Positive Abundance: When Less is Plenty

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Ocean Rock Pool

Ocean rock pool at Yamba beach with waves breaking over


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By Dr. Timothy Rayner
Former Professor of Philosophy
University of Sydney
Writer/Author

Philosophy for Change

A good friend of mine, Gina, recently moved from Sydney to Yamba, on the northern New South Wales coast. Gina had been working as a project manager for a US-Australian cloud computing company while helping a number of local not-for-profits and social good initiatives kick butt on the fly. After years of holding space at the centre of a social innovation storm, she needed a break. Yamba was just the ticket. Nestled at the mouth of the Clarence river, festooned with pristine beaches and silvery waterways, Yamba was voted Australia’s best town in 2009. For Gina, it was the perfect place to rest, rechange, and reorient herself. It was time to shake free of things that were no longer important to her and refocus on the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The first thing she noticed was the quiet. Yamba is still – particularly after lights out. Decimal levels pick up gently in the day: the cawing of parrots, the mumble of passing cars, an occassional leafblower intruding on the calm. Gina took to rising at dawn, taking walks along the beach, and meditating in the afternoons. Her body found a different rhythm, settling into Yamba time, shaped by the sun and tides more than the movement of the clock. Soon, the quiet didn’t seem empty anymore. The silence was rich and overflowing, full of the burgeoning murmur of life.

Then the sense of isolation set in. Gina had moved to Yamba with a view to sewing together the network for a new not-for-profit. Without a job, she had plenty of time to reach out to friends and associates to spread the word. The trouble was, it was hard to do anything beyond that. Back in Sydney, Gina would have followed up a call with a coffee date and kept in touch with her contacts and acquaintences by dropping in on seminars and events about town. Now she was on the outside of this activity, just when she needed to be diving into it. She began to panic. The sense of isolation made her feel torn in two. Part of her was snugly cocooned in the rhythms and flows of Yamba. Another part of her was hammering on the walls of the cocoon like a butterfly impatient to be born, reaching beyond Yamba, trying and failing to connect with the flows of the city.

Life, it seemed, was happening everywhere. Or was it? One evening, watching pelicans glide down the Clarence river, Gina had an epiphany. Moving to Yamba hadn’t isolated her from her real friends at all. Since arriving in town, she’d scarely been out of touch with her friends, who she chatted with on Facebook every day. People were booking weekends to come and visit her. Even her colleages in the not-for-profit were planning a Yamba retreat. It was true that Gina was disconnected from the whirligig of activities and events that she’d enjoyed in Sydney. Yet, somehow she felt deeply connected with the people and projects in her life that really mattered, more connected than before. Even if she wasn’t actually with these people, or storming about town setting up projects, the presence of mind that she’d achieved in Yamba had given them a deep existential presence. Life seemed simple and infinitely rich at the same time.

Gina felt an incredible sense of gratitude and wellbeing. Sometimes, she reflected, less is plenty. Yamba was the perfect opportunity for Gina to simplify her life. She stripped back to basics, shut out the noise, and focussed on channelling her growing sense of abundance.

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The Swiss psychotherapist Erich Fromm distinguished positive and negative forms of abundance. The defining experience of negative abundance is excess. We feel innundated and overwhelmed. We are exposed to flows that we simply can’t absorb into our life or person. Different people have different levels of tolerance to negative abundance. Some people love the sense of nihilation that is associated with it. Sunbathers, for example, ‘bliss out’ on the dense blanket of heat laid down by the midday sun. Strangers to the city can feel an ecstatic transcendence standing on the corner of a bustling street. Yet only for so long. Our bodies can’t tolerate negative abundance indefinately. Sooner or later, it breaks through our defences and crushes us. Gina, for instance, was worn out by the negative abundance of the city. She was besieged at work by an abundance of projects and reponsibilities. Taking a walk, she’d been surrounded by an abundance of strangers, jostling shoulder to shoulder on the pavement; an abundance of cars clogging the streets; and an abundance of products in every storefront window, reminding her of the hyperconsumption she was dedicated to resisting.

Positive abundance implies a totally different experience of the world. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by what comes from without, we overflow from within. We are a wellspring of outer-directed energy. The experience resonates with the original meaning of the Latin abunda, ‘the wave that overflows’. Sometimes we can barely contain ourselves. Words and ideas come easily. Life itself is an even flow, carrying us along with it. We give joyously from our own store.

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Meanwhile, everything that comes to us is a gift. We look around and marvel at the good things life offers. Perhaps they are few and far between. No matter. For abundant souls, less is plenty.

If you are in a hurry to experience positive abundance, alcohol and drugs can get you there. But there are healthier ways to cultivate this experience. We must start by cultivating simplicity. We must proceed by a method of subtraction, limiting the amount of energy and information that we consume. Equally importantly, we must ensure that the flows that do enter our life nourish and sustain us in the way that we need to be nourished and sustained. In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche speaks of the importance of the ‘little things’ in life: determining the right nutriment for one’s constitution, the right climate for one metabolism, the recreation and company that suits one’s disposition. These little things, Nietzsche insists, are profoundly important for the creative spirit. One must find the right combination of flows to trigger a sense of overflow. This is how Nietzsche unlocked his personal muse, releasing, he claims, an ‘innermost abundance of truth, an inexhaustable well into which no bucket descends without coming up filled with gold and goodness’.

Human potential is not something locked inside us like a fossil fuel, waiting to be tapped. It is an emergent power created through the conjunction of empowering flows. When we are overwhelmed by negative abundance, our potential is blocked or dissolved. When we find the conditions that enable us to thrive, it leaps forth vibrant and ripe. Gina discovered in Yamba that is possible to tap a wellspring of positive abundance by simplifying life. By disconnecting herself from the fast-paced cycles of the city, she was able to conjoin a simple set of natural flows – the sun, the sea, a daily regimen of cheerful conversation, diet, and exercise – and this was plenty. There was plenty of time in the day to relax. She had plenty of energy to work, play, and create. She had plenty of friends and resources to draw on.

Life was full and Gina was thriving. Conjoining a simple set of flows produced an overflowing sense of enlivenment, capacity, and wellbeing.

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