By Nandini Murali
The cult of speed in which we are caught is the single most destructive element in a destructive culture. It’s time to slow down and reclaim our sanity, health and well-being
“It is not enough if you are busy. The question is, ‘What are you busy about’?”– Henry Thoreau
For Carl Honoré, reading bedtime stories to his five-year-old son, Benjamin, was a gladiatorial clash of wills between the journalist-writer dad’s speed and his son’s desire for slowness. When he spotted a collection of condensed classic fairy tales, The One-Minute Bedtime Story, it seemed a tailor-made solution – the ‘Hans Christian Anderson meets executive summary’ to deal with time-consuming tiny tots. It was a turning point in Honoré’s life. It made him reconsider his relationship to speed and its impact on his life.
“Suddenly it hit me – my ‘rusholism’ had got so out of hand that I was even willing to speed up those precious moments with my children at the end of the day. There has to be a better way, I thought, because living in fast forward is not really living at all. That is why I began investigating the possibility of slowing down,” says Carl Honoré, bestselling author of In Praise of Slow, a critique of the cult of speed. Today Carl Honoré, a self-confessed reformed and rehabilitated speedoholic, is a slow activist and one of the slow movement’s most articulate and well-known faces. If you hear Honoré speak (he could win a contest in speed talk!), it is easy to see why. “My whole life had turned into an exercise in hurry, into packing more and more into every hour. I was a Scrooge with a stopwatch, marinated in the cult of speed, obsessed with saving every last scrap of time, a minute here and a minute there, and I was not alone,” says Honoré.
Slow is beautiful
Like Carl Honoré, R Balakrishnan’s moment of epiphany led him to abdicate a jet-setting corporate lifestyle. Instead, he chose to settle in Kodaikanal, South India, opting for a less complicated and more fulfilling life that provided space to stand and stare, to live in harmony with nature and life, to pursue a passion and not just a profession. Bala, a chemical engineer and an IT professional, worked for several years with Compaq at Dubai. Today, the organic activist and entrepreneur runs Cinnabar, a home stay in Kodaikanal. Cinnabar offers the intimacy and warmth of a home against a backdrop of farmstead activities such as organic farming, and handcrafted cheese. “Five years ago, for the first time in my life, I got a chance to work alone on my organic farm. After years of living a hectic life, I suddenly found myself in a quiet private space. At first, it was pure bliss. The quiet and simplicity were incredible. My hands were fully calloused again, and callouses in my brain had begun to soften, allowing my mind to slow down to the rhythms of the land. While the return to pure physical work had its own challenges, it was like coming home, returning to my roots, finding my way back to that which brought me to farming in the first place – the love of land and good food and desire to share it with others,” muses Bala about his decision to embrace a slow life. Unlike Carl Honoré and Bala, my wake-up call was illness. It caused me to reconsider my life and discover my purpose, “To take time to live more deeply,” as Thich Nhat Hanh says. A slow life is a life of the spirit. It enables us to attune with our inner silence and reconnect with our divinity. As the Bible says, “Be still, and know that I’m God.” (Psalm 46). The Buddha termed this ideal, intentional living, or living at the deepest levels of our awareness. Its opposite, reflex living, is a life of hurry and mindlessness. Eknath Easwaran in, Take Your Time, reflects on the wisdom of a life of being over that of incessant doing. He writes, “We need time simply to be quiet now and then. There is an inner stillness which is healing, which makes us more sensitive and gives us an opportunity to see life whole.”
Forced to give up a full-time job, I began to work as an independent writer and journalist. It meant missing material gains. Over the years, having established myself, I now enjoy creative space and freedom. Most important, it liberated me from living life on default speed settings. In the process, I realised that my former superficial life of hurry had dissociated me from my self. My illness was my body’s way of saying, “Slow down! Get a life; not just make a living!” When I decided to listen to my body wisdom, I regained a work-life balance. Can anyone ask for more? Incidentally, my willingness to be open and attuned to the rhythms of life has also attracted material gains that I believe is more than sufficient for my needs.
While it is easy to attribute our obsessive time fixation to industrial capitalism, urbanisation, and the advent of global standard time in the twentieth century, these are merely symptomatic and only the tip of the iceberg. The roots of our current time trap derive from two polarised notions of time, the cyclical notion of time characteristic of eastern culture and the linear sequential notion of time predominant in the west. The latter views time as a precious finite resource that drives the attitude, ‘Use time or lose it!’ In 1982, American physician Larry Dossey coined the term ‘time-sickness’ as shorthand to describe time poverty, the feeling that “time is getting away, that there isn’t enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up.” It is the human obsession with speed and the notion that faster is always better and its logical corollary, slowness is a cardinal sin, that sparked the slow movement. Slow activists are concerned over the universal human tendency to idolise time. The dehumanising effects of a life of hurry is evident in a life lived superficially, by default. According to Carl Honoré, the slow movement is a cultural revolution that counters the deeply entrenched belief that faster is always better. “The slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. Nor is it a Luddite attempt to drag the whole planet back to some pre-industrial utopia. On the contrary, the movement is made of people like you and me, people who want to live better in a fast-paced world. That is why the slow philosophy can be summed up in a single word – balance,” explains Honoré. The slow movement is about balance and harmony, about seeking the middle path, as the Buddhists term it or finding one’s right speed. The ancient Upanishadic wisdom avers, “One million times that of a person who has every material satisfaction is the joy of a person who rests completely in the present, for every moment is full of joy.” According to Honoré, fast and slow are not terms that describe mere rates of change. Rather it is a philosophy of life or ways of being in harmony with oneself and the essential nature of life. “The slow movement is a bit like a philosophical declaration that it is OK to be slow. “Slow has been almost taboo but this is quite jubilant,” says Honoré.As an index of lifestyle revolution, the slow movement is an umbrella term that espouses the slow philosophy in situations as varied as work, food, education, exercise, sex, parenting, and medicine. It is about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians term ‘the tempo giusto’ – the right speed,” writes Honoré.
Is the slow movement new ageism or just a passing fad? While it might be tempting to be dismissive, as a decelerator myself, I am inclined to view it as an idea whose time has come. More than 200 years back, the Romantics and transcendentalists advocated the slow philosophy. It also found its contemporary practitioners in the hippie movement. The slow movement as a lifestyle revolution that melds the fast and slow emerged in the early 1990s. The founding of the slow food movement in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, an Italian culinary writer sowed the seeds of the global slow movement. Slow food epitomises culinary deceleration. The slow food movement, a campaign for growing and eating healthy, diverse and sustainable production of food, imparted respectability to the word slow and diluted its negative connotations. A non-profit, eco-gastronomic organisation, slow food believes in an unhurried pace of life that begins at the table. The impetus for the slow food movement was the opening of the first McDonald’s in Rome more than 20 years back. Since then, the global campaign against mass-produced, homogenised industrial fast food has 80,000 members across 150 countries. Central to the slow food philosophy are the principles of high quality and taste, environmental sustainability, and social justice. In 2001, Time magazine rated the slow food movement as one of the 80 ideas that shook the world. The repercussions of the slow food movement are also evident in India. At New Delhi, I savoured slow food at Slow Food Café, the country’s first organic café launched by Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity, conservation and farmers’ rights. At the Slow Food Café, every meal is a sensual delight. In this gastronomic paradise, starters include amaranth cutlets, jhangora (barnyard millet) idlis, and ragi crepe. Thirst quenchers? Squashes made of jamun, sea buckthorn, litchi, and rhododendron. The colourful and delicious salad bar consists of cracked kathia gehu tabbouleh, and kuttu pakoras in dahi (curds). The main course includes pulao made from saline-resistant rice from Orissa, khichdi made with drought-resistant rice from Bihar, kulath dubka, a heritage dal dish, chana dal with lauki, and desi baingan (brinjal) in tomato sauce. Jaggery?sweetened dalia, ragi cake trifle, and red rice kheer round off the rich repast. What a contrast it was to the gobble, gulp and go culture and the cult of culinary convenience of plastic pouch cooking that currently threatens to engulf us! According to Dr Vandana Shiva, who spearheads the slow food movement in India through Navdanya, contrary to dominant assumptions, research at Navdanya has proved that ecological agriculture is highly productive, and the only lasting solution to hunger and poverty.
“Our mission is to provide alternatives to a global food system, which denies one billion people access to food and another 1.7 billion the right to healthy food as they become victims of obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases. We have connected the seed to the kitchen, biodiversity to gastronomy. And now we have joined hands with slow food to celebrate the quality and cultural diversity of our food,” says Dr Vandana Shiva.
Around the world
Across the world, there are several pro-slow groups passionate about the need for deceleration in order to make life meaningful and fulfilling. At Wagrain, a small town in the Austrian Alps, deceleration is more than a way of life. In October every year, Wagrain hosts the annual conference of the Society for Deceleration of Time where members explore pragmatic means of slowing down. Its members, who live across Europe, come up with novel ways to check ‘speedsters’. These include timing pedestrians with a stopwatch and warning them for speeding and talking to them about the need to slow down. Another slow initiative, ‘citta slow’ or slow cities, an offshoot of the slow food movement, seek to preserve and promote an unhurried pace of life in its member cities.
Similarly the Sloth Club, which advocates a less hurried, harmonious and eco friendly lifestyle has 700 Japanese as its members. This “Latinisation of Japan” is a major shift in a country that valourises the cult of speed. Keibo Oiwa, one of the founders of the Sloth Club, and the author of Slow is Beautiful says, “More and more people in Japan, especially young people, are realising that it is okay to be slow. For us, that represents a total sea change in attitudes.” Deceleration or consciously shifting gears to a slow life is a matter of attitude and shift in mindset. “Acceleration will remain our default setting until attitudes change. Changing what we think is just the beginning. If the slow movement is to really take root, we have to go deeper. We have to change the way we think,” writes Carl Honoré.
Less is more
My journey as a seeker began when I decided to slow down. I regard slowing down as a spiritual quest that has enabled me to reclaim the time to make meaningful connections with the people in my life who matter most to me, myself, and my Source. Today I see a symbiosis between my slow life and my life as a seeker. In my slow life, I have created sufficient space and time for self-improvement and reflection. I am no longer obsessed with filling every second of my waking life (and my sleep too!) with work. On the contrary, am content to often intersperse my day with periods of just doing nothing. Truly, less is more! “There is a great hunger in our culture right now for meaning, for things that connect us with the world and with other people, things that really nurture the soul,” writes Bernadette Murphy in Zen and the Art of Knitting. My life today is filled with genuinely slow pursuits like writing, poetry, meditation (am a committed meditator), yoga, personal growth workshops, and I even plan to learn t’ai chi and drawing! I see all these right brain activities as liberating, and my spirit’s way of balancing or aligning my left and right brain towards harmony and balance. Of course, as a journalist and consultant in the development sector, I do honour and respect my commitment to deadlines. The difference lies in my attitude – I am no longer driven by the urge to take on assignments endlessly and in the process feel that I am living life in a giant particle accelerator! Instead, I work hard when I choose and time no longer calls the shots in my life. Synchronously, doing my doctorate in gender studies was a revelation that enabled me to glimpse my inner fragmentation and my need for synthesis and inner harmony. Strangely, in the initial stages, slowing down was demanding and I found myself trapped in a vortex of speed. However, what once needed conscious effort on my part is now as natural as a fish taking to water! Intuitively I zero in on what feels right for me. For instance, in order to make room for my writing, I jettisoned my involvement in newspaper journalism as I felt it was a significant factor in my time deprivation! From an information junkie, I am now selective in what I choose to read. Instead of mindless TV watching, I prefer slow reading, a close and nuanced reading of books that nourish the spirit, and I jot down my reflections in a journal. By slowing down judiciously and approaching work with mindfulness, any work I do is more joyful, be it cooking (yes, slow cooking!) or enjoying the company of Goldie, my golden retriever! From a fringe idea that once seemed bohemian, the slow movement is moving towards being integrated into the mainstream. Its insights enable us to reevaluate our lives and reconsider what it means to be truly human in a technocratic world. Like an eagle in mid-air, my slow life has enabled me to move towards finding that elusive balance – that moment when our lives are in harmony with our innermost desires, between the head and the heart, between values and action, between the right and left brain, between our inner and outer selves.
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