CARL HONORE REMEMBERS THE EXACT MOMENT HE REALIZED HE HAD LOST CONTROL OF HIS LIFE.
The journalist was rushing through the airport to catch a plane when he spotted an ad for a book series containing one-minute bedtime stories. It seemed the perfect solution for the nightly struggle he was having with his three-year-old son, Benjamin. While Benjamin always wanted to hear just one more story, Honoré wanted to wrap up the ritual as quickly as possible and move on to other things, namely the TV news and e-mail. “Rattle off six or seven stories and still finish inside ten minutes— what could be better?” Honoré recalls thinking. “As I began to wonder how quickly Amazon could ship me the full set, redemption came in the form of a counter quest-ion: Have I gone insane?”
Honoré spent a year and a half researching and writing In Praise of Slowness, his recent book about our culture’s addiction to “more-better-faster” and what people are doing to inoculate themselves against it. The short answer, pithy enough to fit on a bumper sticker, is “Be here now.” And how we get there—or rather, here—is not as hard as it seems, as Honoré and others have learned.
It’s All About Slowing Down
According to a Gallup Poll conducted last spring, half of the 1,011 Americans questioned said they did not have the time they need to do the things they want. This was particularly true of those with children under 18 and those who work full-time jobs. A major reason is the job. According to the International Labor Organization, a UN agency that promotes human rights, Americans work longer than the famously workaholic Japanese—roughly two and a half weeks more a year.
Sometimes it’s by choice. Corporations are facing “presenteeism,” the opposite of absenteeism, said a recent article in The New York Times. Employees who are sick and should. be at home are coming to work anyway,.fever, chills and all.
“Despite its aggravations, many people like being at work,” says sociologist Arlie Hochschild of the University of California, Berkeley. They feel more rewarded on the job. Their friends are there; so are their social lives, their support systems. At work, says Hochschild, people feel more appreciated and competent . The result is that families get shortchanged. “Growing numbers of women feel torn, guilty and stressed by their long hours at work, but they’re ambivalent about cutting back on those hours.” It was that realization that sent Honoré on a quest to fix what he calls his chronic speedaholism. For months he investigated how folks around the globe are trying to fight the 21st century urge to “do more now” and learn to appreciate the “now.”
In his book, Honoré describes how his search led him to Bernadette Murphy, a self-described Zen knitter in Los Angeles. He also went to, among other places, the annual conference of the Society for the Deceleration of Time in Wagrain, Austria; an alternative school in Tokyo where students are encouraged to learn at a less suicidal pace than their peers; and Bra, Italy, where he met with advocates of the Slow Food Movement. These folks believe that preparing and enjoying a meal made from locally grown foods is a healthier, saner way to eat than wolfing down pre-fab fast food.
Honoré’s conclusion? “The secret is balance, staying calm and unflustered even when circumstances force us to speed up .” Easy to say, but how do we do it? It all starts with rethinking our day. “A big part of slowing down is doing less,” he says . Reviewing his schedule, the 37-year-old journalist realized that even a sports fanatic like himself could cut out tennis and still have time to play hockey and read leisurely bedtime stories to his son. He also lopped off time in front of the TV, which Americans, he says, watch as much as four hours a day. (Europeans are not far behind, at three hours.) He describes it as a “black hole of time.”
Instead of working nonstop, Honore now takes 10-minute breaks during the day. He does “speed checks” to see if the quality of the moment could be improved by slowing down. And he’s given up meals in front of the TV.
In Search of a Natural Solution
One simple way to anchor ourselves in the present is to discover an activity that defies acceleration—something like meditating, gardening, reading or, in Margaret Robbins’s case, bird-watching. From the time she was ten years old, the 49-year-old mother of three from White Plains, New York, loved watching birds. She picked up
the hobby from her father, a police officer who did it to de-stress from his job and reconnect with nature.
At first Robbins saw it as a way to spend more time with her dad. It took on another dimension once she quit work and became a stay-at-home mom. “My three boys were born two years apart,” she explains, “and when you have a four-year-old, a two-year-old and an infant with severe asthma, it’s difficult.” Her hobby became a refuge. “Some days my husband would walk in the door and I’d say, ‘Supper’s on the table . I need to get out.’ I’d grab my binoculars, and a half-hour of birding would restore me. You can sit and be surrounded by these beautiful creatures. On a deeper level, it’s the calmness, the peace, the quiet . It restores your faith in the world and life.”
Others have found an even simpler alternative: breath. A few years ago David And-erson, then 43, took scuba lessons while on vacation in Cozumel, Mexico. Loaded with weights, gear and the heavy air tank, he lumbered into the water and dropped like a stone toward the ocean floor. In seconds his world was restricted to two elements: the fish coasting by and the hypnotic sound of his own breathing. “1 have taken breaths by the billions without so much as a thought,” Anderson says. “Yet in that one undersea hour, I treasured every lung-ful.” Even today the soothing effect of listening to that breath haunts him. “Breathing is the foundation for meditation in the Western tradition,” he notes, adding, “I do my meditation in the morn-ing when I get up.”
Anderson is intimately familiar with conventional meditation. An Episcopal priest and parish rector in Darien, Connecticut, he has given a lot of thought to the hereafter as well as the here and now, which he agrees people sometimes neglect.
“Being in the ‘now’ brings a freedom,” he says, “unlike living in the past or in the future, which is a kind of imprisonment.” He adds, “This isn’t a kind of denial where you pretend life doesn’t have problems. Life is full of problems, but most of those stresses and failures are reliving old hurts or worrying about future concerns. In his book Breakfast Epiphanies, he describes his scuba moment and asks, “Why can I not live and breathe like that on land? Respiration is the key to concentration.” Any repetitive activity that gets us breathing regularly—swimming, walking, run-ning—can have the same soothing effect. “It’s the hypnotic part you’re doing over and over again,” Anderson continues. “That’s what gets you to the present.”
Why “Now” Really Matters
So just how long is a “moment” once we get there? Does it happen with the speed of lightning, the blink of an eye? In his book The Present Moment in Psychothe-rapy and Everyday Life, psychiatrist Daniel Stern, professor of psychology at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, says that any given “moment” lasts three to four seconds, and no more than ten.
For all their brevity, “present moments are unbelievably rich,” he points out. In that tiny parcel of time, a lot can happen. Stern tells of a therapist friend who shook the hand of each patient at the beginning and end of every session. After an emotional talk, one of his patients was feeling particularly sad. When the therapist gave him the usual goodbye handshake, he also laid his other hand on top of the man’s in a con-soling two-handed shake. Though neither person said anything, that simple act tran-sformed their relationship, says Stern. “That handshake may stand out as one of the most memorable moments in the entire therapy,” he suggests.
Life is made up of such mini-turning points, agrees Gail Blanke, who runs Life-designs, an executive coaching firm in Manhattan. “Sometimes it takes a crisis to find out who you are, what you stand for and what you stand against,” she told one group of executives. “And those times of crisis are our defining moments.”
One of her most wrenching ones, which she recounts in her book Between Trap-ezes, happened in college. Her mother had called the dorm to share the tragic news that Blanke’s older brother, Jay, a Navy pilot, had perished in an accident. She remembers what else her mother told her that day: “Gail, we will never lose him.” When Blanke recently recalled the incident, her animated face tightened into tough resolve. “That comment gave me courage,” she says. It was the courage to live on, yet not lose the memory of her brother.
Today, she uses defining moments in her work. To offer clients insight into themselves, she asks each of them to write down the times when life tested them, when they stood at some crossroad. This exercise sometimes brings unexpected benefits. One hard-charging executive, Blanke recalls, gruffly insisted, “I have no defining moments.” “So,” she says, “I sent him home with an order to make a list. He came back with pages.” It opened his eyes to what was going on around him. He told Blanke about going to his son’s second-grade art show and, rather than racing through it, actually taking his time. He sat down on the floor in front of his son’s artwork and asked the boy why he drew what he drew. “I might have missed a special connection with my son if I hadn’t done that,” he told Blanke.
“Enjoy Every Sandwich”
Few defining moments are as dramatic as the prospect of facing one’s own death. Psychologist Charles Zanor, 59, learned this in February’ 2002 when he was diag-nosed with lymphoma . While enduring exhausting rounds of chemotherapy, he came to see it was only the “here and now” that came into sharp focus. “Everything else was only a hope,” he says.
Rather than consider extravagant gestures in the face of death—feats of physical courage, elaborate trips—he began to realize it was the minutiae of life he wanted to enjoy and celebrate. The person who summed this up best for him was singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, he says. In 2002 Zevon had been diagnosed with inoperable
lung cancer and was given only a short time to live. David Letterman, a close friend of the performer’s, paid him special tribute by featuring him as the lone guest for an entire show.
Letterman asked Zevon if his fatal illness brought any wisdom. Zevon replied, “Enjoy every sandwich.” That, Zanor says, is now the essence of living for him too. In a “My Turn” column he wrote for Newsweek, he says his life has become sprinkled with Zen rushes, which he describes as “an arresting sense of tranquility coupled with the heightened awareness that what I’m doing at that moment is exactly what I want to be doing—whether I’m reading a book in bed, cooking a meal or watching a movie with my wife.” Zanor jokes that he no longer tries to “put 14 eggs in a 12-egg carton.”
Where once he took only one-week vacations because he thought he couldn’t get away, now he takes two. He’s no longer trying to cheat time. Instead, he’s enjoying it as it unfolds, for as long as it does.
Truly connecting to flashes of life as they fly by is something we all can do—some-times with a little help. David Anderson, the Episcopal priest, found this out while on vacation in a remote part of Maine last summer. He had packed his cell phone for the trip. “I couldn’t not take it,” he explains. The day he arrived, he strolled on down to the shore, taking in the sweep and majesty of the Atlantic.
Reflexively, he pulled out his phone to check for messages. Fortunately, a higher power seemed to intervene. “The screen blessedly read ‘No Service,’ “Anderson recalls. He smiled and put the phone back in his pocket.
How do you focus on joyful moments?
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READERS DIGEST Magazine
March 2005. (Pgs. 93-99)
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