The Case for Slowing Down

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Today I’ve been thinking about a “Good Samaritan” experiment. In this study, seminary students were rated for their helpfulness to a man in apparent distress, though they had no idea that he was even part of the experiment.

They were each given an assignment and sent to another building to complete it. On the way each encountered a man slumped in a doorway, moaning in distress.

Some stopped, some didn’t.

Some had been told to prepare a talk about the Good Samaritan, while others had a more generic task. The content of the task did not appear to affect their choice of whether to help the man or not.

What did make the difference was the seminarians’ sense of urgency. The experimenters told some of them that they were already late and should rush to get to the next building. These were far more likely to ignore (even step over!) the man in need.

Those who weren’t in a hurry helped in greater numbers.

Were the nonhelpful seminarians (especially those focused on the topic of the Good Samaritan!) crass hypocrites with zippo compassion? No, they felt pressured to get their central task done, to keep moving. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely been there.)

In fact, according to the article I read, many who did not stop appeared anxious when they entered the second building. Their inner conflict showed up in agitation.

To my mind, this study clearly shows one “unselfish” reason why it’s crucial to S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N the pace of our lives. (Of course, as our sense of separation between ourselves and the larger world breaks down, there’s really no such thing as selfish vs. unselfish. What happens to you happens to me. Witness the subjects’ bodies’ own distress signal.)

In the Western world we are supposed to be hyperefficient and “productive” all the time. We overschedule ourselves in an effort to get more done. Even when I am “off duty” at the end of the day, I’m tempted to keep checking my phone or laptop, to look up one more thing, to multitask when I am theoretically at leisure.

What is the cost of all our rushing around? Distractedness, high blood pressure, anxiety, and more. Meanwhile we live whole days, months, years, barely present to our lives.

Here’s my friend Melody Groothius, mom to two and lover of the world:

I hope I never think that what I’m doing is so important that I can’t stop and acknowledge – my kids, a chance to laugh at a joke (especially a terrible dad joke), a beautiful flower, the sound of a singing bird, the feel of a gentle spring breeze against my face as I step out the door. We’ve all got deadlines and “very important” interviews and articles and things to say but, honestly, those aren’t more important than any of those other things…actually, not really very important at all when I stop to think about it…

We tend to think we will slow down later on…when we get something big done, or go on vacation, or retire. Generally the habit of rushing is so ingrained that it is hard to overturn, even if we make a point of it. It can take a health scare or other personal tragedy to bring us out of our trance of busyness.

But creating some space in our schedule right now—though it will never be rewarded by the dominant cultural story!–is crucial to creating a world worth living in.

I leave you with a “Run Report” by my poet friend Alyssa Chase, who conceives lovely haikus as she takes her daily run, later to post on Facebook.

What’s the good of all I’ve learned? How to schedule peccadilloes, negotiate obsolescence, parse darts? Blue sky answers: Do something else.

A Little Time-out

Being human is feeling all kinds of stuff we’d rather not. It’s easy to run away from “bad” feelings, to try to Facebook / eat / drink them away. Or we might get stuck in a trough, and end up thinking the feeling is who we are. “I am an anxious/depressed/angry person.”

But how about experimenting with falling into whatever “bad feeling” arises? It can be interesting to explore and befriend an emotional state, without attaching to it.

I briefly befriended a tiny unhappy girl in pink snow boots last week, and later I realized the parallels. Small girl, small inner feeling. (My own feeling states usually start out small, and if I notice and tend to them early enough in their unfolding, I can often shift them before they get big.)

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Photo by Gunnar Sigurður Zoega Guðmundsson, via Flickr Commons

The girl was one of about 10 children in a child care group I assisted for a short time. (How I, the easily overstimulated introvert, ended up in this unaccustomed space is another story!) This girl ran and laughed with the bigger boys for a while, but then I noticed she had withdrawn. Her forehead had gone all puckery.

Say this little girl is the feeling, hankering for attention. The first thing is simply to notice the feeling arise. And it might not be obvious in the noise and clang of life. Maybe it’s just a furrowed forehead or the absence of a smile or the sudden need to pull back.

I could relate, as a formerly small and often overwhelmed girl myself. So I went and sat with her.

The second thing is to go and be with the feeling. It’s not helpful to chide the little girl for withdrawing, or feed her food she doesn’t need, or cajole her into playing again before she’s ready. But we can go and sit. Be in solidarity.

I saw that she tugged at the Velcro of her boots. So I helped her take them off. The day was warm. Her feet had gotten hot.

So that’s another thing: to address physical discomfort, or bring some air to something constricted. It wouldn’t do to holler at the little girl for having those boots on in the first place, or to ignore her discomfort, or to tell her to just keep marching.

That’s pretty much my process, not that I always do it. (I do my share of eating-for-distraction!) Basically: Paying attention, opening some space. I find that just by focusing in on what hurts, I can get valuable information. Not only that, but just attending with kindness is often enough to soften constrictions and transform pain.

By the way, I did play with the girl then. I tried different silly things to see what would catch her fancy. She just looked at me all sad-eyed. What finally got some movement from her was a beanbag toss game. Sitting next to her, I grabbed a bowl and beanbags and threw them in at very close range. Then gave them to her. She basically set them in the bowl one by one, very tentatively. I cheered each one. A tiny smile. (I felt like such a genius at this point, as I am more used to playing with animals than children!) We kept it up, with me moving the bowl around and acting goofy. She finally leaned in close to grab the bowl in one hand and hold it still. By this time she was laughing and I felt like I’d won the lottery, seeing those eensy teeth again, hearing that infectious sound.

So to continue the analogy…Maybe starting a tiny “job”—after sitting with the feeling and bringing comfort—is a way back from feeling stuck. Some easy thing that can be built upon, that can end up feeling like play.

After a while, she scampered off to play with the boys some more. (Me: “My work is done.”)

No matter how we deal with our emotions, the bottom line is: There’s nothing wrong with a little time-out to care for a tender underbelly.

Magnify Love

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.

—Desmond Tutu

Here in the U.S., we’re feeling the reverberations of yet another mass shooting. Some call it the deadliest in our nation’s history. Even as I unplug from the news cycle, I’m energetically affected by the pain and anguish, the anger and fear.

Sadness is mostly what I feel when I think of the shooting. When I remember to, I turn toward the sadness, feel it in my body, notice the wish to numb it, alongside the urge to amass information in support of my personal philosophy about these types of tragedies.

I “embrace, allow, include,” as I’ve been coached in mindfulness training. I open up room for all my responses and attend to them with kindness. In that space I can consider right action.

All of which gives me more compassion for others on their own path.

I like to believe that humanity is evolving in a positive direction, appearances (seemingly) to the contrary. The horrible things that happen always grab our focus, fuel our outrage. It’s the same with the inflammatory things said by some pundits and politicians: Our attention gets hooked by ugly things that seem to confirm the awfulness of everything. And the ugliness magnifies.

A wise yoga/meditation instructor recently reminded me that our brains are wired to notice the snake amidst the flowers. Danger! Alert! We fixate on the negative. It’s biological.

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No snake, just flower.

Mindfulness meditation creates an opening for a new practice to emerge. It offers a brief space—the length of a breath—in which we can begin to choose.

I wonder: what if we train our attention on something other than the horror? Not to look away blithely denying injustice, but turning toward the little acts of love and solidarity, small exchanges of soul happening every day. Is it a copout, born of privilege, to even suggest such a thing? Or is it an opening?

Some schools of Buddhism teach that the material world is nothing other than a construct of mind. What mind do I wish to inhabit?

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What do I choose to magnify with my attention?

Lighting a Candle

So much sadness, trauma, pain, anger, fear is showing up in the personal news of my friends and in the wider news of recent weeks. But  here is a prayer for all of us, a message from an intuitive who grew up in war-torn Lebanon:

“I am lighting a candle in my heart for everyone… everyone… everyone. My heart is ablaze. My tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of humility, and tears of hope bring this burn to a sizzle…only to find out that these candles are magical…they never go out.

By Luca Casartelli (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

By Luca Casartelli (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Remember those special birthday cake candles that could not be stopped? The ones you blow out and they light up again? Ah, I am relieved that the light of my heart is infinite and eternal… has no borders… and ripples, boundless.

Now that love is set to permanent, I can really do my magic.”

—Iva of Sophia Speaks

From Dismemberment to Oneness

Rebecca Solnit, on how leprosy numbs the extremities so that sufferers don’t realize when they are damaging their own tissues:

“The disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of.”

She speaks of a kind of dismemberment, of patients who feel no pain, so they injure themselves, even blind themselves.

She quotes a missionary doctor: “One of the boys said to me, “My hands and feet don’t feel part of me. They are like tools I can use. But they aren’t really me. I can see them, but in my mind they are dead.'”

Reading, it struck me that this statement could also sum up the dominant cultural attitude toward our own earth home. Though we belong to her and she to us, for so long we’ve disowned her, exploiting her riches as just so many dead “resources.”

We’ve been operating under the delusion that we are separate from the biosphere and the myriad life forms that share it—and separate from each other too. The results are catastrophic. If we lack feeling for each other, the soil under our feet, the waters that flow, and the skies above, we won’t consider these worthwhile of care.

"Holding Hands," by Paige Shoemaker, via Flickr Creative Commons

“Holding Hands,” by Paige Shoemaker, via Flickr Creative Commons

But perhaps that’s changing now, bit by bit.

More and more of us are waking up to our empathetic selves. We’re feeling a kinship not just with other humans but with the earth herself. We’re re-membering our entire human family and our deep connection to the planet that holds us.

I think of the empathy displayed by Antoinette Tuff as she disarmed a young mentally ill man bent on violence in her school. In the midst of her fear, this bookkeeper found a way to connect with the young would-be shooter, seeing him as a hurting soul. Her ability to reach him on a human level may have averted a major tragedy.

Meanwhile, this summer a group has been tracing the route of the Keystone XL Pipeline in the Great Plains. The pipeline, as I posted in May, would allow the release of enormous levels of carbon—enough to create irreversible climate change.

Trans Canada Keystone Oil Pipeline, by shannonpatrick17, via Flickr Creative Commons

Trans Canada Keystone Oil Pipeline, by shannonpatrick17, via Flickr Creative Commons

Taking both a physical and a spiritual journey through the heart of North America, Compassionate Earth Walk aims to nourish the earth, while inviting all humans to return to oneness in the community of life.

From the story on Resilience.org:

“We walk in response to climate change and in gratitude for the earth which has given freely to us for so long. We walk as an act of healing both symbolic and literal, including healing of the walkers, the land, the communities impacted by the pipeline, and the whole human consciousness of separation.”

No more numbness. No more dismemberment. The pain of our suffering planet and fellow earthlings might be difficult to face, but feeling it means we’re awake. It means we can care.