Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Slowing Life Down...

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop to look around once in a while you could miss it. ~From the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off

A far too common theme, among people in the western world, is how quickly life appears to move. In the blink of an eye, we move on from high school, race through college, twirl through young adulthood, blur our way through parenthood and find ourselves in middle age, dazed at how half a lifetime could have transpired. There are days in which I feel as if I fell asleep a carefree college student, and woke up with wrinkles. An entire existence has continued while I've been busy loading the dishwasher, taking the dogs to the vet, attending Parent-Teacher conferences and folding laundry. Great works of art have been created, new scientific theories have been proven true and astonishing events in history have all manifested, while I've raced from one school pick to the next, dropped off one child at ballet and the other at hockey and cooked an everlasting number of dinners. When I have spoken with my friends, I know that I'm not alone. This sense of almost dream-like frantic movement is the cultural norm. We all want to slow down to appreciate the little things in life more, but we can't, because we're late for a Little League board meeting.

And yet, there are constantly images and ideas being thrown at us about how to be even more productive with our time. As if life isn't darting away rapidly already, we are told to "Multi-task" more efficiently and to employ strategic "time management" philosophies. Books with titles like "101 Ways to Make Every Second Count", "The Successful Time Manager" and "Measuring Time, Improving Performance" are everywhere. Articles on the topic are in all types of periodicals; from "Parenting" to the Wall Street Journal. Classes abound at community colleges on Time Management, aimed at students of all ages. Though each one has good ideas about not wasting time, I find the plethora of information about time management to be overwhelming...and if I'm being completely honest, going through all of them would be a colossal time waster. While I'm certain that I could pack even more onto the house of cards I call my schedule, the question is, do I really want to? Will I enjoy life more, if I'm finally able to fit in learning Russian, redecorating my house in Feng Shui principles and taking watercolor painting classes?

I have enormous respect for people that really can do it all. They seem to juggle parenting, marriage, fascinating career, exceptional volunteer work, time for self-improvement, fitness, housework and travel. It leaves me feeling embarrassed about how little I'm able to manage. But, rather than try to add more to my 'load', I've made a conscious decision to add less. Why? As much as I'd love to be, I seem to spread myself too thin when I take on too many projects. As worthwhile and as important as these might seem to be, I find that just adding that one extra ball to my juggling hands, can lead to my dropping the entire contingent. So, instead of judging myself harshly about what I have not been able to do, I am making a choice to give all of my focus and attention on each moment as it comes. Some people have the enviable gift of being able to intentionally focus on a huge variety of projects all at once. Others can only manage one or two. I believe that we need to look inside ourselves, find out where we can best spend our energies, and then give those items the attention they deserve by not looking too far ahead to the next bit to be ticked off our to-do list. By slowing down our thoughts, by focusing on each piece of our day, by breathing deeply in the moment, we can appreciate each one as it comes...rather than let it whip past us in a hurricane.

Buddhist monk, poet, teacher and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, "By being aware of your actions, you can enjoy your life while you make tea, or while you wash the dishes. All of this means that you can stop running after things which you think will make you happy. By being aware of what you already have–and of the beauty that surrounds you–you can be happy right here, right now." I find this attitude to be refreshing and inspiring. Dr. Hanh isn't exhorting us to give up the life that we have to move into seclusion. Nor, is he instilling the need to scale back. He's simply reminding us to appreciate the life we've been given. Whether we're folding laundry, cheering on our kids at a tennis match or offering input in a conference, we have the ability to slow down. We can create a quiet inner sense of peace, regardless of what we're doing. How do we do this? By just realizing that moments are here. They are present. They are now. They can be appreciated.

None of this is new or ground breaking. Mindful living doesn't mean doing "without". It simply is a method of allowing our focus to shift from "out" to "in". It won't turn back the hands of time. It will not keep the calendar from moving ahead to the next month. But it will give us a tool that, unlike the books designed to teach us to cram even more into our lives, has the intention of helping us appreciate the uniqueness of our day to day existence. When we feel that gratitude...by simply living in the 'now', instead of checking our watches every five minutes....we can make every moment count. At the very least, we have the ability to enjoy the gift of the time we have.

So, breathe. Close your eyes. Open them. Take in your surroundings. Find the beauty in this specific moment. And, know you are here right now...use that time to cherish the important things.