Thursday, June 10, 2010

Taking life more slowly

This a great post from Treehugger about Charles Eames and his "Do Nothing Machine". He built it in 1958 to demonstrate the use of solar power. I think the best aspect of this is not only the fact that he was considering solar power in the 1950's, but the fact that he designed it to "Do Nothing".

In the world we live in today, this is a pretty shocking concept. Everything must be done faster, better, more productively, and designs should have a purpose - to help us to speed up our lives and be more efficient, right? Well, there are a lot of people out there now who are saying we should change our way of life, slow down, focus, appreciate the moments of our life instead of rushing through them to get to the next objective.

Mahatma Ghandi said "There is more to life than increasing its speed." Matt McDermott quotes this in his article "Slow Down, Set a Healthy Pace", and also says that the problem with speed is that it is so easy for it to become a habit. We don't even notice that we're rushing through our lives. I have pretty much lived my life that way for a long while now. My life was all about speed - work deadlines, millions of emails, being furious in traffic at the "wasted time", rushing around the shops, my life speeding by and feeling like I was totally not in control of anything. But in the last 6 months, I have been forced to completely slow down by my own body - I suffer from severe chronic pain caused by complications from a spinal fusion from 20 years ago, and because of this I can't work anymore, and my pace of life has completely slowed. I spend most of my time at home with my cats - the quiet time with them brings peace and calms me down. I go for long walks around my lovely forested neighbourhood, listening to the birds, enjoying the sunshine, really looking at the bright colours of the trees and flowers. The pain has forced a different appreciation of life on me, and although it is a high price to pay, the decrease in stress really shows.

Mindfulness helps with enjoying each moment - being really present in whatever you are doing. The more aware we are of each moment in our lives, the happier we actually find ourselves. David McRaney writes in his article The Moment that in order to be happy, we have to satisfy two selves active inside each of us. Our happiness happens in two ways - there is the happiness of the current moment, the joy of eating an ice-cream, the delight at being given roses, the laughter of your children. Then there is the happiness we experience when we think back on our lives and remember happy occasions and events. The self who looks back at these long-term happy memories is the decision-making part of us, and its goal is to make more of these memories, because then we can look back on our lives and feel content. McRaney says: "The remembering self is happy when you look back on your life and pull up plenty of positive memories." The current self is about the gratification of the now, and is happy when we are experiencing nice things. The important thing is creating those long-term memories, getting that fleeting moment of happiness stored in our brain, so we can look back on it and replay that happiness again. And if we are not present and aware and really living in the current moments when we are doing happy things - if we are thinking about work deadlines and next week's appointments and what to make for dinner while we are playing with our children in the sunshine, our brain is not focused on the happy moment, and it is lost. Nothing to look back on.

When you spend time doing happy, self-gratifying things - spending time with your kids and your pets, relaxing on the beach, getting a massage, playing a round of golf - really be there in the moment, do it in a meaningful way which creates a long-term memory. And also remember that happiness is not something that comes at the end of reaching a goal. We all have to do things we don't like - we all have mortgages and life is not always about fun. But we also shouldn't say: "I'll be happy when...". That new Porsche, or the designer jeans, or the holiday home we are saving up for - sure, those are nice things to look forward to. But if we base all of our happiness on achieving those goals, we will miss out on the small moments along the way, the little moments in our lives that create those happy memories.

AJ Jacobs posted an article My Colossal Task Burden on slowing his life down, after doing research on how multitasking was bad for us. He says: "Our hopscotching brains make us more depressed (it's harder to focus on the positive), less able to connect with people and form a conscience." Our brains aren't able to focus on more than one thing at a time. We may think we're multitasking, but in fact we're switchtasking, toggling between one task and another. We all do this - phone and email, 27 internet tabs open at once, TV in the background. We feel like we are wasting time unless we are filling it with many tasks. We take pride in having many things on the go all at once. Busy people achieving lots are revered. People are told from an early age that to sit and do nothing is very bad. We are expected to always fill our time. But in actual fact, doing nothing is very, very good for you. The eastern traditions of meditation, focusing the mind on one thing only, slowing our thoughts, has been proven to have significant health benefits. Buddhist centres offer weekend retreats where people go to literally do nothing - the participants are not allowed any stimulation, no reading, no talking, definitely no TV or internet or radio. They spend their time meditating, and just being. Experiencing the present moment. Slowing the brain down.

The more focused we can be in the moments of our lives when we are experiencing fun, gratification, happiness, the more likely we are to put these in our long-term memory banks. The sharper our recall will be of these memories. The more focused we will be when we think back on them. And the happier this will make us.

Sometimes we need a reminder that we don't need a purpose. The answer to the question: "Why am I here?" can be answered with: "To exist". We do not always have to be doing something to validate our lives and justify our place on this earth. Like the aim of Charles Eames machine - sometimes it is enough to just do nothing.