Photo by Patrick Amoy on Unsplash

This is not about nutrition

The majority of the world’s people live largely on grain and beans. Seeds. In Mexico it’s corn and beans, in much of the rest of the world it is rice and beans. Even here, in the US, we fall back on a few staples, especially when things are tight or maybe when we’re just tired of excess. I’m pretty tired of excess. I’m moving towards a rice and beans life.

When I wrote about being 64 and considering psychedelics, a work in progress, I was writing about incremental change, a move towards a lighter weight life. The mushrooms are merely a tool for rearranging some frozen thought and habit patterns. However, I wouldn’t call it an incremental tool. More like a sledgehammer, and sometimes a sledgehammer is the best solution. But until I reach that point, I’m going with rice and beans, the basics.

My writing here is rice and beans

If you scan the stuff I post here, it veers between business advice and personal observations. I’ll be honest, I don’t have an agenda for my writing here. It is fantastic when a story resonates and people read it and respond to it. But that isn’t why I’m here writing this morning. Nor is it the money, which, it appears, requires a gargantuan effort for a very small return. If getting paid was my only priority as a writer, I wouldn’t be wasting time here. I certainly hope someone takes that to heart. There are many ways to live on writing, this isn’t one of them. But it is extremely valuable.

If rice and beans is my comfort food on a cool fall day when I just want to chill at home, writing freeform is my rice and beans when I’m not in earning mode or novel mode. Those are work. I actually have a project to get out the door today, but I’m still in coffee mode and I’m letting the project percolate while I write this. Which is actually about minimalism.

Minimalism is a meta description

Do you know what a meta description is? In web development, a meta description lies in the page’s code and tells a search engine what the page is about. If the meta description is associated with an image, it serves to tell a visually-impaired person what the image shows, via a voice reader. In life, minimalism is a meta description, a distillation of the complexity into its basic elements. Everything else is an embellishment.

My writing here is meta writing, writing about writing, working, or simply living. It is often flawed or lame and it sometimes illuminates things for me, and hopefully others. I think that’s why people come here to read and share stuff. When we get tired of heavy meals and expensive restaurants we go home to rice and beans or pasta and sauce or something equally comforting. Back to the basics.

Zen

I’ve been rereading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a set of brief teachings from Shunryu Suzuki (not to be confused with D.T. Suzuki), a Zen roshi who emigrated to the US in the sixties and started the Tassajara Zen Center in Marin and the San Francisco Zen Center, two of the earliest Zen centers in the US. These brief lectures are the essence of Zen and for those who find the mindfulness movement a little too wishy washy, they cut through and illuminate the process quite clearly. They are eminently practical and straightforward which defines a minimal mindset. Get to the point and deal with it.

I think of the complexity as a room where you tend to store a bunch of stuff you don’t use but have some connection to. I have a bedroom in my apartment that serves as my office but it is devolving into that space. Two bicycles I don’t ride, an old chair I don’t sit in, a drafting table that belonged to my great grandfather that just attracts junk, etc. It’s all going and I don’t care where it goes. Some I’ll sell, some I’ll give away, and some I’ll curb.

This kind of cleaning is really mental. I need my workspace to be more focused. Maybe it’s a Feng Shui thing. Suzuki really doesn’t focus on satori or enlightenment in his talks. He always told people it’s because he didn’t experience things like those openings, though it is quite obvious he has. I just think he did not think they were important. In fact, he undoubtedly thought this kind of desire for awakening was a distraction. The focus is always on what is right here. Not what may come or has been. The stuff in this room is attached to the past. I’m not. Rice and beans.

The present is a slippery thing

Did you ever mix a box of cornstarch with water in a bowl and play with it? It looks like a thick liquid but when you put your hand in and squeeze it, it gets solid, like putty that you can move around. But the minute you release the pressure it slips away back into a liquid state. This business of being mindful and minimal has that same slipperiness. Too much focus and you think you have it, then you let up for just a moment and…there it goes. But the exercise has value. For that moment you are just here dealing with that thing.

Writing is very similar. It requires a balance as you try to get something right. Something that others can read and think, that’s interesting or useful or entertaining. When I can’t reach that balance, I tend to go for a walk, put it out of my mind, and then come back to it and edit ruthlessly- remove any unnecessary ingredients from the recipe. Editing is a function that we use in any practice, whether we’re cooking, writing, working out, or making love. It puts us into the present.

Editing makes things more powerful

I’m intentionally letting this notion follow its own logic. I could rein it in and beat the metaphor to death but I’ll skip that. This morning I read an open letter from a writer here to a friend who is coping with alcoholism. The writer admitted to being ADHD along with about five hundred other things. He created lists of things his friend should do (long lists) and included a very long list of his accomplishments. I’m not quite sure how this helped his friend but it probably made him feel better. I resisted the temptation to be a dick and edit his writing until it no longer focused entirely on him!

There is a lot of this kind of thing here on Medium. And it resonates with people. That article bothered me because it made a difficult challenge (overcoming addiction) even more daunting, though the writer intended it to help. Editing things down to the basics gives them greater power. Adding complexity, unless it is science, where it is often required, usually creates confusion. It’s no different with life in general. Pare things back to the necessities and you often reveal the essential beauty that was obscured by stuff.

In the white room

The white room, with a few pieces of very well designed furniture and a treasured piece of art on the wall, is an icon of modern interior design. It rests the eye and with it the mind. We see an image of a room like that in a magazine or online and a part of us wonders why we don’t live in a place like that. I have the same reaction when I see Japanese Zen gardens. I’m fortunate enough to live across the street from one that is behind the Rochester Zen Center. It is hidden but open to the public for contemplation, however when I go there to practice for a bit I never see anyone except the occasional Zen student, and they are always quiet. These gardens turn minimalism into an art but the goal is not public acclaim. It is to provide an environment that helps people drop things from their mind and simply exist for a moment.

The white room has a similar purpose. It grows in power with subtraction. This is the message.

It turns out this actually is about nutrition

Remember Chicken Soup for the Soul? That ridiculously successful book series that turned a simple concept into a business, then got completely out of touch with its original premise of simplicity? The authors had a great concept. Refine some simple life lessons into comfort food on the page. And people responded by buying millions of books and other products. Then they went and made it into a cash machine. They turned homemade chicken soup into Campbell’s, then they added about a hundred new flavor variations. But we don’t need a hundred flavors of chicken soup. Or rice and beans. Make it the way you like and share it with someone. That’s enough.

Change and personal growth is my theme these days. I recently rode a train for 3500 miles as part of my work to change perspective. I perhaps experienced more than I expected. I’ve written at length about my trip and the unexpected things that took place.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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