The Sustainable Self

Many years ago, I set to work exploring the concept of sustainability from the perspective of the individual. I was then a doctoral student in the Sustainability Education PhD program at Prescott College, where I was surprised to find that my peers, faculty, and I were passionately devoted to initiating projects that would help to create sustainability in the greater world while simultaneously treading water in our own decidedly unsustainable lives. I was equally amazed when my searches for research or literature on personal sustainability bore no fruit.

The notion of a bottom-up approach to effecting change on a global scale did not seem unique. Certainly, I could not be the first person to realize the ineffectual, imbalanced, and even contradictory nature of working to “heal” a broken world and burning out in the process. My own life was not particularly balanced, and I began to reflect on what it meant to truly “walk the sustainability talk.” In other words, it was not sufficient for me to discuss how to create a sustainable world when my own life did not reflect sustainability. I needed to learn how to create sustainability at the individual level of my own life before suggesting that I could help achieve this lofty goal on a bigger scale.

I began to question what it would look like for me to embody sustainability in my own life. Could I create a definition for my self by drawing from those I had been studying in the doctoral program? This question of how to create sustainability at the individual level became the focus of my research. I completed an autoethnographic studying, following my own path toward what I referred to a self-sustainability, unpacking all of my experiences over the course of nearly four years in the doctoral program. I was curious to see if I could find patterns in the tentative steps I took each year in the program on this path and if they could be iterated in such a way that they could be replicated for other people. Essentially, could my research provide a guiding map to the sustainable self.

My dissertation was an autoethnography about my experience building a more sustainable existence. In the process of my research, I devised the terms “self-sustainability”; “a moment of sustainability”; and “the sustainable Self” (Slovin, 2013) to describe the process of creating balance and equilibrium on the path to a healthier, more joyful, authentic existence. I noted four stages I moved through on this path, which corresponded to each year in the program: awareness, permission, change, intention.

It took most of my first year in the program to become aware that there was something off kilter with regard to efforts by my peers to “fix” the world and the lack of connection to our own lives. I also began to glimpse an awareness that life could be different. The second year in the program involved giving myself permission to pursue this path. Initial permission came from trusted peers and faculty in the program. It took more time for me to believe that I deserved to change my life course toward one that was more balanced, more joyful, and more sustainable. The third year involved enormous transition and change. I changed jobs twice and left my husband. The fourth year involved continued transition and change. I changed jobs again and began writing my dissertation. I came to understand that there was (perhaps) no end in the pursuit of sustainability. It was a lifelong journey, and I was only at the beginning. It would take intention and regularly revisiting the first three themes of awareness, permission, and change to get into a rhythm that could take me ever closer to the kind of life that would allow for joy, wellbeing, balance; in a word, a life that would allow me to embody the sustainable self.

I believe it is within our capacity to become sustainable and maintain a balanced life through the combined process of discovering and honoring our authentic, true selves; pursuing our passions; and developing healthy methods for restoring balance to our systems when external events throw our system out of whack.

A large component of my research involved arts based research in the form of creating a method of songwriting called Story-to-Song (STS), wherein a piece of music is composed from the words of a personal story and the positive effect of this process on a person’s wellbeing (Slovin & Brooks, 2013). The development of this method evolved through an iterative, collaborative, creative research process with a member of my cohort.

In my autoethnography, I reviewed my own experiences, studying songwriting and developing the STS method. I discovered that transformation and healing was experienced through the sharing of a personal story that held deep and often emotional meaning, both for me and with the people with whom I wrote music in this way. As I stepped into the identity of an artist, a shift began in my own confidence.

I have now been following a path to self-sustainability for nearly a decade, crafting identity, career, and passions that reflect my own internal requirements for balance and wellbeing. It is an ongoing process. On this path, I eventually left my traditional government career to allow space for my creative pursuits and personal work while also being able to embrace and encourage others on their own journey.

Slovin, M. (2013). Becoming sustainable: An Autoethnography in story and song (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Becoming Sustainable

Slovin, M., & Brooks, M. (2013). Stages and breakthroughs: And illustration of the Story-to-Song method. Retrieved from Stages and Breakthroughs

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