A while ago a lovely writer commented that she was enjoying reading my blog posts but was also aware that what I wrote was (for her) aspirational and she still had a long way to go. Of course we are all are on a journey and blogs about writing are not only for other writers, but also for myself. I think this is true of most writing — it comes from who we are, and we write the book or the article or poem we want or need to read ourselves, hoping it will also speak to others. Currently I not only believe that slowing down is a healing and creative aspiration for all writers, but I also know that I personally need to slow down.
Slow in relation to what?
‘Slow’ makes no sense without a comparison point. A train is slow in comparison to a plane, but fast in comparison to a horse and cart. When we talk about slow transport we’re talking about measurements. But just as time can be perceived as either chronos (the seconds ticking away) or kairos, the experience of ripe moments of meaning, so slowness can be a quality as much or more than it is a quantity.
A life that values slowness might be one that looks fairly well packed to some people. But the experience of slowness is not about units of measurement but rather about ways of living that allow for attentiveness, permit moments to be savoured and make space for solacing pauses and time to simply be.
Slowness is a quality because time itself is much less monolithic and objective than we often imagine. We know this despite the regularity of clocks. Holidays, for example, often highlight our qualitative experience of time, which tends to change radically when we are in unfamiliar and novel places and situations. They go in a flash and yet when we reflect on them later there is often a sense that they occupied a huge expanse of time.
A second may be a second, but how an individual interacts with and constructs any given second is extraordinarily variable. People who have near-death experiences often describe a moment that seems crammed with a life-time of memories. A bored child waiting for something to happen will feel as though five minutes is an age, while people under stress and juggling too many demands can feel as though time is speeding up with alarming intensity. How many of us feel like a ‘slow’-loading internet page is wasting our time when it’s only taken a few seconds?
Time is slippery. None of us may be able to stop it or stave off it’s effects as we age, yet if time is as much a qualitative experience and emotional response to that experience as it is a measurement, then the good news is that we have the power to alter how we interact with it.
Living in warped time
Over the last 18 months I’ve had a strong experience of time warping. I’m far from alone in feeling this. The pandemic has changed so much in our lives and even in the midst of talk of ‘getting back to normal’ there are concerns about fourth waves of the virus and constant mutations.
We know from writers like Bessel Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist with decades of experience working with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that the body keeps the score. And in turn the physical illnesses and wounds that afflict us feedback into our emotions, as Esther Sternberg explores in The Balance Within: the science connecting health and emotions. Stress makes our bodies more liable to be sick and lowers immunity and in turn immune responses impact brain function, which can have profound effects on our emotions.
And currently, the whole planet is living in a heightened state of stress that is fuelling this vicious cycle and, among other things, warping our sense of time. People in car crashes or situations of acute fear feel that time elongates while their stress peaks. The pandemic on top of daily news of wildfires, water shortages, ice melting and floods leaves a lot of people feeling that life is one long car crash. A friend recently said to me she felt like she’s been to hell in a hand-basket at least three times in the last week.
Even in the best of times we know that while small amounts of stress can stimulate us to action, long-term stress, particularly when it’s arriving from too many inputs at once—events like divorce, bereavement, moving house, changing work, coping with young children or long-term caring roles—eventually overwhelm us. And to add to the poison, the memories we make during long-term high stress periods can become associated with stress and exhaustion. A piece of music is neutral until it becomes the piece of music we heard the day a loved one died. The scent of a bonfire is not loaded with negative emotion until it gets attached to the scent we registered just as the alarm went off to signal the house burning down.
And of course, memory and our perception of time are intimately woven together. Not only does the pandemic feel like ‘forever’ to many people, but it’s also seriously damaging our autonoetic consciousness, effecting how we both look back and look forward. We are a species that can place ourselves mentally in the past or future in order to imagine counterfactual situations. This has so many uses: it enables us to envisage alternatives in life, it enables us to construct visions and hopes. It is also part of what makes us self-reflexive. We can conduct thought-experiments in which we try on different senses of self, which in turn effects the story we become and how we behave. When the future appears nothing but bleak and the present is fraught with stress then our cortisol levels become chronically flattened, even to the point where other hormones are impeded resulting in conditions from depression to decreased fertility to osteoporosis.
We are bodies in time and when we are under assault from several quarters, our relationship to time suffers too. Time gets warped.
Reclaiming a different experience of time
When time warps our daily rhythms often come unstuck. So how do we reclaim a sense of time that takes us back to kairos, that numinous-filled sense of ripe moments of meaningful time, even in a crazy world?
There are periods of our life when events become inextricably woven into our sense of rapidly forming self-identity. In Time Warped: unlocking the mysteries of time perception, Claudia Hammond notes that these periods of constant novelty, often between the age of 15-25, or sometimes shorter periods later in life when there are major changes, are the times of clear and rich memories and, in retrospect, they seem to have lasted longer than they actually did. Life events like leaving home and major ‘first’ experiences mean that in these times we live with a high-degree of intensity and/or novelty, and it is this that enables us to recall these times most easily and vividly. They give us a renewed experience of time in the way that a holiday might.
Of course, there is a both/and element to this. Toward the end of last year I moved from a place I loved, leaving a house I’d loved for two decades. Any house move is highly stressful. Sternberg compares it to bereavement:
One is certainly loss — the loss of someone or something familiar. Another is novelty — finding oneself in a new and unfamiliar place because of the loss. Together these amount to change: moving away from something one knows and toward something one doesn’t.
[…] An unfamiliar environment is a universal stressor to nearly all species, no matter how developed or undeveloped.
Amen to that, I can say. The move has upended my world. But I chose it and I know I would do so again. Lots of reasons played into the decision, including Brexit, but above all I came to the forest to live deliberately, to mangle a favourite Thoreau quote. I came to slow down, listen and connect and to place myself where I might be able to share this vision with more depth.
There has certainly been stress in such a huge move during a pandemic and in a year in which lots of other major things happened in both personal and professional arenas. But the defamiliarisation of moving language, culture and place has also meant that being open and flexible has been essential. It has meant that the first year here has been one that feels momentous, in significance and clarity and in the sheer volume of ‘first’ moments.
The role of novelty in forming significant and enduring memories and so slowing down the sense of time, has been enhanced by turning 60 this year. I remembered a friend telling me that in the year she turned 60 she took time out each month to do something special and meaningful. I decided to borrow the idea. With lockdowns and travel restrictions everything needed to be online or very local but experiences have ranged from one to one French lessons to an online singing weekend with The Unthanks; from extra courses in herbalism and foraging to enrolling for a major teacher training course in Yoga Nidrā meditation. Each month has had a new challenge and learning experience, many of which have been layered through the year.
In the midst of so much newness and change, time still feels disrupted and altered but my hope is that the challenges and unfamiliar experiences are laying the foundations of new rhythms that will support my writing life.
Novelty isn’t always comfortable but it has helped to keep alive that autonoetic consciousness. The pandemic has ushered in a world in which possibilities have felt like they were closing down, undermining forward thinking and imagining different futures. Moving house and shaking up the norms has been a huge spur to persisting with envisaging alternatives in life, imagining different stories, but to ensure that the challenges don’t become burnout requires a degree of self-kindness and making time to savour small pleasures.
I came to the forest to live deliberately, not to live a million miles an hour. A full life with some newness to keep us flexible, open and always learning, doesn’t have to be a life so crammed with demands that they outstrip our time and exhaust our mental and physical resources.
In the last blog I wrote about the need for radical rest. Rest is not self-indulgence. Savouring life slowly is a vital corrective to a world in which work, for those who have it, has become all-encompassing. In our productivity-worshipping world, being busy often becomes a badge of honour but the truth is that the world doesn’t fall apart if we slow down and take rests.
In fact, workoholism and mercilessly pushing ourselves is not a good way to unleash any kind of creativity, as Josef Pieper wrote in his 1948 book, Leisure: the basis of culture. Leisure, he argues, is essential to creativity and he also makes an interesting and counter-intuitive point that it is constant work, not leisure, that is rooted in idleness. He reaches this theory via an examination of the restlessness that is often at the root of workaholism, a restlessness to drive oneself rather than allow any room to face oneself:
Idleness, for the older code of behavior, meant especially this: that the human being had given up on the very responsibility that comes with his dignity… The metaphysical-theological concept of idleness means, then, that man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself; that, as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him.
In other words, working without ceasing is self-destructive. And Pieper pushes his argument further by pointing out that leisure, real rest and recuperation, is much more than merely taking breaks in order to keep working. Rather, true leisure is about being rather doing:
an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet.
It is a state on “non-activity” that allows us to not only face ourselves, but to face mystery and uncertainty in life and the universe. It is the state of savouring life with inner quiet and with a generosity that extends to self and others.
Slowing down to change time
All of this demands that we slow down and pay deep attention to our lives, environments and the lives of others. It demands, essentially, that we value and protect our humanity and resist becoming cogs in a machine. This is surely the work of writers and other creators who keep re-imagining how life and the world might be a different story.
It is vital for writers because every mark we make on a page (or a screen) is dance with Time. The white space is the domain of Time upon which we leave an imprint in order to make a difference, in order to change the present and the future.
Pieper recognised more than 70 years ago something I’ve learnt (or relearnt) in training as a yoga nidrā teacher recently. Namely that sometimes it’s easier to lose ourselves in work and exertion than it is to slow down and rest, even though rest is apparently effortless.
How true that seems of our present time in which our anxieties rocket. As the pandemic becomes a ‘pingdemic’ in which so many people are tracked, trace and told to self-isolate that the notion that life might be getting ‘back to normal’ is constantly exposed as hollow, perhaps it’s easier to lose ourselves in busyness than sit and think too much. As the news fills with wild fires and floods, perhaps the distraction of work shields us from facing the challenges of the world.
But writers are not those who look away. Writers are those who witness and who speak truth to power. And to that we need to do the apparently hard thing of stopping, of slowing down, of letting go of all that effort to distract ourselves.
Slow down, listen, connect, has been my guiding principle over the last year or more. But I have to keep bringing myself back to it. My inclination, like that of many others, is to distract myself with work, to be so busy I can hardly think. And there are always demands to latch onto to justify this non-stop work.
But when I slow down the world doesn’t collapse. When I slow down I come back to myself, to my humanity, to my ability to listen and connect. And the same is true for all of us. Writers need to slow down in order to keep our souls and to advocate for the soul of the world.