The art of slowing down...
This post was written by Ian Eaton, a regular Sergeant Calm soldier.
Prior to my major depressive episode in 2016 I lived life at 100 miles per hour, always on the go, always needing to be doing something. It used to drive my wife crazy, we’d be sitting out on our deck with a cuppa, and she would say “stop it!”. She’d seen me scanning the garden or the house looking for the next job to be done. Jen had been trying to get me to slow down for years. In the weeks following my wobble, I started to learn the value of slowing down.
During my counselling sessions, we discussed at length my compulsion to always have to be doing something, I think a lot of this is due to being a high achieving individual coupled with the need to constantly seek approval from others. My counsellor had a sign up in his office that resonated strongly with me. It read; DON’T JUST DO SOMETHING, SIT THERE. My life previous to this had been the complete opposite of this, but where had that got me? I was a basket case, strung out, anxious in just about every part of life, not sleeping and heavily depressed. Being busy was ruining my life.
My journey to slowing life down started with meditation and mindfulness, using an app called Headspace. I found that taking 10 minutes out twice a day helped not only with calming my mind, but I also found myself taking notice of things that I would normally walk past without thinking. I began to stop and look at cloud formations, plants, sunsets, reflections. Gradually, I began to start taking photos of the things I was stopping to look at. I found that by slowing down and taking notice, I was making more of a connection with the environment I was in. This approach to life was reaffirmed when the Mental Health Foundation launched their Connect with Nature photo competition. The MHF listed a theme for a photo for each day in October based on nature, this made you look for opportunities to snap a picture, it made you take notice of the environment. I enjoyed taking part immensely and really enjoyed looking at other people’s photos each day. I’m not advocating that you should live life like this 24/7, I know there are times when you need to knuckle down, to be busy, but these times should be balanced by taking note of where you are and what’s around you.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how modern life is geared to keep us switched on. We’re connected to our emails 24/7 so we can be reached by our friends, family and employers at all hours. I fell into this trap, I would often be sitting on the couch at night, checking my work emails, making sure that I hadn’t missed anything, or that I had responded to my managers’ requests, often they wouldn’t see the response until the morning, but I still felt a compulsion to respond in my own time. All the while, I wasn’t paying attention to the things that really mattered in life. I knew this had to stop, that I was addicted to checking in on work, so I decided to stop taking my work phone home with me, each night I would make a conscious decision to put the phone in my desk drawer and walk out of the office. I figured that if there was a serious problem then I could be contacted on the landline at home (the company I worked for operated 24/7), guess what, I was never called at home and there was never anything on the emails that couldn’t have waited until the next day. This was liberating, I realised that I didn’t have to be tied to my work, that I had the control to answer emails and phone calls when I was ready to.
I was slowing down my work life but still needed to do more in my personal life. I’d been playing the guitar and building guitar pedals for a few years. Through building effects, my playing style changed and it was mirroring what was happening in the rest of my life. I started listening to and playing a lot of ‘ambient guitar’ music, using effects and playing slowly to make the guitar sound as un-guitar like as possible. Playing this way generates music that is perfect to switch off and meditate to, but more importantly, I was creating my own music the first time. This is called getting into a state of 'flow', most people can do this but often don't realise they are in fact doing it. When a surgeon is performing a complex operation, when a painter is painting, when a dancer is dancing, they are all in a state of flow. Flow gets our brain into the Alpha state, the same state we need to be in to meditate effectively.
As I write this, I realise that I’ve slipped a little with my good habits over the last few months, I’ve allowed myself to become busy with study, to be distracted by social media and not taking the time out for me, but that’s ok, I’m using this as a prompt to myself to get back on track. I was talking to my kids a few weeks ago about what life was like before they arrived, I would often buy a few albums at a time and then take the time to really listen to each of them, often pouring over the lyrics in the album sleeve while I listened. Listening to music these days is very different, while music is often on in our house, I very rarely listen to whole albums the way I used to, it’s become much more of a background filler rather than a time investment. My 13-year-old son has similar music tastes to me and will often correct me on lyrics to songs I’m singing because he listens to albums the very same way I used to, so I’ve set myself a challenge – to sit down with one album each day and just listen, taking notice of both the lyrics and the music and invest my time in something I enjoy.
Don’t just do something, sit there!