Doing and Being
I had a friend in college who began dating a girl who smoked cigarettes. Before long, he himself picked up the habit. A group of us took a short road-trip one weekend, driving my car. We had established that there would be no cigarette smoking in the car, as I myself am not partial to it. About an hour and a half down the road my friend asked to stop for a smoke break, to which I agreed. I felt quite reluctant about stopping, though I did not voice this to my companions. It was a matter of impatience. We had a full tank of gas, no one needed to use the restroom, and we did not need food. The smoke break seemed like a waste of time.
We pulled off the country highway into a gas station, parked near the rear, and stood around the back of the car. It was a pleasant night, quiet too. As we conversed, my friend said, “This is what I absolutely love about being a smoker.” He paused and took a drag. “No matter what I am doing or where I am at, three to four times each day I stop everything I am doing and take a ten minute break.”
What a novel point. I do not remember what I replied. I do remember leaning against the back of my car, staring into the night sky, and actually relaxing and becoming present within our “ten minute break.” I would not have guessed that such profound insight could come while killing time in a gas station parking lot.
When was the last time you made a conscious effort to stop everything and relax for ten minutes? Our lives are out of balance in this regard. There is no longer space between periods of stimulation. There is hardly ever silence during our day. Society glorifies multi-tasking, encourages a full schedule, and promotes living at a faster pace than what has ever been known before. It is undeniable that the products of our innovation are astounding and by no means inherently evil. Planes, trains, and automobiles allow us to traverse the globe, easily giving access to the vast array of cultures and destinations of the planet. Computers and smart-phones allow us to communicate and share ideas with anyone in the world at the touch of a button. Yet, do these (and the many other) creations of human intellect truly offer us a higher quality of life? Does the ability to do more in less time enrich this life?
Henry David Thoreau observed that humans spoke and moved at a faster pace at the train station compared to other locales of the time. The same observations hold true today. Since Thoreau’s time the pace of life has become furious, to the point where we go about our days on an autopilot speed set to “manic.” Too many of us have become so accustomed to living as fast as possible that we cannot admit that we do not know how to slow down and in fact are afraid to do so. Who among us is not guilty of pulling out the cell phone during the slightest silence in our day? We now expect instant gratification and constant stimulation at all times. We literally become anxious if such stimulation is not present.
This blazing pace robs us of our peace and tranquility. It glosses over the small moments that are often the most incredible. It separates us from others to the point that we begin to view life in a mechanistic and statistical sense rather than the organic manifestation of boundless energy that it truly is. There is a need to restore equilibrium. A need to put “doing” aside and emphasize “being.” Enter the philosophy of slow living, in which the goal is to mindfully slow down the pace of our lives in order to reconnect with what we believe is truly important and fulfilling. There does not have to be anything mystical or astonishing about living mindfully – it is indeed a very practical skill. It is a skill that can be learned just like playing the piano or speaking French.
A daily 10 minute break is a plausible start towards building a foundation of creating space within our lives and living mindfully. While I cannot encourage you to fill your time with a cigarette like my old friend, there are several possibilities of how to spend those ten minutes. Step outside for some fresh air and Vitamin D (leave the cellular phone inside, of course). Prepare a hot drink and savor the subtle flavors. Look out the window and observe the gentle breeze knocking the final leaves off of the trees. Choose to sit on the floor and simply observe your breath. The hard part will not be choosing how to enjoy the break, but actually committing to taking it. It is not uncommon to feel an aversion to slowing down. In the back of our minds is the eternal “to do” list, and we compulsively work towards checking off item after item. Do not fret if you feel bored or restless as you begin your journey towards living slower. Soon enough, your eyes will open to the plethora of beauty that is within each moment of life.
Take care to remember that living slower is a journey. As with any other skill, we must perform meaningful practice in order to improve our abilities. As much as possible, simply remind yourself to slow down in any capacity. It may mean walking slower, talking slower, or simply eliminating multi-tasking thoughts. It may mean stopping for a moment and simply listening to the sounds in your environment. As Max Ehrmann recommends, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” Living slower may feel odd at first – even scary. Be kind to yourself along the journey, and know that it is a noble quest to reclaim your peace of mind amidst the “noise and haste” that runs amok.