Slowing Down by Kyle Hart – July 22, 2007

Opening Words

by James Gleick from “Faster: The acceleration of Just About Everything”

We believe that we possess too little time: that is a myth we now live by. What is true is that we are awash in things, in information, in news, in the old rubble and shiny new toys of our complex civilization, and-strange, perhaps-stuff means speed. The wave patterns of all these facts and choices flow and crash about us at a heightened frequency. We live in the buzz. We wish to live intensely, and we wonder about the consequences.

Slowing Down

by Kyle Hart
July 22, 2007

Speed is exciting. It is invigorating. And doing things quickly gives us a rush, literally, by stimulating the production of endorphins.

Speed is a natural impulse. With my son Rowan, a typical 5 years old, every walk is a series of challenges in which he asks me to race him, accelerating from a dead stop and sprinting to a tree designated as the finish line. And the temptation for his sister Seneca to join in is irresistible. Speed is inside us waiting to get out.

Speed is fun, but speed is also essential in emergency situations or in some types of work. Speed can also be important for fulfilling commitments or deadlines. If doing things of this nature quickly seems reasonable, what’s the problem with speed?

We live in a society that is “addicted to hurry” states Rev. Kirk Byron Jones in a book with the same title that I have used to prepare this sermon. He states:

When hurry becomes a chronic condition, when we run when there is no reason too, when we rush while performing even the most mundane tasks, … we have become addicted to hurry. Thousands of us are addicted to hurry whether we admit it or not. Denying the addiction … involves denying the costs of the addiction. As long as we are blind to the ways that chronic hurry harms us …, we can keep on running even though we are bone tired.

First consider our societal attitudes about speed. Through the use of technology we have increased the speed with which we can travel, the richness with which we can communicate, and the rate at which we learn anything from the entire pool of human knowledge. The things we consume go from idea to product and on to our doorstep at a remarkable pace. And this is all made possible by teams around the world working around the clock contributing their bits to your movie, your toy, your necktie, or your heart medicine.

We benefit greatly from the fast pace of industry, and many of us participate in it directly through our own work. And we also participate as consumers, with spending habits that often exceed our means and demand that we work harder and for longer hours. And as part of this lifestyle we suffer many unnecessary sacrifices that relate to our addiction to and worship of speed. We lose our ability to be patient. We make rapid shallow judgments. We lose opportunities to experience joy, to develop ourselves as individuals, and to nurture our spirit.

One example of this is our worship of multi-tasking, a close cousin of hurry. We praise it as skill whose mastery is essential to functioning in our hurried lives. Whether its doing two things at once or rapidly switching between tasks, the practice of multi-tasking is widespread in our society (particularly in our cities).

Consider the act of switching to a new checkout line at the grocery store, or switching back and forth between lanes on a highway. With the right technique, observations, and opportunity, sure you can save some time with such habits, but are they worth the effort? When I catch myself doing this things I often ask myself what else I could be doing with my minds instead of engaging in activities with marginal reward? And who may we be offending with our actions? These questions often get lost (during the act) in our pursuit of speed.

With some of the choice we make in the name of speed, we recognize the cost of these choices. Fast food gives us indigestion and contributes to poor health. A harried schedule inflects stress on our mind and body that can also result in significant health problems.

What may be less apparent, however, is how chronic speed diminishes our lives, relationally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Thomas Merton characterizes it the following way
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence…[and that is]activism and overwork.
The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps its most common form, of innate violence”

In order to understand the impact of the harried habit, it is useful to first consider our reasons for hurrying. For some people, being in a hurry is tied to their belief system. THOUGHT EXCERCISE: Consider for a moment the times in your life, past or present, when you are in the biggest hurry and what drove you to keep up this habit.

Now I want you to hold on to that example as I continue and possibly revisit it during the silent meditation.

Perhaps you hurry simple because you get more done and it makes time for relaxing later. If so, then great!. But could it be that you hurry because you think “you are what you do”, so doing more makes you more? Or perhaps you hurry because you feel it outwardly demonstrates your commitments to your family, work, or society.

Hurrying is often used as a coping mechanism. One reason we hurry is fear. Fear of what we will be forced to confront in an un-hurried state, such as emotional pain. How many times have you heard it said that someone is “keeping busy” as a way to deal with loss or misfortune. While this is a reasonable strategy from time to time, as a chronic habit, fear of pain can fester, making resolution even harder.

Sometimes we hurry because we are running from ourselves. We keep moving so that we don’t have to think about the situation we are in. At its best, hurry is like a balm we apply occasionally to make us numb when we need it. But at its worst, hurry is a desensitizer, snuffing out moments of intimacy in our lives, and hiding deep unresolved problems.

To some degree, many of us are trapped in a hurrying lifestyle. We’ve developed the hurrying habit over many years, and developed internal rationalizations that drive us to “keep on keeping on”.

Consider an unusual device used to trap a certain kind of monkey. The trap is baited with an aromatic food that can only be reached when the monkey places his arm through a narrow opening. The opening is so small then when the monkey grasps the food, his fist will not fit backward through the hole. The monkey is then easily caught because he is unwilling to let go of the food, even when hunters approach him.

How can we change our harried ways, and how can expect to benefit from such changes? Rev. Byron suggest the that we “savor more” not “slow down”, and offers the term “savoring pace” to describe a lifestyle that appropriately dedicates time to enjoying life.

One of the primary reasons for living a savoring pace is to provide an opportunity for discovery. By taking a break from regular tasks, redirecting our attention to our surroundings, and observing things with no particular agenda, we provide an opportunity for creative breakthroughs. Many a creative genius can relate stories of a random stroll that led to a groundbreaking discovery. But even for the rest of us, whatever problems we have that require creative solutions can be served by providing a similar serendipitous opportunities.

Another aspect of a savoring pace is a more deliberate choice to observe things more closely. Consider the benefits of what Rev. Byron calls “seeing slowly”. In a race, two or three seconds faster can mean the difference between winning and losing. When looking at things, viewing them two to three seconds longer can make the difference in capturing their essence.

A few year ago, a close friend and her husband came to visit my family shortly after we moved into our new house. We walked them around our neighborhood, showing them Waverly Square and Pequosset Park. The kids school, the park, the playgrounds. As I walked, chattering the whole way my friends husband was silent the whole time, and he kept craning his neck around to follow the flight of birds or to view one on a high perch. What I realized afterwards was that he was giving himself his own tour. And what I’ve since come to learn about my neighborhood is its remarkably vibrant bird population that I now spend a lot time enjoying. It was only through a change in my pace and mindset that I was able to enjoy this. It sounds so simple, but, yes, bird watching has made a big difference in my life.

A slower pace is also a necessary condition for having a meaningful dialogue with others. Dialogue requires as much listening and speaking, and can’t be rushed without inflicting undue urgency on others. Taking time for dialogue really is at odds with chronic speed. We can’t stop to talk, so we lose the opportunity to engage with others. Dialogue develops familiarity which breeds trust and reduce fear. So it is really not surprising that our harried society is so susceptible to the widespread fear of people from different cultures whom we do not take the time to talk to and understand.

A significant loss of interaction comes from isolating ourselves in the private environment of our car. In addition to regular commuting, even getting and eating food in them is a common practice. The opportunity for extemporaneous dialog with others by walking or using public transportation is one of the benefits of living in an urban community. But in the case of the solo car commuter, this is reduced to absurd programmed response of “do you want to supersize that?” spoken over a crackling drive thru speaker.

One of the most important things we can seek by slowing down is greater peace. It takes time to settle the mind and body, and to dissolve tension and reach a peaceful state. But peace is not merely the absence of tension, but is also the presence of harmony. On our way to our peaceful moments, we first need to address our native response to the lack of stimulus, and in particular, silence. Many people are uncomfortable with silence. Silence also smacks of un-productivity….something we take great pains to weed out of our harried life!

Perhaps the most troubling thing about silence is that it provides an entrez to thoughts we’d prefer not to consider or simply can’t seem to get rid of when they arrive. Budhist teachings attempt to break through this situation through the practice of meditation, to great benefit, but it is certainly a lot easier to listen and ignore noise than to deal with silence (in my experience).

My spiritual journey as a UU began as a simple choice to attend services for a weekly dose of spiritual rejuvenation. I would arrive, listen for an hour, be nourished, and return next week for more. Through a more engaged participation in this congregation, my spiritual practices have developed to include activities throughout my week that include service to others and to myself in the form of meditation and self-reflection. Perhaps the most significant outcome of this has been moving toward a more savoring pace. As Kirk Byron suggests, I have found that a REAL, if fleeting, contentment can be found in the space BETWEEN tasks. Its essential that we preserve and protect this SPACE because its what we DO when we are NOT DOING anything that determines our path to inner peace.

Closing Words

Along the way
by Shari L. Smothers.

Walking through my life hurriedly,
I saw thoughts flash by.
And in my rush to end my day
I went right by a gift for me.

Only in my bed did I
realize – that thing was a
blessing in the road.
I wanted ti, so I hoped

I could go back and get it.
But the next day
when I went to see,
there was a man, standing

smiling because he got
the blessing meant for me.
I decided to slow down
for a week, to see

what I might find along the path
to bless me. I walked, slowly, more deliberately,
acknowledging people along the way,
feeling the breeze, watching the blowing leaves.

And at the close of the week
there as nohting I could find
along my path, that was a gift
to me. I sniffed the last flower,

and picked up the pace,
alright with having missed my gift.
After I was back to my schedule
for a month or so.

I looked back at that week
I searched my path for a blessing
and found not one thing.
I reflected on how nice that week was,

never minding. And the last
of the reflection came with tears.
The peaceful pace I had touched that week,
almost as though someone else received it,
was the stuff that was my treasure.