Finding Inner WisdomMore Everyday Joy

Braking Without Breaking (Or, Why It’s Hard to Slow Down)

By March 22, 2010 9 Comments

It’s not just you. Slowing down and emptying out is hard.

There’s a lot of talk in the personal growth world about slowing down, simplifying, decluttering. I write a lot about this topic, about the importance of white space- the empty, open space and time in our lives.
But there’s one thing I think I think our collective conversation has failed to address: It is very hard to pare down our schedules, our homes, our lives. It can feel excrutiating. As much as we want it, we also avoid it.
We don’t talk about the difficulty of slowing down, so people end up thinking there is something wrong with them. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, a little embarrassed, “I can’t sit still!” sure that they have some peculiar condition. I think they have the human condition, especially in our time.
I started to write about this topic last week in a post about Ending Over Capacity Living. Kristin from Halfway to Normal posted a thought-provoking response to that post at her blog here, and I’m continuing the conversation here. 

Why is slowing down and emptying out hard?

A few big reasons:
The High. Adrenalin feels good. We don’t want to shut off the drip.
The Equations. We make up little unconscious equations about what busy-ness means: Busyness or a cluttered house = my life is full. Busyness and overfull closets and drawers= I have a life.
The Colors. A while ago I wrote that “white space—open time in our calendars and open space in our dwellings– isn’t really white, because all the colors that are in us immediately fill the space.” Whatever has accumulated inside while we’ve been running around doing rises up to the surface of our awareness when we slow down or sit in spaciousness.
That includes disappointments, hurts, resentments, fears, uncertainties. Who wants to sit with that? It also includes accomplishments and joys. That stuff can be hard to sit with too.
Momentum: In our busy-ness, we gather a kind of virtual momentum, just like cars and bikes and baseballs gather momentum when in motion. That means that for us, just like for any object with momentum, slowing down is a process. It takes time. It’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to go from hyper to-do-list-ninja to Jen Louden cozy in an instant. Just as slowing down in a fast car can feel a little bumpy and uncomfortable, slowing down from busyness to calm can be a clunky, kind of unpleasant ride.  

Why It Really, Really Matters

Given how difficult it is to swim against the current of our individual and collective busyness, is it even worth it? I think it is.
When we don’t slow down and allow white space, we lose access to our wisdom. We stop being the juicy, loving, overflowing, generous individuals that we are. Life loses its vividness. We literally can’t see the miracle of it. We aren’t able to process our experiences, our emotions, and our questions.
Those things—our experiences, emotions, and questions—are the gifts of our lives. They comprise our customized curriculum for growth. They are the reflective waters in which we come to see ourselves. They are the junctures at which our internal compass will show up with signals to guide us. You don’t want to miss those things. 

What does this mean in practical terms?

Brake without breaking. How do you slow down a car going 60mph? You don’t slam on the break. That would hurt you as well as the people nearby. You certainly don’t criticize the car for having momentum. You do two things:
1) You take your foot off the gas. You stop doing the things that are fueling the motion.
2) You put your foot on the break. Softly at first, then more. You tap it a few times.
Taking your foot of the gas might look like putting away the to-do list, leaving the I-phone to charge, stopping doing.
Putting your foot on the break softly and starting to slow down might involve playing relaxing music, calling a friend, or making tea. It might be a walk or chopping vegetables.
I find that for me, sensory experiences that are calming are a good way to start to slow down: I’m being calmed, but I still have something in front of me to occupy my mind. From there I can start to enter into that even quieter space, staring out the window, or writing in my journal—pure white space activities.
You know what activities are 40mph for you. Go at 40mph for a few minutes, and then, when you feel ready, slow down to 20, then to 10.
Know that slowing is difficult, and be compassionate with yourself. Just recognize that it takes commitment to overcome the doing-momentum. It takes courage to be with the colors that rise up. It takes willingness to come down from the adrenalin high.
Don’t expect that you’ll always be able to slow down gracefully. The kinds of things that happened when you were learning to brake on ice skates or a bike or skis (I once went through a snowman and into a fence) will happen as you are learning to brake in your life.
Be able to laugh at yourself, treat yourself gently, and keep going. When you fail at that and find yourself being a perfectionist or beating yourself up, be compassionate about that too. Put routines in place structures that help you slow down, instead of berating yourself with shoulds.
Let’s play with this, and see what becomes possible when we more readily acknowledge the difficultly of slowing down, and work with it, wisely.
It is when our cup holds some empty space that we begin to sense the deeper fullness waiting for us in our lives.



Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Melinda says:

    Love it, Tara! Great post as always.

    I also find that I can avoid slowing down because I’m afraid of being bored. But I’ve learned that being bored is just the feeling of inaction that actually gets me into action.


  • Topi says:

    Hi Tara,
    I’m struggling to slow down today because I’m trying to solve a problem for my husband. I’ve tried a number of different solutions (some quite creative), but still I can only come up with one (not so fantastic) solution. I’ve kept on and on in the hope that the uber solution will come to me. I finally had to admit defeat, and ring my husband with the one solution I’ve found – guess what, he thinks the solution is fine and I’m crazy. So, what has kept me busy? I desperately don’t want to let my husband down. What I haven’t done is to define what that means, to me and to him. So, my busyness has come from a lack of clarity (in this instance, around expectations). There’s that old “lack of clarity” chestnut again! Now, I need to figure out how to let go, sit down, and take a moment…feeling a bit buzzed, might need to go for a walk instead.

  • sophiashouse says:

    Ooh, that sounds interesting, your experience of boredom and what it brings. I want to hear more about that. Will you write about it? Love, Tara

  • sophiashouse says:

    Yes, and I also hear in this that common thing we do of making up a story that we need to keep doing, without really checking it out. I think this is so common for – especially for women for some reason, and I think it can often connect to a fear of letting other people down, as you articulate here. Where else in your life do you think you can actually do less than your mind would have you do? Love, Tara

  • Ali Hale says:

    Tara, this is a great piece! I’m definitely one of those people who finds it hard to just sit still… and I find I have to very consciously make time where I’m doing something “quiet”. I went on a weekend retreat last November which was really helpful and I was amazed how much happier I felt with plenty of time to just sit and think.

    I really like your suggestions on how to “brake without breaking” — I guess for me it’s about transitioning from busy times into quieter times without getting whiplash!

  • Hi Tara. I’ve been thinking about this post ever since I first read it almost a week ago. Your timing is perfect—the past week I was able to take my foot off the gas for the first time in a few months. This week I’m hoping to ease into the second stage of slowing down, and start tapping the breaks. Thanks for reminding me that this is a process, and to be patient and compassionate with myself. (And thanks for the blog post tag-team effort! I love having this conversation with you.)

  • Anna says:

    Hi Tara,
    Thank you for sharing. I find it really refreshing to talk about things that are so vital to our well being, and yet so devalued in popular culture.
    I especially appreciated your suggestion to spend a bit of time slowing down, from 40 mph, to 20, to 10. I often keep busy with getting everything done so I can sit down and meditate, that by the time I do sit down my mind is still racing and I become easily frustrated. Given how unhelpful that experience is, I can understand how giving myself a little more time and a lot more compassion can really create a different experience.
    Thanks for the reminders!

  • sophiashouse says:

    Annaliese, glad you enjoyed this piece. And yes, that makes a lot of sense to me. Its actually kind of funny when you think about it – how we expect ourselves to go go go and then suddenly be still and at at peace!
    Curious what it would be like to blend the meditation spirit into the getting-everything-done-before tasks. If you experiment with that, let me know what happens!
    Warmly, Tara

  • sophiashouse says:

    Yes, it sounded like you were getting some nice time off. This idea of really seeing it as a process is new for me too, and I’m really curious to play with it more and see what the impact is.
    And yes, I love the tag-team too!!!! Warmly, Tara

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