Almost every Friday during college I attended Shabbat dinner at the campus Hillel. And every Friday night Rabbi James Ponet would climb up on a chair, hold a wine glass over his head (or a whole bottle) and yell out across the room with the earnestness of a divine messenger:
Conversations trailed off and forks stopped moving. He would then deliver a short teaching on different themes such as the Torah portion that week or death or love; but the single theme that he spoke on, again and again, was the importance of slowing down—or stopping altogether—which is the essence of Shabbat, the day of rest.
It's only in this last year that I've started to appreciate the hidden power of the slow-moving life.
For most of my life, I've sped through my work. Sometimes because I don't like it. Other times because I like it a lot. I have an impatient streak that I was very proud of for a long time because I believed it allowed me to move faster and learn more quickly than others. But I have been learning the power of slowness.
Moving slowly allows us to hear our soul's wants and our body's needs.
Moving slowly allows us to read the signs the world is showing us. It allows us to stop and hear the subtext in our partner's words, or the unspoken grief in our friend's body-language.
In relationships, moving slowly allows us to move at the speed of trust. In work, it allows us to do things once, but do them right, instead of rushing and failing many times—making the process much longer than if we had patiently and thoughtfully approached it the first time.
I first heard Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare in first grade. And while I understood the moral, "slow and steady wins the race," I didn't believe it. Most of our society doesn't believe it either. Instead, our society seems to run on the assumption that faster is better. This obsession with speed shows up in the way we think, act, and speak. We move as if we were in a crisis. In fact, it seems as though our entire society is in perpetual crisis because our minds are in perpetual crisis. If you trace back the cause of all our crisis-ridden hurry to its root, you'll realize that we live in crisis because we are dying. Every one of us, moment by moment, is drawing close to death. And to the ego, death is the perpetual crisis. Death is a problem the ego seeks to resolve in 10,000 ways, but can never fully escape. As Ernest Becker writes in The Denial of Death, the ego creates immortality projects to ensure its survival: building up legacies, empires, afterlives—and fights bitterly to protect them (i.e., itself). But all of these immortality projects are faulty because eternity will wear all of them down. And if the ego is brave enough to confront this, it will then have to reckon with the fact that it can never satisfy its purpose. It has to admit defeat. Give up. Surrender. Gives up the ghost. "Dies." Ironically, that is the solution. When the ego surrenders, the soul—the true Self—is allowed to emerge. And on the level of our soul, all crises cease. The soul does not identify with the body that dies or the personality that disappears; it identifies with the universe. When we die, the body may turn to mossy bones and the ego will vanish, but the rain will still fall and fire will still burn, and the turkey buzzard will still strut and flounce, as Charles Bukowski writes in one of my favorite poems. The soul, or true Self, exists in eternity where there is no such thing as death. Eternity is the speed at which the universe turns. And when we slow down, we sync up with the speed of this underlying reality, which is in no hurry. When we sink down and let the soul embody, we naturally move and speak more slowly. Our words and actions are propelled by and informed by truth—the way things are. And if fast action is required, it's done with smooth efficiency, instead of with frenetic motion. About a year ago, I noticed how frantic my work life was. I was putting so much effort into moving quickly in my work but making very little progress. I was like a fly that buzzes in circles and zig-zags, moving very fast, expending a lot of energy, but never making it very far from where it began. As a result, I was constantly exhausted. Overworking myself and seeing little to no results. I was frustrated. Ashamed. Confused. When I began to step back and recognize what was going on, I realized that the solution was not more effort or greater speed, but a slowing-down and return to simplicity. When we slow down, we're able to see the next obvious step on our path, and so avoid 999 possible missteps. Moving slowly, we can travel a straight line toward our destination, instead of a frantic zig-zag through space. Moving forward slowly and carefully increases the quality of whatever we are doing. It allows us to move with humility and respect. It allows us to hear what our body is asking of us. It allows us to listen to the needs of our hearts and the needs of those around us. If we go to the gym and try to rack on too much weight, we hurt ourselves and end up injured, setting us back weeks. Rush to start a career before you're ready, and you end up wasting years, or decades, of your life going in the wrong direction. Cut corners laying your foundations—whether in building a house or beginning a spiritual practice—and what you build will crack and crumble, forcing you to start over later. Losing more time than if you had gone slowly at first. Instead of rushing off to chase fads and shiny opportunities—wild goose chases of a mind in crisis—the man or woman who sits in stillness is able to hear the true calling of the heart. And when he or she hears it, they can get up and calmly walk in that direction. Resistance you may encounter The ego mind often resists slowness because it doesn't trust the mysterious logic of the soul. The rational mind might scream out; "How will we make enough money?" "The more time we wait, the farther ahead our competition will get!" "If we don't hurry, we'll miss our chance!" These messages come from unconscious parts of our ego that try desperately to protect us and appear to the ego like a hydra of fear. Fears around money are really fears of lack. This fear tires to protect us from everything that lack implies: starvation, eviction, cold, pain, death. Yet it also leads us to try and take shortcuts, making quick cash in unsustainable or less-than-fully-honest ways. Fears that compare us with others are social fears. Will we be praised? Will we avoid abandonment? Will we be loved? This leads to jockeying for status and competition. Family or society may egg us on to succeed and excel. We believe we have to act quickly, or else we'll miss our opportunity. Miss our come-up. Others will get ahead and we'll never catch up. These ways of thinking cause anxiety and distress which can ultimately lead to the opposite of speedy progress: burnout, breakdown, and paralysis. Grand ambitions can be especially crushing, and may either be foisted on us from our family or community, or foisted upon ourselves. We can fall into a hole of despair, believing that there is no way out of the hole we've dug ourselves. And with every passing week the situation gets more hopeless. The reality is much brighter than it seems, because it is never too late. There is nothing to be late for. Nothing needs to be accomplished. Nothing needs to be won or done or achieved. When we drop into that understanding, we leap ahead and "win the race," by realizing there is no race to win. An awakened mind has nothing to do From the vantage of awakening, there is nothing to do. Nothing needs to be added or accomplished to achieve the perfection of the universe. It's already happened. We are already there. The galaxies are in no rush to turn and the ocean waves never hurry and yet are always on time. There is nowhere to be and nothing that needs to be done. The more I sink into the understanding that there is nothing that I need to do, the more I can sense the flow of life's energy around me. The more I surrender and flow with these currents, the more my life seems to arrange itself naturally. Success, financial growth, love and security—all things I struggled to achieve before—are now easily moving into my life. The more I surrender, the more I feel my life fill with what's truly needed. Surrender doesn't mean to flop like a jellyfish and lie there (although if you're exhausted, it could). Surrendering to the flow of the universe might mean you're called on to open a sober house, to apply to graduate school, or to quit graduate school, to get married, or to leave a marriage, create a movement or destroy one. The action isn't important, what's important is its alignment with the nature of things. Unbeknownst to us, everything we do, think, or say, is always in alignment with the nature of things. We are trapped in perfection. We are each a wave that has emerged from the sea—an emergent property of the oceanic world. The more we listen the more we move like the seasons, and the more our footsteps fall in time with the dance of reality.