Do you need to put the brakes on your pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle?
Photo courtesy of Jupiter Images
My descent into slowness happened quickly and without warning. One minute I was standing on the corner of 43rd and Broadway in Manhattan, waiting in line for an eggplant sandwich from a street vendor while simultaneously revisiting a meeting that had just occurred, planning what I was going to wear for that night’s date, and worrying about how I might break it to my mother that
I wasn’t coming home for Thanksgiving. Without my realizing what was happening, a truck swerved onto the sidewalk and hit the cart, which landed on me. The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back with a busted toe, a torn rotator cuff, and a bruised sense of pride.
I believe in signs. And I believe that my accident was a sign from higher up, God, the almighty, the spirit, whatever you choose to call that Oz-like figure pulling the strings in the background. And that sign was a warning. In the haze of the next few hours, one thing became clear: If I didn’t slow down and start paying attention, worse was yet to come. Much worse.
Not everyone has such a clear-cut epiphany. Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to stop the madness and found it in my sidewalk tumble. But my accident caused some serious introspection.
Until the moment my head struck the pavement, you see, my life was one long to-do list. I operated in perpetual motion. I was like a record stuck in the groove of productivity, skipping into infinity. I was addicted to forward motion, to the adrenaline rush of working too many hours, entertaining too much, socializing too hard. I couldn’t imagine any other way. It defined me. I wore my productivity like a badge. After the accident, I posted a quote on my bathroom mirror: “Instead of searching for enlightenment, we must learn to see the enlightenment in each moment.” I read it every morning while brushing my teeth. I tried desperately to live up to that ideal—when I had time to reflect on it—but I felt deflated every time I realized how my reality was so vastly far from this notion.
I realized that to appreciate each moment, any moment for that matter, I needed to slow down. I had to go deep inside to discover how I wanted my life to be: a blur of events I was too thrashed to enjoy or a less glamorous but more inwardly rich experience of awareness and connection. I chose the latter.
I knew this would require fortitude. I had to swim against the tide of modern life, find ways not to get caught up in the momentum, and create space for a kind of everyday enlightenment.
The concept of slowness started taking hold of me. I walked leisurely in the subway when everyone rushed around me. I stopped doing so many things at once (when I did them at once, I often did them poorly anyway) and focused on one thing at a time. I went out less and spent more time at home. Instead of always having a destination, I experimented with wandering around in the early morning, with only a few street washers and fish deliverymen to keep me company.
Most of all, I thought. At the end of all this thinking, I realized that my busyness was a cover-up: I was lonely, I felt empty, and I felt like a major fraud. I craved connection to a community, my family, and nature—needs that weren’t being met.
A month later, I moved to the Bay Area. Once I got some space in my adopted city, I realized just how deeply I had submerged myself in denial. I hadn’t recognized the connection between my stress and the physical symptoms that had plagued me over the years: panic attacks, free-floating anxiety, and unexplained fatigue.
Always the journalist, I starting doing some research, exploring the effects of living too fast—digging into medical journals and alternative health magazines, and talking to friends. I learned that the link between stress and disease is widely accepted in the medical community: Studies show that stress reduction techniques can lower blood pressure, help with chronic pain, and reduce hypertension that leads to heart attacks. I started studying the mind-body connection and realized that my busyness had led to some of the unfortunate physical symptoms I had experienced.
I also learned that you don’t need to relocate, abandon your family, or quit your job to cultivate slowness. The big secret is that slowness is a state of mind—one that can be found anywhere. A kind of consciousness, an attentiveness to the present moment. Once you have this kind of awareness, slowness comes easily.
How do you do it?
Going slow requires practice. You can start, of course, slowly, by changing your relationship to speed. Let’s say you are stuck in traffic. There are several ways to react: You can let your blood pressure rise and pound the steering wheel in despair because you aren’t getting where you’re going fast enough. You can pull into a parking spot without looking at the signs, only to come back later to a ticket because it was a street cleaning day. You can arrive at your meeting flustered and flummoxed, and do a poor job. Or, you can go slow, calmly turning off talk radio and tuning into classical, taking a few deep breaths. You can slow down to appreciate that this may be the only time during the day you are alone with your thoughts. You can take your time finding a parking spot and take a moment to gather your thoughts before the meeting.
The next step in practicing slowness involves looking at how you spend your downtime. Do you rush around even when you don’t have to? Do you feel lazy, lost, and aimless when you have a quiet moment? Do you constantly fill time and space with people/food/work? Slowness asks that we seek balance between our internal and external lives. How do we find that balance? Put simply, do less.
It’s easy to think about doing less. But for most of us, doing less is intricately tied up with our complex psychologies about our deepest feelings about ourselves. Going slow requires digging deep, uncovering what lies beneath your inability to go slow and live a balanced life: Is it because you don’t want to admit that you aren’t a supermom? That you work so much because it feeds your ego? That you are afraid to teach your kids slowness because they won’t get “ahead” in life? Do you believe that your busyness will lead to authentic happiness—or is it just a superficial view of what you think will make you happy? Going slow requires that you answer the hard questions about what you are willing to let go for a simpler life. Some might see this as a sacrifice, but it isn’t—unless you consider a sense of peace, enjoyment, and satisfaction a sacrifice.
You will protest. You’ll send me an e-mail: I try, but I can’t slow down! There is nothing I can give up!
I know you can’t ignore your deadlines and neglect your kids. You can’t skip work and stop caring for yourself.
Going slow and leading a productive life aren’t mutually exclusive. But you need a healthy level of productivity. How do you know what’s healthy? Do you feel too busy to take care of your basic needs, like eating lunch in the middle of the day, getting some exercise, or going to the doctor for that mysterious pain? Stay productive, but stay sane. If you aren’t meeting your basic needs, you need to slow down.
You can do it.
Operating in a constant state of overdrive, I guarantee you, will eventually deplete your resources and lead to a drop in productivity anyway.
Look at your calendar, and schedule in slowness. Find one weekend day when you won’t commit to plans. What does this feel like? Many people fear they will feel bored or empty, but what often happens is a huge relief.
Start to integrate this into your daily life. Instead of always chasing excitement and activity, do it only some of the time. Rather than planning, try resting. Notice when you are filling the time, when you are looking around you to fill a void, or feel uncomfortable with silence. Stay aware when you feel bored or obsessive. Instead of striving for more, learn to cultivate the art of satisfaction.
Learn to say no. Try using the “last-week-on-earth” test. Ask yourself: Would you really be spending your precious time doing this if it were your last week on earth?
Don’t wait for someone else to slow down your life for you. Your boss, spouse, and kids certainly won’t suggest it. You must guard your time with your life.
Cultivating slowness means finding your natural rhythm. The more we advance as a society, the farther we get away from this rhythm and the harder it gets to unearth it. That’s why we need time for rediscovery.
Remember that slowness is synonymous with simplicity. In this way, it doesn’t have be overwhelming, another thing to accomplish, another reason to feel guilty or embarrassed if you can’t do it. If you can’t do it right now, try again next week. If next week doesn’t work, try next month. Slowness is being gentle with yourself. I like to think of the Middle Way, a concept in Buddhism that guides us toward balance instead of extremes. “Not too tight, not too loose,” as the saying goes.
Slowness means savoring the slow times in your life that result from a natural ebb and flow. Just because you don’t have a vacation day coming up, or a street festival to go to, or a school play or a holiday party to attend doesn’t mean you are lacking or not living a full life. When outer circumstances quiet down, this creates the space to dig deep and calibrate your inner rhythm with your outer one. Learn to appreciate slowness, seeing it when it happens and making the most of it. Slowness is a lifelong pursuit.
I’m no role model. I still do too many things at once, push myself too hard, say yes when my insides are screaming no. But I know that I can make the choice to stop the madness, put on the brakes, slow down the train before it gets out of control. By now I know the signs that I’m moving too fast: My breath gets shallow, my neck starts to ache, I keep forgetting where I put my keys. I’m irritable and eat too many carbohydrates.
This awareness is progress, I think, the best I can hope for in a world with deadlines and playdates and dinner parties and so many tasks to complete. And for today, this awareness is enough.
Nora Isaacs is the author of Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age (Seal Press, 2006).