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Original Essays

The Not So Big Life

by Sarah Susanka
When I began writing my latest book, The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters, I knew I'd be pushing my existing fans — those who knew me through my Not So Big House series — to grapple with a further dimension of our consumer oriented society. And I knew I'd be surprising more than a few people by the shift from the focus on how we inhabit our houses to how we inhabit our lives. But what I didn't anticipate was just how ready my existing readers were for this extension of the not so big approach to design into the realm of not so big living.

My first surprise came right before the book was released at the beginning of May. A reporter from the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minnesota, had googled "Not So Big Life" in preparation for an interview with me later that day. What came up, along with the www.notsobiglife.com web site, was a blog entry from a woman in New Mexico who had written about her own not so big life. As a fan of all my previous books she had, without any knowledge of my latest one, intuited the natural extension of house design to life design. She was living it, she explained, by taking time to truly engage all the events and moments of her life, and in so doing discovering their inherent meaningfulness. This is a very different way of engaging life than the rushing and accumulating model of success we're taught to assume will eventually result in a sense of meaning, but which almost never works.

What this blogger had discovered was that the beauty of the house she had surrounded herself with as a result of building in a not so big way had given her cause to pause and enjoy the moment over and over again in her everyday activities, to the point that she'd begun to experience a different way of living. Time had shifted in a pronounced way. It was no longer simply a container to be filled with all the items on her to do list. Instead, by learning to show up more completely in each activity, she had discovered a type of fulfillment that's available in the engagement of every moment, an experience that was entirely new to her.

I was so delighted to hear of her discovery that after my interview with the reporter, I googled Mary, and contacted her directly. We had a wonderful conversation, and afterwards I sent her a copy of my book. I figured that someone who had intuited a good chunk of the book's primary message deserved a prize for her insight! And since that time she has written several more entries as she continues to explore the content and exercises provided in the book. (You can read more of the blog entries of readers like this one at http://www.notsobiglife.com/reviews/readers_comments.html.)

In my travels to bookstores around the country since then, as I introduce readers to the concepts informing the not so big approach to living, I've been struck time and again by the readiness of the audience to absorb and begin implementing the strategies I describe for right-sizing our lives. I wish I could bottle what I experience during these signings because it is truly extraordinary. People are so open and inspired when they come up to me afterwards to share their particular story about what they are discovering about themselves through their reading of the new book.

In Washington, D.C., at Politics and Prose, one woman in her late sixties told me that she'd assumed when she retired that it was too late for her to start learning more about herself, or to begin engaging her life in a new way. But The Not So Big Life had inspired her to think again. She'd started to remember all the things she'd been passionate about earlier in her life when she hadn't had time to pursue them. She found, to her amazement, that she was still delighted by the same things and now had the time as well. She had tears in her eyes as she spoke, and I could see that she'd found a spark inside that she'd thought she'd lost forever. It was a magical moment.

A couple approached me after a book signing at the Tattered Cover in Denver. They told me they were going to remodel both their house and their lives simultaneously, an idea that a number of readers are arriving at after reading the book. I use the metaphor of a house remodeling to help readers grasp the notion of a life remodeling, using parallels like "Noticing What Inspires You", "Identifying What Isn't Working", "Removing the Clutter", "Improving the Quality of What You Have", and "Creating a Place and a Time of Your Own". I knew the metaphor would be a helpful one, but when I wrote the book it didn't occur to me that it might be a wonderful experience to remodel both simultaneously. But why not? The book points out that the world that surrounds us is a perfect reflection of our inner world. So making changes in that inner world will automatically precipitate changes in our surroundings as well.

But the most powerfully moving of the book signings I've done to date took place in Fort Collins, Colorado, where I gave a presentation to launch a new type of cancer treatment and support facility. It was an extraordinary event. I was speaking to a group of about 300 people all of whom had in one way or another had to cope with cancer. What became instantly clear as I spoke with people before the presentation began was that these folks already knew how precious life is. They'd had something occur in their lives that made them think about it differently.

Having had a bout with breast cancer myself in 2001, I was familiar with some of the challenges that face someone going through treatment. There's so much that shifts in your life during such a time that it is often difficult to recognize yourself. Everyone has an opinion about what you should do next, many people experience their own fears about illness and mortality through your experience, and in trying to process all of this while your energy levels are depleted the sense of confusion and disorientation can be profound. I described the process I used as I went through treatment, which was heavily influenced by the Five Rules to Engagement from Chapter 10 (pp 208–226) of The Not So Big Life.

They are:

1. Follow your passions
— When you pursue what you long to do, you are far more likely to be present in what you are doing.

2. State your intentions, then let go
— When we try to force things into being we limit and condition the flow of what is unfolding, and frequently stop the thing we're longing for from happening.

3. Be obedient to the situation
— Observe what it is that life is asking of you, and make it a practice to do just that. This simple rule will present you with opportunities for your own growth that you'd never imagined possible.

4. Go toward that which you are rejecting
— Look carefully for the things you refuse to do, and give them a try. Behind each is a locked part of your full potential. By saying "yes" instead of "no" you'll discover the doorway to more of your true self.

5. Do one thing at a time
— When we multi-task we cannot be completely engaged in what is right there in front of us. By restricting our activities to one thing at a time we set the conditions for our showing up more completely in our lives.

These simple tools really hit home, it appeared. It was a huge relief for many in that audience to recognize that in any difficult or life threatening circumstance, there is no point in attributing meaning to what has happened or why, or in trying to think your way to what you should do next. Life can be so much simpler when we understand that we are not in control and that our only job is to be present in the experiencing of whatever is happening today.

That's the real message behind The Not So Big Life. We make things so much more complicated than they really need to be. As you read through this book, as I hope you will, you'll discover that there are many ways in which to use every single thing that happens to you to learn more about who you really are. This is a book about integrating your inner and outer worlds, so that you can begin to live more of your true potential, without having to change jobs, leave your family, or move to a mountain top to do so. The Not So Big Life is about living in balance and finding the meaningfulness you long for right in the midst of its existing structure — including all the everyday events, activities, and relationships. In today's over-stuffed and super-speeding world, this is good news for almost everyone.

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You can read more about the book, as well as share your ideas with Sarah Susanka and other readers, at www.notsobiglife.com. spacer

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