It’s not easy to walk fast on the beach. Sand yields so willingly to the pressure of a footstep. With each sinking step you must first unearth your foot in order to take another. Solid ground requires only momentary contact; sand invites us to linger. Perhaps this is why people who live in beach cultures have developed a reputation for living slower paced lifestyles.
On a recent trip to Baja, I set out one morning to walk on a deserted beach in a remote area of the peninsula. Walking at my normal pace, I enjoyed the vastness of the ocean, its continuous low roar and its shifting relationship to the sand and sky. My gait naturally slowed as I began to align myself with the rhythm of the sand. I began to notice the piles of debris—tangles of white shards and brown seaweed surrendered to the beach as each wave receded into the ocean.
I’d seen ocean debris many times before, of course, on other trips to the Pacific. I noted its familiarity as I continued my walk giving it no further notice. Then a gleaming, fist-sized conch appeared. I stopped to pick it up. As I admired its perfection—there were no chips or breaks—I began to look more closely at the debris on the ground below.
Here were smaller shells, vibrantly colored, iridescent, unimaginably beautiful. The longer I squatted in the sand examining the debris, the more exquisite its contents became. Even the tiniest shells—the ones you would never see while speeding by—were gorgeous, painted and lacquered with care as if by miniature artisans. The longer I stayed the more magnificent the scene became. I mused that if I stood there long enough I might be able to discern the character of each grain of sand in the exquisite pile of debris. I was grateful I had nowhere to go, no important task to accomplish. I remembered the sublime beauty of slowing down.
I was originally introduced to the practice of slowing down on my first vipassana meditation retreat many years ago. This is where I first learned the formal practice of walking meditation. We began by walking a bit more slowly than usual and gradually, with intention, slowed down to a sub-snail’s pace, gaining perhaps six feet of ground in a period of ten minutes. All the while we experienced and noted increasingly subtle sensations of a step.
As the days went by the practice of slowing down began to filter into everything we did—eating, brushing teeth, washing dishes, showering, drinking a cup of tea. I remember musing that we all looked like zombies from “Night of the Living Dead.” Later I came to realize that in this deliberate slowing and profound sensing was perhaps the first time I had been fully, consciously alive.
The understanding of the richness of slowing down came to me suddenly after days of practice, in the simple, yet exquisite act of reaching for a doorknob. The feeling of my hand moving through the air, the cool smoothness at first contact with the knob, my fingers curling around its round body—the sensations were surprising and fascinating. At once my mind became more inquisitive, more creatively alive.
“We are all sensation junkies,” said author and meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein on a retreat I attended at Spirit Rock Meditation Center last year. We are a culture that craves stimulation, a culture of speed and excitement. As a people we are attracted to driving fast, being scared out of our minds by films, watching competitive sports and listening to loud music. These things are easily appreciated within our context of speed, and they are exciting and stimulating to us. Feeding our sensation habit helps us feel more vital.
Boorstein observed that even in meditation practice, where we direct our intention to stopping long enough to observe our own mind-bodies we often rate our meditations by the intensity of our experience, and look forward to the sitting when something sensational happens. She challenged us all to settle back into the moment and look more closely at what is actually present right now instead of lurching ahead looking for something new and exciting to emerge.
In the same way the tangled mass of debris on the beach can be transformed into a fantastic landscape, the sensations of living in our body-mind, those that become apparent only when we pause, can be quite compelling. Through meditation practice I found the subtle energies moving through the body and the sensations associated with various emotions to be fascinating upon close inspection. When we are willing to slow down enough to look deeply new worlds open up to us that are profoundly satisfying and enlivening.
However, practicing slowing down on a meditation retreat, where it is encouraged as a vital part of the process, is quite different from trying to calm the speed of our daily lives. In 21st-century Western culture, having a full schedule is considered to be a sign of virtue, and taking time to relax, a sign of weakness or sloth. It is, in fact, fun to engage in activities that stimulate, but living in a state of constant activity, with no time to slow down or stop, is not a state of balance. It is from the ground of balance—the ever-changing centerpoint between action and rest—that we live most gracefully in the world.
It is arguable that stress is the plague of our time and culture. Many of us maintain the lightning pace of our lives via adrenaline. Whether by caffeine or sugar or purely by the speed with which we must negotiate our schedules, our adrenal glands and nervous system work overtime to keep us on track. The adrenals are meant to help us through occasional stressful situations, not the steady onslaught of a packed schedule. Without occasional rest, they wear down. When they wear down we become tired and feel stressed.
Slow movement may alter our physiological balance in a way that is replenishing to our nervous system. Roger Cole, Ph.D., a yoga teacher and research scientist who specializes in the physiology of relaxation, sleep and biological rhythms, speculates on the benefit of slow movements, such as yoga and tai chi, on the human nervous system. “They provide steady, gentle, pleasant input to the nervous system from kinesthetic sensors in the body (muscle spindle stretch receptors, golgi tendon organs, joint position sensors),” he says. “Just as when we get a massage, this could help induce reflex relaxation of the muscles and make us feel mentally safe, reducing the ‘fight or flight’ response the brain (and thereby reducing the levels of stress hormones circulating in the bloodstream).”
The fight or flight response is largely the domain of the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that is concerned with involuntary function in the body). In my informal, experiential research practicing yoga for the past 21 years, I’ve observed that slow, mindful, movement awakens the parasympathetic side of my autonomic nervous system, which smooths the jagged fight or flight response elicited by the busyness of my days. Incorporating even small amounts of slow, mindful movements into our day can align us more closely with our balance point.
Perhaps the physiological benefits of slowing down might even increase our ability to accomplish what we need to do. My experience is that when I take time each day to drop my schedule and do something completely unrelated to work or to do nothing at all, I come back to my responsibilities with more clarity and equanimity. Some days may allow an hour to slow down, others may not. On the more tightly scheduled days I might simply take a leisurely walk around the block, practice one or two yoga asanas, wash the dishes with special care, savor my dinner or mindfully drink a cup of tea.
It doesn’t matter what I do; what matters is that I allow myself to visit the moment fully, to experience its richness and beauty. The amount of work accomplished is less important than the spirit and care I bring to what I do. Slowing the pace of our lives transforms the mundane into the transcendent. It teaches us how much there is to appreciate in simplicity.