Tag Archives: slowing down

Slowing down, again, more

Last week I had the pleasure of reading T Thorn Coyle’s Make Magic of your Life (a splendid book, proper review here – http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/556296405). Some of it was eerily familiar. The words about taking on too much and running too hard, and deciding that just working in the morning is still really a day off, and all those twisted paths that lead to burnout. I’ve written repeatedly about my respect for the slow movement and the importance of slowing down, but reading Make Magic of your Life made me aware that no, I haven’t really done that thing properly. I run hard, and I fall over.

I notice that running hard and falling over is something I dream about, in a literal sort of way.

Then, reading, I found this…

“…larger patterns that turn into obsessions, sometimes leading to marriages, trips around the world, or engagements with projects that end up eating our lives, driving us in unhealthy ways toward narrower and narrower corridors of being, and sometimes leading to explosion or collapse.”

It gave me goosebumps. I used to have a rich dream life, but during my first marriage that dwindled away to a handful of repetitive nightmares. One of them involved me running down narrower and narrower corridors, up ever narrower flights of stairs until there was nothing left to do but jump out of a window, fly or die. In this book, T Thorn Coyle explores the importance of desire, of following the calling of your soul, and what happens when we run round because we feel we should, and when we let other people or our own habits of being pull the strings. I’m going to come back and talk about the desire aspect, but at the moment the slowing down is the issue. I’m so used to pushing my body to exhaustion and beyond, and have a long history of getting into situations where that was expected, and then not getting the hell out of those.

I can slow down. I can take more time for me. If I am ill, I can rest and Tom is brilliant about supporting me. I do not have to do everything now. But I’m still, in part, running down the dwindling corridors because I feel like I should. Even though I know it doesn’t work. I’m a creative person, and my ability to do good work is not about a willingness to grind myself into the floor and work ten hours a day seven days a week. That is not the environment in which creativity thrives. It is a way of becoming much less productive in a matter of weeks. One thing to do a long stint because my head is on fire with inspiration, quite another to sit here churning it out because I feel like I should.

I know, because I’ve tested it, that if I make a point of doing less, what happens is that I achieve more, and the quality goes up. Sure, I could churn out 10,000 words a day if I put my mind to it, but a good 9000 of them would be shit, and after a couple of weeks depression would descend and I wouldn’t even feel able to get out of the duvet. If I write a couple of thousand words that are the best words I could possibly have found that day, there’s a fair chance I end the day with 2000 words I feel proud of. That’s actually double the output. To do my very best work, I have to stop, wait, rest, incubate, think, study, experiment and imagine. I have to gather the raw material. It’s not just about coughing up words.

I do not want to keep running down those corridors.

Since the meltdown that hit me early this year, I’ve been doing better in terms of managing my energy, and improving the quality of my work. Win all round. But I have to keep fighting those little voices that demand more and faster. I am not a machine. There are things to be said about the care and maintenance of geese that lay golden eggs.

Make Magic of Your Life was an affirmation for me on this score. To see someone else; an author who achieves so much and is widely respected, talking about those same issues of overdoing it and burning out, makes me realise that I’m not being stupid in slowing down. It’s not laziness. It’s necessary. I have to fight the rhetoric of the factory floor and the production line to keep doing what I do, but it’s not just me. Slowing down is necessary. Not just for me, but for anyone who wants a life, and to be more than a cog in someone else’s machine.

Redefining luxury, Druid style

What does luxury mean? We’re back to ideas that are sold to us from the outside, because it’s so easy to respond to that question with a vision of something that costs a fortune. The push towards ever greater consumerism is often one that asks us to turn old luxuries into things we consider essential, and then to hanker after even bigger, more expensive things.

For the sake of the planet, luxury needs to be a sustainable idea. I don’t think that’s quite as nuts as it sounds either. I do not believe that we’re going to save the world with a hair shirt mindset. Most people are not prepared to suffer for their own gain, much less anyone else’s, and we’re up against all those adverts that keep telling us that we should never experience a moment’s discomfort or inconvenience. Hair shirts are not going to enlist anyone. Not even me. But what if we could de-comodify the idea of luxury? What if we could make luxury, or the experience of the luxurious, that bit more affordable and sustainable? That would shrink a few carbon footprints.

You can’t indulge when you’re on the run. If you’re doing the ‘hectic lifestyle’ routine, grabbing instant food whilst running like a headless chicken from one assignment to the next, you can’t enjoy anything. So the luxury that makes all others possible, is slowing down. And often, slowing down is pretty cheap. A few hours off work will give you that.

A lie in is not expensive, but what is more luxurious than being free to sleep until you wake naturally, and then being leisurely about getting up? You don’t have to wallow in the duvet all day to feel the benefit. An extra hour, stolen from the hectic schedule, is a most lovely bit of self indulgence. Or how about having the time, just occasionally, to soak in a bathtub, to indulge in good massage or leisurely lovemaking? Time is the most precious thing we have, so using that time in pleasing, indulgent ways can create a feeling of luxury at little cost. And equally, no matter how much cash we spend, if we don’t give ourselves time to enjoy the indulgence, we don’t get much out of it. What good a vastly expensive cruise if you’re on the mobile talking to the office all the time?

One of the big mistakes we make, is finding a good thing and then indulging all the time so that the treat becomes normal and all sense of reward is lost. Some such treats become addictive and destructive when continually ‘indulged’. Alcohol for one. Luscious food, for another. Eat ice cream every day, and you’ll barely even notice it. Strawberries all year round are not as good as strawberries that only come fresh from the garden for a few glorious weeks. Preciousness and rareness often equate, but if we make something a regular feature, we deprive ourselves of the sense of a treat. Over exposure to anything can just de-sensitise us, so that we cease to appreciate, or even notice.

I used to sit out overnight to watch the mid summer sunrise. It’s a good opportunity to break with the normal routine. A mattress never feels so magical as it does after a night on a hill. A duvet becomes a gift of the gods then. A roof is a profound blessing. Contrast is good. Contrast allows us to see the real value of things. The more we wrap ourselves in ease, the less we get to enjoy what is good. The less able we become to notice the good in our lives. Coming in after working in the snow, hot soup is sublime.

I’ve stripped a lot of the twenty first century ‘luxury essentials’ out of my life in the last year – more from necessity than spiritual devotion, but it’s been good for me. Happiness is a sunny day when I can dry laundry, and just sit outside and enjoying being alive for a while, knowing that the batteries are charging. Happiness is having the time to soak in lots of hot water. It’s watching grebes dive outside the boat, and sleeping until 8 in the morning. Happiness is not having to cycle in the pouring rain, and happiness is also knowing that, if needs be, I am fit, well and strong enough to do that cycle ride in whatever conditions I get. Going to the pub for internet, electricity and cheesy chips is the pinnacle of self indulgence.

I am bloody determined that as my life swings back towards more conventional options, I am not going to forget these perceptions. The more I am able to enjoy the small things, the easier it is to be happy. The smaller my luxuries, the smaller my impact upon the planet. The closer I get to only having what is needful, the more I experience the indulgent quality of having more than is essential. And the more I see how few things really are essential after all.

Druidic Arts: Slowing and stopping

I’ll start by confessing that, of all the things I’ve flagged up as Druidic Arts, this is the one I struggle most with. I’ve blogged about it before too, but it stands a revisit.

There is so much pressure in modern life to be busy, good little producers and consumers, working very hard to hold up the flagging economies and so forth. In practice this serves the already wealthy, and has the ‘bonus’ effect of keeping most of us running round chasing our tails rather than having the time or energy to really look at what’s going on, where the good stuff is, and what would serve us, the planet and our fellows as opposed to the powerful, affluent few.

The beginnings of the art of slowing down call for stepping away from the things that keep telling us to run harder and faster. Television, and the subtext in advertising are a huge source of this. It means questioning why we feel moved to run so hard, and whether there’s an alternative. Often, there is, but it may take some getting to.

Slowing down and stopping enable us to form deeper relationships with all that we encounter. Rushing through makes deep engagement difficult with any topic, or entity, or place. This bit I do ok with when I make the time for it. What I find harder is resisting the idea that I should be running, all the time. There’s a lot to do, I need to earn a living, there are wrongs to right, battles to fight, miracles needed. I know from experience that running flat out for as long as I can results in burnout, not magical transformation. I also know that resting and thinking gets more done in the longer term – working smarter, and more efficiently pays off, and forward planning enables that.

I lived for a lot of years in a situation where I was under a lot of pressure to perform, deprived of sleep, overloaded with work, and not offered much scope for downtime. I know how it works. The list of things to do is so long, that you don’t dare stop. And the more tired, run down and demoralised you get the harder it is to achieve anything. Our whole culture encourages us to demand more and faster of each other, and not to think about what that really costs.

In the last couple of years I’ve started to study the art of slowness, but I’m very much a novice here. I try to do things the slow way as much as I can – walking and cycling are my main modes of transport. I cook from scratch, wash clothes by hand. This brings a sense of realness to my life. The faster we go, the more unreal it all becomes, our minds and bodies did not evolve to cope with the speed favoured by 21st century living. Our souls do not thrive at high speeds. I’m working on learning to slow and pause, to stop and gaze, and not to feel the need to push onwards when mind and body are worn out already. I’m also working to support those around me in slowing and taking time off.

I’m less confident about what the more advanced stages of the art of slowness would look like. I assume that a calm, unhurried approach to life would take a person deeper into appreciating and seeking the good stuff, the quality in all things. I think an artist of slowness would have more defence against bullshit and media manipulation, and would better see the big picture and the long view rather than being frantic about the short term. Slowing down and thinking long term would enable enlightened self interest, and be better environmentally. Doing less definitely consumes less, so I think slowness as an art will involve recognition of what is needful, and rejection of what is not. It’s a de-cluttering of life and mind.

In my slowing down, I have learned that it is possible to be happy with very little. Rushing about forever busy makes it harder to appreciate the little things. In the slow lane are all the beauties of nature, all the simplest, most innocent pleasures of the body. There is also the pleasure inherent in calmness. Finding joy in the small and the slow takes me away from the desire to run after the big and shiny, so there’s a process here which, once commenced, should reinforce itself.

From a druid perspective, frenetic human speed takes us away from the rhythms of nature. Trees are slow. Mountains are even slower. We miss the slow voices if we rush, and I do not think the voice of spirit is generally hasty, or able to respond to that five minute gap in the schedule. Slowing down is an art that enables all other Druidic practice, and enhances life.  I shall keep working at it. Slowly.

Life in the slow lane

I have recently read Carl Honore’s ‘In Praise of Slow’ (I recommend it) which agrees with so many things I’ve been thinking for a few years now about how we spend our time, the pace we live at and the things we could do without.

Not so many years ago I was routinely working twelve and fourteen hour days, and usually working six day weeks, often seven day weeks. I was writing, editing, marketing, busking, sometimes gigging (all the paid stuff) and then working as a volunteer for several organisations, and for my child’s school – which only had a few volunteer parents fundraising and helping out. I was running a folk club, a moot, and a singing group, and involved in organising rituals (all voluntary again) Before that, there were meditation groups. Then add in a young child to care for, and pretty much all of the domestic work for a three person household, including heavy jobs like cutting firewood, and lugging coal. There was always far more to do than there was time.

A number of things kept me working. The volunteering I did because there were things that needed doing, and I did not feel comfortable about saying no. At that time, my social life depended entirely on the musical and pagan things I was running, and had I not put in the work, life would probably have been very thin. I also felt under a lot of pressure to contribute financially, so I worked when I was ill, and when I was tired, and I very seldom took whole days off. I got into a cycle of intensive work, which would last about 6 weeks, followed by total burnout, which would usually involve my digestive system collapsing under the pressure and making me very ill for a few days. Repeat. Repeat. It was not a happy way to live. It’s one thing working all the hours you can to get something good done, it’s quite another when you’re effectively the servant of a person who spends most of their leisure time playing computer games.

I have slowed down. My doctor was very clear that if I didn’t make time both for gentle exercise and rest, that I was going to aggravate my illness, which I could not afford to do. And to be honest, I would not ask anyone else to do twelve hour days, seven days a week. I do not believe that life should consist entirely of work. It helped that I was supported in making changes.

Tom and I made a pact that we would have some time off every day, and that we would not work a full seven day week. We aim for a day off each week, but that sometimes turns up as two afternoons, if it makes more sense. We rarely take a whole day off, but sometimes we do, which is a joy. Having some down time before bed has improved my sleeping, and having enough time to sleep, and not waking still tired, to an alarm, makes a word of difference. When Tom is working on pages I tend to pick up more of the domestic stuff, but I haven’t cut wood since he’s been here, and anything else heavy, he undertakes. Faced with the example of a step father who regularly cooks, cleans and otherwise takes responsibility, my child has also started to sort out his own things, and take more responsibility. I used to have to fight him over that, but now it comes a lot more easily. So the pressure is off me. I find I do not have to run hard all the time just to keep up.

So we go for strolls in the evening. We read books, we take time for Radio 4 comedy and the radio 2 folk program, and sometimes also the radio 1 chart show. We hang out with people, go to galleries and museums. We go to local events. Life is richer, more interesting, and not so hectically paced. My health has improved dramatically, I am no longer living perpetually on the edge of burnout. My mental health is much improved. I am a lot happier.

But here’s the curious thing. Overall, productivity has gone up, not down. Tom can average at something like a page a day. That’s more than twice his speed before moving here. I get far more done in my time than I used to. This is partly because I am sharper from being rested, and partly because there is more inspiration in my life. The consequence of slowing down, has been to speed up, whilst feeling better about things. Win all round.