I thought I had a pretty balanced, grounded, present life. Turns out, I was wrong.
This past summer, I had been enjoying an unusual lull in my professional activities. I’d taken time off from my part-time medical clinic work to work on a new book project, and also had a temporary break from business travel and speaking engagements. I still had my coaching work and other basic obligations, but I had much more discretionary “free time” during the day than I’m used to.
I was stunned by the experience of slowing down. It was like waking up, without having known you were asleep.
My life before this lull wasn’t crazy, which is why my discovery was so surprising. Evenings, Sundays, and most Saturdays were protected work-free zones. I worked out regularly and took our dog for walks every day. I had time for friends and family.
What I realized by slowing down, though, is how habitually I have been rushing. I’d been moving through my world, from one thing to another, with pressured, driven detachment. For years. And years.
One of the things I reclaimed during this downtime was the time to make a healthy dinner almost every night. I used to do this when we first got married, but as we both got busier, meals had gotten more casual and on-the-run.
One night, I prepared a meal while listening to a 90’s singer-songwriter playlist that I found on iTunes. As part of this strange new experiment with time, I’ve discovered that I love to listen to different kinds of music while I cook. I took time to chop the vegetables. I listened carefully to the lyrics. Memories flooded in, good ones. I also imagined the future. It felt beautiful.
I realized at that moment that in a profound, over-arching way, I hadn’t really been living. I have rushed through so many meal prep times, as I rush through much of life.
Because my habit of steady, detached rushing has been more insidious than obvious (I don’t live a crazy, over-scheduled, out-of-control life), I hadn’t seen it or even felt it. I was too used to the feeling.
I had still enjoyed cooking, but in a superficial pressured way. Always on to the next thing. Squeezing things in. Multi-tasking. Getting things done. Not connecting to the beauty of it. Not being truly present (even though I thought I was, since I’d stop to smell fresh basil or olive oil). Nope. I wasn’t truly connected, I see and feel that now.
I also discovered something else that shocked me.
My handwriting is awful. Truly awful. Doctors are famous for bad handwriting, so I never thought much of it. My theory was that all those crazy hours and years of schooling and medical practice, and the furious note-taking that accompanied it all, had somehow wrecked my fine motor control and I was now simply unable to form pretty letters.
The week of my epiphany, I was making handwritten notes from a study that I was reading. From my new de-pressurized headspace, I realized that there was nothing wrong with my hand. What was wrong was my attitude toward time, and toward writing.
Back in med school, there was the feeling that no matter how fast you wrote, you’d miss something. You were forced to develop the habit of writing at the speed of light (while still always feeling behind). Same thing, in the days before electronic medical records, trying to write as fast as patients were speaking. There was just never enough time to write down what you needed to. I wrote like my pen was on fire. And this had become the way I wrote, all the time.
While taking those notes, for the first time in decades I forced myself to slow down my writing. And I discovered that I could actually write legibly.
I realized that the reason why many people I know have nice, legible penmanship is that they must not feel rushed when they are writing. They somehow believe, or know, that they have time to properly form the letters.
With this new discovery, I started journaling more intentionally. I deliberately slowed down, to practice writing beautifully again. The thoughts don’t disappear when I take the time and slow down. In fact, they expand.
Reading “real” books in the evenings also helped me reconnect with the air around me. Allowing myself to get bored and sit around and just be has helped too (weird as it feels), instead of automatically distracting myself with needless browsing on my phone.
I read recently that many of us go through life transactionally, with an emphasis on efficiency rather than love. The example given was of parents doing everything they can for their kids (enrolling them in activities, driving them around, making them healthy meals, helping them with their homework etc.) without really being present.
Do you trade in quality time with others (and yourself) for efficiency and important to-do’s?
It’s so easy, when our lives are focused on getting things done, to detach from the most important “objects” of our affections. Sometimes our loved ones end up getting treated like objects. We continually do things for them, thinking that’s best, instead of fully seeing them. We exchange efficiency and rush rush rush for presence and love.
So. Where in your life are you habitually rushing, or missing your life as it flows by?
Are there moments in the day, when you think that you’re present but — if you’re honest with yourself — you’re actually not?
Is your life, too, a serious of actions or tasks to execute, without really inhabiting those actions or truly connecting with the related people?
It’s a really subtle thing. You’re there, but not really there. Like me, you may not even realize it.
With all the accumulated social media scrolling, cell phone notifications, commitments, goals, tasks, and aspirations, you too may have gotten so completely swept up in the nonstop pulse of modern life that most of the time, you are actually missing life completely. You don’t actually see it. You don’t truly experience it, even though superficially it might seem like you do.
I realize that you may not have the luxury of a non-vacation break in your usual activities, like I did this summer.
What could you do, though, to reconnect with the heart of your life? What are some specific touch points in your day or life where you could slow down? Putting the phone away when you are with people might be a good start.
Pull yourself out of the habit of connecting superficially with the moment you are in. See if you can really inhabit it. See if you can really connect with what’s going on, whether that’s your task, your companion(s), your thoughts and feelings, or your surroundings. You may be amazed by what you find.
When you reconnect with the true fabric of life, instead of spending all your time scrambling up and down the superficial scaffolding of to-do’s and distractions, you get reminded of what counts. What emerges can be shocking. Maybe all the scrambling — most of it, perhaps? — isn’t even necessary. Wow. Now there’s a thought.