The Laws of Subtraction–Inserting Space Between the Notes of Your Life

This is what I see when I walk into any clothing store!

This is what I see when I walk into any clothing store!

When I went shopping last week for my wife’s Christmas gift, I realized something important about me (and, it turns out, about a lot of us).  I walked into one clothing store and was immediately assaulted by the endless racks of clothes–they’re hanging on the walls, standing on the floors, piles everywhere.  The picture on the right is what I see when I walk into any clothing store!

The way clothing stores are being set up these days, it reminds me of airplanes–more and more seats with less and less leg room and aisle width.  I stood there for a few moments glancing around the massive store with its seemingly infinite variety–and to be honest, I got overwhelmed.  Too many choices.  I just didn’t have enough head space and bandwidth, not to mention patience, to start rummaging through every rack.  I didn’t even know exactly what I was looking for, which made the variety of choices even more paralyzing.

So as a shopper in those moments, I always resort to the easy way:  looking for the mannequins–I have to see complete outfits.  As a visual person, mannequins are my best friends in navigating so many choices.  So I walked around surveying all of the mannequins and never saw anything I liked.  I left.

I went into a smaller store in the mall, and in a few minutes, I saw a complete outfit hanging out in plain view, and I liked it.  Very much.  And 40% off helped make the decision easier.  In a matter of minutes I was standing in the check out line, excited with my purchase and hardly able to wait Christmas Eve for my wife to try it all on.

We live in an age of excess and choice–an overabundance of both.  And spirituality isn’t immune from this challenge.  There are so many options available to explore.  We’re inundated with books, DVDs, CDs, seminars and workshops, religious organizations trumpeting their truths, nonprofits vying for our attention to support their good causes, all describing different ways of believing, thinking, and acting.  Our temptation is to either ignore all of these options (we’re too overwhelmed, not enough bandwidth to consider everything) or to simply keep adding to our lives–after all, it’s all good, right?  We can never have too much good in our lives, can we?

But the truth is, we cannot live our lives based only on the law of addition.  Effective spirituality is as much about subtraction as it is about addition.

In his book The Laws of Subtraction, author Matthew E. May makes the observation that “at the heart of every difficult decision lie three tough choices:  What to purse versus what to ignore.  What to leave in versus what to leave out.  What to do versus what to don’t.  I have discovered that if you focus on the second half of each choice–what to ignore, what to leave out, what to don’t–the decision becomes exponentially easier and simpler…This is the art of subtraction:  when you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens.”  (p. xii)

I think he’s dead on!  All spiritual traditions consequently emphasize this significant principle and provide practices and ways to learn this art of subtraction.  The season of winter is often used as a time to reflect on this second half of the equation:  What do I need to let go of in my life?  What isn’t serving me any more that I should release?  What do I need to de-clutter in order to make room for the new?  What am I holding on to too tightly that might be keeping me from spiritual growth and renewal?

We were not created with infinite head space or bandwidth.  We cannot be healthy spiritually or otherwise if we only live by the laws of addition or even attraction.  We are called to take the counter-intuitive approach from time to time to learn the art of subtraction.

So what space are you creating in your life to have this intentional reflection and self-evaluation?  The new year is a perfect time for this experience.

For these reasons, I have developed a cycle of three weekend retreats for 2013, starting January 25-26, to carve out this significant personal space for these reflections.  This first of the three weekends will be stepping into the law of subtraction.  Winter.  Letting go.  De-cluttering.  Making room for the new.  Healthy spirituality necessitates spiritual subtraction.

I invite you to consider participating in these retreats starting next month.  Here is the link for the details.  Feel free to pass it along to friends and family.  https://www.gregorypnelson.com/Retreats.php.  The deadline for the early bird discount is in 48 hours, and it’s limited to just 20 people, so check it out soon.  I would love to have you experience this transformational journey.

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

One of my favorite classical composers is Claude Debussy.  I still enjoy playing “Claire de Lune” on the piano.  Debussy once wrote, “Music is the space between the notes.”

If you know his music, you know that he is a master at spacing–intervals–when no sound exists–even if only briefly.  That silence and space between the notes serve to enhance the musicality and power of the notes.  Imagine listening to a pianist or vocalist (or even speaker, for that matter–I’ve endured too many of them) who never stops–they play/sing/speak incessantly–with no breaks–no silence–no pause.  How do you feel or react?  It’s simply exhausting, isn’t it?  Overwhelming.  Easy to ignore and tune out.  Our bandwidth gets used up before they’re even done so we check out.  Effective composing is not just adding more notes to be played without rest or pause.  It’s learning how to subtract strategically, thoughtfully, emotionally.

I encourage you as you face a new year to give yourself the profound and transforming gift of subtraction.  Carve out sacred space to reflect on what needs to be let go of, ignored, left out in your life.  Create more space between the notes of your life.  Engage in this difficult, counter-intuitive, but I guarantee you, rewarding work of making room for what is yet to come.

Dr. May has it right:  When you remove just the right things in just the right way, something good always happens.”

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