Amy and I decided to make this month’s Attention Collective theme slow living and stillness, and that choice might seem a bit odd at first. “Anthony,” I hear you say. “Haven’t we just gone through the longest involuntary slow down in recent history?” You’d be making a valid point.
The last year has been vastly different for everyone, but it undoubtedly has impacted us all. For many; it brought a lot of isolation and boredom. Parents with school-aged kids I’ve spoken with actually got busier too, managing homeschooling, daycare, and more on top of everything else.
For me and Amy, the year has been one of intense introspection and personal therapy work. It’s been the first time I’ve done therapy since a stint during my initial ADHD diagnosis at eleven years old. While it was a choice to dive into that, it made for a pretty rough year. Toss in the isolation of the pandemic and that we had just moved to a new state toward the end of 2019, and more often than not, I felt like a mess trying to keep it all together.
Here’s the thing, the only reason we’ve been able to dive into this incredibly life-changing-but-painful work is because we slowed down. After deciding to take a break from video production work early in 2020 and then the pandemic sealing the deal, it was inevitable. Between that work and speaking gigs, we’d been on 17 round-trip flights that year, and it wasn’t going well. Even then, I knew we were running ourselves into the ground and something had to change.
If anyone can understand having resistance to slowing things down, I can assure you, it’s me. My brain works at 300 miles per hour, and sometimes goes that fast in seven different directions simultaneously.
When you add a constant (yet unconscious) feeling of needing to prove myself, do things the hard way, and a healthy dose of crippling perfectionism, things get… not slow.
So if you’re skeptical, I understand. I hope you’ll consider the following lessons and observations from my own journey into slowing down. Doing so is difficult work in itself, taking small changes over time, but the benefits do begin to outweigh the challenges as you go.
Slowing down increases awareness
The deeper I look, the more I find that the seemingly spontaneous actions in my life have an underlying motivator. Our attention speaks to us. A river of emotion carries us through life, and slowing down allows us to feel where we’re headed. Sitting with difficult emotions in the moment gives us the bandwidth to navigate them in mindful ways.
The faster I move, the less attention I pay to the nuances of what I’m feeling in a given moment. Without that awareness, my needs go unseen and tend to escalate, often with results that look a lot like the Twitch.
Slow living doesn’t necessarily mean doing less
An essential part of the ongoing effort to break my own twitches is to be more present in any given moment. The less present I am, the more frequently I get to a place where I need to cope with those built-up, ignored emotions. The Twitch provides a quick numbing and temporary escape from those feelings when it becomes an emergency.
It’s a desperate act from my attention to get the relief it needs once I’ve passed the “manage this in a healthy way” threshold.
For me, presence simply means feeling what I’m feeling, checking in with myself, and addressing what I need in a given moment without dismissing it. As you might imagine, the slower I move, the easier it is to do.
This presents a challenge, as there are only 24 hours in a given day. When our obligations demand more time and attention than we have available to fulfill them, going slow really isn’t an option.
I visualize this predicament as juggling balls being thrown into the air. With just one, you can toss it up and catch it consistently. You can even hold the ball for a while and take a break between throws. Add another, and the difficulty increases, but it’s still doable. At three, we’ve reached the reasonable, “most people can learn to do this” level where it still feels pretty natural. After that, things get tricky.
The more balls you add into the mix, the higher and harder you need to throw each ball to give yourself time to catch the others. The higher the throw, the higher the propensity for a small error to become a big one, making the ball harder to catch on its way back down. This follows the concept of Essentialism and its philosophy of creating margin in your life.
Slowing down doesn’t always require doing less, but it’s hard to imagine that doing so wouldn’t naturally lead to it. If slowing down allows fewer mistakes and more time to adjust to them when they do happen, why wouldn’t that be the most appealing option? Especially after trying the alternative for 20-some years, it really starts making sense.
Stillness isn’t all-or-nothing
We humans have a knack for taking things to extremes, don’t we? With our 30-day detoxes and meditation challenges, we live win or lose, pass or fail lives. Much of it is brought on by cultural norms of success, but we participate in it, too. I’m guilty of these types of initiatives myself; they’re not necessarily a bad thing.
I deeply understand the appeal; these types of lifestyle experiments can help guide us towards more intentional lives. They give us a chance to try out new things and see what works by making a commitment to sticking with it for a while. The problem arrives when this all-or-nothing mentality gets in the way of implementing important changes long term.
Stillness doesn’t need to happen on a meditation cushion, on a beach, or in a hammock. It doesn’t need weeks of planning nor a plane ticket, either. A moment of stillness can be a deep breath in and out while sitting in your car after pulling into your driveway. It can be a hug held ever-so-slightly longer than usual. Stillness can last for a single moment if it means waiting just one second longer before acting on an impulse you feel.
If you allow yourself to let go of the expectation of what slow living and stillness needs to be, you give yourself freedom to practice it in creative and helpful ways.
Moving quickly can be a way to avoid discomfort
If it has been difficult to let yourself rest, I understand. Much of my own drive to do, do, do has derived from a feeling of never being enough unless I was doing something. Even if that something wasn’t productive at all, I’d do anything to distract myself from bathing in the scalding waters of my own perceived shortcomings.
In this way, making efforts to slow down must be paired with self-compassion; it is essential to foster a non-judgmental attitude to cope with the discomfort that comes along with it. This isn’t personal development as much as it’s healing emotional trauma. It’s a long road with lots of bumps along the way, but small acts of self-compassion make these feelings more manageable as you go.
Stillness is never completely still
Another note for the “impossible expectations” category: there is no perfect level of stillness. We’re always breathing, ebbing, and flowing along with the currents of life. Our cells are constantly dying while new ones are created, with our bodies and minds in perpetual chaos at the atomic level. We are in constant motion.
Stillness can simply be something that looks like mindfulness. Focus on our breath while walking, doing chores, or choosing to do an activity in a way that decreases the pace of our lives. Stillness can be a simple decision to leave space in between meetings and activities when scheduling our day. Give your future-self some compassion and room to breathe.
Make slow living your own
No matter what, there’s no one “right” way to slow down and practice stillness in your life. Everyone is different, and how I do it might look a lot different from you. Do what you can to ask yourself, “Is this working for me?” And “How would I do this if I could work in a way that is best for me?” When life presents an option A and option B, look for your own option C.
In an upcoming article, I’ll share more ideas on how I’ve been practicing this and include some thoughts for implementing them in your own life if you’d like to explore this further. Make sure to sign up for email updates below if you haven’t already.