Friday, January 6, 2012

The slow life

Yesterday, I saw a man multi-tasking. Nothing out of the ordinary there. What caught my attention though was that he was jabbering on his mobile phone while standing in front of a temple’s sanctum sanctorum and, presumably, trying to pray. Of course, he might just have been calling God.
It was an image that was good for a laugh. But there was also something faintly disturbing about it. Have our lives become so frenetic that we need to multi-task even when seeking to commune with the divine.
So it was serendipity — or design — that soon afterwards, I found this essay by Pico Iyer on the need to slow down. As he acknowledges, there is, perhaps, nothing very new in what he writes: “The urgency of slowing down - to find the time and space to think - is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context.” But the perspective he offers does reinforce the need to slow down and de-clutter our minds.
Pace, though, is the spirit of the age; the faster the better. I mean, how many of us want a slow car, a slow Internet connection or a ticket on a slow train for that matter. And more important, how easy is it in practice to slow down, especially without having to make some sweeping choices — economic and, consequently, lifestyle-related?
Since we live in a ‘flat world’, where our workdays bleed into our nights and holidays, how feasible is it to slow down? Especially since for many of us, the sliver of economic security we enjoy hinges on being available 24x7 to our customers and companies.
And what about the millions who live on the margins in a country like India. Is there any sense in talking about slowing down, when existence itself is a question they confront every day? There are no easy answers.
I was bouncing these thoughts off Joseph at First Discipline, whose take is that slowing down is about reflecting — what he calls the “r phase” — which is essential for quality, completeness and learning. “By itself, slowing down has no intrinsic value unless we slow down to see what happens around us,” he believes.
In other words, it is only by slowing down, and reflecting on the world around and within, that we can surge ahead; provided, of course, that the reflection leads to action. The key question though is how do those of us who live in countries such as India slow down, without having to make drastic economic and lifestyle choices.
In some cases, the organisations we work for will themselves help us slow down. As Iyer writes, companies such as Intel have begun experimenting with ‘quiet periods’ for employees. In time, perhaps, these ‘quiet periods’ may lengthen and also spread to other organisations driven, at the very least, by the desire to spur breakthrough ideas.
For most of us though, the short-term solution may be to create regular pockets of quiet time: periods when we shut out the world, even if only for a few minutes.
The beauty is that such pockets of quiet time are easy to create irrespective of how frenzied our lives may be. Even those of us on call 24x7 can, without too much struggle, carve out regular but short quiet periods to reflect.
And as we get used to these quiet moments and start enjoying them, we will begin to slow down, even if it is just a little bit. But even that bit can make a big difference.

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