until you make it your own. Together, these methods will help you create a flexible, heart-guided, and self-loving structure for composing a life you are proud to call yours.
Below I provide descriptions of several different ways to get started on life organizing, including the time you'll need for each.
Life Organizing in the Moment
It's midmorning, and several minor crises have derailed you. Your plan for the day is in shambles, your to-do list feels like a boulder around your neck, and all you want to do is hide. You're reaching for a Diet Coke in the hopes that it will give you the energy to decide which item on your list to tackle and that it will change your frazzled mood. Then you remember that there's another way. You feel your feet connecting with the ground beneath you. You take a deep breath and reach your arms overhead, exhaling with a huge sigh. You put your hand on your heart and recall feeling loved when hanging out with a dear friend yesterday. Hand on heart, you gently ask, "What choice feels the easiest in this moment?" You take a breath. Perhaps a brief image of your friend comes to mind. Or maybe you hear a refrain from an old song, and when you focus on it, you realize it reminds you of your friend.
Try life organizing while on the treadmill, walking, biking, even sweeping the floor. Repetitive physical action can calm the monkey mind and can help you hear more clearly.
Time needed: One minute, or as long as it takes to get a soda out of the fridge, open it, sip.
Using the Life Planner
It's Sunday night, and you're thinking about your upcoming week. You pour yourself your favorite soothing drink, grab your Life Planner, and curl up on the couch. You review your last few responses — they may take the form of notes, doodles, or even collages — and you remember that you didn't check in last week. It suddenly makes sense that you've been feeling a little off, tenser than usual. You flip to the next "month" of questions, read over them, and then take a moment to close your eyes and connect with your idea of Spirit or nature or relaxation. After a few moments, you feel drawn to lying on the floor to stretch. You find yourself doing a few cat/cow stretches and tensing and relaxing your face. You spy a favorite poetry book that's fallen under the couch, pull it out, and read a poem. Now you feel ready to consider the questions and to write a few phrases in your notebook in response. Yet after doing one month of questions, you still feel unsure about the coming week, so you flip through the Life Planner until you find two more questions that help you hear what you need to know — for now. You make a few more notes and then spend a moment resting, hand on heart, asking if there is anything else you need to know. You end with a thank-you to yourself. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Life Organizer by Jennifer Louden, Alicia La Chance. Copyright © 2007 Jennifer Louden. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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