How Slowness Improves Your Quality of Life
You might get less done. But what you’ll gain in the process is invaluable.
The Earth travels 1.6 million miles each day, at a speed of over 66,000mph. It sometimes feels like modern living moves at the same speed. Busyness is the default. Keeping up is exhausting… with hourly news, the latest Tweet, the newest TV show, a full calendar of social events, the fear of missing out, and all the other demands of daily living.
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There’s not enough time to do it all. Not enough time for rest. For play. To sit and stare and daydream. Time’s purpose is to be filled, and whatever container time offers is overspilling with things to do. Before we’ve time to digest what was, we’re already one step into the future, and the present moment feels like one constant transition into the next thing.
While the Earth travels at 66,000mph, covering 1.6 million miles, it does so without little fuss. It doesn’t ask for a day off or complain about being busy. It just does what it does. And amidst the high-speed travel through the universe, if you go out into nature, or even take a moment to pause, and just breathe, close your eyes even, you’ll find something incredible — stillness.
In just the same way, it’s possible to feel a sense of stillness, even in our turbo-charged culture. The solution? Slowness.
Slowness Is a State of Mind – And It Can Help Your Mental Health
“Тhe gentle overcomes the rigid.
The slow overcomes the fast.
The weak overcomes the strong.
Everyone knows that the yielding overcomes the stiff,
and the soft overcomes the hard.
Yet no one applies this knowledge.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
What is slowness? I’ve contemplated this question a lot. I often feel the pressure of time. I’m highly driven, ambitious, the one that laments there not being enough hours in the day. Whilst holding my awareness on this question, and exploring what slowness feels like as an experience, I’ve had a few insights. It comes down to this: slowness has nothing to do with what you’re doing, but how you do it.
Let’s first explore its opposite: rushedness. You’ll know the feeling. When it feels like life is a treadmill at maximum speed. Where what’s next is palpable, a foreboding presence on the fringes of consciousness that creates a constant pressure not to let up, through fear of falling behind. It’s exhausting. Rushedness is the feeling of getting through each present moment, to move onto the next, complete the next task, get everything done just in time.
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Slowness and rushedness are not physical. They’re states of mind. They’re your relationship to whatever is in front of you in the present moment, and whatever is to come. The practice of mindfulness is so powerful, because it encourages full attention to the present moment, and from that attention, how the richness of life reveals itself, like a flower blooming to reveal its beauty. That flower blooms in the sunlight of presence, not the shade of what’s to come.
You can move fast and be slow; think of times when you’ve been in the zone, perhaps playing sport, or been sharp-minded amidst a conversation, or moved through your daily work with a sense of ease. Look at someone like Usain Bolt, and there’s an almost superhuman level of awareness in the present. When running the 200-meter sprint, Bolt doesn’t have time to think of the finish line, he’s hyper-present with each stride, and lets the finish line come to him.
Although they aren’t physical, the body and mind are always reflecting and responding to each other. A rushed mind leads to rushed movements. A slow mind leads to slow movements. You can reverse engineer this, and in times where you notice your mind racing, slow down your movements. Breathe slowly and deeply. And let your body lead the way.
How to Be Aware of Your Mind’s “Domino Effect”
“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Zen proverb.
When rushed, there’s no transition between one task and the next. Just a constant stream of doing, where the present becomes something to complete, overshadowed by a mental projection of what’s next. When what’s next becomes now, it becomes something to complete, overshadowed by another what’s next, and so on, and so on, until you burn out. I think of this like dominoes, where an entire day begins by pushing one domino, falling into the next, and the next, until the elusive final domino collapses, marking a job well done.
In neuropsychology, this is described by the executive function, the cognitive processes that deal with organization, time management, decision-making, and prioritizing. It’s telling that the majority of people with ADHD experience executive dysfunction, and struggle with these types of tasks. The domino effect is an illusion. With self-awareness, the role of the mind’s eye becomes clear.
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Like all aspects of the psyche, the disease contains the cure. By being aware of the mind’s domino effect, you can intervene. That means seeing the mental image of what’s next in its true form — just a thought. And choosing not to blindly accept it. That means being present with the task in front of you, pausing, breathing space between each domino, and choosing when to push, rather than momentum taking over.
Find time for longer pauses, too. Do nothing. It’s surprisingly difficult to do in the beginning, but sitting and doing nothing for five minutes has a surprising reset on how rushed the mind feels. Take in your experience. The sound of the birds. The breeze on your neck. The comfort of your clothes against your skin.
How to Cultivate More Slowness in Your Life
Slowness, in today’s day and age, is a quiet act of rebellion. It’s an act of rebellion against the culture, societal expectations, but more than anything, it’s an act of rebellion against the hyper-productivity that most of us have internalized. I’m always in conflict with my desire to be hyper-productive, and how that compares to a greater quality of life. The benefit of slowness is captured by Roger Walsh in Essential Spirituality:
“By the end of the day you may have listened to less radio, watched less television, and perhaps made one or two fewer phone calls. But the rewards vastly outweigh the trivial losses. Since you were really present for each activity, you may feel less agitated and fragmented, and also that your day was more enjoyable and meaningful.”
To cultivate more slowness, consider:
- Setting the intention to focus on one thing at a time. When you eat, eat. When you walk, walk. That could mean breaking the habit of using your phone for distraction whilst doing other tasks.
- Pause deliberately and frequently. Between tasks. Between standing and sitting. This is a nourishing way to integrate mindfulness into your day, and it stops the domino effect.
- When your mind presents what’s next, create space. Again by pausing, and just being present with the thought as a thought, not a command you have to follow.
- Slow your inner voice. I’ve tried this and it works. When your inner voice is rushed or pointing out everything that needs to be done, deliberately slow it down by speaking slowly in your mind.
- Slow your body. Be deliberate with your movements. Notice areas of tension. Areas that feel at ease. Tune into sensations. While you walk, walk. Do so by being conscious of each step. When you eat, eat. Do so by being conscious of each mouthful, the texture, taste, temperature.
There are complementary factors to cultivating slowness:
- Improve your time management. Having a constant feeling of what’s next is partly your relationship to tasks, partly due to the amount you have to complete. Are you overcommitting? Struggling to prioritize? Improving your practical time management skills will take some pressure off what has to be done.
- Separate time from activity: in modern living, time has been transformed into a commodity. In reality, it’s an illusion, or simply a measuring device. Try to avoid looking at the clock too much, and instead, focus on fulfilling each activity in its fullness. Set alarms if you have to, to make sure you don’t miss other commitments.
Take a moment to pause reading this article. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and bring your awareness to your body, and all its sensations. Do this for a few seconds. Then open your eyes. Back? How does that feel? The beauty of slowness is that you don’t need an excess of pauses to make a noticeable difference. Pausing deliberately through the day for a few seconds can make a difference, along with being more deliberate and mindful with every activity.
In other words, when walking, walk. When eating, eat. This type of slowness has a profound impact on your quality of life. I’m amazed that when I’m mindful, and present, and move slow, I find myself with more time, like some kind of sorcery. If I become fully absorbed with what’s in front of me, I enjoy it more, as if the present has treasures unseen by the blindness of the rushed eye.
Ironically, through this enjoyment, I feel capable of doing more. This applies to all sorts of things, from writing an article, to taking out the rubbish, to training in the gym. The slow overcomes the fast. Sure, you might get less done. But what you’ll gain in the process is invaluable.