(on slow living, finding our own pace, and rebellion as the way forward)
It started a few thousand years ago when the first foreman realised that he could eke a little more work out of his workers if he could somehow convince them that he had more authority than they over the inner workings of their bodies. A plan was hatched— a god bigger and stronger than the body knowledge of when to be done for the day, more worldly and knowledgeable than the seasons that ebb and flow with hours of productivity and then days of rest. The plan took the shape of a sundial on a wrist; a timepiece owned by the boss letting everyone else know when they could come and go. This god was bright like the sun, for it’s the hours of the sun that it governed. In that bright light there was no time for sleep, no afternoon naps, no explorations of the dark spaces, no time to crawl under a rock and look at beetles or pluck worms from the soil and watch them wriggle around in your hands. No time either to wade in the stream under the shade of the redwoods trying to move as slowly as a banana slug as the dappled light hits your eyelids. The bright sun god, all knowing, shone light into every crevice and with that bright light uttered those first words that changed everything: ‘you’re late’.
The knowledge of the body was ousted in favour of this all-knowing god, for what is more important or more constant than time? What is more objective than a second hand ticking like a metronome dividing life up into easily digestible chunks. A life you can eat on the go, cut into easily digestible squares, so neat you don’t even need utensils anymore. Would you like a soda with that?
Fast forward and here we are, slaves to the time-god. Deadlines, meetings, places to be. On one hand it makes us feel important, and on the other, its slowly killing us. Really, it is: stress is responsible for blood pressure issues, cholesterol issues, cardiovascular issues. Stress causes a pressure that pushes on our chests to shorten our breathing. It causes our digestion to stop functioning so we stop absorbing nutrients. It causes our lymph to stagnate so that we don’t process toxins and our immune systems don’t work as well. And it causes us to tense up; to zero in on the source of the stress; and to hyper-focus, disconnecting from the world around us.
Katy Bowman, in her book ‘Move your DNA’, talks about load on the body: how load isn’t just weight but anything that moves or impacts your cells. Stress is a load on our psyches. There’s positive stress: stress that nudges us into action (because the idea of being a single-celled organism that doesn’t have a to-do list is a nightmare), and there’s stress that creates a slow burn that wears on us over time, like an old cartoon character running around chasing a carrot on a stick, except the cartoon is you, and you are the one holding the stick and the carrot is actually a giant rock hanging over your head suspended by a fraying rope, If you move fast enough then you can get out in front of the rock just enough that when the rope snaps the rock hopefully won’t land on your head, so you move as fast as you can, just to keep ahead.
Pace. Your cells process what comes at them at their own pace. There’s no shoving a to-do list in their faces or underlining deadlines to hurry them along. They just take what comes and metabolise it and spit out the waste, while the rest of your body fulfils its functions of delivering nutrients and taking away the rubbish. Positive stress is stress that moves us forward at a pace our cells can keep up with. We all have different requirements for this— for some of us its really really low, because our cells process things slowly, and we, in turn process things slowly. If, at a cellular level, your body cannot keep up with its load, then what is it doing to your body as a whole to be overloaded?
If you move slowly, and that is your natural pace in the world, how is having a 20 item to-do list to finish in a day going to make you feel? From the very beginning your thought process jumps to ‘I can’t do this’. Or, at our very basic core level, in wanting to move at a pace that isn’t our own, we are saying ‘I am not good enough as I am’. Conversely, if you move naturally very fast and you’re being held back to work at another person’s pace, how is it going to make you feel? Frustrated? Angry? Like a large and powerful animal stuck behind bars?
I was listening to an episode of Invisibilia a few weeks ago, in which a woman who had a calcified amygdala, and as a result felt no fear at all, was telling a story about the time she was mugged. She was held at knife point, and told she was going to die and she, feeling not an ounce of fear, responded with ‘well I guess you’d better go ahead and kill me then’. The mugger let her go. The most interesting thing to me was that she wasn’t traumatised by the event. The podcast then discusses how some of us have a heightened fear response and this is a self-protective mechanism that stops us from getting hurt. So people with a heightened fear response risk less. But at the same time, if they DO get hurt then it is deeply damaging (and reinforced their reasons for having a strong fear response in the first place). People with less of a fear response fling themselves into things more, get hurt more, but are not as damaged each time.
Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense to have both: those who see danger in everything and those who take risks. A combination of the two in useful dialogue leads to moving forwards carefully but avoiding danger. The ability to remember past hurts but not to let them cripple you from moving forwards. There should be an ebb and a flow: a nervous system slipping back and forth between the two like an anemone opening and closing, responding to its environment. If there are no threats then it can open, turn its face towards the sunlight, take in the light and the nutrients from around and inside it; absorb and utilise. If there is a threat then it constricts, tightens, buckles down, focuses on surviving the immediate threat. We too, under threat, stop absorbing, stop putting the nutrients to use, focus on escape. Its an expansion and a contraction, an undulating flow between two things like you see all the time in our [binary] world. We move between the two naturally.
For many of us, the fear response is so excessive that it becomes the constant state of existence? Fear of the unknown. Fear of being fired. Fear of not being able to make the mortgage. Fear of being late. Fear of being inadequate. Fear of success. Fear of failure. If there is a constant threat, say, a rock hanging suspended over our heads, then we remain closed, focused, braced for impact and ready to bolt all at the same time. And even worse, if there is no actual outlet for that energy— nothing to fight, nowhere to run, not even a scream*, then there is nowhere for the energy that just got dumped into to the nervous system to go. It remains trapped there, loaded into the muscles, and from there it becomes tension.
Next time you’re out in public, take a look around at the way people in our society walk: heads jutting out in front of their bodies, quite literally representing this pattern of people trying to move faster than they are. Head out in front, body trailing behind, like an afterthought, a hiccup, an ‘oh you’re still here?’. Bodies, silly old bodies that ache and leak and ooze and slow us down with their whims and reaction to the world around us. And as a society on one hand we talk about self-love like its this easy thing to attain, and then on the other hand teach ourselves and each other not just to hate the way our bodies look, but the fundamental basis of their existence. Hurry up, body. Catch up, body. You’re moving too slowly, body. And with each barb the body locks up a little more until it is holding tension where we all hold our tension best: in our bellies.
This head-jutting represents a larger pattern going on in the body: the inability to use it properly; that we’re conditioned to sit, not to move, to hunch over, to hold tension that is really just energy stuck in place. Deep. In our psoas muscles that run through the middle of our bodies. When the psoas is tense then you can’t breathe deeply, you can’t walk properly, you get back pain, your lymph stagnates. Four things that if divided could likely cover the majority of the modern population. I’ll leave explanations of psoas tension to the experts. But read about it, learn to release it, to let go of the tension locking it in place and at the same time maybe try to let go of the tension that holds our minds in place. Because they are, of course, connected.
I started noticing our paces when studying temperaments. Different temperaments have different natural paces and directions, from slow and direct (melancholic), slow and meandering (phlegmatic), fast and direct (choleric), fast and zig-zagging (sanguine). Or any combination of the above. We all have these natural paces and speeds at which our bodies move at best, but also at which we’re most efficient— at which we are moving through life and still relaxed and connected to the world around us, but still feeling enough pressure to move forwards. Of course there are times to veg out, and times to kick into panic mode, but in daily life, when going about our business, is there a better way to do it than flowing at our own pace? And yet in society there’s a norm: it’s fast, its direct, its productive. I’ve met people who proudly stated that they have no time for a hot bath. People who talk about how busy they are like the inability to practice basic self-care is a medal of honour. It’s this unspoken societal agreement: if we all move as fast as we can, then we don’t have to stop to acknowledge the basic thing underlying it all: we don’t like ourselves. But maybe the first step in liking ourselves is in simply acknowledging that we are enough as we are, and then slowing down.
I call it ‘slow’ but slowness isn’t truly the word I’m looking for, its a suitable pace. Our own pace that’s specific to us. It doesn’t need to be a constant (sometimes you need to get your ass in gear; that’s what the stress response is there for), but for the majority things in life there’s no reason to do them at anything but our natural pace. And I think for a lot of us that is slower than we’re doing things. The ‘slow’ movement came about because of the slow food movement, and the whole point is to foster connections. Not just between us and other people but between us and the world around us. To notice things. Little things. To smell the flowers you’re arranging in a vase in your house in a hurry to get it looking nice because there are people coming over. To ogle the colours of the vegetables you’re chopping in a hurry to get dinner on the table. Just, for a second, to stop and marvel at the afternoon light as it comes through the window as you’re buckling down to meet a deadline. I, personally, do not think that working hard and working at a pace that allows the world to seep in are mutually exclusive. In fact I’d go so far as to say that working at one’s own pace allows one for the most part to be even more productive, because there is no longer the looming stressful load of a rock suspended overhead.
Picture that foreman again with the giant sundial on his wrist as he lords over people hunched over in the fields working hard as he shouts orders at them. In some way, we’re all still doing this, hunched over, sweating into our work as that foreman shouts at us. For a lot of us, though, the foreman has disappeared— we have jobs, things to do, places to go, but if we don’t work in a sweat shop in a 3rd world country (and can we all just take a moment to give thanks that we’re not working in a sweat shop in a 3rd world country, and maybe while we’re at it, try not to buy anything that exploits people in such a fashion?), where does the pressure come from? Are you going to be fired if your stress levels aren’t through the roof? Are you going to get less done if you are relaxed and savour the moments that arise during your day instead of hunkering down and stressing through it?
Analogue life is a resistance to the fast pace of society. But more than that, its a rebellion against the invisible foreman, its realising that you are the one holding the stick with the rock hanging over your head, and stepping out from under it, letting it drop to the dusty ground behind you, and walking your path, burden left behind, finally free.
Recipe: find your own pace. Serves one
Ingredients: One day without anything specific to do One self
First: you need to know how it feels when you are relaxed. You can try Jacobson’s progressive relaxation technique. Or a psoas release. Or a hot bath with lit candles. Or switching off your electronics and declaring it to be a day off. You can drink some herbal tea like lemon balm or rose or skullcap. Or you can take a tincture like rose or lobelia or milky oat seed. Or this herbal formula (Fellow Worker's Farm Rosestorative) Or this herbal formula Or this one Or all of the above (though I'd pick one herbal formula because, being conscious is good).
Do you start to notice things? Do you feel more connected to the world around you? Can you hear birds outside, cars driving by? People, if you live near people (I can always hear my neighbours)? Can you hear these things and just let them exist, let them slip by, let them be the soundtrack to the moment.
Do you notice the light as its coming in through the windows? Are there shadows hitting the floor? Can you observe the light and let it be without trying to hold onto it or trying to interpret it?
How about inside your body? Do you feel movement? Do you feel tension? Can you breathe into that tension and let it out with each exhale and feel blood return to an area that has been holding off the world? And as the blood flows into that space can you feel the world flow into it too?
And can you feel your heart? Your heart as it beats out a rhythm that is yours and yours alone, lub-dubbing its way through time and space, propelling the very essence of who you are forward.
That. That place where the world is moving and you, too are moving, that is your space. Move from there.
Second: from that relaxed place, try to do something. Start with something small, and with that thing, hold onto that feeling of relaxation. Take a walk around the block, cook something, sit and write, draw, gaze at the world around you. Do something simple that is something you usually take pleasure in. And as you do it, pay attention to that place in your body. How slowly do you need to do the thing you’re doing in order to hold onto that place? That, as of right now, is your own pace.
Third: start to implement this pace in areas of your life that you have more control over: Set a time to end work for the day and stick to it. The same goes with starting work in the morning. Before and after work, do things at your own pace: take a long walk, put on some music and cook something you are excited about with a glass of wine in hand and bare feet. Take a bath. Sit and breathe. Imagine for a second that there are two separate paths that your evening can take: one of ‘I have to get dinner done then get the kitchen clean then get to bed by 10pm so that I can wake up in the morning and be a functioning human being tomorrow’ or ‘I choose to make a dinner I like the sound of then I’ll clean the kitchen’. The same things and yet a totally different approach.
When you start to get stressed and feel rushed, go for a walk around the block and re-connect with your self and your pace; take a look at the world around you, find that connection to it again. Then get back to work.
Be stubborn. There are times to rush and times to not-rush. Getting your priorities straight will help you sort out which is which. Late for yoga class is not a time to rush. Medical emergency is. Getting the floors cleaned right now is not an emergency; getting your taxes in before deadline is. Sometimes your job is one at which you need to get things done quickly; sometimes the pressure to perform comes from yourself first.
And as with anything, its a process. A long one.
Finding your own pace and moving at it is an act of rebellion. To the invisible foreman standing there yelling at you. To society as a mass that seems to emit messages through our collective standard-bureau (the media). To yourself for saying you’re not good enough as you are. Because that’s what it comes down to. You are good enough as you are. We all are.