The Slow Life
Updated: Feb 19
“Slowness is the forgotten dimension to time. Unlike chronological time, it is non-linear, time here and now, time that works for you, extraordinary time. So why be fast when you can be slow? Slowness is also about balance, so if you must hurry, then hurry slowly.” - Geir Berthelsen
Have you ever felt that your life is on fast-forward and days, months, and even years seem to fly by? Even during a single day, you barely remember getting up before you are plopping down into bed, exhausted (usually mentally) at the end of the day. While you are surrounded by what previous generations would deem an impossible level of luxury, time does not seem to care or help you enjoy any single thing more than fleetingly. The massive flat screen TV, the Tesla in the garage, the latest iPhone, new bedsheets, heated toilet cover, none of it seems to offer any solace. If anything, they seem to make time go even faster. How many times have you opened a notification on your phone and then looked at the time to notice that an hour has gone by? The Internet + Smartphone (I+S) revolution ensures that everything, everywhere, and from any time is available to you all the time. Craving a donut at 2am?.. there is an app for that. Can’t sleep?.... there is an app for that. Want to find love (by the hour or by the year)?… there is an app for that. And soon, technology like ChatGPT will ensure you will have the perfect companion at your beck and call, anywhere and at any time. All this information and “stuff” has ensured that your mind has gone from a state of manageable diarrhea to outright dysentery, which seems to only get worse by the day. Access to these many choices means we take more and more on, both consciously and unconsciously. The result of all this is that we have short engagements with a multitude of things in a shallow manner but never experience anything fully or for any meaningful amount of time. This also creates a growing sense of dissatisfaction with life, hence the amount of people taking antidepressants or in therapy. I have friends and acquaintances who are fabulously rich on a material level but are the most unhappy people I know. Many are in some manner of therapy, most look way older than their age, and almost none of them can manage a smile based on joy. All have a variety of health issues for which they take a stunning array of pills and supplements. So, while on the surface many look like they have the best life, at least from a material standpoint, the reality is they are running ever harder on the money treadmill while becoming more miserable and devoid of joy. And most reach the inevitable point where they look in the mirror and wonder how they could have so much wealth and yet be so miserable.
You see, the human mind was never meant to taken in such volumes of information or have so many choices, and available all the time. Choice is a funny thing which we all claim is what we want, but in large quantities, it goes completely against producing happiness of contentment. There was a study done on the sandwich chain Subway, which initially failed badly in Europe and Asia, while doing great inNorth America. The reason was that those cultures were used to a limited set of quality choices for their sandwich and became frustrated when getting one started meant a choice between 7 different breads, 6 different cheeses, 10 different meats, etc. Subway had to significantly pare down its choices before customers enjoyed the experience. Another problem with too many choices is that the consumer always ends up wondering if they made the wrong choice. Maybe I should have gotten the Pistachio ice cream and not Mango, or maybe the whole wheat bread was a better choice than 7-grain. Apple even found that some customers spent weeks trying to decide between the black or white iPhone and were not completely satisfied when they finally made a choice. Now add the power of I+S which provides even more choices along with thousands of opinions and it’s not difficult to see why satisfaction, contentment, and joy are in short supply these days among those who have means to satisfy their material wants. In the past 10 years, some of the most joyful people I have seen were in the slums in India. Because their choices are so limited, getting a good meal or enough water for a few days brought immense happiness and joy. Rupa and I go and give chocolate to the kids when we visit and the level of joy they display could not be bought for even a million dollars in many “rich” circles.
Is there a way out of this predicament? Can we have material wealth, a demanding job, family, friends, and all the trappings of modern life but also be content and happy? The answer, like one to most things in life, is ‘Yes, but!' 😊 In this blog, I am going to explore a way of living that sets the conditions for these to happen but ultimately, it is your mind that you will have to transform to achieve it. Since the entirety of our reality is only inside us, that is the only place that matters when it comes to transformation.
What is The Slow Life?
There is so single way to describe slow living as it is a state of mind and living life in a conscious and reflective manner. It is a means of connecting deeply with yourself and then applying what you find to your life in the real world. It is a journey rather than a destination, a transformation versus a change. At its core, it is utilizing the time you already have to do a few things very well and with deeper engagement than doing more things, as fast as possible. In a hyper-connected world of bigger, faster, and more, this stands as a stark paradox to how we have been manipulated (not told) to live life. It means restructuring your life around meaning and fulfillment and stepping down from being “on” and doing something all the time. We are terrified of being bored and to feed our hyperactive minds, we turn to I+S for salvation. This constant, ever-changing, and interruptive means of engagement ensure we never have time, or the level of engagement required to derive deeper meaning or satisfaction from anything. We live with flashes of happiness that is overridden with something else just as fast as it appeared. This is also made worse by the gross amount of wealth that has been spread due to unlimited money printing in the west and China. People who were quite content with their lives all of a sudden found themselves with far more money than they dreamed possible, mostly due to stock ownership. This created a significant disconnect between what their minds had determined makes them happy to what was now possible. Somebody who desired a base-level BMW now suddenly found themselves being able to afford 10 of the highest-end models. Ironically, rather than expand their happiness many-fold, this condition actually made them regress into unhappiness and discontent. This goes back to the way the mind works where less things with deep engagement yields far more satisfaction and happiness than a hundred things (even if more expensive) with shallow and fleeting engagement. A few years back, a friend in London wanted to purchase the latest Hermes bag at the cost of $2,500 each. It only came in blue and pink and was limited to one per person. She managed to get both using another friend to buy the other color but was never happy with either because she always thought the other color looked better. This is a very simple example but shows how the mind cannot reach contentment when things come to easily and choices are presented. I jokingly suggested to her to carry around both but the attempt at humor was lost on her.
Anyway, getting back to what is a slow life, its simply living slower, in whatever and however way that makes sense for you. It is about intentionally and passionately determining the things you really value and want to do and then designing your life to spend the most time possible enjoying them. It is transforming from mindless scrolling and multi-tasking to purposeful action directed towards fewer, but more meaningful, things. It runs completely counter to the always-on, constantly-engaged culture that has programmed us to work harder to make more money to buy more useless stuff and not be able to enjoy much of it to any meaningful degree. Corporations, especially in technology, love this “carrot” as it constantly provides an army of willing slaves who work staggering hours in hope of riches from their vaunted stock options. I have worked in tech for 30 years and I can count on one hand the number of people I know who are truly joyous. Slow life is taking us back to how we were meant to live life as humans, in a slow and measured way and enjoying a few things, with deeper engagement. Our minds simply cannot cope with the number of choices directed at us via the physical (money) and virtual (I+S) firehoses. Thus we jump from thing to screen to thing and back and never really understand why we have no happiness of contentment. And to make things worse, we feel our material achievements make us who we are. We think showing of these things (car, jewelry, clothes, house, etc.) to family and friends will make us feel good but that is fleeting at best as most of them are in the same position as you. But, if you can transform yourself to live life in more conscious and purposeful manner and focus on things that matters to YOU, it is possible to start finding joy and contentment within and for yourself.
It is time to slow things down a bit, take time to see what really matters, and be present and engaged where it matters most. This requires you to transform your lifestyle and a state of being that promotes a slower-paced way of living. As you can imagine, this is completely in the mental domain and fully in the context of your life and nobody else’s. As it follows, you will slowly have to also diminish living life by contrast, where your well-being and happiness is dictated by how well you compare to others material achievements. If you can become utterly happy and content driving a small, old car, you will have no issues when your friend buys the latest and greatest. In fact, you feel happy for her because you are content and happy with what you have and your experience with it. This is why the process is not a simple change which dissipates in a short amount of time, but rather a transformation of your approach to life. Thus, almost anything you do, however mundane, can also be transformed into something that is meaningful because you are conscious of it. For example, even washing dishes can become a joyful event if you pay attention to how the water flows over the dishes, the feel of different materials, the slipperiness of soap, and sounds dishes makes as they hit each other. This only requires a small change in focus and engagement but a massive transformation in your mind of how you perceive what you are doing. For most, washing dishes is a chore because you would rather be doing a million other (mostly meaningless) things. But, since you have to do it anyway, why not do it consciously and joyfully? If you can make this one small shift, it will have profound consequences on all aspects of your life.
Practicing Slow Living
In a world where we have a never-ending list of obligations and the ability to stay connected anywhere at all times, many feel like failures if they just switch it off for a while. I know so many who reply to messages or emails at 3am when they wake up to pee just because the phone is right there and showing notifications. Since slow living spans both the physical and mental dimensions, it requires changes in both to gain its benefits. The first and best way to start practicing is to be present in every moment in a conscious way. Since most of you either live in the past (memory) or future (imagination), this is not as easy as it sounds. Practices such as meditation or deep breathing can help focus you on the moment. It really is mindlessness you are after and not mindfulness. Something as simple as observing a single, slow breath can instantly bring you back to the moment. At a practical level, this will feel like single tasking which is actually a big first step towards a slow life. By putting everything else aside (especially the phone), you focus only on the task at hand and thus are more engaged. This can be done during any activity really, from making your bed in the morning or brushing your teeth to taking a walk in the forest or being at the beach. Here are some other ways to start practicing slow living.
Prioritize what matters- There are so many options and demands in modern life, both real and virtual, it is a miracle we get anything done at all. It is time to sit down and really prioritize it all with the newfound lens of slow living. One key thing to note is that just because something is lower in priority does not mean you will not do it. It just means you won’t do it at the same time as something higher on the list. One easy place to start is to say no to social meetings that don’t really interest you or ones that you are only attending to fit in or be seen. In the house, realize you don’t have to do everything today or even tomorrow. Select to do a small number of things today and push the rest to another day. You will feel guilty at first but just ignore that feeling and focus on the feeling of contentment and focus on the task you are doing. Even at work, it is possible to skip meetings where you add little or no value. I would even say take a step down to a lower demanding job by really looking at why you are trading literally hours of your life for money. I could go on and on about this but will save it for another time.
Slow eating- The concept and art of slow living is said to have originated in Italy where the slow food movement started. The goal of that movement was to pay attention to slow-made, home-cooked food that are much better for you than fast food. This is perhaps the one area where I have seen the biggest benefits from slowing down. When I started eating food in a conscious and deliberate manner, putting aside the phone and turning off the TV, it was almost miraculous what I discovered. Flavors in food I have eaten for years and had no idea was there. I felt and appreciated textures for the first time. I chewed my food far longer, as we are supposed to in order to promote amylase (breaking down carbs). Drinking wine in this manner has made it an altogether difference experience that is far more intense on a sensory level. And with both food and drink, I find I consume far less but enjoy it a lot more. On wine, since every sip is conscious and experienced, it takes me about 30 minutes to finish glass whereas before, I would be well into my second and not remember getting there. In a book long forgotten, I read about a French aristocrat whose love and focus on wine was such that he would lock himself in a dark room and drink the wine in the dark and in absolute silence. I tried this once and to say that it was a sensory orgasm is an understatement.
Electronics and gadgets- If there is a single thing that is the anthesis to slow living it is this. Because we are connected to everything, everywhere, and at all times, there is not even a pause. If you are wondering why it feels like life is flying by, this is where I would look for the culprit. Start with what is now fashionably called “digital detox” and spend some time every day away from all devices. I know this sounds impossible, but it can be done. Go for a walk, meditate, or just sit in your favorite chair and do nothing for a bit. Reduce the number of notifications shown on your phone. Setup do-not-disturb hours on all gadgets so they don’t bother you. I started “No data Sundays” where I turn of the data part of my phone and don’t use the laptop at all. This cuts down 99% of stuff since people must call or SMS (gasp!!) to reach you. This does not mean you are giving up tech but rather consciously limiting your time and finding dead space.
Nature: Spending time in nature provides significant benefits at many levels and lends itself to slow living. Natures does not care about who you are and hence your ego and the multitude of identities that go with it all fade away for a bit. In this “free” state you tend to naturally observe and engage with life in a direct manner. And yes, please do not bring your phone, headphones, charger, and whatever else along. Just walk or sit and soak in whatever is around you. I know in many cities most forests are long gone but try to find a patch that at least has some plants and a water body if possible. Touch the plants or grass and just be one with the earth, if only for a short while. You will find time automatically slows down when in this state.
People: The relationships we have with other humans probably consume the most amount of your time and resources. Like you may do on social networks, really look at your circle of friends and family that you spend time with. The ones that are negative (for you), simply cut them out. Next, the many acquaintances you spend time with for no real benefit, cut those out or lessen your time with them. If you really examine your list, you will find most don’t really contribute much to your positivity or wellbeing. Swap those out for more quality time with the ones that matter, or even for more solo time. This will also help increase the quality and engagement with the ones that still remain.
Focused exercise or physical activity: For those activities where you are expending energy in a focused manner, the results are the same as slow living even though there may be a lot of action. Running or cycling are examples of this where the person doing either is focused just on the activity at hand and is getting real time feedback on their performance and energy expenditure. By design, they also must pay constant attention to how their body is doing due to risk of injury, dehydration, or fatigue. Sweeping, mowing the lawn, or vacuuming are other examples of focused physical activity. Slow living does not mean inaction or laziness though those are not bad things to willingly experience. It just means that you are paying more attention to whatever it is you are doing.
The above provides deep benefits which you can experience right away but there are many other things you can do to slow things down. Start by developing and practicing patience because things often tend to go their own way. By having strict expectations of when or how something will turn out, you set yourself up for stress and anxiety. And as it has been shown in many studies, stress is a slow killer of the body and mind. An ancillary practice that can help here is to schedule your routines and tasks so that you don’t have to rush through the day doing multiple things at the same time. This helps you focus on the activity at hand while not getting stressed as this time is dedicated to that activity. And if you don’t get to something or complete it on time, it is OK. Just accept misses will happen and move on. A lot of this comes into focus when you spend time by yourself. Removing the demands or expectations of others lowers the stress potential and also gives you space to focus. And whatever you are doing, do it with joy and positivity. Even if it is something you don’t like, find something about it that sparks happiness, humor, or even contentment. Being positive and maintaining it is a big part of slow living. And as mentioned above, there is something about natures that makes a lot of this naturally happen so go spend as much time as you can in nature. Hobbies are another solid component of slow living as it is focused time spent on something you love doing. I love to go on long bike rides and slip into a sort of trace during the ride. It is meditative in nature but also get a lot of benefit from the exercise, fresh air, and sunlight. Finally, get lots of sleep and don’t hesitate to laze after waking up and just enjoying doing that. Sleep is critical for mental and physical health and most do no get enough. Put away ALL electronics 30 minutes before bed and maybe read a (paper) book if you must do something. Overall, just slow down in everything you do and do it in a conscious manner.
The Art of Subtraction
“When things aren’t adding up in your life, start subtracting.” ~ Anonymous
Almost everything that we do in modern life is with a single goal…. to add something to our lives in hopes of making it better. Reading books to add new habits, new job to make more money, bigger house to cram more things into, new diets to add things that are healthy, all work with the idea that more is better. People in the US in the 80s and 90s used to have shirts or stickers that said ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. The quote is attributed to millionaires Malcom Forbes and means that somebody who accumulates the most before they die, wins. I was never sure what exactly that person won (they are dead after all) but, leaving that aside, that concept is not far from how much of the world (especially the west) lives. But have you ever paused and considered the opposite? What if ‘he who dies with the least toys wins” maybe the path to real winning? An easy example of this is the happiness one gets from giving to someone less fortunate or helping animals that are suffering. The gratification from that selfless act far outweighs what one would receive from a selfish act. There have been many studies and shows done on people who actively minimalized their lives and got rid of a majority of their possessions. In almost every case, they ended up far happier and content than before. And this is not just limited to physical things. Habits, thoughts, and goals all can be reduced or eliminated altogether leaving you with less to focus on but in a more engaged manner.
Fortunately, it is easy to start down this path by simply sitting down and listing all the things you are involved in or commit time to. Then determine which ones really add positivity and meaning to your life and get rid of the rest or, at least, de-prioritize them. Walk through your home and look at the many, many things you have. Start making a list of things that just are there because you bought them and for no other reason. I used to ski in the late 90s and had bought a colorful ski jacket whose design I loved. I have not skied since 2003, but that jacket had been hanging in the guest bedroom closet for the past 20 years. I would see it at least a few times a year, admire the colors, and forget it. Now in 2023, I consciously took it out, took a picture of it for memory, and gave it to charity. It still had the tag from the last slope I had worn it on. Like this, there are so many things, habits, and engagements we have in our lives that we simply don’t need, or we cannot dedicate enough time to them to make it meaningful. Remember that 80% of what we do come from 20% of our actions and habits (Pareto Principle). Identify those ones and get rid of or deprioritize the rest. This practice really lends itself to slow living by allowing you to only keep what matter and what will give you the maximum return of contentment and joy.
Substitution is also a form of subtraction because you can replace bad or non-contributing actions, habits, and tendencies with ones that do enhance your life. If you sit less and walk more, that is healthy. Substitute unhealthy food for healthy. Deprioritize people who don’t add value to your life and focus more on the ones that do. It pays to do this consciously as you can see the results of your actions directly. But don’t make the process business like or a checklist of things to get done. Instead realize that you are doing this to significantly enhance the quality and experience of your life and do it in a conscious manner. Start slow with maybe a few easy things and then work up to more difficult or set-in-your-ways stuff. But do it slowly as this is a journey that will last year or even decades. Once you make the choice, apply it forward when buying new things or forming new habits or relationships. I used to buy on impulse, especially clothes and shoes, but not anymore. If I like something, I wait a week or so. If I still want it and actually think about it, then I go get it. If it is gone, so be it. I no longer put myself under any pressure or time constraints for buying things. The art of subtraction is a powerful and easy method to use to declutter your life, both on the outside and inside, and free up time and energy to invest in whatever really matters to you.
Another benefit to subtraction is the lessening of consumption and the massive environmental benefits. Since most people cannot find contentment or gratification with any one thing other than for a short amount of time, they buy new things. Like a hit of adrenaline, this only provides any measure of excitement and happiness for a very short burst of time. I know people whose homes look like museums because of the number of things they have. People upgrade TVs yearly because of the next best thing, which is really a few incremental upgrades and fantastic marketing that appeals to emotions. Nowhere is this truer than car commercials. When was the last time you had a clue about the fantastic mechanical capabilities of your car vs. the emotional ones you see in the ads. What about your mobile phone? Have you ever admired the design that went into the screen, buttons, or even the glass backside, all so that a rectangular slab has become the gateway to the universe? Most people really have no lasting happiness or contentment because none of these things were bought or engaged with in a conscious manner. In America, so many people don’t use their garages for their cars but to store stuff to the point that they are unable to even close the main door. I think this is one of the few nations where people rent massive storage units because their 5,000 square foot home does not have space for all their stuff. At this rate, there is going to come a point where there will be no more planet to make stuff from, or, worse, mother nature will take care of the virus in a very quick and cruel way assuming we don’t do it to ourselves. Anyway, I digress as this is not about the planet but rather the art of subtraction.
Ikigai | いきがい
An amazing life concept I stumbled across at an AirBnB coffee table book in Goa, India is the Japanese approach to life embodied by the word Ikigai (pronounced ee-kee-guy). It means your ‘reason for being’ where the word Iki means life and gai describes your value or worth. I wanted to dive into this concept here because one of Ikigai’s end results is a slow and meaningful life. It is embodied by the many centenarians of Okinawa in Japan which is one of the five blue zones of the world. While the Japanese look at Ikigai in terms of becoming a blissful person and maintaining it, the west has changed this to mean to find your dream career (of course!). The four qualities that embody this are as follows; What do you love doing, what are you good at, what can you be paid for, and what does the world need. The following diagram illustrate this concept.
(Image source: BetterUp)
While there are many blogs on how to apply it to your career, my focus here is really on the ‘how to live life’ part of it. And that comes back to what has been discussed so far which is to find those few things you love doing and are good at and then doing them in a slow and focused manner. It can be described as a treasure map of yourself, where you discover wonderful things inside and then share them with the world and maybe even get paid for it. But the focus is always on contentment and slowness, which are both qualities found among all the residents of the blue zones. You will find many with a glass of wine in one hand, lazing the afternoon away talking to family or friends about casual things versus stuff like stocks, career, work, etc. They spend a lot of time in the garden tending to their plants and forming a relationship with them. It is not unusual to find people talking to their plants and living in a symbiotic and loving relationship. Because as we saw when discussing food and water, there is a direct energy relationship with whatever you put into your body. They eat slowly and hence only ever get to 80% full and that is over the course of a few hours. I have been to four of the blue zones and can attest to the similarities of their lifestyle. Contentment, deep social connections, mostly plant-based diets, physical activity, and living in the present with a deep state of awareness and being in NO rush to do anything. And physical activity is mostly incidental (walking mostly) and throughout the day versus focused workouts that only last for a short duration (gym, running, etc.). In Costa Rica, during my sabbatical, we lived this sort of life for 2 months and it has immediate and noticeable impact on physical and mental wellbeing. I really began to realize that modern life is a corporate trap meant to enslave us (willingly) to the wheel of capitalist consumption by programming the fear of scarcity into our minds, consciously or subconsciously. Even outside the blue zones, some of the happiest people I have met have been in the slums of India where we go and give chocolate to children. In fact, it is one of the few places in the big cities you will actually hear genuine laughter and joy from adults. That the Okinawans took this and created a lifestyle around it is a testament to why they not only live long but with a high quality of life. Because quality matters far more than longevity filled with physical and mental suffering.
I sort of stumbled into the slow life before I even knew it was a defined way of living. We spend a lot of time at the coast as in this part of the world, there are few people and abundant, stunning nature. There, often without the annoyance of a cell signal, we spend hours just in the moment at the beach or in a coastal forest. Many times, other than maybe some reading, we don’t do much of anything other than walk and just being one with nature. And when there is a pup with us, most of our focus is on them but in no defined manner. The joy they find in just being is something I wish every human being could experience all aspects of their life. This is a perfect example of the slow life unfolds where there is no goal or time-sensitive things to do. Even at home, we spend evenings with a glass of wine and watching a live concert with no real need to do anything other than eventually pour a bit more wine. I find many, many aspects of my life experientially enhanced as I focus more on it and take my time in doing it. Even at work, I now single-task and mute notifications expect for set hours, usually 3 times a day. It is amazing how quickly things get done and with far higher quality the first time around. We meet more with friends in small groups versus in a party setting with many people. The conversations are more intimate, more attention is paid to each person, and the overall experience of the meeting significantly more enhanced. A smoothie or a fresh salad is a sensory experience as there are so many nuanced tastes there to discover. Stress is non-existent as there is no demand or pressure to get something done right now while doing 10 other things at the same time, physically or mentally. I am really becoming convinced that this is how humans were meant to live and not on eternal fast-forward.
Finally, I want to stress that the key aspect of slow living does not mean less action or involvement. Rather, it is to focus on fewer things but with far more focus and engagement, thus significantly increasing the value and return we get on our invested time. Because you are focused more intensely on less things, your ability to enjoy and appreciate the journey and the end result is enhanced. And this life can be lived in this manner anywhere, whether you are in the slums of Mumbai or in a mansion in Los Angeles. That is because this practice only involves some inner re-engineering and requires nothing from anybody or anything external to yourself. It is something fully within your control and you can start right this moment with a single task and then expand from that. If even a small percentage of humans started living this way, the entire planet would benefit and evolve to become a better place for all inhabitants. But leaving aside the planet, if you become happier and more content with your own life, then that is the greatest achievement of all.