Friday, September 28, 2012

The Problem with Hurrying

Having been without internet connection this week for a few days has allowed me the freedom to slow down and do other things, like listen to music and read a few things that had been piling up on my desk. . . . There is something about electronic reading, and writing, that tells me unconsciously to hurry up. I am participating in a rapidly moving world where messages require prompt responses and news flashes are updated often. The internet is not a contemplative tool. . . .The truly cultured Chinese, I am told, never hurry to accomplish things since, according to Confucius, things done in haste cannot be done well. I suspect that today's Chinese take this old wisdom with a large dose of MSG. . . .It's no wonder then that hurrying is OK only in Hell; I refer to the advice Virgil gives to Dante in "Inferno": do not spend too much time talking with or looking at the damned souls in Hell. To do so is to pay them respect, so hurrying along with that crowded realm is wise. Speed in the lower depths is also motivated by fear. . . Fear governs the life of so many people in the real world today, including nearly all of my students, who learned early on to be terrified of grades and criticism by teachers. The high school boy I tutor, who is hyperactive, worries excessively about failure and parental criticism, and so turns to me for calming advice. He knows that he can breathe deeply three times and bring himself a modicum of peace, of what I would call mindfulness: being fully present to each assignment he has and doing one at at time, without worrying about the number of upcoming tests or papers due. . . .I find fear and speed everywhere: in the speech patterns of many people I encounter, professional people who talk so rapidly that they slur their words. I am amazed that a few TV anchors, including Anderson Cooper, never seemed to have studied that old-fashioned thing called elocution. I cannot expect people in the media to slow down, but they must be fully intelligible, especially if they are earning millions of dollars a year. . . .All of which brings to me a book recommended by a friend, a book I have not yet located, by the jazz pianist Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery, which has to do with mindfulness. The lesson here, says my friend, is to slow down the body and the mind, be fully in the present, and enjoy (if you are prayerful) what Brother Lawrence, a humble worker in a French monastery kitchen in the 17th century, called the "sacrament of the present moment." Lawrence had little education and found that the formal prayers of the monks were not enough: why not, he thought, find God in the little things of a noisy kitchen, honoring the routine tasks we perform there?.....This reminds me of an article by Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, author of Mindful Eating. She recounts eating a lemon tart and savoring fully the flavor, then getting into conversation and losing touch with what she was eating; finally, returning to the tart, she is able to focus on the smell and flavor and textures in her mouth. She has slowed down the thinking function of the mind so as to access the awareness. Whether she considers this attention prayer, it is, at least for me, closely allied with the idea of the present moment as sacred since it alone is real even in its evanescence. Bays's advice: eat slowly, with long pauses between bites. If you do anything else while eating, even think, the flavor diminishes or disappears. She doesn't mention the obvious: digestion is improved....For me, preparing food can be a meditation practice as I clear my mind of everything except the task before me; and I try to do the same when I eat dinner at home, even though I feel obligated to talk, to avoid feeling that the silence my wife and I experience is awkward or unnatural. A meal, I tell myself, is a social occasion; I cannot be expected to eat like a Trappist or Buddhist monk....And so the challenge goes on in fast-paced world where most of us enjoy human company and find it stimulating while at the same time knowing that there is a time for silence, for slowing down, for eating alone, mindfully. . . .The point is that we have to fight for every opportunity to slow down how we talk, how we eat, how we interact with others, so we can really listen and fully savor the gift of the present moment. ...As I notice the tension of others, the anxiety that tends to rule the world, I catch myself in my own anxious patterns and re-learn the ancient wisdom of slowing down. If all the media and the internet were shut down for a week, I suspect the world would be more peaceful.

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