Slowing Down for What Matters Most
by Eknath Easwaran
by Eknath Easwaran
To paraphrase the Buddha, we learn
to slow down by trying to slow down. The suggestions that follow are not quick
fixes. They are skills and grow through practice. Even today, after decades, I
am still fine-tuning the ways in which I spend my time each day – finding new
adjustments I can make to give me a little more time for what matters to me
One practical step is to get up early in the morning. If you don’t do that, how will it be possible for you to avoid hurry? Rise early so you can set a relaxed pace for the day. Have your meditation at a fixed time, so that it will almost become a reflex.
If at all possible, have a leisurely breakfast with family or friends before going off to work or school. If you live alone, it is still helpful to sit down with a nourishing breakfast – don’t eat it standing up! – and enjoy it without hurry. All these things set the pace you will be following for the rest of the day.
When you leave for work, for errands, for a trip, slow down and spend a few moments checking through things mentally to make sure you are taking everything you need.
Get to work a little early – in time to get to your desk without crashing through the office, in time to speak to the janitor and your co-workers, in time for a few minutes of reflection while you arrange the priorities that face you at work. These are simple steps, but they can go a long way in slowing down the pace of life, not only for you but for those around you as well.
The desire to fit more and more into a given span of time is pervasive, and technology has merely added to the pressure. Many people strive to squeeze in as many tasks as they conceivably can. Instead of concentrating on the essentials and doing what is required in a slow, thorough way, they hunt for the nonessentials and work on them first.
By postponing, you set the stage for a drama of crisis at a later date. When you can evade things no longer, you rush about frantically with your adrenalin pouring – body under stress, mind scattered – and barely squeeze by with a second-rate job. Or perhaps you miss the deadline altogether and have to accept penalties.
At work, as elsewhere, we need to cultivate discrimination so we can decide what is important and then proceed to do it at a moderate pace. Work on the essentials at a steady rate, not pushed by the clock or competition. With some reflection, it is possible to avoid a great many situations where we know we are going to be pressured to speed up.
If we look at our home life and our work, we may see that a surprising number of these situations form recurrent patterns and can be forestalled – often by the simple expedient of not waiting until the last minute to do something that needs to be done. If we cannot avoid these circumstances, it helps to be forewarned.
Jobs do vary widely, of course. But I have been told by an emergency medical technician doing ambulance work that it is possible to resist being hurried even in the midst of frantic circumstances. In fact, this friend told me, that is just when he needs to keep his mind cool, concentrated, and clear. In such situations, the hands and brain of a paramedic or nurse or firefighter have been highly trained. They know what to do, and they carry out their duties swiftly. A speeded-up mind only gets in the way.
The mantram is also particularly helpful in the case of hurry, because it gives the restless mind something to fasten on and gradually slows it down. An excellent way to take a short, refreshing break from work, the mantram is also an aid in training yourself to drop your work at will. When you begin to feel yourself rushed, just stop a minute, repeat your mantram, and then be deliberately slow in whatever you are doing.
During the day – not only at work, but in the post office, restaurant, or bank – you can also combat the fast pace of others. Good spiritual manners require that you say to people who help you, “Take your time. I’m in no hurry.”
The patience we show at work, on errands, and at home is our insurance against all the distressing ailments brought about by hurry. Patience means good digestion; impatience means poor digestion, perhaps an ulcer. When we are patient, all the vital processes work smoothly. In the present context, patience means not hurrying when dealing with others and giving them as much of our time as they can profit from.
At the end of the workday, you might try to bring things to a close a little early so that you have time to clear off your bench or desk, put away tools or papers, and organize your materials for the following day. Put things in order when you leave your job, and learn to detach yourself from your work at will.
At home, after returning from a day at work, most of us like to have an evening of recreation with family and friends. To enjoy such recreation, though, you need detachment from your work – the ability to drop it mentally at will. If you have been rushing all day, you will be so entangled and tense that you will not be able to let it go. While circumstances may require you to bring work home from time to time, it is something else again to leave the work there and bring the thought of it home, fretting over what has already happened and what may happen on the following day.
Think of a job as a kind of wearing apparel. You walk in, slip into your occupational coat as, say, a librarian, well driller, city planner, or printer, and for eight hours you give yourself wholly to your job. But at the end of the day, you take off this coat and hang it on a hook; you don’t stuff a sleeve into your back pocket or purse and drag the rest on the ground behind you all evening long and throughout the weekend.
Working with concentration and then being able to drop your work at will is a skill that can be developed with practice. If you do not learn this kind of detachment, you will be burdened by work as Sinbad the Sailor was by the Old Man of the Sea, who straddled his neck, squeezing him with bony legs.
When you come home from a workday without hurry, once again to join your family and friends, you will be able to give freely of yourself. You may find as you walk in the door that some distressing situations have developed, especially if you have children. But you will have sufficient patience to ease these domestic difficulties even though you have put in a full day’s work.
I have been speaking of the person who leaves home for a day’s work, but much of it applies equally to those who remain. There is the same need to set a leisurely pace and use discrimination in the performance of tasks, the same need to organize work and be able to drop it at will, the same need to be patient and considerate towards those around us, whether it be those who stay home with us, such as children and older folks, or those who return home, perhaps care-laden, from their day’s activities.
In my native state of Kerala we have a beautiful tradition: every twilight the woman of the house lights a lamp, usually a brass one with the wick floating in coconut oil, and moves from one member of the family to another, displaying for all this symbol of their unity. Even without such a lamp every one of us can, through our love, be a radiant light in our house.
In the evening, when you have been reunited with those close to you, rushing and tension are completely out of place. Let us be relaxed and responsive to everyone. If the children want your attention, listen cheerfully, not with half a mind but fully; you will find it vivifying to see the world, your world, through a child’s eyes.
The thread of meditation running through your day can be extended into the evening too. Have your evening meditation reasonably early so that you have time for half an hour or so of spiritual reading before you go to sleep.
And choose your reading carefully. It should be positive, strengthening, and inspiring, and it should be more than just good literature or philosophy; it should be a piece of scripture which you respond to deeply, or writing stamped with the personal experience of a great mystic. Read a little, slowly and reflectively, giving the words a chance to sink deep into your consciousness. Then put the book aside, turn out the light, and fall asleep repeating your mantram.
If you have been kind throughout the day, turning your back when necessary on personal likes and dislikes, and then have given your best in meditation and fallen asleep in the mantram, you will go forward even while you sleep. Even in sleep we can be shaping our lives! In this way, with meditation and daily living supporting each other, your spiritual growth will be swift and sure.
This excerpt on slowing down is from our Spring 2014 Blue Mountain Journal.