About three months ago, my wife and I introduced something very simple into our day that has had a profound effect on our relationship and our general sense of wellbeing. Like many couples today, we both hold down a full-time job and have many commitments outside of work that keep us in a constant state of busyness and rush. Dinner was simply one more chore that we had to deal with every day, and we were both so chronically exhausted that we ate most of our dinners silently in front of the television. We realized something needed to change because we were losing the opportunity to make a reconnection with each other during our only meal together of the day. We began making a conscious effort to sit down at the dining room table, but to be honest, we struggled with making that transition from “crazy work mode” to “engaged partner mode”.
Enter now, the small contraption that has changed our life—We bought a Tibetan singing bowl to place on our dining room table. Our singing bowl is a small bowl that can easily rest in your palm. It’s made of an alloy of copper and tin, and when it is struck by a wooden mallet, the bowl makes a mesmerizing harmonic reverberating hum that drifts throughout the room for about half a minute. Now, when we sit down to have our dinner at the table, we chime the bowl and sit quietly as the reverberating sound seems the lift the tension of the day and allow “space” for us to take a deeper breath. When we open our eyes, we are now fully present for each other, and are finally able to make an authentic connection. Since starting this practice, we’ve had some of the more fruitful, engaging, and challenging conversations we have had in our 26 years of marriage.
Witnessing the healthful effects of being able to slow down and step back from the chaotic flow of my life got me thinking about my relationship with time in general. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the majority of my stress was self-induced because I was in a sense, a victim of time. When I was compelled to take 4 months off work last spring as a result of issues related to PTSD, I was faced with huge chunks of unstructured time, and instead of feeling liberated by not being governed by a strict schedule, I felt anxious with this void I faced every day. Slowly, I began to undergo a subtle mind shift in that I had to get accustomed to focusing on where I was at now, rather than on what I was supposed to do next.
By reflecting instead of projecting, I realized how much of my energy was misspent and misdirected on what wasn’t happening. It also became clear that a lot of the anxiety I was experiencing was a direct result of connections or triggers that I was susceptible to when I was constantly under a time crunch. I was associating what was happening to me now with someone or something that caused me pain in the past. In a sense, I was inviting this vicarious pain to become amplified and gain too much meaning and control in my life.
With time, I recognized that I was like a mouse spinning on a wheel—I was speeding through my day, but not really getting anywhere. I needed to cultivate the awareness to bring my attention back to what was most important. The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron expressed this same sentiment when she said: “If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”
I thought I would share with you my strategies for slowing down the the runaway train that often is my life:
1. Get out of my mind and into the moment.
For years, I prided myself for having such a busy mind, and chalked it up to my intellect working overdrive. How wrong I was! In fact, a great degree of my problems with addiction can be directly attributed to my failed attempts to quiet that busy mind and escape from the fear in which it resided. To combat this tendency, any time I feel that I’m daydreaming, projecting, stewing, or obsessing, I actively force myself back into the moment. When I’m stuck in traffic or in a subway delay, I force myself to look around at the buildings or the people beside me, and this appears to prevent my mind from obsessing about being late, and the associated anxiety from feeling powerless.
2. Learn to embrace doing nothing.
I’ve never been one who is very good with vast stretches of unstructured time. If you asked my wife, she'd tell you that I have two speeds: “full-throttle” and “off”. Our weekends used to be mapped out like a military campaign, but lately we have been going with the flow and getting comfortable with doing nothing. We really experienced this in action this past summer when we spent a few days in Manhattan. Typically, we would have every second of our vacation planned, but this time we decided to wake up and let the day unfold naturally. It was surreal walking around the bustling streets of Midtown and not being caught up in the frenetic buzz. We wandered around, sat for coffee and chatted, and slowly ambled across the Brooklyn Bridge, and wound up in a quaint pizzeria for a lovely afternoon. Our new family mantra has become: “Sometimes doing nothing is doing everything.”
3. Highlight the transitions not the events.
As I mentioned before, I have a tendency to obsess about what’s coming next, rather than enjoying what’s happening now. I’m consciously trying to rewire my brain to stay “present”, but it is a constant battle. Focusing on the transitions throughout my day helps me stay more in the moment. I now take my time over breakfast, and then walk casually to the subway for my morning commute. Our Buddhist singing bowl acts as a calming respite from our hectic day and a gentle gateway to our reconnection as a couple.
4. Get comfortable with discomfort.
The most important component of my “slowing down strategies” has been what I call getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Those of you who follow my blog know that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Just being able to articulate that to you has been a monumental change I’ve undergone in the past 10 months. I spent over 35 years trying to hide, or run away from what I believed to be a “shameful secret”. Today, so much of my recovery involves learning to simply be with discomfort instead of getting through it. It’s a subtle change that entails huge dividends in my life because I’m spending less energy projecting out of where I am now, and this allows me to deal with what is actually before me. That runaway train that was my life, now resembles me sitting calmly, and in the moment, while I wait for a less crowded train to arrive.