When I was in elementary school, I was told that addition and subtraction were complementary operations in math. Whatever number I add to zero, if I subtract the same number, I return to zero. When the operations are used together, they balance each other.
Living in a predominantly consumer society, there is a dominant cultural story of addition. We are told we need more of almost any product or service. More is better. We are increasingly busy with almost every aspect of our lives, because we keep adding, without ever subtracting. In business, we are asked to add more initiatives, priorities, goals and metrics all the time. Very seldom are we asked to subtract anything along the way of all of this addition.
When more is seen as better, then subtraction can appear to be outright counter cultural. Within the collective wisdom of most spiritual traditions, subtraction is an essential component of a balanced life. The wisdom of consciously reflecting on what is most important, and deciding to let go of what is not, is a fundamental spiritual practice that is applicable to all areas of our lives. When we include subtraction as a complementary operation, it moves us out of the dominant cultural story of unconscious more, and invites us into a reflective practice of discerning what is truly important for intentional living.
More is not always better. Sometimes more is just more. I invite you to take a look at all areas of your life and see where some subtraction may be helpful. And when you are asked to add something, reflect on whether it really adds value for you. When we subtract the unconscious clutter, and only add what is of value to us, we are back to the basics of intentional living. Sometimes, it’s as easy as addition and subtraction.
Originally published October 21, 2010