The art of slowing down
We spend most of our lives busy.
Everything we do is fast. We battle through lengthy to-do lists, moving quickly from one task to the next. We drive fast, think fast, type fast, talk fast, walk fast, cook fast, eat fast, everything fast. If we could sleep fast, we would. Busyness with a to-go cup is our biggest export, our living legacy.
Amid all this busyness is a lack of ease. Do you or anyone you know experience ease and well-being from the moment you wake up until you go to bed at night? The modern woe is the oppressiveness of too much to do and too little time.
I experience this building up of pressure as a kind of forward momentum. It’s as if my mind expects my physical body to keep up with the speed of thinking. Doubt and worry drive me to move faster and faster unless I remember to apply the breaks.
The Cult of Productivity Runs Deep
Our compulsion to stay busy is partially internally driven. Often we have unrealistic and idealistic ideas about how much we can accomplish in a given time. Other times, we take on too many projects and too many responsibilities. Sometimes, we spend too much time on others because we like to feel wanted and needed, leaving too little time for ourselves. Many of us overwork simply to avoid painful feelings.
Underneath our behavior is the belief that the more productive we are and the more experiences we have, the better our lives will be.
Compulsive doing is also driven by the collective conditioning of a capitalist society. Capitalism rewards productivity above all while instilling competitive, individualistic values. For many, productivity is their primary source of identity. Yet when we look back on all our efforts, have our hearts ever been truly satisfied by the fruits of productivity—accomplishments, money, and recognition?
Busyness tends to divorce us from the natural rhythms of life. We forget that we are flesh and blood beings with sensitive human bodies, hearts, and minds. We treat ourselves like machines capable of performing one task after another optimally and without rest. We believe we should be able to do and achieve any project or task, no matter how much else we have going on. No wonder so many of us struggle with anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout.
The Possibility of Ease Exists
Ease tends to conjure images of plopping down on the sofa, binge-watching tv shows, or lying on an exotic beach. Such activities may provide moments of escape, of temporary relief, but when the show ends or the vacation is over, we’re right back where we started. That’s not the ease we’re after here.
We’re aiming for inner ease, qualities of spaciousness, flow, flexibility, and acceptance. Wishing we weren’t so busy, overwhelmed, or exhausted won’t get us there. Instead, we find greater ease by inviting the conditions that support greater restfulness, which release symptoms of busyness and exhaustion.
Bringing awareness to our patterns of behaving, acting, and reacting to life lets us see what we’re doing to ourselves moment-to-moment. Noticing how the tension builds during the day creates opportunities to de-escalate throughout the day. Once we become overwhelmed, it takes a long time to come back down.
I liken this practice to creating speed bumps. The pressure pushes me to speed up while tools let me slow down. Regular meditation is one of the most powerful tools, the most effective speed bumps. Unfortunately, meditation is usually the first to go when life feels urgent and pressing.
The Paradox of Busyness: Slowing Down to Speed Up
Recently, I began two new initiatives requiring learning new skills in a new environment. Sometimes work can be all-consuming. Other times, I feel disjointed, like forcing rather than flowing with work. The more I have to do, the more resistant I am to mediation.
Despite my resistance and doubts, I decided to add an afternoon session to my regular morning meditation. To my surprise, I began to feel more space and less of the anxiety that tends to fritter away my energy. I was also more fully available for tasks. These formal breaks acted as a metaphorical speed bump, slowing down my mind and body.
So I invite you to challenge the impulse to speed up. The more you want to accelerate, the more I encourage you to slow down. As the saying goes, “If you’re too busy to meditate, meditate more.”
Though meditation is wonderful, sometimes we approach it the wrong way. We like to believe that we can live at one hundred miles per hour and then use meditation to stop all thinking, worrying, and planning and enter deep peace.
When we don’t experience stillness, we may think, “Meditation doesn’t work, and I’m wasting my time.” But the faster a car moves, the longer it takes to slow down; the faster we live, the longer it takes to settle down. Either way, you have to slow down, whether you pump the brakes along the way or jam on the brakes when you’re careening down the highway.
Instead of evaluating mediation on ease and peace alone, recognize the other skillful mental states being developed, such as steadiness, constancy, persistence, courage, kindness, and self-compassion. Let these in, remembering that meditation works even when it doesn’t feel like it.
Finally, it’s easy for meditation to feel like yet another thing we should be doing and feel guilty when we don’t. Notice your mindset and focus on what you enjoy. Can you find and connect with that subtle pleasantness of being present, the feeling of release and relaxation?
You may notice the softness of clothing against your skin, the pleasantness of the room temperature, or the sound of birds outside your window. Staying with pleasant sensations can help support more calm and ease.
A Radical Practice
Neuroscience reveals that each time we switch tasks, the brain releases cortisol. As we move from one tab or email to another, we’re micro-dosing ourselves with stress hormones—no wonder we feel frazzled at the end of the day.
Pausing between everyday tasks and bringing awareness to what has just ended before moving on to the next task can help de-escalate anxiety and tension. For example, after writing, I take one or two breaths, inwardly acknowledging myself for my effort before going on to what comes next.
Yet taking breaks is counterintuitive to our multitasking culture. At the same time, not pausing goes against the natural rhythm of action followed by inaction. If we ignore these cycles long enough, stress accumulates until we burn out or break down. Micro pauses between tasks are opportunities to create space and slow the mind down, supplemented by longer periods of rest, refreshment, and renewal.
Slowing down is a radical practice because it goes against our fundamental conditioning as if we need to be productive to constantly justify our existence. If we aren’t doing, producing, or achieving, what good are we to society? Resisting the tyranny of constant productivity and allowing ourselves to be is a rebellious act of self-love.
Imagine you have five minutes during the day to do something soothing and restful. What would you do? I might look at the sky, play with a dog, lie under a soft blanket, give a partner a long hug, make hot tea and watch the swirling steam, go for a short walk, drink water, or tend to indoor plants.
Now turn your attention inward and tune into what is pleasant. What do you notice? Perhaps you noticed openness, warmth, connectedness, gratitude, appreciation, calm, and steadiness. These are some of the qualities that can come when we open ourselves to pleasantness throughout the day.
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I needed this reminder
thanks Ryan for another great article. This one resonates with me. The speed people are expect to live by nowadays is unsustainable, incoming emails are infinite but us humans are definitely finite and we are built to really only handle one thing at a time.
I also now meditate in the afternoon to try to keep me centred but yes when your caught in the vortex of busyness it can be hard to pull yourself away, even to meditate.
Another tip is just to do a 1 minute meditation every hour or so try to stay on the middle way!