The Art of Slow: An Urban Field Guide

We’re stressed, really stressed. Think back to the last time someone asked ‘how are you’ and chances are you replied something along the lines of ‘yeah good, busy.’ Online all the time, juggling several careers at once, squeezing in social engagements like they’re business appointments, striving for work/life balance like it’s a goal to be ticked off the list; sound familiar? Stress has become a marker of success, self worth even. I’m busy, therefore I am (a success).

It would seem we have no time for rest or, even worse, we simply don’t know how to ‘do’ it. A study conducted by the Australian Psychological Society found in 2015 that over a quarter of Australians experience “significant” and “above normal” levels of stress and anxiety, a proportion that increased markedly over the five years it took to collect the data. And this is a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon - Beyond Blue reports that in 2015, the number one issue of concern for young people was how to handle stress. As for the causes of our increasing stress levels - these are are no doubt multiple and complex. Our cultural obsession with productivity likely has a lot to do with it, however productive and busy are not one and the same, and incessant busyness can often be counter-productive. 

Baron, banker, politician philanthropist, scientist and polymath John Lubbock was surely one of the most prolific men of his time. Yet, in his book The Use of Life (1894), he mused:

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.

The wise Baron was talking about the art of slowing down;  becoming an observer in order to reorientate oneself in the bigger picture. This is not a new idea. Most spiritual and philosophical traditions have long held rest as fundamental to a life well-lived, from the Jewish Sabbath to the ancient concept of Yin. However, most of us are short of grassy fields to lie in and Synagogues are few and far between. The urban Westerner needs a practical approach to slowing down, bit by bit, on the daily.  

Following, then, is a field guide for navigating the daily onslaught of compulsive busyness, which in turn leads to increased stress levels. This is by no means an exhaustive guide to the slow life, nor is it a panacea to all our first world problems. For optimal results, take in conjunction with a sound diet, plenty of exercise, and a daily dose of gratitude.

10 Ways to Take it Slow: A Daily Practice

1. Prepare for sleep, then sleep plenty. Dim the lights an hour before sleeping, and no electronics in the bedroom. If you need your phone as an alarm, put it on flight mode an hour or so before you go to bed. Better yet, invest in an alarm clock. This pre-bed time is so important for unwinding, processing the day, and entering your evening period of rest.

2. Wherever possible, walk or ride rather than drive. Note the weather, how the wind feels on your face, the sounds you can hear. Then feel free to return to your busy thinking. The movement alone will be doing you good.

3. For the do-ers, balance aggressive exercise with restorative activities. Gentle stretching, a yin yoga class, flotation tank, infrared sauna. And of course, the occasional lie in.

4. Keep a journal. We tend to spend a lot of thought-time in the future - planning, worrying, making shit happen. Taking five to jot down your thoughts and feelings in the day helps ground you in the present, as well as connecting you to yourself.

5. Don’t forget to breathe. Literally, check in with yourself from time to time throughout the day. People with a lot of stress and anxiety in particular may find they’re holding their breath, shoulders tense and hunched. Take a moment to breathe deeply, releasing the tension in your body before returning with full focus to the task at hand.

6. Sit down to eat. Share meals with others where possible. If you live alone, eat mindfully, enjoying every bite. No screens.

7. Shop at your local farmers market. Aside from the obvious nutritional benefits of eating food that has just been picked and is in season, this weekly ritual serves to connect you to the people who grow and make the produce that you will then cook and eat. In an era of such abundant online connectivity, we are a lonely lot. We crave community and connection with the world around us - what better way to satisfy this craving than with authentic, face to face interactions with our local farmers.

8. Which brings us to learning how to cook. At best, cooking can be meditative, grounding and a real pleasure. If you’re time poor, try simple dishes like bolognaise or ragout, meals that can be whipped up in an hour on a Sunday and will make for instant dinner throughout the week. Freeze extra portions for those ‘I honestly can’t think what to cook but I sure as hell don’t feel like eating Maccas’ nights.

9. Meditate. You needn't sit in lotus pose for an hour. Two minutes every day is better than nothing, although 10 minutes is better. If you have a wandering mind (most of us do), try using an app like Headspace to help you stay focused.

10. Make time for face to face connections and meaningful conversation. Ask yourself, am I confusing the quantity of my interactions with quality? Sure, social media and texting has its place. But the feeling of connection that comes from slow time spent with someone you care about - that's in a league of its own.


Image by Rupi Kaur