‘Afternoon farmers’ was a term of derision in my mother’s family. ‘Layabeds’ who got out in their fields late were likely to become poor in every sense! To be successful in business or any walk of life, you needed to start early. In a family of seven children and limited resources, starting early and working fast were a vital part of life. The Protestant work ethic undergirded a great deal of their thinking.
The ability to solve practical problems quickly made for a successful household in a world where the possession of ‘make-do and mend’ skills sometimes meant the difference between independence and poverty. ‘The poorhouse’ was a threatening reality to my grandparents without the safety net of the welfare state.
Working fast meant thinking fast – and they did that in different ways. They were immediately responsive to difficult human situations. Quick to see suffering and sympathise. Quick to take sides in power struggles – usually with the underdog!
Fast-thinking like theirs offers great benefits both to the thinker and those around. It can save lives both literally and figuratively – and I’m thankful to have learned from them all. But sometimes there were stressful downsides to this speed – for them and the next generations.
Reaction to the pressure to be early and fast and ‘first’ led to the re-discovery of a centuries-old Buddhist discipline - ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness teaches people to slow down, to stop multi-tasking, to sit and meditate, to ‘be more present’. Ironically, mindfulness is now so fashionable that mindfulness skills are taught in businesses to improve employees’ concentration, creativity, communication, memory and learning skills. Just one more way of ‘getting ahead’!
I’ve been more interested in recognising the benefits of mindfulness in relationships. It’s clear that ‘over-quick’ thinking can lead to superficiality and judgementalism, impatience and irritability – and in some cases to anxiety and stress. It can make it easy to miss what is really going on. Thinking and speaking too quickly may mean that we don’t listen well. We try to solve what we think of as other people’s problems rather than improving our own difficulties in listening.
But – how to slow down? I still struggle with that and I’ve tried to learn from various ‘wisdom guides’. It always interests me that the people who seem to know most about it are single people living in religious communities – no spouses, no children or grandchildren! But I am very grateful that they have kept the wisdom alive.
One of my guides was the influential Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh who died this week. He was an inspiration to Martin Luther King and has been described as the ‘father of mindfulness’. Some years ago someone gave me a CD of a guided meditation by Hanh called ‘Calm, Ease, Smile, Breathe’. I have benefited from following some of his practices and shared the CD with friends and clients trying to ‘just slow down’. Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality by Tim Stead, The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault, and many resources from the Franciscan Richard Rohr have all offered me helpful insights.
‘Just slowing down’ continues to be an ongoing challenge for me. I’m not always sure whether I am doing breathing exercises or meditating or praying – but a bit of any or all three take me in the right direction!
For those who might be interested, here's a taste of Hanh: ‘There are many conditions for happiness within us and around us, but without mindfulness, we often overlook our opportunity to be in touch with them. We all have the tendency to be forgetful,’ he says. ‘We are alive but we forget that we are alive. We walk, and we don’t know that we are walking. We breathe, and we’re not aware that we’re breathing. This forgetfulness is an old habit.’