My friend Linda suggested, as part of our work with the Artist's Way, that we try "Cheshbon Hanefesh" (a spiritual accounting). It involves keeping track of the number of times you do something each day. After 80 days, the Sages promise, you will be a new person.
"My friend," the text goes, "you have the power. To start this process of self-discovery, ask yourself intimate questions, then wait for answers."
- What is the purpose of existence?
- What is my goal in life?
- Why did I choose my career?
- How do I spent my spare time?
- In what ways am I wasting time?
- What is my motivation for doing what I do?
- What really makes me happy?
- What are my future plans? Why?
- What are my secret dreams and ambitions?
Like the Artist's Way in a nutshell. I imagine you don't ask all the questions, just the one or ones that resonate.
Then you make a plan to change some small thing in your life. Keep track of how many times you slip up every day. Not in a hateful way, but in loving attention, recognizing that you are only human. Not in a guilty way, but again, knowing that you are human and prone to forgetting. Not expecting immediate results, but being satisfied with an accurate count.
I chose to count how many times I swallow what I need or want: not doing whatever it is, or cutting it off once I've started, or switching to what someone else has asked for. Tiny things, like not speaking up when someone asks if I'd like to do something but I actually don't. It's a habit to redirect my energy into other people or other things, to avoid self-indulgence and offense. But this ultimately turns into resentment because I can't say what I need to say, and I stop recognizing what I want or need, so I am perpetually self-denying in an unhealthy way.
So, I started accounting yesterday. In the morning I had already counted up to 3 or 4. Then a cold, bright fear came over me: what if I was doing this wrong? what if I should only be counting the external derailing, not the internal derailing?
This fear was so persuasive that I shoved the accounting out of my head for the rest of the day. I went to work, taught about industrialization, reviewed vocabulary, took my students on a field trip in the middle of their midterm week. All the while, there was a cold, bright center in my chest. It sat and knitted while I rode the bus, took attendance, watched videos of midcentury ads for Plexiglas and Tupperware and videos showing each of the elements of the periodic table. And it curled and uncurled while I got a snack and drove to Flat Rock Park for Bagua practice.
Listening to Dar Williams in the car, I began to unwind. The unwinding continued as I found that no one else had come for class and I could walk around the park alone. By the time I got home, it was clear that whatever I decided, the accounting could proceed. So I chose internal as well as external. In the evening I spent time with my husband and was tired and cheerful. The cold bright fear didn't go away, but I had piled blankets around it and made it some hot chocolate, and it had started to relax.
Yesterday I counted 8. Today, so far, it's 6. I anticipate plenty more - already 4 more between writing and posting. It's comforting to notice the tiny seizing-up of the mind that sends out waves of anxiety. It was in my dreams last night, too, although I wasn't counting then. The important thing is the noticing. There might be all kinds of subcategories of self-denial that I'm doing. With time, maybe I'll be able to tell.