“Loch Duich, Scottish Highlands, UK, summer 2001. What a beautiful morning! Here I am, strolling along a lochside path, savouring sweet fresh Highland air, gazing across the loch to majestic mountains beyond. The subtle smell of gorse is wonderful – like mild coconut. This morning, the scent is drifting on the breeze. Stopping to smell some gorse flowers, admiring their vivid yellow, my attention is caught by an enormous bee, browsing purposefully. For a long time I stand watching it at work. Suddenly, I am overcome with sheer happiness and gratitude at being in this beautiful spot, with nothing to do but watch a giant bee….
This small, perfect moment burned its memory into my consciousness. Back in our busy city life, full of responsibilities and deadlines, it began to appear every so often, like a little bright flag, alerting me to something.
Seven years later, with the wisdom of hindsight, I know full well what that something was: a stark warning that I was stifling what my mind, body and soul desperately needed – space, peace, silence, seclusion – and slowness, to enable me to be receptive to life rather than using my active will to hammer it into what I thought was an appropriate shape. All these precious things came in abundance with my collapse through sheer exhaustion at the end of 2001, a few months after the incident with the bee.The crash was triggered by a long family crisis that year, which totally depleted my energy at the outset of menopause.
However, there are many advantages to a prolonged and severe crisis. The Chinese word for crisis contains two characters. One conveys threat, the other, opportunity. Many opportunities have presented themselves, the most important being that I have finally learned to do slow!
When you are forced off the treadmill of contemporary living into a quiet, restful life, becoming more like an occasional visitor from another planet than a participant in 21st century society, certain things become very evident. The most obvious one is that the pace of our life is far too fast.
Everything we learn from history, contemporary living and individual experience points to the importance of striving for balance. At present the signs are everywhere that we are living in an increasingly unbalanced and destructive world, driven by a pathological need for constant rapid change, and perpetual action.
My long crisis taught me that doing “nothing”, doing very little in a slow and leisurely fashion, and responding to life rather than acting upon it, are all very fruitful modes. After seven whole years of apparently doing very little apart from lying around drinking tea, reading books, keeping journals, and fine tuning the undervalued art of procrastination, I feel like a warm and happy pile of rich compost. I don’t feel in the least that all those years of my life have been wasted. Quite the opposite. This, let me tell you, is a profound, pleasant and wholly unexpected surprise.
I used to try and cram as much as possible into every waking hour, considering time doing “nothing” as time wasted. Does this sound familiar? Had someone told me then that my powerful will would be rendered useless by exhaustion, and that I would have to respond to what my body could do, ie almost nothing, for a long time, I would have been horrified and very, very scared. And at various points I was horrified and very, very scared.
The poet TS Eliot observed that the end of all our life’s exploring returns us to the starting point, where at last we know the place for the first time. From this perspective, life is a multi levelled process of moving through repeating cycles of discovery to deeper and deeper levels of understanding of what we already know.
I now truly see that there are two fundamental modes to being alive. One is being active, the other is receptivity. Day is for activity. Night is for rest and recharging in stillness, quiet and darkness. Without the slow dying and resting of autumn and winter, the earth could not give us the fecund vitality of spring and fruitfulness of summer. Doing needs to be balanced by being. In order to be truly creative as citizens, parents, workers, partners, and individuals we have to be still, to listen, to receive. To enter these modes, there is an essential key. We must slow down.
One of the most profound lessons I have learned over the course of my life is that often the greatest gifts come in the most unappealing packaging! Within our current culture we are taught that ageing and the gradual diminishing of energy which goes with it is a bad thing. But ageing is inevitable. Its accompanying loss of energy can be used wisely, if we read it as a sign that the time has come to slow down, learn to move more easily from active to receptive mode, and to adopt the tenor of the latter more and more as time goes on.
I am not advocating sinking into a vegetable-like stupor as the ageing process advances! But the cycle of life at every level depends on the key stages of conception, germination, birth, maturing, decline, death and renewal.We should try to be co-operative with this process, rather than narcissistically trying to hang on to youth. Carl Jung wisely observed that the second half of life should be spent preparing for the end of it. One of the great ways of beginning to prepare to let go of this life in order to move on to the next great adventure beyond it, is to grant oneself time to contemplate, time to rest, time to read, time to look out of the window and watch the clouds go by.
I have discovered, to my great surprise and joy, that doing “nothing” and doing slow opens up – very slowly, so be patient ! – all sorts of creative, fertile space in your life. Try it ! Cultures and individuals stuck in fast, doing mode for long enough, quite simply, burn themselves out.
Some of you harassed busy folk reading this may find yourselves getting annoyed, muttering “It’s all very well for her!” But I have learned the very hard way that if you deny mind, body and spirit what it needs for long enough, especially as mid life advances and your body begins to lose some of its vitality, the price for that denial will duly be exacted, usually through ill-health.
So – learn from me and that bee at Loch Duich in the summer of 2001. Start doing some slow. You won’t regret it !”
(this is an updated, slightly edited version of an article published in Connections Magazine, Scotland, UK, in February 2006 as part of an ongoing column called “Just let me get old, ok?”)
1100 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
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