Slow Living: A Simple but Powerful Form of Healing

Relaxation

“In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.” ~Pico Iyer

On a college orientation trip, at the age of eighteen, I hiked the 100-mile wilderness of the Appalachian Mountain Trail, and my trail name was “caboose.” Slow and steady from behind was where you’d find me. That was my way. I was typically the last to camp, but I could go all night when necessary.

That wasn’t my first experience being the slow one in a group. When I was thirteen years old biking with a group in Nova Scotia, I was the last one to climb the hill to the campsite above the Bay of Fundy. I do mean climb, as I was not able to pedal my bike. My group, many long at camp ahead of me, graciously walked down to accompany me. I was grateful for their energy cheering me on.

Even now, my husband tells me it sometimes seems physically impossible for me to go at any pace other than my own. Which is true; my pace is slow. I walk slow, run slow, ski slow, clean slow, work slow, read slow, fold laundry slow, wrap presents slow… you get the picture.

As an English teacher, my husband tells me to say slowly, but honestly, I’m just slow. I do everything slowly when I can. I like going slow. I feel joyful when I have the time and space to do a single task at my own pace.  

There was a period in my life when I multi-tasked like a champ. It felt as though being a working mom demanded me to multitask. Multitasking never felt good save the physical adrenaline rush I felt in response to checking a lot of things off my to-do list.

A few years ago, I started working with a trainer to work on hill sprints. I was curious to see if I could train myself to be faster. I think it is possible based on my preliminary effort, but I didn’t follow through on the full experiment. I’m still strength training, and every now and again on my (slow) run I’ll sprint for a count of ten just because. I’m not exactly sure why. Shame may actually be the motivator. I often feel ashamed of being slow.

Lately I’ve been wondering if my slowness is a physical response to trauma. The day after a recent powerful bodywork session that released A LOT of grief, I noticed myself zipping around the clinic doing things I typically put off. I wonder if the release of grief changed something in me such that I moved more quickly. I’m going to continue observing my pace after bodywork sessions and see if there is a correlation between emotional release and my speed.

When I really get quiet with myself, and I lay down what feel like societal expectations, I like going slowly. I like paying time and attention to the task at hand—whether it’s a patient, yoga, gardening, folding laundry, vacuuming, going through email, running errands, writing, or cooking. Going slowly may be a luxury given the world we live in, but I don’t think it should be.

Just last night, I was sitting at the dining room table taking lavender blossoms off their stems. My husband said to me, “When you go to the monastery, is your job going to be harvesting the lavender?” I responded, “Yes, please. How soon can I go?” Because to me, going slowly, stillness, silence, and solitude are the things I covet most.

My son spent last winter learning chi gong. On a slow hike in the North Cascades this summer, we talked about attention as a salve for the hard parts of life. It sounds like chi gong is teaching him to pay close attention.

We notice the majesty of the natural world when we are able to pay attention to it, either through stillness or slowness. A common human response to natural beauty is awe.

In Awe:  The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, author Dacher Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” Attention paid through slowness leads to awe, which leads to humility, which leads to perspective, healing, and an open heart.

No experience in my life slowed me down, if not stopped me in my tracks, as profoundly as the tragic death of my fifteen-year-old daughter in 2018.

There was nothing willful about the physical paralysis I felt, sitting on the couch for hours, watching the tops of trees move in the wind, wondering if she was there.

Each morning I would wake, if I’d slept, angry that the sun rose. Each seasonal transition was brutal. It felt unbearable to me that the world kept on spinning when I was frozen. Thank goodness I was practiced at slowness when she passed—I’d trained to be still. Not that I had a choice at that time, but at least being still wasn’t uncomfortable; it’s just that everything else was.

Endless hours of grief and stillness gave way to attentiveness. Attentiveness connected me to the natural world outside my sunroom door. The beauty of the natural world inspired awe in me. Beauty felt excruciating after my daughter’s passing. and yet I sought it and still do.

To this day, the awe I feel in response to the beauty of the natural world, be it snowfall, big snow-capped mountains, or the sea, tethers me to life. My pursuit of awe through the beauty of the natural world has qualities of a thirsty person looking for water in the desert.

The pursuit is more like a desperate, flailing, last resort because it feels as if my life depends on finding—or creating—beauty. I move slowly in my pursuit—in part because I have no choice, in part because I don’t want to miss anything, in part because I find small things healing.

As a healthcare professional, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are actually some health benefits to doing things slowly. Some of the most powerful healing I’ve observed has been the result of women taking a leave from work, creating space for them to move through life more slowly with one less thing to do, allowing time and attention to be paid to rest, food, and movement.

Moving slowly speaks to our nervous systems of safety, to our adrenals of rest and recovery, and to our minds of simplicity. It’s not possible to encapsulate the health benefits of moving slowly.

I’m going to continue to work on accepting my slowness in a society that values speed. Maybe going slow is my small, quiet act of revolution. Maybe it’s my political statement.

I’m going to continue to support my patients in finding moments of slowness because I see how healing it is.

I’m going to continue to go outside and seek beauty. I’m going to continue paying attention to the shifting light, the changing colors of the leaves, the flowers that are blooming, the lifecycle of the monarch, the smell in the air. See you out there.


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