The 70% Solution (In Which Less is Actually More)

 I recently learned a bit of Qigong wisdom.  The instructor said that when practicing each meditative pose it is beneficial to give a 70% level of energy to the process.  He claims that’s more beneficial than striving for 100% or stretching for 120%.  That actually goes along with my fitness training instructor’s pointing out that when doing weights or leg lifts it is good to move slowly to increase strength through resistance.  True strength is not in speed but control, to resist the tendency to let momentum do the work and thus let the muscles stay lazy.

In a way, that is great advice for aging mindfully.  With or without choice, we begin to enter a season when energy is not to be taken for granted.  I remember sighing even a few decades ago when an optometrist glibly informed me that all vision over 40 is a compromise.  And here’s another example: Atul Gawande dedicates a chapter in Being Mortal to a review of the way our bodies generally peak in strength and then inevitably begin a slow trajectory of diminishment along a downward slope.  That’s just how it is.  What is the message?  Give yourself a little kind understanding and work with this reality.  We can come to know ourselves during the trip or we can just keep kicking as fast and hard as we can believing that we’ll get the best out of life if we can push hard right up to a point where we’ll suddenly and magically lose consciousness, thus avoiding having to be there when we die. 

Our Western culture tells us goodness lies in “going for the gold”: more speed, most stuff, more excitement, more achievement.  In fact, containing energy consumption down around 70% sounds downright unAmerican.  In order to stop at 70% energy you have to know where that edge is.  You learn to recognize the point where there’s a tug to leap past the conscious effort.  That additional 30% can change the game, skipping the strength building and shortchanging the goal.  That kind of a leap for “more” reaps less, in a way.  Surely everybody knows we have a better chance of getting to the big stuff, (i.e., the good stuff) if we don’t sweat the small stuff.

But . . . what if it’s in sweating the small stuff that we develop the resilience—the stamina—to travel the downward slopes consciously and creatively?  What if the small stuff offers rich gifts too easily missed when we speed up and hope momentum will take us to the elusive “big stuff?”

When I think of trying for a 70% energy level, whether doing leg lifts orin any other part of life, my first question is, “How would I know what 70% looks or feels like?”  I’d have to recognize what constitutes 100% in order to adopt the discipline.   I’d need to have a range for defining how much is enough, what is enough, and then, what is more than enough.  I’d need to trust that enough is good.  I’d need to be aware of my full spectrum of needs and values in order to move from necessary to essential to meaningful to what is truly enough to give a sense of joyful abundance and finally, what is more impressive than substantive.  With a range like that we may come to see our top 30% is more like the empty calories of whipped cream on top, or that extra salt some people automatically shake out before even tasting their food.

What does it mean to apply the 70% solution to, say, living sustainably?  There is every indication that our culture rewards a near religious devotion to a belief in more.  With the climate crisis, the creed that there will always be more is coming apart.  We can only look with aching hearts upon the ravaged planet, imagining the impending pain our children face for living in an economy and society on the downward slope during what should be the upward slope of the first half of their lives.  It is time to break open the belief that there will and must always be more or all is lost.

If we as elders can learn how to live creatively and consciously in the increasing “less” in our physical (and often material) lives—if we as elders can confirm that true abundance resides in the 70%—that’s not a bad inheritance to leave our future generations.  I heard recently that Yale University offers a course in happiness based on considerable research.  What they are finding is that more money/achievement/stuff does not bring happiness.   Key elements of happiness are relationships, community, sufficiency.  People don’t need big stuff to find hope in one another.

If we can creatively and consciously locate the rich vein of hope in the 70%, we can show a way to travel our collective downward slope as full human beings capable of participating responsibly in the real world.  We can travel in a way that doesn’t run off in search of miracles.  Let’s adopt a new math in which 70% is greater than 100 or 120%.  Let’s be on the lookout to find the more in less.