Here it is. The last day of 2011.
And with it I have come to the end of my “30 Days at a Time” challenge. During this year, I have taken on different projects to incorporate into my life for 30 days. Most people agree that it takes somewhere between 21 and 30 days to ingrain a new habit into your life, and I wanted to integrate several things into my life as well as give myself some challenges. All in all, I completed ten 30-day challenges – there weren’t a total of 12 because I usually paused for about a week in between the challenges.
All together, here were the projects I took on in 2011, in order:
- Six Items or Less – For one month, I selected only six items of clothing and wore only those things, in a challenge to pare down and simplify both my closet and daily life.
- Giving Project – Every day I gave something; whether that was money, volunteered time, donated used goods, something.
- Meditation – I committed to a mindful, disciplined meditation every day, to see what positive effects that might have.
- The Happiness Project – Following Gretchen Rubin’s book chronicling her year experiment with creating her own happiness, I embarked on a conscious study of practices that bring more internal, sustainable joy to daily living.
- Sustainability Challenge – Though I already strive to live as eco-friendly as possible, I wanted to learn more about sustainable living and incorporate habits into my life that would reduce my carbon footprint.
- Locavore – For one month, I committed to eating local and organic as much as possible. Again, this is something I do a lot of already, but I wanted to see what would happen if I really strived to do away with processed, shipped, artificial and packaged foods as entirely as possible, and live off farmers markets and local food.
- Living on a Discount – My rules for this challenge were to buy nothing, except non-negotiable fixed items such as rent and insurance, that was not discounted by at least 30%. I used a lot of Groupons and similar deal sites, won some things, bargain shopped like it was a competitive sport and took advantage of lots of free stuff.
- Photo Challenge – Here I jumped on the bandwagon of existing 30 Day Photo Challenges, and shared a photograph every day according to pre-set subjects such as “Someone You Miss” and “10 Things about You.”
- Learning – I enthusiastically set about to learn as many new things as I could, from dance and hot glass blowing to language lessons and new cooking skills. I even took a pilot lesson and flew a plane!
- 30 Ways in 30 Days – My last challenge of the year was in conjunction with Take Part, which offers a simple action every day that you can take to make the world a better place.
So, how was it all? What did I learn, and am I still doing any of the practices? The short answer is yes, a lot of them. I really looked at 2011, and this entire project, as my “Year of Living Consciously.” For the most part, a lot of us go through life just getting from one task to the next, planning dinner or the next day, repeating the same mistakes or bad habits, sort of drifting through life without being really cognizant of what we are doing, the life we are creating.
“With our thoughts, we make the world,” said the Buddha.
Put another way, John Lennon famously remarked, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
And so days pass, unheralded. Months and then years slowly trickle by, and we realize that we haven’t done so many of the things we set out to do, we wanted to do. We are getting older, and still we have not lived.
I don’t want life to be that way.
Living mindfully means, most of all, focusing on the present moment. The now. It’s all we have really, this actual moment happening right now. Be there. Enjoy it, or at least learn from it.
Here are my main take-aways from my 30 Days at a Time challenge:
Stuff clutters our lives and our minds. I’m no austere minimalist, don’t get me wrong. I have my share of things, but by and large I try to be selective about possessions that have real value and meaning to me. After my Six Items or Less challenge, I cleaned out my closet and gave lots of stuff away. I did the same with other items during the Giving and Sustainability projects. In the never ending rush of accumulation and consumerism that seems to drive so much of American life, stuff becomes our master. Have too much of it, and it begins to own you.
We choose to be happy, and create our own happiness in our minds, by and large. Of course events and situations can be painful, tragic and traumatic. At those times we are often unhappy, stressed or even grief-stricken. But I’m talking about the permanent ongoing baseline, not fluctuations of circumstance. True happiness is internal, not external, not reliant on other people or things or events. We make our own
happiness, every single day.
We should never stop learning. I believe that the minute we stop being curious about the world, that’s the minute we start to become old. I always remember a story someone told me years ago, about standing in line for college registration behind an elderly man. After striking up a conversation, the young student asked the co-registering man how old he was. 80, was the reply. “But don’t you realize you’ll be 84 by the time you finish college?” To which the old man replied, “Son, I’ll be 84 anyway.”
Giving really is better than receiving. Really – it’s been scientifically proven. People who give or volunteer their time are happier themselves, and generally healthier, than people who don’t. There’s even a documented phenomenon called the “Helper’s High.” Even though I’ve always volunteered and supported loved organizations, doing so on a daily basis in my Giving Project really showed me this. The days when I most didn’t feel like doing it – the days I was in a hurry, or stressed out, or it wasn’t such a great day – were the days when that act of thinking of someone else, taking me out of my own little world and problems, was the thing that turned my whole day around and made it better.
Surround yourself with people who inspire you. It took me a long time to learn to weed negative, toxic, soul-sucking people out of my life. We can’t always pick and choose, and have to get along with people who are in our paths, at work, etc. But as far as people you let into your inner circle, your entire life, it’s just as with food – what you bring into it is what you’ll get from it. I am blessed to have a wonderful partner, loving family and some of the most awesome friends in the world. I have made a conscious choice to leave toxic people out of my life and surround myself with the pretty darn wonderful. Don’t be with people who make you miserable; be with people who make your spirit soar.
Living well doesn’t have to be expensive. Going back to that idea of living more simply, with less stuff, it’s also been proven that experiences bring us more lasting happiness than things. In most places there are a wealth of things you can do for free, or really inexpensively, that add to your quality of life. From free music to street fairs and museums; or simply take an hour to look at flowers with your child or take a walk with your partner.
What we do really matters. Paying attention to little things around the house that suck energy; buying a lot of food from your local farmer rather than stuff that’s been trucked thousands of miles by a corporation…all these things add up. They may seem small, but there are seven billion people on our planet now. If enough of them do enough small things, we really do affect the world.
There’s no excuse not to live consciously, mindfully, with intention. Every moment.
As far as we know, we only have this one life. Let’s make it count.
Thank you for coming with me on this journey. For 2012, you might want to jump on over to my new blog, Trading Places. I’m just getting it set up; it’s all about the places around the world I will go during the year, learning new things and meeting new people, and chronicling how these regular, local people all over the planet live their daily lives. And you can always find me on my website as well. I wish you a happy, prosperous, peaceful New Year.