Cultivating the art of slow

Do you find it hard to say no, and end up taking on yet another responsibility even though you already feel overloaded? Do you lie awake at night worrying about your unfinished list of to-dos? When you stop and consider your daily routine, do you ever feel like a lab rat on a treadmill? Here’s how to cultivate a life rich in unhurried pleasures – when there’s still so much to do.

Words Sarah Heeringa. Photography Amanda Reelick.

The desire to keep up with the Joneses has plagued humankind for ages – but never as intensely as in our consumer-driven modern times. Having it all in a fast world doesn’t just mean buying the right stuff – it means grappling with demanding jobs, keeping on top of the mounting bills and, for many women, a precarious juggle of career and home. “We take on too much,” says filmmaker and mother Sumner Burstyn. “We got a lot of value from feminism – but not much freedom. We’re still mired in all our feminine requirements and we took on all the masculine requirements to achieve as well.”

Add to this the general mood of uncertainty caused by the global financial crisis and the feeling of many in paid employment of having to work longer and harder than before. The idea of a simpler life might sound great – but where to start? One response to the demands and expectations of modern life is the emerging trend of Slow – a wide-ranging but loosely structured movement that’s gaining influence throughout the Western world.

It all started with the Slow Food Movement – which officially kicked off in 1986, when the Italian writer Carlo Petrini joined others on Rome’s historic Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti to protest against the arrival of a nearby McDonalds franchise. Of course, slow food existed well before this time. It was something our ancestors – even our grandparents – cultivated and ate as a matter of course. Before the 1950s, there was no such thing as fast food, and new-fandangled time-saving devices were luxuries enjoyed by the few. But by the late 1980s, plastic money, cell phones and speed dating had all arrived on the scene and some people were beginning to wonder if life in the fast lane was all it had cracked up to be.

For many, the idea of a crass fast food joint near the old-world Spanish Steps was a step too far. Carlo’s call to resist the globalisation of food culture touched a nerve, and today the Slow Food non-profit organisation (www.slowfood.com) has more than 100,000 members, while many millions more around the world have been influenced by its ideas. In 1999 the Norwegian Geir Berthelsen created The World Institute of Slowness to demonstrate how slow ideas had extended to many other aspects of modern living, including parenting, travel, art, fashion, design and even slow cities, slow science and slow money.

One popular thread of the slow movement has been the critique of our modern work-obsessed culture. In 1993, for instance, Englishman Tom Hodgkinson founded the annual periodical The Idler, celebrating the freedom and fine art of doing nothing. Tom went on to write several related bestsellers, including How to be Idle and The Idle Parent. Another slow living idea focuses on our spending rather than our working habits. By consciously choosing to do or have less, we allow ourselves to savour down-to-earth experiences and to connect more fully with others. Voluntary simplicity, or downshifting, as it’s sometimes called, is about simplifying our lives and minimising distractions so that we have time for the things that matter. But before we can realistically hope to take time out, we first have to take stock of what consumes it in the first place.

We might feel that too much of our time and energy is taken up with earning money – but before we can contemplate cutting back on paid work, some big changes might have to be made. The first step might be taking a hard look at the finances and committing to a budget: we may have to look at changing our living arrangements, moving to a cheaper house, taking in a boarder or somehow cutting costs. Alternatively, we might decide the key to a slower life is through work that’s more personally satisfying, or we might choose to step off the career ladder for a while and concentrate on raising our children. “There is a new generation of mothers who are choosing to reclaim being a parent and running a home as a job – it is a job and a very valuable one at that,” says Sumner.

Cultivating slow also involves listening to the voices in our heads. How are we supposed to be in the moment when multitasking is the only way to get through the day? If we allow ourselves to slow down, how will we ever achieve what we hope to get done? Understanding more about our personality can help us understand what drives us – and where we might make a change. Are you driven by the desire for perfection, being helpful to others or wanting to win? Helpers can end up on every committee because they find it hard to say no. Perfectionists can push themselves on and on because no matter what they accomplish, it never seems enough. Tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram personality test can be useful for learning more about ourselves and discovering what motivates and rewards us. “Many people dislike personality type sorters because they feel that such a system reduces you to a category and puts you in a box,” says Enneagram specialist Andrew Rockell. “The Enneagram differs from other systems in that it sees us as already in a box – and it’s trying to get us out. If the basic habitual and stressed-out ways we usually behave can feel like a self-imposed prison, then the Enneagram offers to help us break out of that prison rather than just redecorating the cell.” 

Setting aside the celebration of sloth by the likes of Tom Hodgkinson, being slow is not necessarily about being lazy. Counterintuitive as it sounds, the path to slow living isn’t always about doing less, it can be about doing more – that is, more of what nurtures us and less that oppresses. To start living slow we need to stop thinking of time as something to save and consider instead how to spend it. In essence, slow offers an alternative way of looking at time.

Take the example of slow food, which is all about sourcing quality ingredients or growing our own and making meals from scratch. Slow food invites us to shake the hand that feeds us. But how does all this gathering, shaking and cooking fit with slow living? To the unconvinced it just sounds like a whole lot of hard work. Slow food is about rejecting convenience over authenticity. Where fast food is instant, homogenous and global, slow food is everything but. It’s the time-consuming process of slow food that helps us to live more intentionally. Carlo, who coined the term ‘eco-gastronomy’ and remains a celebrated slow food champion, likens fast food to pornography and traditional food-making as an “act of love”.

But allowing for all this loving involves a bit of effort. Instead of hopping impatiently from foot to foot in the supermarket queue so we can buy our ready-made packaged dinner and dash home, slow food suggests we might choose to invest that time elsewhere. It’s about thinking ahead: buying in bulk, preserving when in season, putting dinner on to cook in the morning – or at the very least, remembering to get something out of the freezer in time to defrost.

Trying to grow your own food is another way to cultivate slow. As someone who’s spent the last few years figuring out the basics of growing vegetables, I know only too well what a hugely inefficient exercise veggie gardening can be. It takes hard work, and too often the snails seem to get a better feed than you do. But there are unexpected benefits along the way: thrashing out your frustrations on the weeds, getting up close to pockets of nature, growing more aware of the seasons, pottering therapeutically, and hopefully learning a little patience and persistence. All of which adds to the satisfaction when you do finally manage to harvest armfuls of greens.

Turns out, the process of slowing down can take time.

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