Tuesday, May 03, 2011

In Praise of Slowness

In the same way that as William Carlos Williams wrote “so much depends upon a wheelbarrow”, so much depends on embracing a slow way of thinking.

Carl Honore’s book In Praise of Slowness first caught my eye listening to an NPR story. I was already aware of the Slow Food movement, initiated in Europe, which sought to be an antidote to the “Fast-Food” culture with which we find ourselves at battle .

Honore examines many areas of our lives that can benefit from taking a slower approach to things. This is not to say Honore is a “Speed Biggot”. He does not advocate avoidance of speed at all costs. (What does an adherent of a Slow philosophy say to a person being whisked away in an ambulance?) There are times you want to hurry, Honore assures us.

But in so many areas, from food, to traveling by car, to sex, to exercise – there are benefits for the taking.

So after reading the book, I decided to attempt to consciously slow down my driving. The chapter on driving is interesting. Honore peppers the chapter with some interesting factoids: the chances of killing someone at 20 miles per hour is only 5%. Raise the speed to 35 miles per hour – not exactly warp speed – and that statistic jumps up to 45%! By speeding in our cars, zig-zagging through traffic, Honore mentions the average time gain is only 53 seconds. Now granted, that will vary with distinace. Driving across Texas or Montana, for example, on an interstate highway system garners you some great time savings over an 8,10, 12 hour drive. But that is NOT the type of driving most of us do.

So I tried it. This is my fourth week, and I have been playing with my cruise control (where I live, the roads are often country 2-lane roads, without lights etc. so use of cruise control sort of makes this a game for me. What I have learned has been most interesting.

In a way, this is very much like yoga. When I started doing yoga, it was for the asanas, and for the physical benefits, but unbeknownst to me, it was opening up something in my heart as well. And of course, that is what yoga means: to yoke. It yokes the physical with the spiritual. In a similar way, I just assumed I would get bored, would maybe save some gas. But I found a most interesting thing happening as I started driving the speed limit everywhere.

At first, it seemed painfully slow. I was looking for something to fill in my idle driving time. To be sure, the pressure from drivers behind me still bothers me. My one fear is of being murdered in a road rage incident and I am aware that driving in this manner does nothing to placate potential road rage initiators. Occasionally, while driving at 25 or 30 miles per hour, where I can see the green light half a mile ahead, I feel my knee twinge and want to step on the gas so I can make the light. But then I ask myself, what for?

In the 4 weeks I have been doing this I can attest to the 53 second statistic given by Honore in his book. I have at most been 1-2 minutes slower by driving this way.

But more than this, something else has happened. I am seeing more when I drive. Because I am going more slowly, I take time to look at the sidewalks, to glance at people I pass, to look ahead more earnestly and it is making me more cautious about possible road hazards ahead. Another thing that has happened is I am recognizing these houses as neighborhoods, where kids play and families live. I begin to connect the 25 MPH speed limit with the fact that some precious people are living in these houses and really, I am just a visitor – instead of interloper – of their neighborhoods. I am, in essence, a neighbor.

So one of the effects of driving more slowly is that it has connected me to people living in the houses I pass doing nothing more than reducing the throttle.

Other side benefits include better gas mileage, less wear on the brakes, and the freedom knowing I will not get stopped for a speeding ticket again! As doing anything with intent, this sharpening of focus allows me to be in the moment more. I still feel pressured by drivers behind me, but I have taken now to pulling over and letting them pass, thus, removing any cause for road rage and my reducing my fear of being in an incident.

As I drive more and more of my familiar routes, I am learning what the limits are, where they speed up and where they slow down without having to strain to read signs. Sometimes, especially when descending small hills and where the speed limit is 25, it is impossible to do this. The impact on my state of mind however, is the biggest benefit. I arrive at work calmer, less stressed, less likely to think anything can be that important. This is not an effect one wears over one’s shirt, like an overcoat.

Thinking “so what?” more than once while driving (“I can make that light” “So what?”) adds value to my life. Paul Simon in his new CD entitled “So Beautiful. So What?” says that the trick to making art is to care like hell and not care at all. Driving slowly makes me care like hell but not care at all if I get to the destination 53 seconds sooner but have lost my soul in the process, then what i have i gained? is another way to look at it. What was I going to do with that 53 seconds anyway? Meditate? Find the cure for cancer? Maybe lengthening my life so it fits in a longer, slower template by taking time from point to point is a better way to longevity than rushing to meaningless deadlines. It may not add years to my life, but maybe a fuller life in the end is the trade off.

Maybe what matters is not who arrives first, but the trip itself. If this simple test can yield so many positive feelings, what else could I do slowly that might yield unexpected results? The outward action has turned my insides around. Fake it till you make, I hear some folks tell me. Keep plugging until habit becomes faith. What we do affects who we are in the same way as who we are affects what we do. It is a cycle, but sometimes all we can change is what we do. What depends upon embracing slowness is our sanity, our connectedness to others. Speed for its own sake causes us to push past all things in our lives that make us truly spiritual beings.
It is a faith in faithlessness, a certainty of doubt about living and in the end, squanders life in the most pretentious way.

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