In Praise of Slowness

Somehow the words “slow” and “December” don’t seem to go together, and yet my inner desire to slow down is intense during the Christmas holidays.  Then I read this quote by Thomas Merton: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.  The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work for peace.”  I was taken aback by the strength of this statement concerning the importance of slowing down, honoring our limits, and the damage we do to ourselves if we don’t.  But the message rings true.

Haven’t we all had the experience of over-committing ourselves because we didn’t want to say no?  Think about all the conversations we have about how busy we are – and we are!  Sometimes it’s like a contest to determine who is busiest.  Or, perhaps we’re afraid we’ll miss something important so we pick up our pace, treat everything as if it were urgent, and overload our nervous system until we’re overwhelmed.  It doesn’t matter how helpful the task or noble the intention if, in the process of giving ourselves away, we become unkind to ourselves.  When I’m overextended I am no longer able to be fully present for anyone or do any task well.  I end up living out of reaction instead of reflection.

Sometimes life uses inconveniences to give us the message that we need to slow down.  It can be waiting in line to make a purchase, dealing with a delay in travel, personal plans unraveling, or heavy traffic barely moving.  And sometimes we are forced to slow down through illness.  Cancer certainly slowed me down, and as I gradually recovered, I realized I didn’t want to return to my previous 100 MPH Sylvia speed.  I missed so much of life’s magnificent scenery because I was trying to get wherever I wanted to go as fast as I could.  John O’Donohue writes that, “In our obsession with instant access, we forget that the best things are discovered slowly.”

December is a month that offers a large array of delightful activities only available this time of year, and that makes this month especially challenging.  The temptation is to go faster so we can do more.  But going faster only offers frustration and exhaustion.  Neither serenity nor our capacity for enjoyment is improved.  Each of us has a pace that works best for us – there is no one-size-fits-all speed, so our job is to find our own pace.  The reward comes when we honor our limits with careful selection, which enables us to reclaim our centeredness, restore balance, experience inner calm, and slow ourselves into renewed health on all levels.

Cultivating slowness means making time for activities that defy acceleration, such as yoga, reading, knitting, gardening, painting, kayaking, mediation, walking, and Chi Kung.  Carl Honore writes, “In a hurry-up world, where everything is scheduled for maximum efficiency, surrendering to rhythms of nature can be therapeutic.”  This is exactly what I did (along with my husband and sister) a week ago.

At 8:15 AM the three of us launched our kayaks at Round Island and leisurely paddled into the lagoon.  Normally we plan the details of our outing, but this time we entered the water with no plan in place.  We just wanted to see whatever there was to see.  With relaxed strokes we began a pattern of paddling and then quietly resting.  Our focus on nature heightened our awareness of the wind song in the trees, bird melodies, and insect chirps. Then we noticed a group of pelicans still sleeping in their tree roost.  While continuing to meander we saw a series of hunting osprey, kingfishers, blue herons, egrets, turkey vultures, anhinga, and cormorants.  Fish were jumping and pelicans (the ones that had decided it wasn’t too early for breakfast) were diving into the water with a spectacular splash, and emerging with a fish in their pouch.  An adult and young manatee swam by, and then two dolphins appeared moving in perfect harmony.  The sun played with tree shadow patterns on the water.  We were so engrossed in our languid observations that two hours flew by before one of us checked a watch.  The distance we covered was relatively small, but the dose of inner serenity was enormous.  The restorative calmness and peace gained from our outing in nature is still with me – all I have to do is mentally put myself back in my kayak on the lagoon, and I am de-stressed and relaxed.

George MacDonald wrote, “Work is not always required…there is such a thing as sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.”  That is exactly what my kayak outing was – sacred, restorative idleness.  December seems like the perfect time to practice slowing down, so the deeper meaning of Christmas can be savored and our enjoyment of activities enhanced.

Sarah Ban Breathnach offers insight into the Christmas spirit: “Perhaps the Christmas spirit is our soul’s knowledge that things, no matter how beautiful, are only things; that we were created not always to do, but sometimes simply to be.  Perhaps the Christmas spirit is a reminder that we must make the long, slow journey across the desert; we must take time to discover our star; we must honor the time necessary to brood over the coming of the authentic women we were created by Love to become.”

May we each take time for quiet reflection, discover and appreciate the gifts that slowness has to offer, and practice kindness to ourselves throughout this holiday season.

Until Next Time – Sylvia




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