The Slow Path to Happiness



If 15 minutes of stillness change the 23 hours and 45 minutes left in your day, including your sleep and your human relations, it seems to be worthwhile.

So said Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who has spent the last 45 years in the Himalayas pursuing the goal of mindfulness. Ricard was interviewed in January, following along the lines of a TED talk he gave in 2007. You can watch that video here.

Slowing down is gaining more attention as the world speeds up in part because it’s becoming increasingly evident that we collectively find it more and more difficult to focus on things that matter. And conversely, it is increasingly easy to catch only the shiny, glittering flotsam on the information tsunami. The growing dissonance and polarization online is often attributed to people paying only surface attention to issues, making snap judgments based on fleeting and frequently incomplete information, and not taking the time necessary to delve into the depths of a topic where one can make fully-informed decisions.

Slowing down, taking time for stillness, turning off the devices, stop speaking, and just sitting can help us rise out of the turbulent jetstream of content that carries us along every minute of the day. Stillness can give us that precious time to locate serenity, a state often missing in our busy, connected, modern lives.

Speeding up to catch the current is not usually associated with wisdom. Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century that, “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” Few of us ever take the time today to just sit quietly, busy as we are with our tablets and smartphones, tweets and Facebook status updates.

In his book, The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer writes:

Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes — which means we’re never caught up with our lives.

It doesn’t need to be meditation per se – while that is an integral part of Buddhist practice, for many Westerners it is initially difficult. Our brains never stop playing the whirligig and it’s hard to tame what is sometimes called our ‘monkey mind‘. We are not taught in schools, business or even by our parents to still it. It’s something we must each learn, individually, and often on our own. So rather than wrestling with it, just sit.*

Turn off the cell phone, the TV, the internet. just relax and let go.

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows

When we are left alone with our thoughts, they jump and dart and careen in our minds. Instead of fighting with those flitting thoughts and images, instead of trying to swat each neural fly as it buzzes by, just sit there.

Do nothing. Don’t even read. Watch the garden. Stare into the trees. Follow the clouds. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the world around you. Breathe. Go nowhere.

Soon enough your monkey brain will settle down and take a rest. You don’t need to close your eyes. Just sit and relax. Once you’ve learned to sit still, meditation will be a lot easier.

In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the master Shunryu Suzuki wrote this advice for meditating:

When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer. In five or at most ten minutes, your mind will be completely serene and calm. At that time your breathing will become quite slow, while your pulse will become a little faster.

The Buddhist practice of mindfulness might be too taxing, at least initially. Instead, say some, try mindlessness:

Mindlessness operates on the basis that your mind and body already know how to take care of themselves. You don’t need to consciously concentrate on your breathing, or what you can smell, because you’ve been unwittingly been doing that since before you were born. To be truly mindless, you need to rely on a combination of snap judgments, uninformed intuition and absent-minded daydreaming.

I’m not sure that “snap judgments” and “uninformed intuition” are not a recipe for the same sort of unreasoning behaviour and vulgar commentary we see on social media daily. far too many people practice mindlessness online already. The point of staying still is to not engage in making decisions or doing work. The point is not to act on intuition, but rather to refrain from acting at all. Be passive. Relax.

But daydreaming can be a positive experience and contribute to your creativity. Buddhists understand what neuroscientists are now learning:

As neuroscientists now know, and was conclusively shown in 2009, it’s when our minds wander that our brains do their best work–it’s when we’re not trying to think creatively that we’re often most creative. That’s when a still mysterious process in the right hemisphere of the brain behind the right ear makes connections between seemingly unrelated things, and those connections then bubble up as sudden insights, as if out of nowhere.

Stillness is more important, more creative, and ultimately more satisfying than mindlessness. Lama Yeshe wrote in his book, The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind,

In the silent mind, you find peace, joy and satisfaction.

Of course, he was really talking about the still mind that comes from meditation. In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath wrote about feeling “the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” That’s what sitting still does for you: removes you from the mayhem for those precious few moments.

Another practice for slowing down is to take a calm walk: a stroll, preferably in some place where you will not be interrupted or have to shift your attention constantly from pedestrians to traffic to avoiding sidewalk cracks and dog poop. Walk without an iPod, cell phone or pager, without your dogs. Walk slowly and deliberately, giving attention to your surroundings but not intensely as you would when, say, birdwatching.

Many religions have a practice of ‘walking meditation’ In some Buddhist schools, it is a casual activity; in others it is more regimented. Some Westerners need a more formal structure, so they developed labyrinths to channel their walking meditation. Catholic monasteries often have walking meditation or walking prayer sessions.

Walking also helps us think. Studies have shown it opens our creativity. As Ferris Jabr wrote in the New York Times last year:

The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have quantified what many of us already know: listening to songs with high tempos motivates us to run faster, and the swifter we move, the quicker we prefer our music. Likewise, when drivers hear loud, fast music, they unconsciously step a bit harder on the gas pedal. Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down…
Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.

(Sometimes faiths or spiritual practices use sound as well: mantras, prayer, incantations, hymns. These work to help drown out the background noise, and the repetitive nature of them helps exclude the monkey-brain thoughts that try to intrude. In a similar way, white-noise and ambient sound generators form an aural firewall against intrusive sounds at night to make sleep easier for many.)

Back in the mid-1980s, the Slow Movement got started. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, said of the Slow philosophy:

It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.

That movement has spread, in particular to a slow food branch, which has garnered a lot of attention as an antidote to the ubiquitous ‘fast food’ outlets and ‘drive-thru’ windows that all help us believe our time is too valuable to actually wait for a meal, to actually get out of our cars and walk the 30 or 50 feet to a counter. It’s become all too Pavlovian.

Thirty years later, slowness is still not mainstream, but is needed more than ever to counteract the pace of society and culture. Things never slow on their own: they only move faster. Not instead of the pace; but rather to play the same sort of role a vacation or a day off plays in our working lives: to give us the time and space to be human, not just a cog in the machine.

On the Slow Movement, it talks about the ‘time poverty’ of modern life and how the pace of modern life has led to an unconnectedness. We can regain some of that lost connectedness on a daily basis by slowing down, and by taking the time to be still. Fifteen minutes a day is all you need.

On the Tiny Buddha site, Lori Deschenes wrote:

Life moves quickly around us. There will always be something else to see and do. There will always be something else that pops up and threatens to scatter our focus. We can task the outside world with being sticky enough to engage us. Or we can choose to find serenity and focus, sitting smack dab in the middle of the chaos.
Life is beauty in motion, but we can only appreciate it one tiny piece at a time, and only if we’re willing to find stillness within.


* The Huffington Post article has a statement that, “Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly.” This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote, and is best explained on FakeBuddha Quotes with references to the actual sources of the paraphrase. The phrase ‘monkey mind’ does not appear as such in the sutras, but there is the in Pali word ‘kapicitta,’ meaning capricious, or fickle.

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