The Slow Life

07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Imagine your last few moments on this mortal coil. Say, for the sake of discussion, that you step off the curb and are hit by a bus. As you lie on the street with your life seeping out, you hear people screaming and you see them pointing and you watch someone dial 911. A few moments later you hear the wail of an approaching ambulance, but you realize in a place beyond pain and beyond terror that it will arrive too late. Even though I don't know you, I can pretty much guarantee that you don't want your last thought to be "That was fast, but at least I got a lot done."

Instead, of course, you hope that when your time comes you have a feeling of satisfaction, a sense that you fully engaged the people in your life, that you tried the things you wanted to try, that you felt the things you wanted to feel, that you pursued your dreams in an open, relaxed way, that you lived each and every moment fully and with presence. It's true that life can end any moment -- a meteor can land on your house, a fire can take you while you sleep, a heart attack can get you, or a stroke or that pesky bus -- and so it's important to live fully without wasting time or effort. Living fully, however, is not the same as living quickly. In fact, I would like to argue that the best way to both live longer and get more out of life is to live at a reduced pace. It's official. My motto has become "anything worth doing is worth doing slowly".

Apparently, I'm not the only one taken with this idea. There is a veritable explosion in mind/body activities that serve to slow down that mad rush to the end. Tai chi classes are popping up all over the country, yoga studies are doing a strong business despite a shriveling economy, and everywhere you turn you hear someone talking about the benefits of meditation -- all arts that teach us to slow down and savor the unique, spectacular experience of being alive.

The moment you make that effort to gear down you become aware of just how addicted you are to the pace of the speed-and-greed culture. You experience your own little internal yin/yang, a war that goes on inside your head between those neurons that want the constant stimulation our technology and overcrowding bring and those that crave tranquility and peace. At any given moment on any given day, one or the other side of you will win. The more often the quiet side is the victor, the more likely you are to achieve what the sages of the East call "mindfulness".

Living mindfully, the quality of life increases. Mindful, you can begin to sort through whatever health issues you have. Slow and mindful, you are more likely to discover that your hypertension, your irritable bowel, your painful joints, your migraines, your stiff back, your inability to focus, your shortness of temper, your impatience, frustration, even your road rage, are all the consequences of your body screaming at you to slow down. Pushed and pulled along too quickly and in too many directions, you feel stressed and respond with illness; slow and mindful you are able to prioritize what needs to be done, discard what doesn't, and even enjoy the doing.

A slow, considered, mindful life does not mean one devoid of contribution or accomplishment; rather the opposite. It is said that if you want something done you give it to a busy person. That truism applies to stapling some papers, to mopping the floor, to expediting the shipping of a package, to fixing a broken fence. On the other hand, people who accomplish truly meaningful things are not often rushed. Deliberate, slow, mindful and focused, they are free of frivolous demands, compulsions and projects. Not addicted to a pace of life set by outside forces whose motivations are almost always their own profit or interests, this kind of person, the sage we all can be if we choose, concentrates his or her energy effectively on those things that really matter.

Imagine if we all lived this way. Imagine if we were willing to stop grasping at things we don't need, spending money we don't have, rushing around chasing things that don't matter, obeying impatient masters who manipulate us to their own advantage by keeping the pace so frenetic we never figure things out. Taking time to notice the marvels of everyday life sounds so simple, so utopian, so hopelessly out of touch with "real" life... and yet, what is real? The world is as we make it, and we can make it different. Imagine the global shift we would see if everyone slowed down enough to notice what's really going on.

Mind/body practices are, at their core, all about balance. That fast "yang" urge and that slow, "yin" yearning need to be balanced. Sometimes, after all, we need to move quickly, as in evading the front bumper of that awful bus. What has happened to us, however, is that technology and overcrowding have put us way out of balance and much to far in the fast direction. We don't take naps, we don't contemplate the clouds, we don't eat our food without talking or watching TV, we don't even drive our car without using our cell phones or, worse, checking our e-mail on PDAs.

The most obvious solution is to take up a mind/body practice, but that isn't the only answer. Just making the decision to slow down and be mindful can work wonders. Try it today. Just take a deep breath, stop what you're doing, look around, think about those people and things that really matter, and let go of those that don't. Then go to your next experience slowly, whether it is writing an expense report or making love. Remember, anything worth doing is worth doing slowly!