Slowing down

We are far too busy in our lives, every day. We cram as much as we can into our agenda – and we even do this during our holidays. I am guilty of doing this myself sometimes in the past – driven by the fear of missing out, of not getting to do something or to see a special place, setting up a tight agenda, stressing myself out in the process and then being totally exhausted because I wanted too much. 

Instead of enjoying my time off and allowing myself to float in time, exploring places without a fixed agenda, just letting things evolve on their own and see what comes my way. On my last holiday I realized quickly that I needed to stop myself, and instead spend the next day doing nothing, not planning anything, but enjoying the moment.

Which is difficult for me. It reminds me of a joke a former colleague made years ago about “the 3 German P’s: planning, process, preparation”. Yep – that’s me, I know this very well.

It takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol. (Brené Brown)

It is no wonder we get stressed out and feel overwhelmed by this way of life. A typical example: we are attending a conference call, but we are thinking about the next one already, sometimes trying to prepare during the current call instead of being present and listening properly. And we excuse it with “yeah, I don’t really want to be in this call but I am expected to attend, although not contributing so I make better use of my time by doing something else.” Sounds familiar?

Well, isn’t it better to decline such a call in the first place? And set boundaries: if I do not have to contribute anything or the call does not contribute to my role then I skip it. I only have one life and need to be more strict with my time.

My body teaching me a lesson

Slowing down during my day is important. Focusing really on the present moment. Taking a break and doing nothing for 10 minutes, being really present. Far too much passes us by because we are on autopilot mode and our attention is divided. And the speed at which we are trying to function is too fast and not healthy at all.

Our body and mind needs slowing down. Otherwise, our body will force us to stop by becoming ill. The last months of continuous stress recently took their toll that way, when I got sick with covid and a nasty bacterial follow-on infection on top, forcing me to take a 3 weeks’ time out. I was exhausted and spent my time mostly sleeping. Something in fact I had been longing to do in the months that preceded it, often thinking “I just want to sleep for a week, because I do not get enough rest”. 

Currently, I am still not well, not feeling 100% because it takes an awful long time to heal. I cannot speak properly. Whenever I do, it irritates my bronchial tubes and restricts my breathing. It feels like having no strength when speaking, it’s super exhausting. 

My doctor expressed sympathy for my understandable desire to return to normal, but advised me that I simply have to give my body the time it needs to heal. I cannot speed it up and simply need to accept that – as difficult and frustrating as it is. The more I struggle against it, the more it will slow me down – I already feel it.

When we are not fit, not healthy, we are not at our best. We cannot really show up for ourselves and others, we are not present. We overwhelm ourselves, act too fast, talk too fast, overlook things, we run too fast and hurt ourselves in the process. No surprise.

We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

There is a negative connotation in the West with doing nothing, being “lazy”. That’s why so many people actually struggle to meditate and focus on their breathing – they struggle to be alone with themselves and their thoughts. Not for once filling every minute of their time with activity or entertainment like they are used to all the time, but just being in the present moment. It seems like the hardest thing to do.

We seem to think that we always need to be productive, or consume. As if we needed permission to do nothing, to justify what we do with our time.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking along these lines, like “do I make the best use of my time?” As if I had to answer such a question at the end of each day and could get scolded for not getting it right. The notion of wasting time is indeed a big trigger for me. 

Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast; you also miss the sense of where you are going and why. (Eddie Cantor)

Are we afraid of being alone with ourselves? 

Do we feel the need to cover up this empty, quiet space with activity, because we cannot bear to be confronted with silence? 

The silence inevitably brings up some essential questions, and we prefer to run away from the soul-searching, in fact, to run away from ourselves. 

But we cannot escape ourselves.

The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it. (Sydney J. Harris)

To understand that being present, thus allowing and enduring the silence can help to keep us sane, more balanced and in control, is vital. Listening to ourselves, checking in how we feel and becoming aware of our needs. Being mindful of our daily actions and thoughts, instead of mindlessly running about.

Mindfulness is not a one time thing, it is a constant practice, a constant journey.

You are enough. You are doing enough. Tomorrow is another day.  

Don’t suppress feelings of exhaustion, aggression, feeling unwell, as these are usually an indicator that something is off and you need to take a break. 

This is the advice I always would give to a friend, so right now I need to take my own advice for a change, and embrace the situation and its uncertainty, the clear discomfort. 

And slow down.

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you. (Anne Lamott)

The angel of time makes us aware that our time is limited, therefore we shall live it consciously and mindfully. (Anselm Gruen)

The balance between hope and despair

The concept of fairness is deeply ingrained in us. Like a red thread running through our lives, a structure that makes it easier to find our way – a Northern star guiding our decisions.

It determines how we treat others. For most of us, it is self-evident.

But sometimes we hit a wall. Something happens that suddenly throws us off balance. We lose a loved one. We lose our job. Accidents happen, disaster strikes, we get seriously ill… 

This can trigger a reflex making us ask: why me? What did I do to deserve it? Could I have prepared myself better, or somehow prevented it?

Interestingly, we think that we are somehow responsible, beating ourselves up for it, instead of acknowledging that this is just life – a random event happening which never follows the principle of fairness. 

To be a good person striving to do the right thing is unfortunately no guarantee to prevent bad things from happening to us. Fairness is rather an expectation we carry around: an expectation that life should be fair, if we just take the right decisions and behave in a just manner.

The frustrating realization that the world is actually not fair shows the deep disappointment we feel when someone else (or the universe for that matter) doesn’t keep their part of the (expected) bargain. 

We expect the world to be different. We even raise our children to act in a fair manner, to treat others well – like we want to be treated ourselves. And it’s in fact our children who remind us by shouting out “that’s not fair” that they indeed have a very good sense of how things ought to be.

It also triggers a deep fear when realizing that what we took for granted is suddenly caving in like a house of cards. We feel that we lose control falling into a bottomless pit. It is scary. It is threatening. That’s why the reflex in us is so strong to deny it: we are trying to run away from our suffering.

Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

It takes courage to embrace our suffering, to endure a difficult and painful situation and not give up. Especially when it is challenging our beliefs and our inner framework. It can happen anytime and to everyone, and we cannot prepare ourselves for it.

It helps to understand that bad events happening to us are a part of life.

But our inner values and principles which are guiding us, are another part of it. 

These two are not mutually exclusive but rather different companions on our life’s journey. We will encounter the whole spectrum of it all the time. And we cannot expect to have one without the other.

The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope. (Barack Obama)

But what we can control is how we deal with what comes our way. The world becomes what we make of it, and that’s visible every day. 

Everything we convey through your actions or inaction, each word we say or don’t, each act of kindness or the opposite, changes the world. It makes a difference. So, let’s become more aware of how much influence we actually have. On others and on ourselves.

Does a bad thing happening to me make me question my approach in life? Does it make me lose my faith in myself and others? In humanity?

Would I throw my beliefs overboard?

I believe that hanging on to what is guiding me in life is even more important in such testing situations. There is a reason for why I have decided long ago to live my life based on certain principles.

What we can do:

  • Moving through it with patience and compassion for yourself is very important, in whatever sort of such situation you are. To have others supporting you is wonderful, but don’t forget to support yourself in the same way: speak kindly to yourself.
  • Ground yourself, calm yourself down, simply to avoid your nervous system going into overdrive. Meditation and breathing exercises can be a very powerful tool to help.
  • Cry when you feel like it. Once you stop you will notice that the earth has not opened up and swallowed you. You are still there. And then allow yourself time and space to heal. 

Nothing is as important as my peace, my joy. I smile to everything, even to my suffering, my difficulties. That is a practice of freedom. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

It is hard to lean into our pain, while staying confident and trusting ourselves at the same time. But it is important not to ignore the pain. Acknowledge it, but at the same time do not give up hope. Savour the precious moments of joy in your life.

We have every reason to trust that we can move through the hardships in life. Because there is constant change – in either way, hence also to the positive.

Trust yourself.

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If you are interested in meditation and finding inner peace, I can recommend the Plum Village App.

The podcast “The Way Out Is In” offers profound, insightful conversations based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of Buddhist philosophy.

Becoming ourselves

We shall not stay attached to our views, and we certainly cannot do it anyway in the long run, simply because we do change. And so do our views. We learn so much more during our lifetime, and that keeps on changing us. 

This Buddhist concept of impermanence is actually something very positive, because it offers development, growth, using our potential. It offers new experiences, new pathways to be walked on, new opportunities for happiness.

It might sound sad at first, that everything disappears eventually and nothing stays the same. We are clinging to notions or things, often desperately, even if they are harmful for ourselves, because we don’t want to let go. Change scares us. We do not know what the future will bring, and we want to eliminate the insecurity which we fear might throw us off balance. It feels easier to stay within our comfort zone. But isn’t the potential for growth outside of it?

Do not think for one minute that because you are who you are, you cannot be who you imagine yourself to be. (Jedidah Isler)

We never stop evolving. And it is never done with a one time learning. 

Think about when you do a training or learn something new. If you do not apply it in your daily life, you lose it. It slips away to the back of your mind and you cannot even remember a lot of it after some time. It needs constant practice to become part of your daily routine – work-wise or in private life.

When we learn and evolve we take a step forward. We might experience setbacks, but we need to get up and continue. And take another step. Re-iterate the learning process. There is constant repetition. If we are open for it. Even though it is often painful, exhausting and frustrating.

Having a moment of enlightenment about ourselves, especially about changing our direction in life, does not mean this is a one time event, once and for all, and then we can just go on into this new direction we found, and everything will be fine. 

To be very clear: it is just one step on our continuous journey. We change direction, we change ourselves and how we see life and feel about ourselves, what we do and how we want to live. Nothing remains the same.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. (Lao Tzu)

It took me some time to acknowledge that the difficulties we inevitably experience in life are not something being thrown at us from an evil force to make us miserable. These are actually lessons and exercises we need to go through. And they come in phases. This is just life with all its colours.

Instead of shying away I know now that I actively need to embrace my struggles as an opportunity to learn, change and question my approach in life over and over again, and then transform myself. Clinging to the past might feel comfortable, but I won’t get back what has already passed.

The element of fear is always present, of course. Fear of not managing the change well, of failure with ensuing despair and unhappiness. The fear of the unknown essentially, of insecurity is always lurking in the background.

The usual question “What is the right decision?” comes into my mind every time, however there is not a real right or wrong, it is just a turn into a different direction opening a door to a new world. I also recognize this very strong human desire in me, to apply a final fix and then be happy and have everything sorted in my life. It sometimes feels scary to realize that I am on my own with the decisions I take.

The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What is really important though, is not to beat ourselves up for going through a difficult time again when we already had a similar experience in the past and learnt out of it. We applied our knowledge at that time well and evolved. Now something is coming back – not exactly to haunt us – but to show us that we are not done yet (which we never are), or that something else has changed in the meantime forcing us to face it now.  

My recurring theme in that regard is my strong discipline that I often use to soldier on in a stress situation, ignoring my body’s clear signals for rest, until realizing that my re-surfacing health problems are already a cry for help and that I need to stop, listen and slow down. And that I need to change direction in my life.

Becoming aware of the situation faster and reaching out for help and resources quickly is already a good sign of applied learning from past experience. With time, I got to know myself and the traps I tend to fall into much better.

The package everyone of us carries around – based on how we grew up and our past life experiences – is heavy and does not disappear. The habits we developed are a result of this package, and that’s why the saying “old habits die hard”, describes it so aptly: we cannot get fully rid of it. But we can learn to manage it through a lot of self-awareness and kind reflection, and the will to move forward and eventually beyond it.

While accepting – very importantly – that we are only human, thus never expecting perfection. Being too hard on ourselves for something that we continue to carry around, is not going to do us any good, but is actually a self-created obstacle.

Life is a journey, not a destination. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

So, what to do? Take stock, get clarity about what is going on and why, how we feel about it, and then decide what to do next. We feel in our heart that something is clearly off, and it’s important to find our peace and restore our inner balance.

Easier said than done, as it is of course, far more complex than solving a school assignment or finding a good solution for a work task. That’s why talking to a counselor in such a situation helps a lot, because these professionals can bring our inner thoughts to the surface, helping us to gain valuable insights. 

My experience with such conversations has been thoroughly positive, and I did it more than once in my life. The feedback received about my thoughts and attitudes brought me more clarity because it held a mirror to my face. Whatever insights I gained was never anything that I had not been aware of before deep down within me, but I actually needed to hear it from another person.

And don’t forget: it takes as long as it takes. Impatience is not gonna help. 

It is indeed a journey. 

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