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How do we dig deeply into our stories and our art?
More and more, I am convinced that depth goes hand in hand with slowing down time. Autumn Equinox was a few days ago; a time when the light and the dark are of equal length. It is a time of balance before we tip towards the dark months in the seasonal flow. As we move towards winter, we enter again a period of creative gestation. It is a good time of year to slow down time and dive deep.
This period will be all the more powerful, all the more open to awe and epiphany and to the creative leaps that will become green sap rising next spring, if we take the time to centre ourselves now. This balancing point can be a moment taken to pause so that harmony and equanimity remain deeply embedded in our writing lives.
We need to find this equanimity not so that we can rejuvenate jut to get back on the treadmill, but so that we become the people and writers we want to be.
At this time of year, I begin to look towards the winter as a time of depth, digging deep into my writing processes and values. We can’t do this if we fixate on being endlessly productive and busy.
We often think of the states of oppression or alienation as being those in which we have no voice, are silenced. But I sometimes wonder if a much more insidious oppression and dehumanising form of alienation assaults us when we are in constant motion and noise.
When we are always busy, pre-occupied in constant shallow chatter, distracted and fragmented by the fear of missing out and constantly reacting to every email and notification, we become so exhausted that we know we’re miserable but forget how to change things.
Slow down deep
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I keep coming back to this idea — the need to slow down in order to do deep work which may not be masses of work, may be the opposite of ‘productivity’, of seeing our art, or even our lives as ‘products’.
The most important perspective shifts we can make for everyday life is to realise that time, like so many things, is not an absolute. Time, like any other experience, is as qualitative as it is quantitative, if not more so. We can do many practical things to find a humane pacing, to recover from all the busyness, to be less distracted and more focussed on giving our time to what matters to us. But the most important thing we can do is to live by kairos not chronos. Kairos is ‘the right time’; it is ripeness, it is the moment of truth.
It has nothing to do with being busy. Moreover it has nothing to do with taking time to rest and relax only so that we can make ourselves get back up and work harder and faster.
Kairos is related to those experiences when time seems to slow down or stop. We can’t force it, but the more you take moments to slow down, breathe deeply, notice the small pleasures of a day, simply inhabit your day more fully and with more attention, then the more you’ll find yourself living by kairos.
Some kairos moments will be the extraordinary times of life but many are ordinary moments of attention. When I take the time in a morning to set up a slow breakfast with beautiful plates and a pot of drip coffee brewing ever so slowly, then kairos moments come about unlooked for. You can live more life in one excellent day than some people experience in a lifetime and when you you spend one day and then the next and then the next putting yourself in the way of living by kairos, then it will become how you spend your life.
But you can’t do this if you are worried about being a machine of mass production or if you are in terror of ‘missing something’. You have to let those things go. You have to embrace the need to miss out on things that never mattered anyway and value the quality of your art and life over quantity.
When we face adverse conditions, we often slow down and focus on the essentials. I had two examples of this last year. The first was a minor injury to a hip joint, which made me much less active and forced me to live more slowly for a couple of months, with the result that I got much more deep work done: I thought more, wrote more, read more. And, last autumn, I cracked a rib while travelling and had to learn how to take more care and how to alter the pace of each day.
I’ve witnessed this in more serious situations, when people are spending time with extremely sick loved ones. Faced with emergencies, we find the time to focus on what counts, usually those we love or those passions that we are most motivated to achieve.
It’s salutary and humbling to watch. When it most matters, we slow time down to the essentials, yet at other times we claim this is impossible.
I’m not suggesting we can abandon work indefinitely, but there are always ways to slow life down and often it begins with shifting perspective to look at what we most cherish.
At the bottom of a river, way down, is sediment. It’s the fertile mulch, thick with nutrients and with the small stuff that traps toxins, controls the speed of flow and affects water quality. What we are deep within matters. Who we are is crucial and it comes from deep, deep down.
If we want to be writers who push beyond boundaries and say something meaningful, if we want to be artists of skill and imagination, we have to get down into the sediment of ourselves. This isn’t an exercise in ego and narcissism but in reaching down in order to in turn reach out. We become radically more generous and attentive, the more we are kind to ourselves.
Deep work is flow and crafting. It is listening within to your vision and passions, and without, to how you can reach out to the world. It is real attention. Deep observation is how we bear witness to the world as writers. Deep conversation is a way of bestowing benediction; it is a rare anointing with absolute attention to the other, which is as generous as you can get. Depth is about awe and reverence and holding the world in esteem.
Now is the deepest place
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Being present, focussed and attentive in a world of distractions is one of the hardest and most rewarding things we can achieve. In the words of David Henry Thoreau:
The meeting of two eternities, the past and the future… is precisely the present moment…
Time is much more than chronos. It is the quality and depth of each fully lived, truly awake and connected moment. And we don’t find those moments when we are madly rushing or letting our attention fracture against a million unimportant demands.
We may not be able to add a single hour to life by worrying, to paraphrase Matthew’s gospel, but the depth is in our gift. Creative people, in this sense, have much more time. When we both curate our time differently and give it intentionally, things change. To give time to what you really care about, both requires and gives an enormous shift in perspective in which we begin to listen, look and pay attention as we never have before.
Depth is not a quantity
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We live in a world that urges us to have more, do more, be more. There’s a lot of ‘life advice’ that urges us to produce more, to work harder and faster, that glorifies results, not process, and celebrates ‘crushing it’.
But if we want to feel time-rich, being busy with things that ultimately don’t matter will leave our lives impoverished, whether or not we have money in the bank. What matters is not quantity, but depth.
In the words of David Henry Thoreau:
A (wo)man is rich in proportion to the things (s)he can afford to let alone.
Depth is experience
Most of us, and perhaps especially those of us who are passionate about art and values, want to use as much time as possible in ways that open us to experiences of awe, love and beauty. We long to tell and become stories that are meaningful. We quest for relationships that are transformative, whether with the people or the earth we inhabit.
This is quality of life. This is experience that is beyond measuring in ‘worth’.
We’re sold things all the time. If your inbox is anything like mine it will be full of spam — a million offers of products and services nobody needs.
Experience is something different. Investing in ourselves, whether through courses and books, through listening to music, seeing art, adventure, travel… can be deeply fulfilling and mind-expanding. All too often we are being sold a lifestyle that costs our lives.
Do faster cars or bigger mortgages make anyone more fulfilled? Far too much of life is infected by fear: fear of missing is everywhere. There are adverts constantly warning you that you need these 3, 5, 15, 100 products just to make it through the next month. We don’t have to give them credence.
Depth is person, not product
There’s a lot of self-help that concerns the need for rest and recovery. This is great. We are often harsh with ourselves, goading ourselves on, fuelled by willpower and berating ourselves when we fail. We often see the need for kindness, generosity and gentleness with others, but don’t show any such compassion to ourselves.
But it’s not enough to recognise that we need to recover occasionally, or even frequently. It matters why we are doing it. Too often recovery is in the service of avoiding burnout. It’s lauded as a powerful way to ‘up our game’ or so that we can ‘get back on the treadmill’, running harder and faster and becoming every more productive.
Too often the goal of avoiding distractions, doing deep work, becoming a more skilful artist is so that we become a better/bigger/richer brand.
- Taking long walks and immersing ourselves in the nature that we are part of;
- connecting deeply with family and friends;
- building a wonderful and tranquil environment that supports our art;
- taking time out to read, listen to music, look at the view, have great conversations, go for a massage…
— these things are ends in themselves in the quest to have a deep, enriched and abundant life that is not about products, those we buy or those we force ourselves to become.
Depth is a beautiful life, a good life
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about personal development over the last two years. On the surface, the aims of many ‘lifestyle’ advisers my aims can seem to be the same. But the more I read and the think, the more I’ve noticed a divide between my philosophy and the one underpinning many others. A divide in which results, outcomes and productivity are on one side and the quest to live a beautiful, good and meaningful life on the other side.
Superficially both quests have things in common:
- developing habits and behaviours that support the quest
- developing an environment that assists and supports the journey
- valuing and giving attention to transformative relationships
- taking constant small steps in the right direction
- putting who we want to be at the centre so that we behave as the person we want to become, act ‘as if’ until it becomes the truth
- learning to say ‘no’ and eliminating distractions to focus only on what is essential
- eating slow nutritional meals
- taking care of body and soul
- prioritising learning and reading
- being open to failing and constantly starting again, focussing on how far we’ve come rather than how far we have to go
- taking a lot of slow, deep recovery time
But under this surface, there is a chasm between any philosophy that revolves around becoming a better producer and product over against one that wants to savour life in all its fullness for its own sake.
A life in all its fullness values:
- process rather than results
- life as a work of art and ethics rather than the product of a personal brand
- profound and pivotal experiences rather than scaling dizzy heights only to see the next peak and the next ahead waiting to be ‘conquered’
- living in karios time as a spiritual means of inhabiting the present with attentiveness rather than as a way to experience more, faster
- not attaching to outcomes because its the journey that matters rather than a way to come at the results from another angle
- slow living, rich in experience rather than ‘crushing it’
- relaxation and recovery (whether it’s walking, yoga, art, meditation, music, long bubble baths…) as ends in themselves rather than ways to equip me to be more productive
- sometimes doing nothing because it’s a good thing to do rather than as a way to refresh creativity in order to become more productive.
Depth is visionary but real
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Slow down, live in kairos time, go deep, sometimes do nothing; in fact do nothing regularly and relax a great deal for its own sake, for your soul’s sake.
This is not a call to become a hermit, quit your job tomorrow or abandon commitments. We all have to exist in the world but that doesn’t mean we all have to become personal brands or give in to the gods of productivity.
Your story (whether as a person or the art you create) is not the lesser for not having a price tag.
You don’t have to run after the next peak or crush it or find the next novel experience at the expense of losing the ability to savour the profound moments of epiphany in the every-day.
You don’t have to go faster, have more or see life as a thing to be consumed when you could be living it as a work of art and empathy and kindness.
You don’t have to get up at 5 a.m., take cold showers, do five impossible things before breakfast while eating only protein to discover and nurture the behaviours that help you be the story you want to become.
This is not to say that personal development is futile. We need philosophies to live by and a quest for a good life that constantly evolves. It matters how we see reality, the perspective we adopt makes an enormous difference to how we experience life. It is good to cultivate a lack of hubris, courage, humility, generosity, openness and attentiveness.
But the vital question is what motivates us to become a different story. Is it
- living harder and faster
- establishing our brand
- increasing our productivity?
or is it to live:
- in depth
- pursuing transformative relationships
- a good life that is a work of art for its own sake?
These paths can look the same at first or even second glance, but the underlying values, ethics and philosophy areradically different.
Do you want your life to be a canvass or a poem, a legacy of profound connections — or do you want it to be a product with a bottom line?
Live the story you want to become
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A great deal of living with a sense of slow time and greater depth is about not being afraid. There are people in your life who will tell you that you have to do X, Y and Z, or else. There are people who will try to guilt or manipulate you into using your time in ways that drain your energy to no good end. You need to stop listening to such people.
It’s not always other people who undermine you. There will be voices inside that whisper that you cannot create your own life, that biology predetermines your life, that the creativity you long to nurture is an empty dream. There will be inner voices that tell you that you can’t do the depth of work it takes to write a book or have a fulfilling relationship.
These people, demands and inner voices will consume your time at extraordinary speed. But you’re not going to allow that to happen. Don’t speed up. Don’t jump at every call to fear. Excise these voices from your life by every means possible.
Determine to live a life that aligns with your quest, let go of the rest and you will find that you do have the time to give to your creativity.
When we are doing something we are passionate about, time takes on a different quality. Life, David Henry Thoreau tells us, is precious. We do not want to find ourselves at the end of it having not lived. So how do we know that we are living, that we are sucking out the marrow of life?
For me it has to do with the courage to live as the person I want to become. This has made me think hard about my art and my work and about what I need to let go of in order to live the story I want to become.
Thoreau puts it like this:
I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…
In short, we enrich life by letting alone the things that would impoverish it in order to: slow down deep.
An invitation to become your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. On the website, you’ll also find free courses, Setting Out, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as tasters for the paid courses so you can dip in and see for yourself. And while you’re there, please take a look at an exciting new project and resource for writers from Down Deep Books. There are lots of extra gifts for everyone who gets involved.