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Towards Simplicity.

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“All is flux, not one thing remains.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus

All is flux. Nothing remains in stasis for long. While all is change, that is not to say that there is one singular type of change. To my mind, in fact, there are two; intentional and unintentional. Chances are, and if I were a gambling man I would bet on this, you have encountered one of these in the past week.

However, for all the change we experience, are we growing in a positive, meaningful, curated way, or are we more like a rambling rose? There’s growth alright, rapid and sprawling, but without order and discipline our lives become increasingly entangled and harder to manage. Like last years Christmas lights we almost invariably end up a mess of knots. Quite chaotic, but worst of all we become stuck. Are we growing by design, or by default? What would life be life if it was live in a less chaotic, but more curated way?

Business and hurry are essentially forms of violence enacted against our most precious resource: time itself. Often our default is to dash madly around playing at spinning plates. There may be movement alright, and lots of it, but rarely is momentum perpetuated beyond a single effort.

What if there were less plates, with a greater focus and intentionality levelled at the care of each one? What if it was possible to approach each plate with greater clarity and sense of its purpose within your life? What if instead of being discontented by business we found contentment in effectiveness in the areas of our life that matter to us most and that we find most meaning in? How would your life be different if you pursued simplicity over ease?

Over the past month I have begun stripping out the superfluous in my own life in favour of simpler practices, gentler rhythms, and greater meaning attached to each of those things that still remain. You may not agree with all you read, but that’s okay! I had become discontented with the ‘noise’ I felt my life was making and the ease with which I was living.

But where did this begin? Like many of the best things, it started with two simple questions:

  1. Does ‘this’ belong here?
  2. Does ‘this’ give evidence to what I say I believe?

These two questions have since been joined by a myriad of other questions that now act as the filters through which I now make many of my daily decisions, from how I order my week and prioritise my time, to how I choose to spend my money. You might well say that this all sounds incredibly complicated, but what I am finding is that simplicity can often be quite a complex thing. After all, simplicity and ease are not common bedfellows. These are explorations Towards Simplicity.

 

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The limits of Enthusiasm


About a month ago now, maybe slightly more, I began transitioning a number of things in my life. Making moves away from unsatisfactory habits and patterns, towards a simpler, more authentic way of living. While these have all been positive changes, initiated by myself, that is not to say that they are always the way in which I want to live in the moment.

A disclaimer: I do believe that the way I’m now choosing to live my life, the daily and weekly habits that have been implemented. They have helped me to bring distinction and definition to the things that add most value.

I believe firmly in the decisions i’ve made better my own life, and hopefully the lives of those around me in a meaningful way. But I still get tired, I still struggle with focus at times, I still crave comfort food, I still have days when I don’t desire the food that i’ve willingly restricted myself to. I believe in what I am doing. And yet as I sit here tonight, typing these words, I feel uninspired for the first time in a while.

Over the past few days I’ve been reflecting on a passage from the Bible. It’s found in Nehemiah chapter 4. The people had returned from exile in Babylon, they had to returned to the city of Jerusalem… saying that, returned isn’t quite the right word. Can you return to a place your generation has never been? They set about rebuilding the temple of the Lord, rebuilding the infrastructure, plotting the layout for the new city. Rebuilding the walls.

At last the wall was completed to half its height around the entire city, for the people had worked with great enthusiasm. – Nehemiah 4:6

Reading this a few days ago I was captivated by a question: how did they know it was half done? These people had never been this way before, they may have heard stories of others who had seen the city, but it was not something they had ever witnessed for themselves. So again, when the wall was the same height all the way round, how did they know it was not complete yet complete? It was a great achievement in itself, was it not worth celebrating, indulging a little, taking a break?

They had a vision. Not a vision that they themselves had received. But a legend, of sorts, a blue print, that had been handed down, entrusted to them. That when they returned to the land of their ancestors, that these would be the height and breadth of the walls. The vision had been given to a man called Ezekiel, while he himself was in exile. 

As I sit here today, firm in my conviction, and yet with a stark lack of enthusiasm, I am convinced of this: enthusiasm is limited. Without a plan, a blue print, or a vision, enthusiasm will only ever see the wall half built.  

One Month of Plant-based eating

It’s about a month now since I took on the 7 Day Vegan challenge. I’d been an out and out vegetarian for about 2 months previously to that. One fateful day I ‘relapsed’ and ended up consuming a kebab. Not a mixed veg kebab, oh no! When I go for a kebab, I GO for a kebab.

The next day I woke up feeling awful. Not that sort of awful that a sense of moralistic failing brings, I’m talking about physically awful. I could feel my digestive system working overtime to process all i’d done to it the night before. It was not my finest hour; nor did it lead to my finest morning…

I had planned on holding a religious fast towards the end of that week anyway, and used it as a chance to break clean from old habits and old patterns. I broke fast by preparing homemade baked falafel, with an assortment of roasted potato cubes and salad. It was delicious. And thus the 7 day challenge had begun.

Since then, I’ve swapped over to a predominantly vegan diet, with the intention of following more of a plant-based diet rather than a diet made up of various substitutes. I had a few reasons for this change – in addition to the bad gut – I won’t go into those here, but you can read them here, or here.

So, one month in, what have I found, what have I learned? Well, a slip up on a predominantly plant-based diet has tended to be far last catastrophic for my digestive system. There has been a couple of odd occasions where I’ve indulged in Halloumi at a couple of BBQ’s, but far less detrimental than the kebab previously mentioned.

I’ve also really enjoyed the textures and flavours I’ve encountered – to such an extent that I thoroughly enjoyed a broccoli salad the other week! Not something I ever thought i’d say, let alone write about.

The two biggest things I’ve noticed, have both been physical (surprise surprise).

In the last month, I have also started running again. I used to run about 7 or 8 years ago, and other than playing casual football on the odd occasion, I haven’t done much cardio since then. What I have noticed, considering i’m now some 8 years older, is that my body is recovering from runs far quicker than it used to. Given that I’m a lot closer to 30 now than 20, this really should buck the trend, and yet somehow it isn’t.

I’ve also observed that I have far more consistent levels energy throughout each day. I’m not crashing in the way that I used to, and even consume less caffeine! I used to find that 2-3pm for me, depending on the time I had lunch, were times during the day where I would consistently struggle for energy. Since swapping to a more plant orientated diet my energy levels are at the very least more consistent, if not a little higher. I am not a nutritionist, but considering that after my last kebab I could feel the additional work my digestive system was having to do, I can only conclude that my body must be expending less energy in its effort to process what I am eating.

I’m not looking to convert anyone through my writing, simply to share some of the things I’ve been experimenting with. However, I would encourage you to check out the 7 Day Vegan Challenge and give it a try, if you’re interested. They’ve got some great tips (and the aforementioned broccoli recipe) on how to get started. After all, you could do anything for just seven days, right?

 


For more on a plant-based diet aiding in recovery, see Matt Frazier’s interview with ultra-runner Scott Jurek, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In The Beginning: where I began to minimise, part 1

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And this mess is so big nd so deep and so tall, We cannot pick it up. There is no way at all!

Dr. Seuss, The Cat In The Hat

I hadn’t always owned a lot of stuff, though I have always owned more than I’ve needed. I have been fortunate in that sense.

But what happens when the sheer volume of stuff becomes a source of frustration? Even things that we once bought for our convenience in one area can become an inconvenience in another.

Take the utensils draw in my kitchen, for example. It was one of the places I started to declutter (the kitchen draws can be a great place to start. You can do one at a time and have a sense of visible achievement when you finish!). I was fed up of not being able to get in the drawer, there always seemed to be something catching on the inside of the drawer causing it to stick, preventing it from opening – either that or a small goblin (who has since moved on) inhabited the space behind the spoons. It could be either one.

Upon delving into the depths of the dreaded drawer I discovered the best part of a douzen wooden spoons. 12. That is an absurd number of wooden spoons to own. I know how they came to be there, but what I could no longer figure out was why on earth we had kept them. I binned the vast majority of them along with a whole host of other ‘must have’ items that I have not missed since their departure.

If you’re considering how your life may be a little simpler by having a little less stuff, then why not have a good look through your utensils drawer? Do you really need that twelfth wooden spoon? Let me put it another way; would your life be catastrophically worse off with only eleven spoons? What about that second bottle opener? Surely you can only open one bottle at a time anyway. Or how about that 5th blue shirt? Would your life be worse off with only four? Or would it be the same? Could it maybe even be a litter better?

In the beginning, start with what you can manage and see quite just how much you can live without. Either that, or simply identify the amount of duplicates you have. Do you really need that many wooden spoons?

Rhythms of Grace: direction over destination

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In. Out.

In. Out.

Each breath is a rhythm of grace. A metronomic reminder of the grace, the gift, of life. Within my tradition of Christianity, much has been said and written about grace. About the grace that has been extended to us, and the grace that we extend to others. Humanity is at its best when it is full of grace.

But grace is not simply an expression of good will towards another, but towards oneself from oneself.

The challenge of modern laws of productivity is that it is essentially seen as lazy if one lives life without goals. Not only that, the principals of goal setting teach us to be specific in the targets that we set ourselves. The problem with this is that shooting for targets and aiming at goals results in a simple pass/fail outlook. Either I have hit my target, or I have not. Sure we can extend the deadline, and postpone the feeling of failure with yet another missed resolution. Would it not be better to measure progress in terms of milestones, rather than a series of consecutive finish lines? Does not the perpetual stop-start, stop-start in fact inhibit momentum?

But what if we chose a direction, rather than a destination. What if ‘success’ became about an alignment, rather than an achievement?

Eugene H. Peterson, a man whom I find it difficult to categorise or describe succinctly, talks of Christian discipleship – essentially an ordered and disciplined life centred around love of God and love of other, originating in the teachings of Jesus – in terms of its being a ‘long obedience in the same direction’. Habits, disciplines, practices, routines, and all manner of other ways in which we order our lives, become less about attainment or achievement, and increasingly becomes about trajectory. About a direction, rather than a destination.

If, for example, we value our health, is the goal to achieve some idealised notion of health – as though it were an object to be held – or to live healthily within the wider cadences of our lives? Success then, is not in achieving health, but in pursuing discipline and habits that progressively lead towards greater health. Success then, is found not in the achievement of great feats, but in the incremental decisions we make daily to pursue a certain end. Equally, if we say we value a particular relationship, but never action anything large or small that goes to serve or enhance, or pursue that relationship, then are we leading a life that will lead us towards relational contentedness? Writer Joshua Fields Millburn, one half of The Minimalists, uses the analogy of a sunset or sunrise. If you are searching for a sunrise, then as long as you head east you will eventually find one, whereas if you are searching for a sunset, head west. It really doesn’t matter to where, providing that the direction you are travelling is in alignment with the thing you are pursuing.

Daily decisions then, the rhythms of grace that pervade our lives, become indicators of direction. Or to put it another way, our daily decisions ultimately betray our convictions – for better or worse. This is where I found myself a few short months ago; a bundle of paradoxes, a concoction of convictions that lacked legs. An idealist with ideals that struggled to reach expression in reality. I claimed that I cared about the environment, but was lazy with recycling, consumption and waste. I claimed to desire a deeper relationship with the God that I worship, but was lacklustre in the time I was willing to commit to simply sit and listen. In short, my actions did not align with what I actually believed. In my mind, I had two options; either I had to overhaul my practices’, or abandon those things I said I believed. The alternative, for me, of course was to continue living in the tension of hypocrisy that I felt. This was a tension I could no longer bear.

In coming to see success as the small steps in a certain direction, though often along an uncertain path, I am learning to be gracious to myself. To recognise that though I may still relapse and make poor decisions, they are far outweighed by the volume of tiny steps I am making towards the things I truly value. Within my new-formed habits, in pursuit of the things I truly value, rather than the things I am told add value to me, I am learning to live contentedly within rhythms of grace.


The following articles and resources have greatly helped me over the past few months;

What is Minimalism?

Let me start by saying what Minimalism isn’t, or perhaps what it isn’t exclusively. It is not, for example, the rejection of all material possessions – though it may encompass elements of that. Nor is it a peculiarity to the white middle classes. It is also not a vow of absolute poverty. It is not the only way.

It is a discipline of sorts. It is a way of ordering ones world, both the internal world and the external. It is an orientation around what is most important. It is a way of pursuing dreams and values. Minimalism is practised, and has always been practised by a vast array of people, from all manner of walks of life, from a multitude of backgrounds. It is way.

Minimalism is less about what you do not own, and more about allowing more of what you love, what inspires you, what adds to you as a human being to fill an increasing amount of your time and resources. By stripping back the superfluous, it allows us to focus upon the important.

I am by no means clutter free, though I am less cluttered than I was. I am by no means singularly focused on my ‘aspirations’ at the expense of all else, and yet I am finding myself increasingly able to make time for more of what I enjoy, more of what I am passionate about.

I do not live in a vacuum. There seems to be a misconception that anyone who uses the term ‘Minimalist’ as a self-designation must therefore live boring, meaningless lives. But in my reading and my wondering, and now in my experience, I have found the opposite to be true. Through blogs and documentaries I have discovered that Minimalists are quite often the people who are most enamoured by life in all its fullness.

For me, it has brought me to two main realisations – and these are yet to be fully realised by any stretch of the imagination. Firstly, I do not need to own the vast majority of what I am told I need, in order to live contentedly. Secondly, I have wasted so much resource on things that I do not need, and that do not add one ounce of value to my life.

I own books I’ve never read. I have draws and cupboards and shed full of stuff that takes hours upon hours to organise, tidy, clean and repeat. With so much stuff, life becomes less about meaning and increasingly about the maintenance of that which we suppose we need. And I just had enough.

One day, observing a child drinking out of his hands, he cast away the cup from his wallet with the words, “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.”

Diogenes Laertius, writing on Diogenes of Sinope

I had encountered some of the ancient Philosophers during my undergrad degree and one Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynic philosophy, particularly captured my imagination. Whilst by nature he was quite an unsavoury character (the term Cynic has less to do with his outlook on life and more to do with his ‘dogish’ behaviour in public). However, what endeared me to him was his commitment to essentially discover what he could live without, whilst still living contentedly.

What I am discovering is that the less stuff I have cluttering my house, the less stuff that clutters my life. This has not been a sudden shift for me, but more of realisation of glacial speed, or possibly a remembering, that I am not the things that I own. In fact, in owning less, life is proving to be wonderfully simplified.

So, what is Minimalism? Minimalism, to me, is the orientation around the essential. And long may it continue. For more on why I’ve decided to simplify much of my life, see my blog post: Towards Simplicity.


These are three writings I have greatly appreciated over the past couple of weeks, if what I’ve written here has grabbed your attention, then check them out!

Mistakes in Kindness: reflections on the life of Mother Teresa

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5 years ago today I awoke at 5:00, showered under an upright piece of copper pipping that jutted out of the wall at an imprecise angle about a foot about my head. There was no thermostat, simply a stop valve to regulate the quantity (rather than the direction) of the water that gushed forth.

I was in Kolkata, West Bangal, India. I was 69 days into a trip that genuinely changed my life.

5 years on, and i’ve been reading back over my journal entries for the days surrounding the 5th of September 2012. I attended a mass at Mother House, the home of the Missionaries of Charity, the organisation that Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Kolkata) founded before her death in 1997. The 5th of September is the anniversary of her death each year, and as such, the nuns at Mother House mark the occasion with a service of remembrance.

These are my reflections from that day:

Mass was good this morning, the nuns focused very little on the actual works of Mother and instead focused on the impact she had… I suppose this is the nature of Christian service; all we can hope for is that we have followed Jesus in all that He has asked of us and in doing so, have inspired others to join the dance.

Reading back over this today, It has struck me again how it is rarely the things we do that people will recollect, but the impression that we leave people with. A word spoken in kindness may well be helpful in the moment, but often it is the presence of a person during a time of crisis that we most remember; again, not the words that were uttered, but the impression made.

I don’t know about you, but I have often been preoccupied, or overly concerned, with what I should be saying, rather than the presence I bring and the impression I leave. We like the big show, the clever sentence, the knowledgable maxim, the sound bite and the grand gesture. But it is often the smallest of acts that leave the biggest of impressions; it is those that require the most faithfulness, the most attention,  the softest touch with the greatest of love.

In writing to her fellow nuns, Mother Teresa once wrote:

“Be kind to one another. I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than that you work miracles in unkindness.” – Mother Teresa

In truly Christian service, the ends do not always justify the means. Simply because something has turned out for our gain, does not mean that we had the right heart, motivation, or approach to much of what we pursued along the way.

In our desire to be like Christ, I do wonder how often we aspire most to the one element of his character that we must never pursue: His Kingship. In the last week of his life Jesus showed us the kind of service that those who would seek to follow him are called to. It is the type of service that always picks up the towel, and never the crown.

I am increasingly convinced that any perceived success we might experience has far less to do with what we do in the public forum, and far more to do with the grace of the One who has bestowed it upon us, the one with whom we meet in the hidden spaces of our lives.

Whether I agree with everything that Mother Teresa did is not the subject of these reflections, but she always sought to teach and instruct those around her not by what she said, but through what she did. Her life reflected her convictions, and for me, there is something admirable in that.

Simply Plant-Based

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People’s reason for ‘going vegan’ are about as varied as the food available to each of us. My interest, however, had very little to do with animal welfare specifically. I don’t believe that eating animals in and of itself is inherently wrong.

For me, the bigger issue is the environmental cost of the meat, dairy, and egg industries respectively. Just by way of example; if you believe the research, then just one person switching from a regular western diet to a more vegan or ‘plant-based’ diet will cut more carbon-dioxide emissions, emissions that they are solely responsible for, than if they had exchanged their car for a ‘hybrid model’. That, for me, seems like a simple decision to make.

You may be wondering how eating a predominantly plant-based, or Vegan, diet can possibly be simple. And that is a reasonable wondering to have! Let me ask you this; is it simpler to eat something that has been sown, grown, prepared, and possibly cooked before being served, or to eat something that has been born, transported, reared, fed, killed, carved or disposed of, ‘produced’, packed, prepared, cooked and eaten? This is not about animal welfare per-se. To me eating a plant-based diet seems simpler than the alternatives. Not easier, by any means, but simpler.

Why I think a plant-based diet is simple

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How could eating a plant-based, or vegan, diet possibly be simple?! That, is a perfectly reasonable question to ask! In my pursuit of an increasingly simplified life I have found a predominantly (note the use of the word predominantly) plant-based diet to be a real asset.

While a plant-based diet may seem restrictive to some, and while it can seem like an extreme move, our experience with it has been quite different.

Firstly, we didn’t set out to have a plant-based diet. We started initially stripping meat out from our diet (partly in an attempt to save money on the weekly shop, and partly due to growing health concerns) back at the beginning of 2017. Secondly, I personally have really enjoyed learning to cook ‘plant-based’. Trust me when I say it’s not all kale and juices! Far from it in fact! In learning to cook plant-based I have had to really learn what now feels like a skill – the skill of actually cooking, rather than simply catering.

With the rise of convenience food, not just fast food, I feel as though the art of cooking has given way to the convenience of just catering. It may well be easier to buy a tray bake lasagna from the local supermarket, but is that really a simpler way to cook? In order for the food to make its way from farm to face (yours or your loved ones) it has to undergo an immense amount of ‘production’ – just note the use of the word ‘factor’ in conjunction with natural foods. That fact that we comfortably use the word production to talk about the process by which we source our food is somewhat worrying to me.

Essentially, at one level or another convenience food has to be engineered in some capacity in order for it to be easier for you to cook. It allows us, as a culture, to be passive caterers; we can pick up some bits from the supermarket, pre-packed and part-cooked on the way home, switch the oven on and set the timer for 40-60 minutes – just enough time to watch your favourite show on Netflix. This, clearly, is an easier way to feed oneself.

So why a plant based diet? Quite simply put, a plant-based diet is simpler to produce, softer on the environment, and far more fun to eat than a ‘traditional’ western diet.

Simpler to produce

In order for the meat, eggs, and diary industries to churn out produce on the scale that the western world deems ‘necessary’, it must also produce vast quantities of plant-based crops, in order to rear the required amount of animals. Think about it this way, we’re growing food we could eat, and are perfectly capable of thriving on as a species (just look at the amount of athletes, for example, that are increasingly adopting a plant-based diet), in order to produce other food that is superfluous to our needs. This, to me, doesn’t really seem easier or simpler – though I can appreciate your argument that it may be tastier!

Not only that, it is simpler to shop for. My weekly shop now orientates itself around the fresh produce aisles, rather than the entirety of the store! Equally on the plus side, it has reduced our weekly food cost.

Softer on the Environment

The meat, eggs, and dairy industry produces 65% of global CO2 emissions each year. That is more than the combined transportation industry. The current recommendations for those of us who are concerned about global warming, climate change, and just all round better stewardship of this creation we call home, is for us to drive hybrid cars (or electric). While this is not a recommendation I wish to refute here, I simply cannot afford the models of cars necessary to reducing my personal emissions in this way. The hybrid models tend to be more expensive than their normal counterparts, not to mention the repeated cost of replacing the rechargeable battery for your electric car every decade (the cost of which is almost enough to purchase a brand new car. If, for the sake of argument, this was an avenue you pursued for the good of the environment, you would likely reduce your personal emission by about 1 tonne of CO2 per year – a not insignificant amount.

However, by dropping meat, eggs, and dairy from our diet and therefore not contributing to that 65% of total yearly emissions, the research shows that we have reduced our personal CO2 emissions by 1.5 tonnes. Each. Just let that sink in for a moment, particularly those who share the concerns that I do about the environment. It is better for you, personally, to drop meat, eggs and diary, from your diet, than it is to change your car. Surely, changing our diet is simpler than changing our car? Again, perhaps not easier, but absolutely simpler.

Far more fun

I’ve got to be honest, I am really enjoying cooking and eating plant-based. Since learning to cook properly, rather than just cater, I have discovered that veg is actually really tasty when it is prepared well, and far richer in taste and texture than some giant steak or chicken burger. Some of my personal favourite dishes include red lentil and sweet potato dahl, homemade baked falafel with diced roast potatoes,a gorgeous roasted red pepper and humus sandwich, and a brilliant vegan Moussaka recipe that reminds me of our honeymoon to Kos.

Not only is it more fun to cook, but I am able to enjoy more of my day. Since swapping to a plant-based diet I have experienced more consistent energy levels over the course of my day (I even drink less coffee as a result). I’ve also lost that mid-afternoon slump at around 3pm. Our digestive systems are working overtime to process the density and richness of the food now native to our western culture, than it is having a direct impact on our ability to function consistently.

These are just three reasons why I believe a plant-based diet to be simpler than a now-traditional western diet. If you’ve experienced similar things having shifted to a plant-based, or vegan diet, I’d love to hear from you!


If you’re interested in trying your hand at ‘being vegan’, or adopting a more plant-based diet, i’d recommend the following resources as things that have helped me recently: