Slow Your Roll
We take the frenzied pace and accompanying stress of modern life as a given, but there is another way. We are often responding to stressors that aren’t actually there in our present moment, and we feel like life is rushing by. Slowing down is one of the most important things we can do to squeeze the most out of our one and precious life. This doesn’t mean we’ll get more done. It’s a different way of measuring the quality of life-- quality over quantity.
In more primitive times, we were concerned with our immediate needs, like there being enough food for winter, and we managed these needs with a close community support system. Our stress responses were developed to deal with these issues of survival. When faced with a predator, cortisol and adrenaline course into our blood, our pupils dilate so we can see more clearly, our heart and breathing speed up so we can respond faster, and the blood diverts from our organs to our large muscles so we can fight or flee. Modern life is constantly triggering our stress response even though we are rarely dealing with a survival issue. According to Psychologist Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn, this wears down our telomeres, the caps on our DNA that protect our cells from illness and aging. Chronic stress leaves us feeling uneasy, scattered, often frantic and unable to be fully present for whatever we are doing. Rather, we are thinking about what we have to do tomorrow, or playing yesterday’s conversation over and over in our heads.
In order to deal with stress, many of us turn to “overfunctioning.” We spring into action -- advising, rescuing, micromanaging -- making ourselves even busier and more stressed-out in the process. (The Dance of Connection by Harriet Lerner) When we are feeling insecure, producing seems like the easiest way to feel worthwhile. This differs from the natural urge to be creative and contribute to the mix of life… rather it is energized by fears of inadequacy and the need to prove oneself. We convince ourselves that if we stay busy enough and keep moving, reality won’t be able to keep up. So we stay in front of the truth about how tired and scared and confused and overwhelmed we sometimes feel. In the process we become distant from those we love and disconnected from our body as we speedily work to get things done with a false sense of urgency. (Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach) Others of us respond to stress by “underfunctioning.” These are the procrastinators. They get less competent under stress, and others often feel the need to jump in and rescue them. Overfunctioning and underfunctioning are patterned responses to anxiety and not the truth about who we are.
Luckily for us, there are alternative ways to deal with stress, beginning with how we view stress. It is not necessary that we remove all the stressors, just that we develop “stress resilience.” Instead of viewing our stressors as dangerous threats, we can view them as challenges which will help us grow. To make this shift in perception, all we have to do is begin to recognize the physiological responses to stress in our body, the fight or flight response. As we shine our light of awareness on stress when it happens, we can remind ourselves that it is just our body preparing to rise to the challenge. Brene Brown explains that wholehearted people are not “anxiety-free” they are just “anxiety-aware.” This is achieved through cultivating calm and stillness in their lives. (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown)
When we are calm we are mindful, and can manage our emotional reactions and how we handle stress. Calm people can bring perspective to complicated situations and feel their feelings without reacting to heightened emotions like fear and anger. When we observe our stress responses begin to kick into gear, we can pause. We don’t have to respond right away. We can take the time to deliberate on our response, step back and see things more clearly, and even ask questions to gather more information. It’s okay to say to someone, “I’m not sure. I need to think about this some more.”
“Stillness” is less complicated than “calm,” but harder for some of us to put into practice. This is meditation and prayer, periods of quiet reflection and alone time. Stillness doesn’t have to be overwhelming or look a particular way. It simply creates a space for us to step outside our busy lives in order to feel and observe. It is where wisdom and inspiration happens. The Buddha found enlightenment seated under the Bodhi tree. This is one of the great mythic symbols depicting the power of stillness. He was no longer clinging to pleasure or running away from any part of his experience. He was making himself absolutely available to the changing stream of life. For us, stillness may come when we take time to sit in nature. Or perhaps we create a quiet nook in our house. We can foster habits that are conducive to stillness, like exercise and limiting caffeine intake, and then let go of our assumptions about what stillness is supposed to look like, and find a place and method that works for us.
It is exceptionally beneficial to simply sit still and do nothing, but stillness can also be achieved in the midst of our daily activities by simply giving our full attention to one task at a time. Whatever we are doing, do it fully. Stress is caused by being “here” but wanting to be “there”, or being in the present but wanting to be in the future. If you have to, you can move fast, or work fast, or even run, without projecting yourself into the future and without resisting the present. Whatever you are doing, do it totally. Enjoy the flow of energy, the high energy of that moment. Or you can drop the whole thing and sit on a park bench. But when you do, watch your mind. It may say: “You should be working. You are wasting time.” Observe the mind. Smile at it.
No matter what you are doing, stillness happens in the moment. In the Now -- in the absence of time -- all your problems dissolve. Suffering needs time; it cannot survive in the Now. Zen Master Rinzai would ask “In this moment, what is lacking?” This is a powerful question that does not require an answer on the level of the mind. It is designed to take your attention deeply into the Now. Make it your practice to withdraw attention from the past and future whenever they are not needed. The moment you realize you are not present, you are present. (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle). Eckhart Tolle distinguishes between “clock time” and “psychological time.” Clock time is a practical use of time that allows us to learn from the past, make plans, and get things done. Psychological time is when we attach regret, worry, self-criticism or anxiety to the passage of time and begin to identify with it. Even as we use clock time to function in our daily lives, the present moment remains the essential factor: Any lesson from the past becomes relevant and is applied now. Learn to use “clock time” in the practical aspects of your life, but immediately return to present-moment awareness when those practical matters have been dealt with. Then there will be no build up of “psychological time”. “When you use clock time appropriately, you see and smell the flowers by the wayside, you are aware of the beauty and the miracle of life that unfolds around you when you are present in the Now.” (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle)
Being fully present in the moment gives us the opportunity to be fully present with people too! Douglas Abrams, who co-wrote a book with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu described interactions with these two exceptional men. “When the Dalai Lama greets you, he takes your hand and then he rubs it tenderly, as a grandparent might. He looks into your eyes, feels deeply what you are feeling, and touches his forehead to yours. Whatever feeling, elation, or anguish, is in your heart and reflected on your face, it is mirrored in his. But then when he meets the next person, those emotions are gone and he is wholly available for the next encounter and the next moment. Perhaps that is what it means to be fully present, available for each moment and each person we encounter, untethered by the ruminating memories of the past and not lured by the anticipatory worry about the future.” He also recalled, “I have never seen the Archbishop Tutu miss an opportunity to thank someone or appreciate what he has been given. He will often stop an entire production or an event to acknowledge all that are present.” When everyone else is almost through with their meal, he will still be sipping and vocalizing his appreciation for his soup. (Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams)
Eastern philosophy has long embraced the idea of slowing down and doing less. Zen philosophy is all about being so completely present that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are in your essence, can survive in you. In the practice of Eastern martial arts they teach, don’t resist the opponent’s force. Yield to overcome. In Taoism, there is a term called “wu wei”, which is usually translated as “actionless activity” or “sitting quietly and doing nothing.” It is radically different from inactivity in the ordinary state of unconsciousness, which stems from fear, inertia or indecision. The real “doing nothing” implies inner non-resistance and intense alertness.
There is an interesting corollary here with the story of “The Right Stuff,” the 1950s fighter pilots in the Air Force who were given the task of flying at higher altitudes than ever before. When they went beyond the earth’s denser atmosphere, they found the ordinary laws of aerodynamics no longer existed. A plane could skid into a flat spin and then start tumbling end over end. The first pilots to encounter this responded by frantically trying to stabilize their planes, but the more they tried to correct, the wilder the ride became, until the experience ended in a tragic crash. Then Chuck Yeager inadvertently struck on a solution. When his plane began tumbling, he was thrown around violently and knocked out. Seven miles later when the plane reentered the planet’s denser atmosphere, he woke up and steadied the aircraft and landed safely. He had discovered the only life saving response that was possible in this desperate situation was: Don’t do anything. Take your hands off the controls. It countered all training and even basic survival instincts, but it worked. “We fill our days with continual movement: Mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, buying, looking in the mirror. What would it be like if, right in the midst of our busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to pause and notice our inner experience?” (Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance)
The “pause” is a powerful tool. It is a “suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward any goal.” (Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach) Tara Brach tells the story of a man who is frightened of his own shadow. He believes that if he could leave it behind, he would then be happy. So he grows increasingly distressed as he sees that no matter how fast he runs, his shadow never once falls behind. Not about to give up, he runs faster and faster until finally he drops dead of exhaustion. If only he had stepped into the shade and sat down to rest, his shadow would have vanished. Creating pauses in our life can take the form of spending time in nature, genuinely listening, meditation, paying attention to our breath. We simply pause whatever activity we are engaged in to become wholeheartedly present, attentive and physically still. Often the moment we need to pause the most is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so. Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. When we pause and disrupt our habitual behaviors, we open to the possibility of new and creative ways of responding to our wants and fears. Pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked “How do you handle the notes as well as you do?” His response was “I handle notes no better than many others, but the pauses --ah! That is where the art resides.” The pause forms the background that lets the foreground take shape with clarity and freshness. Becoming aware of the spaces between someone’s words, between sounds, between activities, between breaths, between thoughts, is a very effective practice to connect with stillness. We can even make these kinds of pauses part of our daily routine. Perhaps you could pause before getting out of the car to take a deep breath and feel what is going on inside you. In doing so, you are hitting “reset,” and can begin your life fresh in that moment.
To create the space to slow down, and still get things done, a practical solution is working on our efficiency -- getting the most done with the least amount of energy and time. This involves pairing down our to-do list to the things that are most important and that move us in the direction of the things that we value. Then, let go of perfectionism. Done is better than perfect. It creates tension and stress as we focus on getting everything done just right - often by someone else’s standards - as opposed to completing the task sufficiently and staying relaxed. Then signal your respect for “time” by scheduling. Schedule the things that are most important to you first -- a time for self-care, your favorite activities, movement, time with family and friends, and even planning! Remember, planning is fluid, so allow your schedule and plans to adjust based on reality. Plans are meant to alleviate stress, not create pressure.
We can also look at how we devote our energy. We should prioritize our important relationships, and limit or kindly extricate ourselves from relationships that are draining. Some activities actually generate more energy-- specifically “rest” and “play.” Many ill health effects have been linked to sleep deprivation -- diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression. Driving while drowsy can be as dangerous - and as preventable - as driving while intoxicated. “To live a wholehearted life, we must become intentional about cultivating sleep and play, and about letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. If we only care about what others think we will keep pushing ourselves, but if we care about ourselves, we will make space for rest and schedule downtime in our lives.” (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown)
Play is as essential to our health and well being as rest. (Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, founder of National Institute of Play) Play is purposeless. We play for the sake of play, because it is fun and we want to. Brene Brown points out that in our culture where our self-worth is tied to our net worth, “we base our worthiness on our level of productivity. Spending time doing purposeless activities is rare. In fact, for many of us it sounds like an anxiety attack waiting to happen. We’ve got so much to do and so little time to do it that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of time. We even convince ourselves that sleeping is a terrible use of our time.” (The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown). Play is making choices motivated by our desire to contribute to life rather than out of fear, guilt, shame, duty or obligation. (Nonviolent Communication Book by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Phd) If our motivation is in alignment, even hard work can have an element of play. So periodically, take a look at your motivations, especially of activities you dread. If these things are helping you move towards a treasured goal, and perhaps this realization will help shift your attitude. Perhaps you will realize some change is required about which activities you do or how you do them.
Bernadette Noll, in her book “Slow Family Living,” suggests that the peace and harmony we hope for in the world can be created at home first, by lovingly, consciously and intentionally slowing life down. This can be done whether you live alone, with a partner or with children. It involves doing the things you love, knowing you have choices, consciously making decisions about how to devote your time, and making it your priority to do things that foster connection and that feel right. This sometimes means doing things differently from how you have in the past or how you were raised.
The first step for “Slow Family Living” is to ask yourself, over and over, “Is this working?” Before you ask it, you have to slow down and take a big breath… that’s the “slow.” First, pause in the question. Then pause in the feeling. (Slow Family Living by Bernadette Noll) Just sit in the question and the answer will come. Brene Brown also suggests making a list of what works. Ask yourself, “When things are going really well in our family, what does it look like?” The answer often includes sleep, working out, healthy food, cooking, time off, weekends away, being present with the kids, a sense of control over money, meaningful work that doesn’t consume us, time to piddle, time with close friends, time to just hang out. When you compare this list to the list of things you want to achieve or acquire, you may realize that you need to adjust your goals. The Dalai Lama points out that stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition. When we see how little we really need - love and connection - then all the getting and grasping that we thought was so essential to our well-being takes its rightful place and no longer becomes the focus or the obsession of our lives. It is important to define success for yourself and be willing to shift gears when necessary. Perhaps some of the things you are striving to acquire, exist already in another way if you were to slow down and recognize those gifts. When you notice that something isn’t working, ask yourself if there is anything you can do to change it. If for some reason we can’t change it completely, can we change something about it to make it work for us? The answer to this is always pretty much yes.
In addition to the broad-stroke spiritual practices outlined above, there are some daily practices of “slow family living” that are fun and easy to implement. (Slow Family Living by Bernadette Noll)
Start your day with four deep breaths. If you wake to an alarm, rather than being startled and jumping into action, turn it off and pause to take four deep breaths. The alarm then becomes a reminder for mindfulness.
Journaling. Take some time to write down what you are grateful for, how you are feeling, your intentions for the day, reflect on the lessons of yesterday and your vision for your future. You can also add your to-do list to get organized for the day and reduce your stress by putting things to paper.
Roses and Thorns. At the end of the day, ask your family members the best part of their day and the most difficult part of their day. It is a great way to connect and reflect on what went right and what you might do differently.
Take a Mental Picture. This is similar to pausing and appreciating the moment. Imagining you are taking a mental picture helps you become present and notice the details of the moment and appreciate it fully.
Increase your connection. When you are with someone, be really with them. Put what you are doing aside, take a deep breath, and fully listen to their words and what underlies them. There is a saying “If you want your kids to talk to you in the future, you have to listen to them now.”
Appreciations. Listing the things you are grateful for can be part of your journaling practice, or can be done anytime. Gratitude is one of the primary gateways to the present moment.
Spend Nothing Day. It is surprisingly difficult to go a whole day without spending money, even on a cup of coffee. Deciding to spend nothing necessarily slows you down. Then you can have fun deciding what to do with the money you didn’t spend!
Screen Free Time. This one can be particularly challenging when we use our devices for work, organizing, shopping and socializing. Rather than making it a big deal, just decide what works best for you. Be aware of how you feel when you have spent a long time in front of screens. Contrast that to how you feel in nature or reading a book or spending time with loved ones. Having a guideline around screen time can help you implement parameters that don’t have to be a hardship, but rather are a way to implement the life you really want, based on your values and observations. Perhaps you have screen-free time for a couple hours in the evening, or the first hour of the day, or all day on Sundays. Maybe you create a screen free zone, such as no screens in the bedroom.
Deciding to be done. When you’re buzzing around the house like a hummingbird -- tidying, straightening, organizing, doing -- remember that you will never actually get it all done. We need to stop doing, and spend some time just being. Scheduling and blocking off time can be helpful in this regard. Set aside one hour to house-cleaning, and whatever you get done, let that be enough.
Calendaring. If you actually schedule time for the things that bring you joy and the things that you need to do to take care of yourself, they will be more likely to happen.
Practice Saying No. When you receive an invitation, before you respond, put it aside, pause and ponder. In this day of electronic communication, we sometimes feel obliged to respond right away as if there were some urgency. Do you really want to go? What else is going on that week? Making a carefully considered decision will make the events you do decide to attend more satisfying.
Play Hooky. This is one of my favorite suggestions. Pick one day, and plan ahead to spend the whole day just reading, hiking or laying around. Do your favorite activities. If there are other people in your household, you can coordinate with them, and make it a group activity. This goes hand in hand with another one of Bernadette’s suggestions -- the “throw the rules out the window day.” You can eat dessert for breakfast. Stay up as late as you want. Eat dinner on the living room floor with your hands. These kinds of days bring you into the moment and slow you down.
Spacious transitions. “The bigger the window, the happier the travels.” This is one that I live by. Overestimate how long it will take you to get ready and get somewhere. Don’t plan back-to-back things where you have to rush from one place to another. With spacious transitions in place, you will be able to stop and smell the roses on the way there. Set your alarm a few minutes earlier. If you get somewhere early, enjoy the minutes of waiting.
Take Five. Work little breaks into your day -- a small mental escape. Fill a big glass of water and drink the whole thing slowly, or lie down on the floor in Child’s Pose or Savasana for a couple of minutes. I remember when I had small children, I would take out the trash when I needed an opportunity to call myself back to my center.
Don’t Sweep Until the Rice Dries. This is the perfect metaphor for slow family living. Don’t choose the struggle. Don’t make work for yourself. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. When we give the struggles some space, they are much more likely to work themselves out or at least be more workable when we return. When we are willing to walk away rather than let the frustration get the best of us, we can find solutions in the space we allow. Don’t think everything has to be resolved right away. Give it time.
Our days on earth are precious, and when we come to our last breath, we will probably not feel the most gratitude for the time we spent rushing around and getting things done. Start small -- a breath here, a breath there -- and then you’ll notice other opportunities to “slow your roll.” The grass is greener when you stop and feel it under your feet.
** For further reading on this topic, check out these insightful works which formed the basis for this article: The Dance of Connection by Harriet Lerner, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, Slow Family Living by Bernadette Noll.