The Right Rhythm

“Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.”
~ From the 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) by Simon & Garfunkel

“Life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table
No one can find the rewind button, girl.
So cradle your head in your hands
And breathe… just breathe.”
~ From the song Breathe (2 am) by Anna Nalick

Spiritual warriors on the path toward enlightenment can be driven to speed just as much as any trader on Wall Street. With an inestimable number of bytes slinging through cyberspace at near light speed, we have vast libraries of information and ways to connect at our fingertips. Throughout the history of the technology age, developments have been lauded for their ability to streamline and improve our lives. But instead of having super productive lives with more free time, we’re inundated with a mountain of e-mail, racing to keep up with the latest advancements, and in a continual fight against viruses and attacks on our privacy. Meanwhile, the laundry still piles up in the corner. The answer isn’t to turn away from the wealth of opportunities that progress can bring to our lives. Perhaps the key to a happier, healthier life lies in slowing down enough to become more aware when making the choices that create our world.

Mahatma Gandhi, whose birthday we celebrated over the weekend, said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” No one knows this better than Carl Honoré, who used this quote in the beginning of his book, “In Praise of Slowness” (HarperCollins, 2004). Most of us understand the reality of speeding past life, but this book encapsulates the Western world’s obsession with time and its deleterious effects on all dimensions of life from education to leisure time, the economy to medicine.

The development of clock time over natural time began in the Industrial Revolution with the ruling class’ desire for more profit. As soon as time became money, minutes became a finite resource in the war against death and the masses were conditioned to think of punctuality as a virtue and tardiness as a sin. Now almost exactly a century after the world harmonized its clocks, the need for speed has taken over every corner of our lives.

While most of us are paid per hour rather than for what we create, manufacturing delivers cheap goods from sweaters to cereal bars at the cost of quality. At the same time, so-called efficient farming provides us with fewer choices disconnected from the land. The result is food of dubious nutritional value that damages the ecosystem and causes rampant obesity. And in our desperate drive to make every moment count, we forsake crucial rest, imagination and passion in favor of profit and pale substitutes for meaningful connections. We’re a society of sleep-deprived rushaholics who can’t cram more into the day despite desperate attempts. Our children are mini-adults driven to succeed without learning the real lesson of education – how to think and be creative. Addictions and other crutches numb us to the disharmony of our minds and bodies, and the drive-by medical model of treatment blasts us with more pills and quick fixes that can do more harm than good.

Let me confess though – I am a rushaholic. I enjoy whizzing through certain tasks and I get impatient – even angry – with obstacles in the way of my goals. I tend to forget that the point of life is the journey itself, and I have to remind myself not to give into the culture of speed. I rarely wear a watch, but my Droid is never far from my fingertips. I fight constantly against my inner clock, which is set to Indian Standard Time, the three-hour delay we’re famous for in the East. I am not about to pull the plug on my beloved high-tech gadgetry because technology can be used for true spiritual and societal progress. It’s how we use the tools at our disposal that make the difference.

I am becoming a student of the Slow Movement and its lessons that bring me back to my Asian roots. Time is cyclical in Eastern philosophy, not a finite resource. Life’s essence is the balance of fast and slow just as plants rush toward the sun in spring and die back slowly in the fall. Honoré applauds the movement for revolutionizing the way we live, eat, play, parent and work and for giving us back the right to determine our own unique tempo. By slowing down enough to understand the choices we make in these areas, we can create the kind of life we really want.

Meditation is a cornerstone of slowing down, but those who can’t envision sitting still can still enjoy its benefits by doing rhythmic hobbies from knitting to gardening. By taking our time with projects and slowing down our thoughts to engage in an activity, we become more comfortable with the uncertainty of life and more patient with its ups and downs. Rather than being stuck on deadline mode constantly full of mental stimulation, we stop struggling and turn from being reactive to reflective. In this space, we can know when we need focus and tunnel vision or when to rest. A recent series in the New York Times illustrates how much our reliance on technology has prevented our brains from crucial rejuvenation.

In addition to the studies reviewed in the newspaper series, general science bears out the need for moderation. Losing weight is, by medical requirement, a slow process because going too fast will damage organs. We burn the most fat at 70-75% of our heart rates rather than at maximum speed. Disparate areas of life also illustrate the higher principles of slowness – the lovingly crafted meal, the diamond culled from the rough material of writing, the nuances that give music its character, the inherent beauty in the details of handmade products.

A counter-reformation to the culture of speed is under way, fueled in part by the economic crisis. Many have taken advantage of layoffs and less money to make changes they were not able to make before because of fear or stagnation. In chaos theory, the destabilization of a system can create necessary change. A forest fire, while devastating to the old trees, enables new growth to occur. Millions of Americans are using the opportunity to slow down and discover what they really want out of life and career.

The movement includes Slow Cities in America and Europe that have created environments that put people ahead of cars and encourage a lifestyle with a strong community center that provides its members with the essential feeling of belonging. This type of humanistic urban design develops homes that meet real social and physical needs, replacing the alienation of cold towns. In other areas, Slow Food’s homage to the bounty of the land ties into the approach of integrative medicine of marrying traditional person-centered, organic healing practices with modern innovations.

Honoré’s book raises many existential queries that take us beyond the clock to the heart of the Spiritual Warrior’s quest. What is it to be human? What is life for? Why are we in such a hurry? What is our philosophy of childhood? How do we want to live our lives?

I’ll be taking my time to answer these questions.

“Live as if your were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Gandhi-ji.

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