The empty container

Leo Babauta has just posed a great question on his  Zen Habits blog:

If [your life] were an empty container, with limited space, what would you put in it?

This was timely, as I’ve been pondering recently on this concept of time, space, energy all being limited, and the necessity of accepting that. It started when I finally ran out of space for more new books, and when I noticed that when I emptied the dishwasher several mugs were always left standing on the worktop because the designated spaces were full. There comes a point where choices have to be made: I need to donate some of my fine collection of mugs, even though I like all of them: it’s too inconvenient having the workspace cluttered by them. And just how many unread books is it realistic to have?! Unless I want to cull them, it’s time to have a firm rule that no more are bought unless I’m going to read them immediately.

That made me think more generally about this principle: is it wise to try to do more than I have time and energy for – whether that be social engagements, food, favourite blogs, trips away, craft activities, housework or regular commitments? This question has been around for a while, as I seek a simpler life. My progress has been very limited, and I think this is at the heart of it: the tendency to think that just one more mug/book/commitment/website/interest  won’t make much difference, until I begin to feel overwhelmed again, panic and either go for distraction from the mess or try to go to opposite extremes.

Leo describes the tendency of life to become more complicated and suggests standing back and asking the question at the beginning of this post. Obviously the answer is going to be different for each of us. I might consider which of the things I’ve listed I would want to put in my box – what do I want to be the basic pattern of my day/week/month? Of all I do or could do, what is most important to me?

I find this image of the empty box, with the boundaries  that limit its contents (such as  time, energy, space, money, necessary tasks), a good starting point, inviting me to visualise picking up the aspects of my life that matter most and deliberately place them in the box and, conversely, also deciding what has to be laid aside and not put in the box.  A good assessment tool to revisit from time to time.


2 thoughts on “The empty container

  1. daisyanon

    I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve self identified as a ‘solitary’ and ‘contemplative’ for some time, although an observer might wonder why! What I have found is that the search for solitude has its own dynamic. In particular it is very, very difficult to pick and choose. So for example, attending a church regularly (or any voluntary activity) leads to feeling obliged to ‘do’ something. Doing something, however small leads to an obligation to do more things, even if it is just attending the Christmas socials etc. If you start something and people come, they expect you to go to their things even though you have no interest in these other activities. It is really hard to set the appropriate boundaries.

    One example for me recently was going to an embroidery group. This involves a considerable journey and the meeting room is nasty. The people were very nice and welcoming but there were seemingly endless spin off activities and it made me feel awkward not doing any of these. To be fair they didn’t pressure me but I didn’t want to be continually feeling awkward and making excuses. Fortunately I had genuine reasons for not attending several meetings and hopefully will just drop off the radar.

    There is another craft group just started locally but I have decided not to go.

    OK if you can restrict the stuff to things you like and enjoy but this becomes difficult. People think you are selfish and maybe this is true!
    Increasingly I find doing nothing is the best option and sometimes this means not doing things I might enjoy.

    I saw my recent move as an opportunity to start with a blank sheet and what is emerging is a desire for what some might think an extreme amount of solitude. Others might think I am married with a family locally etc, so that’s not solitude.

    Along with the retreat (if that is the right word) into greater social isolation is a feeling that I really don’t want or need to explain myself! So the solitary life includes having no social/spiritual identity that others recognise or understand.

    We all have to find our own balance, our own centre, and I expect yours will be different from mine.

    I think that one of the appeals for me of Julian Meetings and the 12 Step Fellowships is that part of their culture is that they do not generate ‘spin off’ activities, any that are necessary are genuinely a matter for each member to decide their own involvement. They do not take over your life in the way that other things, especially churches, do.

    1. landedbutterfly Post author

      I can identify with much of what you say in this comment and I’ve been coming to similar conclusions. It does seem almost impossible to be involved in a group activity without demands being made or expectations emerging. And maybe that’s right: if I’m going to take the benefits of a group, I should be prepared to contribute. But on the whole I’m not, because the energy to do so just isn’t there. I’m finding a great reluctance in myself to take on any regular activities or commitments because of this issue.
      Living in a city, there are plenty of one-off events that I can go to and enjoy without further commitment – cinema, theatre, talks, walks, exhibitions etc etc. I’m happy with my own company – or often do have a pleasant conversation with someone. I enjoy seeing friends, but would rather do that at home over a meal.
      For me it has something to do with holding on to my centered self, if that makes any sense – having now had a couple of weeks with lots of solitude, I’m feeling much more “myself”, less fragmented and more able to discern where my energy is at any given moment – to know what I want to do and to respond to that.
      I think another post is developing here! It would be interesting to reflect further on the meaning and working-out of solitude and solitary, both for someone who practices it within the surrounding framework of husband and family and someone who lives in solitude and has to go out in order to make the connections that I do think are essential for most of us to function healthily (even if very limited in number!).


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