In Praise of Slowness

By Jenny Downing
By Jenny Downing

I’ve been neglecting my writing practice of late. We’ve had a whirlwind few weeks with visitors and getting our ducks in a row ahead of our move to Switzerland this summer. My husband has been offered a job there and we are looking forward to the adventure. Right now, I’m sprawled across our bed, watching the yellow light flicker on the leaves of the oak tree at our window. It feels great to have a moment’s pause to put pen to paper. Already the cloud of thoughts in my head is refining as it prepares to filter through my fingers onto the page.

We spent a few days in Geneva last week to visit schools, nurseries and houses. It was my first visit. What struck me most, beyond the beauty of the environment with its vineyards, gleaming lake and snow-tipped mountains, was the pace of life. We arrived on Sunday and spent the day driving through sleepy villages around Lake Geneva, trying to get a feel for where we would like to live. Most villages had little more than a church, a post office, a butcher and a bakery. The roads were empty. The few cars we did see were driven leisurely, with none of the haste intrinsic to life in the Big Smoke. On the Monday we had a packed schedule of appointments before our flight home. The very air in Geneva seemed still and heavy, as if it was nudging us to take our time and savour the strangeness of this new culture.

That evening we returned to London in the pelting rain. Exhausted, I ran late getting our daughter ready for school the next morning. I rushed the children to compensate. It would have taken too long to let my son walk. He grumbled as I hoisted him onto my hip and strode along the familiar route to school with my daughter scooting along beside us. His smile reappeared only on the way home when he was free to amble along at this own pace. At one point he stopped and pointed in wonder to a flock of birds passing overhead. I hadn’t even noticed.

By Steve Jurvetson
By Steve Jurvetson

Too often we rush through life as if we are ticking off a to do list. Our daily responsibilities are undertaken in clockwork fashion. Each night we lay our weary heads on our pillows and wake to a new dawn when we do the same all over again. We get pushed along by life’s currents, living as if we are running a track race, hurdling over obstacles and looking to the future like blinkered robots. We forget that it’s the quiet moments that steady us. They allow us to recoup, connect and contemplate what we have to be grateful for. Often it’s the quiet moments that bring us our eureka ideas.

Why is it then that we live our lives at an increasingly fast pace? We are so proud of how well we multi-task. How clever of me to change my son’s nappy while holding the phone under one ear and keeping an eye on the telly in the background. I text, read and email while I walk. Sometimes I am too focused on getting chores done that I zone out the children’s chatter. At times, food becomes more about refuelling than enjoyment. I wolf it down and am packing the dishwasher before I have finished the final mouthful. There is no time for smell and texture in this speeded up ritual.

It’s not just me. I notice this furious scrambling in almost everyone around me. If science would allow, it is not a big leap to imagine that many would resort to food pills à la The Jetsons. ‘I haven’t had time to brush my teeth this morning,’ says my mum. Hidden beneath her complaint is pride at how much she has achieved. It is often past lunchtime before she has time to eat a single morsel. Her body, tricked into thinking it is either feast or famine, is at risk of diabetes.

When was the last time you had a shower and concentrated on the feeling of the water pounding your body rather than planning your tasks for the day? When did you last go for a purposeless walk and take in the faces of the homes and the shape of the landscape around you? How often have you bruised yourself and not even been aware how it happened? How many times have you read a paragraph but can’t recall what it says, locked the door but forgotten that you did or driven a route and not remembered the journey? In our pursuit of happiness and success we perceive everything but ourselves.

I’m afraid that we convince ourselves as we grow older that we understand the meaning of life, but perhaps children understand it better than us. For our children, life is about simple pleasures: a walk in the rain in their wellies; a trip to the park; a jam sandwich and jelly; a bedtime story. When is it that we forget our sense of wonder? Is it possible to rediscover our joy in simple pleasures, to prune back our lives and give priority to a few things rather than a superficial attention to many things? Have you seen Banksy’s Mobile Lovers artwork? We have forgotten how to be present. We document our lives in pictures, videos and social media anecdotes, removed from living our experiences first-hand by the lens through which we view ourselves and the alternate realities we create.

By Jon Fife
By Jon Fife

Our minds are filled with a myriad of thought pathways competing for attention. The problem is that unless we focus on what we are doing, our attention is splintered and the rewards are fewer. Our happiness and success depend on how clearly we perceive and how skilfully we negotiate the world around us. Why is it then that as the information available to us reaches saturation point, we are more blind to the world and each other than before? How can we feel so deeply about crime or losses on both domestic and international stages only for them to be wiped from our memories a moment later?

I used to worry that my memory has worsened. In fact, there is so much information available today that the mind sends that which it deems unnecessary to its deepest caverns. It’s also likely that I don’t listen as well as I used to. Take song lyrics for example. As a pre-teen I could listen to a song a few times and would know the lyrics off by heart. Nowadays I rarely focus on a song long enough for that to be possible. My mind has become so used to endless stimuli that it is as if there is an anchor missing. We have retrained ourselves to leap consistently onto the next most interesting thing at the expense of taking value from anything.

I don’t buy that we have to live our lives at a rate of knots to be successful. That seems to be fool’s gold. Life sweeps us along until we make a stand. But I have a newsflash: Life. Can. Be. Slower.

Slowing down can be more meaningful.

Slowing down can be more pleasurable.

What could you achieve if you set your own pace and direction?

14 thoughts on “In Praise of Slowness

  1. Wow I couldn’t agree more with what you have written. I live a really hectic life and I really detest it. As much as I can, I try to slow down on non working days in particular, so that I can fully be present in my reality. :D

    1. Thanks for your comment. Being hectic just seems to be our default mode nowadays. I think though more and more people are starting to make a different choice. I hope you find the right balance for you, Nillu

  2. I loved this. It reminded me of my last day in Albuquerque, where I’d lived for four years, before returning to Atlanta. I spent it with a young man who might have been a friend, if there had been more time to know one another. After a visit to an art gallery and print shop, we strolled along, deciding where to have lunch. I stopped to smell some Dianthus in a planter, and gestured for him to do this same. He hesitated, saying he’d never actually stopped to smell the flowers. I told him there was no time like the present to begin the habit.

    There’s a quote attributed to the Buddha that I’ve always especially loved, “Be where you are, otherwise you will miss your life.” It is echoed in your words here, a reminder to be completely present in the moment. Deep understanding of the world, of ourselves and our choices seems rooted in the ability to fully savor the experience of being alive. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Thanks. You paint such a vivid picture of your trip and the man you spent the day with. Thanks for sharing that beautiful quote. I’ll remember that. I agree that self-knowledge and awareness of others and the environment are the difference between sleep-walking through life and fully appreciating both the ambiguity and the beauty in the world around us. Thanks very much for commenting.

  3. Beautiful, Nillu. Thought about this just tonight when contemplating whether to go for a drive after work or head straight home to eat and get to writing. Naturally I chose the latter. But one day this week, I’ve promised myself, I’ll take some time to go slow and do nothing, perhaps go for a walk or a drive or a hike, and forget the world.

    1. Thanks Amira. Burning the candle at both ends long term can’t be good for us. It feels like that is the default mode for most people I know, rather than the exception to the rule. Enjoy that walk, drive or hike this week. Looking forward too to reading what you’re working on. Giving time to our passions is the ultimate soul food x

  4. “It’s the quiet moments that steady us.” Yes! This has been an ongoing pursuit in my life lately, to stop and breathe in quiet moments, such as drinking a cup of tea, sitting outside on my deck, cuddling with my cats, and so on. When I pause my otherwise constant drive-drive-drive pace to do this, my shoulders relax, my mind clears, and I feel peaceful and happy again.

    1. I am so with you there. I often make a cup of tea and find it’s cold by the time I sit down. We almost need to make a conscious effort to take it down a gear. I’ve been meaning to do a mindfulness course, maybe combined with yoga. One of the practices is to be try and keep your thoughts fixed on the present moment and another is to think about each body part individually. I think it could help bring moments of serenity to our otherwise hectic lives. Hope you manage to increase your quiet moments. Cheers for reading and commenting, Nillu

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