“When you know what you are doing you can do what you want” – Moshe Feldenkrais
Ideally, we form conscious habits and become aware of our behavior (“know what you are doing”) to help us thrive (“do what you want”). If our habits are no longer serving us, we can cultivate different ones. That is not always easy and may not happen overnight. Yet, it’s possible. But sometimes even well intentioned habits take on a life of their own, lulling us back into the status quo we had tried to shift by adopting the habit in the first place. If we snap out of it, we can recommit to the habit with greater awareness or develop another.
For as long as I can remember, I have kept track of my expenses when traveling overseas. Logging every train ticket, museum entry, postcard purchase or tasty tidbit in a small notebook kept me cognizant of how much I was spending while marking and celebrating each moment. Later, my notes served as a shorthand diary of the journey. Even years later, in reviewing each day’s log I could reconstruct the trip. Yet, when I returned from an adventure, the habit of carefully noting my expenses vanished. It seemed tedious if not punitive to write down every little thing, as if I were policing myself, when the rest of the world appeared to have a more laid back attitude about it. Regular life didn’t seem special, and I didn’t have a powerful reason (e.g. the risk of being broke or a strong desire to accumulate wealth) to track everything beyond keeping my checkbook current. Before the Internet came along, and we had to visit stores to buy things, I followed an inherited set of rules if not dogma around money…spend carefully, if at all. Frugality for its own sake at times felt like being straitjacketed, and made me an awkward misfit during group meals. While others spent, I saved for a vague future.
A few years ago I began integrating my travel-logging habit into regular life after trying and abandoning a few off the shelf software programs and online tracking sites. Many had been designed for a “typical user” with categories that either didn’t apply or were not specific enough. I am also wary of sites that automate entry or siphon data from linked accounts, supposedly simplifying the task. I wanted to be able access my information without a WiFi connection. My concern was less about cyber security and more about reclaiming my attention from the cloud. Since my intention was to develop greater awareness around spending before the transaction and not after the fact, I chose to log each purchase in a compact notebook. Doing things manually often helps me become more present. Once or twice a month, I transferred the numbers into a fairly simple spreadsheet with custom categories. When it comes to food, I am a recovering glutton and emotional eater. Since my culinary curiosities and appetites often exceed my willingness to pay for them, I wanted to see how much I spent on groceries vs. eating or “beveraging” out. I also made “sweets” a separate category because, despite my divorce from sugar, I sometimes stray. When I am stressed, lonely or confronted with a tempting confection, my spiritual energy is not always strong enough to say, “No” to something I have said, “Yes, Oh, Yes!” to for decades. I wanted to track how often that happened because sugar is not a treat but a nasty trickster.
This habit of logging everything – even 50 cents inserted into a parking meter – quickly established itself. But after a while I noticed that I had regressed to an earlier way of being and recorded the data like a dutiful child, who then didn’t want to look too carefully. The habit began running on autopilot, convincing me that taking notes was enough. Yet the point of mapping this landscape, similar to lying down at the beginning of a Feldenkrais lesson and noticing where the body makes contact with the floor, had been to illuminate where I made money contact with the world so I could identify where I might consume less, spend more wisely or not at all.
Last weekend, it hit me that I had not transferred the information in my notebook to the spreadsheet for …. six months! In the past, I would have berated myself for such a large lapse in awareness. Rather than abandon the project because “it hadn’t worked” or look for a technological “fix”, I rededicated myself. I sat in bed with my laptop and hand written expense log for what turned out to be a leisurely “Awareness Through Money” lesson. In entering the information and revsiting the events and circumstances of that period of time, patterns of thought, emotion, eating and spending emerged. My medical “adventures”, starting with a follow up mammogram at the end of December, a biopsy in January, a “seize the moment” trip to Morocco in February before surgery in March, and later recovering, meeting with doctors and grappling with the implications of a strange diagnosis, had thrown me into a quagmire of adrenaline-infused anxiety mixed with leaden despair. I had tried to escape these intense and chaotic feelings, in part, by spending money.
If money could talk, it would have said, “F*ck it!”
As I looked over the figures, I noticed I had not logged the two largest expenses of my Morocco sojourn: the cost of the co-working retreat and the plane ticket. That wasn’t for lack of time. Although I made the decision to go at the last minute, I had noted every other pre-departure purchase. Seeing this blind spot months later made me groan and laugh. Then, I had justified the trip out of fear that I might never again have such an opportunity. While that might be true, it’s possible I failed to fully believe it because I had not inked the amounts, to the penny for the sake of precision (not perfectionism), in my notebook.
Had my adventurous spirit absconded with the pen to outmaneuver my inner accountant, whom she feared would veto the plan? If so, next time they will need to talk to each other.
With the nonjudgmental curiosity I developed through Feldenkrais Awareness through Movement lessons, which teach students how to attend to themselves to move and live as integrated beings rather than as a collection of uncoordinated parts, I dove deeper into my expense jottings. That I flipped through the pages as if I were reading my personalized version of “The Book of Numbers”, rather than analyzing a report, made it less daunting. I noticed my handwriting deteriorated to a scrawl during my last week in Morocco when deep exhaustion set in and, unsurprisingly, I reached for some delicious but brain-scrambling date and fig ice cream. Even though at the time it felt annoying to write everything down, I’m glad I did. I also revisited a frenzy of online purchases in early spring, when several outdoor gear companies and other retailers offered Sales! Free Shipping! and I, seeking distraction from medical uncertainty and believing that a wardrobe infusion would alleviate my existential confusion, took advantage. Since I have been conditioned to value deals, the mere *thought* of a bargain can send a tsunami of dopamine to my pre-frontal cortex, making it hard for me to pause mid-hunt. By the time the clothing arrived, the dopamine wave had long receded, leaving behind a narrow spit of sobriety amidst an ocean of uncertainty. I crawled onto that spit and returned most of the purchases. Ditto for eating out: in seeing what I had spent on a handful of lunches, some of which had been “rewards” for unpleasant medical tests, I realized I’d probably enjoy earmarking that money for one amazing dinner or a mini-adventure where food, glorious food wasn’t the focus.
Without learning to know ourselves as intimately as we possibly can, we limit our choice. Life is not very sweet without freedom of choice.” – Moshe Feldenkrais
The more I immersed myself in the digits of my life, the more pleasurable the exercise became. Having created a learning environment for myself (semi-reclining on a bed rather than sitting at a desk), it was easier to sustain a playful, relaxed attention while pinpointing what was missing from my little notebook. For example, I could not find an entry for a state parks’ visitor permit. Because immersing myself in nature brings me joy, peace and delight (which can’t be quantified), I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t written it down. Then I remembered that the receipt had served as an interim pass, to be displayed on the dashboard. I had left it in the car and forgotten about it. While I knew the amount, I couldn’t remember when I had purchased it, which bothered me. After spelunking into my online credit card statements, I found the transaction and, with it, a sense of satisfaction. I also combine park visits with occasional stops at a farm store, whose selection is limited but always changing. I appreciate the farm’s duck and double-yolk hen eggs, red potatoes, arugula and rhubarb far more than if I had found them among thousands of other items at a supermarket. Because they are seasonal and more expensive, I put greater care into preparing them. Because they are more flavorful, I eat less and feel better. Such nourishment defies measurement, ditto for the exquisiteness of fresh food.
As I finished flipping through my “Book of Numbers” and updating my spreadsheet, it turned out that creating a “sweets” category had, in fact, led to fewer dessert-like purchases. Yet, before I could pat myself on the back, I became aware that my incessant quest for tastebud stimulation had, like an infant desperately seeking its mother’s breast, quickly latched onto Kombucha. It’s a fermented beverage I initially disliked but is now made with intriguing flavor combinations. During a sale of this brew at Whole Foods, I let my epicure go wild and try at least 10 varieties, some multiple times! I could not get enough of this refreshment and my grocery bill began to bulge. So now I have added a “Kombucha” category because at $3-$4/bottle, I could mindlessly guzzle and excrete a plane ticket’s worth in a matter of months. My adventurous spirit and inner accountant agreed that such a lapse of awareness would be a shame, and perhaps it would be more fun concocting my own (we’ll see).
Meanwhile, I’ve decided to also record the whimsical moments, joys and surprises that lack a price tag. Right now, I do some of that via Facebook, but sharing them online does not always help me internalize them. Even though the social media platform is “free”, and doesn’t appear in my ledger, it’s designed to hook attention and siphon time, which comes at a cost. Becoming free is about learning to direct one’s attention, moment by moment, to choose and create what one wants. Among other things, I want to navigate with ease between the soul-crushing rocks of compulsive frugality and the rapids of emotionally-driven spending. Awareness will be my paddle.
Interested in trying Feldenkrais at home? I’ve helped create the text for the Movement and Creativity Library, with 150+ lessons. Subscriptions are monthly. You can also support this blog, a labor of love! Join my e-mail list or contribute.