Last August, despite the heat and my cat’s immense disapproval, I moved across town to a smallish two-person house. Before settling in, I did what I always do when I move into a new place: a bit of negentropy. This is essentially a process of increasing the order of a system, and if you have as many pet peeves as I do (ask me about Sprite sometime), this little exercise in spontaneous reordering is well worth it.
Its fairly straightforward and only takes thirty minutes and four ‘tools’ to accomplish. Step 1: procure a screwdriver, a can of WD40 or your favorite household lubricant, some adhesive felt pads, and a package of rubber buttons (technically called self-adhesive polyurethane bumper feet). Step 2: go through the entire house and tighten every screw, oil weight-bearing hinges, apply felt pads to the legs of frequently-moved furniture, and secure rubber buttons on the inside of kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors. Step 3: sit back and enjoy the quiet, secure, and frictionless fruits of your negentropy-producing labor.
[Note: if you are feeling especially eager, you can also get some powdered graphite to smooth the action of your door, car, and bicycle locks.]
Now, if all this seems a bit anal-retentive, consider that we perform these little maintenances on our vehicles with some regularity. We replace the oil and tires on cars, and on bicycles we lubricate the chain and maintain the breaks. The same can be said of our own bodies when we keep our joints operating smoothly by stretching, eating the right foods, and exercising to increase the strength of our muscles and ligaments. True, a squeaky hinge on your front door isn’t as significant as the onset of arthritis, but the two are not mutually exclusive. We can take care of the the joints in both our abodes and our bodies.
Back in August, as I was happily listening to an old episode of Car Talk and going about my negentropic ritual, something occurred to me. I had finished all the tightening and lubricating and was moving on to the kitchen cabinets when I looked at the sheet of rubber buttons in my hand and thought, “I don’t really need these. I can just close my cabinet doors more gently”. This thought crept up with the stealth of an electric car in a suburban neighborhood, and it startled me. I responded automatically: cabinet doors need rubber buttons, it’s just routine maintenance.
But in that moment it became clear to me that this wasn’t true. Hinges need regular lubrication since without it the metal grinds together and wears away, and since oil thins and dissipates over time, it needs to be applied. Most household screws are designed to be driven in and out, and as they loosen with use they need to be tightened. Even the felt pads, though not strictly maintenance, protect the floor from scratches and gouges when furniture slides over it. But rubber buttons don’t really perform any of these preventative functions in any significant way. They merely keep our housemates from glaring at us when we thoughtlessly swing the cabinet door shut with a bang.
Who cares, right? They’re just rubber buttons! Use them, I told myself. They’re convenient, conflict-avoiding, and their supply chain is certainly negligible relative to other manufacturing processes. But it wasn’t the question of material impact that was bothering me. Rather, I had a nagging suspicion that these buttons were hindering my ability to be truly present in the kitchen. This might sound a little half-baked, but soon after I decided to go rubber button-less, I changed my work patterns, my meditation practices, and to the joy of several middle-aged widows, my Argentine tango improved. Pretty neat, eh?
Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and in retrospect I can confidently prescribe causality. Here’s what happened in a nutshell. I started paying attention to how I was closing the cabinet doors. Over the course of a few days, this attention extended to opening and closing drawers and the refrigerator, stacking plates and bowls, and eventually the way I put away silverware. All that was a nice exercise in presence, and great for my tinnitus. But the really neat thing is that when I was moving more slowly through the kitchen, I noticed how much tension I was holding in my shoulders while cooking. It was subtle thing, but unmistakable once I felt it. As the week progressed, I realized I held this tension nearly all the time- at my desk, while meditating, while dancing, while showering- you get the idea.
The rest is pretty straight forward. Similar to how one might perioditcally check in on their posture, I now check in on this tension. I switched from a desk chair to a kneeling stool (thanks Nive!), walk around a bit while I read, settle into different meditative postures, and with the deft of a Trojan horse, slip tension reduction techniques into my weight changes while dancing. The specific changes I made aren’t really important; we all learn what works for us if we are brave enough to try new things with the diligence to follow through on our efforts. What is important is that all of these changes were possible because I was in a position to listen to and learn from myself.
There are countless ways to put yourself at the center of listening and learning. We might risk concluding that the rubber buttons were the impetus of change, but I think they are a red herring. For me, the causes were curiosity, the challenging of long-held assumptions, and perhaps most importantly, giving legitimacy to that strange little thought that popped into my head. Those thoughts are often fleeting things, but I’ve found that when I reach out and grasp them before they float away on the currents of normalcy and reason, they are like a pouch of mystery seeds that grow into unpredictable and emergent processes of learning. If you’re feeling a bit contra, I recommend grabbing a seed and seeing what you discover about yourself and the world around you.
About the Author: Matt Nock is a third-year PhD student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research is at the intersection of sustainability education and public pedagogy, and focuses on the ways in which the dominant discourses of social and environmental oppression are reproduced or challenged through formal and informal learning processes.