The freedom of not counting

It’s hard to stop counting.

Counting is ingrained in us from an early age. In elementary school, learning to count is one of the fundamental learning blocks for a lifetime of learning. Kids relish in the skill once they grasp it, like having a new kind of magic power formerly reserved for the adult world. They count how old they are and are fascinated with exactly how many more days remain to their next birthday. They count how many Shopkins they have (ugh) or how many stuffed animals are up on their shelf. I remember  when I was in school and we used to keep track of how many books we read, earning a new gold star sticker for each one I completed.

Counting things invariably leads to comparison, of course. She has more than I do; I have more than him; they have more than us; he has the most. Which then leads easily to other comparisons like I am older than you, she is taller than me, she has more toys than I do…etc.

As we get older, we keep counting and comparing. We count out our years with milestone birthdays (worrying as we hit each new one that it may be our last). We count out how much money we are earning, or how much we owe on our unpaid bills. We count square footage of homes, the number of vacations our richer friends take, the number of days left till our next one.

Sometimes we are counting down: we count the hours until the end of the work day, count the days until the end of the week. Another five years and the mortgage is paid off. Another three gigs and I’ll be able to buy that new piece of tech I’ve been eyeing.

Sometimes we’re counting up: once we get X in the bank, we’ll be set. Once I hit my Nth blog post, I’ll finally break through.

We count ourselves to sleep. Count the number of reps left in the set. Count the number of connections we have on LinkedIn, the number of likes we get on a Facebook post.  Back in the early days of the internet websites used to show a hit counter on their home page telling you how many people had visited that site before you.

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Every number, though often arbitrary, is invested with meaning by the counter.

And you often hear it said that if you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter that much to you. What business today would survive long without counting myriad data points from which they hope to recognize patterns that inform them about the behaviours of their clients that they can use to better tune and target their marketing efforts?

But what happens when you stop counting?

When you do the exercise not to hit an arbitrary limit but because you want to work that muscle group out. When you go to work every day not to punch the clock and count the hours you’re banking, but because you are doing something important, something that matters to you. When you take a course not (just) because it counts towards your degree but because you genuinely want to learn something.

Instead of counting, you start paying attention. You listen more deeply to your body, to others. You stop seeing things in terms of us/them, more/less. You forget about comparisons and start to experience the joy of being and becoming who you really are.

Counting has always been a marker of progress and advancement in cultures and civilizations that came before our own. But perhaps the most important contribution to the advancement of all human civilization was the invention of zero. That empty space between + and – where life happens.

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