Tuesday, February 12, 2008

slow like molasses in February

So I'm taking my daily walk, earlier today, and I find I'm in a scene that could have come out of the movie "Twister". I'm all bundled up, walking along a dirt road, which in winter could be more accurately described as an ice road: a bed of silvery ice with a thin covering of powdery snow. This road winds its way through the woods, and at times along a small bay. This stretch I'm on could be an extension of the water for all the wind cares, as the roadway is only a few feet above the lake, and there are no intervening trees. It's a bright, sunny day, but the wind — well, it doesn't howl, so much as ferociously swish, as it comes off the lake, funnels down the head of the bay, and blows straight over the road, pushing powdery snow crystals over the snowbank and into the path of any cars that might be there. And over and around me — a sturdy human bundled to the nines and coated on one side with fine snow, like an accessory on my pants. I'm also wearing big sunglasses, which keep my eyes from flinching. I'm thoroughly enjoying this: determinedly walking forward when possible, stopping and turning my back to the wind when it is too high, in order to watch ribbons, clouds and yes, twisters of snow powder dance past me and skid over an open field.

It's here that I think: "If there's one thing in February that's not slow, it's the wind!"

As I keep walking, trying not to slip and fall, yet still go fast enough to raise my heart rate, I keep mulling over this idea of "slow". I've been thinking about this word a lot lately. In trying to do things more slowly, I've realized that I've spent a lot more time in my life trying to speed myself up, so that I've gotten quite good at evaluating my speed, but have hardly any practice at mindfully being slow.

"Hey!" You might say. "That sounds like Buddhism! Are you going to talk about Buddhism?"

And, if you know me fairly well, you might also say, "Isn't your father a Buddhist? Wouldn't he have had an influence on you in this regard?"

Well, yes, it does sound like Buddhism, but no, I'm not going to bring Buddha into this, although Buddhists like Pema Chodron do have some really good things to say about meditation, and bringing a sense of mindfulness into daily living. And yes, my father is a Buddhist, and I did meditate a few times with him when I was younger.

But I'm not a Buddhist, and so my treatment of "slow" comes from my own daily life, and my observations of myself over the past year, learning out of necessity how to slow... the heck... down.


About a year ago a very large wrench got stuck quite firmly in the gears of my mental machinery, if you'll allow the metaphor. In university, with my plate piled high and in danger of spilling everywhere, I had exhausted my mind and body. You know when you're at a point where you're dog tired, and you have so much to do, but you can somehow pull reserves out of somewhere to carry you through? Well, I had no reserves left. None. At that point my body, sick and tired of having its anxiety attacks/red flags ignored, simply could no longer get out of bed. I had no energy for anything, and that included making food, which I'd have to rest for, then talk myself through, then go lie down again after.

Although I kept thinking, "One more week away from school and I'll be fine," it became clear after a month that there wasn't going to be an amazing rebound. So I pulled the plug on school, and I came home to Cape Breton. I have been here since last spring, living a slower, quieter life than I did before, building my energy back up slowly. Ever so slowly. It's been damn hard, it's been chock full of lessons, and it's been frustrating and rewarding, both.

And the word that keeps coming up is "slow". As in, slow down. As in, tasks done slower still get done, and time passes even when you're voluntarily putting the brakes on. That's what it feels like — like I'm in some sort of vehicle, a train or a car, say, which is constantly getting faster, just a bit faster, and I have to learn how to gracefully and smoothly apply the brakes, enough to travel at a balanced and manageable pace.


This, by the way, is a lot harder than it sounds. For illustration, imagine the last time you took time off. A day, an hour, a week, whatever it was, truly off. No work to do, no kids demanding attention, no-one calling on the phone. Time and space truly yours. Did you automatically make the switch from "On Task" to "Relaxing"? I'm going to guess "no". Even in a whole week off, it takes a while to adjust and be able to willingly pause and stare out the window, say, while sipping tea, not caring how long you do it for. And "real life" — schedules, demands, community — never really go away, so it's a rare person who actually gets a whole week undisturbed. (You're most likely to get time like this during a retreat of some kind, including, yes, Buddhist meditation retreats.)

So the trick is to apply those brakes whenever possible, whether it's time off or not. Remembering to take deep and slow breaths, for example, and using that time to gain perspective on whatever is speeding you up. Then there is actually physically stopping the body from following habit. I find I even have to say aloud, "No, I'm not going to read while I eat lunch, I'm going to eat, and look out the window." And by doing this, practicing it each time, I'm slowly — there's that word again! — learning how to apply the brakes with grace.


One reason my so-called "time off" keeps teaching me to slow down is because it has to. I have to learn how to adapt my pace to my energy level, otherwise I'll just keep burning out. That's a fact, and that's the necessity part of it.

But there's another interesting aspect of this "time off" that I keep remembering. It's the thing I recall when I'm getting anxious about trying to get a certain number of things done in a day, and it is this: there are no deadlines for this time, except those I impose on myself. It's a stunning thing to think about! That I'm able to work myself up about my productivity and output, all on my own, even now, when literally no-one else cares! What I mean is, I'm no longer in the academic environment, where productivity and output really matter, and where deadlines are a large part of the lifestyle. People around me here care about me, and how I'm doing, but not about whether I get four, five, six, or — heaven forbid — zero things done in a day. So when I get agitated about the number of things I want to get done that day, I have to stop and realize that this pressure is coming from inside me. This discovery has been truly amazing to me. It's like I've isolated that voice inside, which exists to drive me faster, and I can hear it continuing to push, even when I'm in a place where constant pushing is no longer necessary.

And yes, that voice serves a purpose. But if I listened only to it, I'd be a mess. I'd be afraid to slow down, so afraid to press on those brakes. And this is true whether you're like me, enjoying a stretch of time with few deadlines, or in the thick of things with deadlines all over the place. I'm proof that the world doesn't end when you slow... things... down.


There are a lot more things I could say about slowing down, and as time goes on, I probably will. But there's only so much I can write in one post, right? For now, please leave your thoughts on "slow" in the usual place. But, you know, there's no rush. :)

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