“My life had become an endless race against the clock. I was always in a hurry, scrambling to save a minute here, a few seconds there. My wake-up call came when I found myself toying with the idea of buying a collection of One-Minute Bedtime Stories: Snow White in 60 seconds. Suddenly it hit me: my rushaholism has got so out of hand that I’m even willing to speed up those precious moments with my children at the end of the day. There has to be a better way, I thought, because living in fast forward is not really living at all. That’s why I began investigating the possibility of slowing down.” – Carl Honore
I recently read Slowing Down to the Speed of Life: How to create a more peaceful, simpler life from the inside out and became acquainted with the idea of slowing down your thinking to the pace of life with the intention of reducing stress and experiencing more joy in your life. For the most striking example of living naturally in the moment, just look at young children. They are full of life, running around and playing with their friends. They turn from one activity to the next with endless enthusiasm. Games of hide-and-seek become an opportunity for unlimited imagination, exploration and curiosity. They don’t get bored or tired of being in the moment. Most children have enormous amounts of energy and are unconditionally loving. They make adults envy their innocent and uncontaminated approach to life.
Richard Carlson and Joseph Baily define this free-flowing approach to life of children as “true mental health”. They reason that we all have the capacity for positive mental health, but that as adults we are socialised into the busy mindsets of Western culture and then we become serious, analytical, stressed, depressed and unimaginative. Beginning at age five or six, and then steadily progressing into adulthood, our mental health keeps declining. However, we have a natural ability to recover our mental health. It’s only because we lack the understanding of how our thinking works, that we feel unable to recover our mental health.
Two modes of thoughts
In their book Slowing down to the speed of life: How to create a more peaceful, simpler life from the inside out, Carlson and Baily discuss two modes of thoughts or two ways in which we engage in thinking. The first mode of thought is called analytical mode and involves process thinking or what we would otherwise call problem-solving.
Process or analytical thinking involves:
- Storing of information (memory)
- Analysing data (comparing new information to existing information and organising it into beliefs, concepts and ideas
- Planning of our lives by creating simulations of future scenarios based on past memories and our imagination
- Computing and calculating existing data in our memory to organise our lives and respond to different situations
- Remembering information that we have previously learned
This analytical mode of thinking is essential to living our lives effectively. It allows us to learn new things, from languages to mathematics and everything in between. It helps us operate a computer, drive a car, navigate to the grocery store, remember anniversaries or birthdays and so much more.
The primary advantage of analytical thinking, is that it is most effective in finding solutions or making decisions when all the variables are known to us. When all the information we need, is available, this mode of thinking is fast and effective. However, when all the variables are not known or an answer isn’t possible right now, it can get us stuck, turning our mental wheels without moving forward. We continue to churn on the problem on the inside – we obsess and rethink the problem without finding a solution. This is a very draining and frustrating process.
In our fast-paced world, most of us exclusively function from this analytical mode of thinking. However, applying this mode of thinking where all the variables are not known to us can and will cause stress, worry, anxiety, depression, frustration and an increased sense of urgency. This is when we start to suffer from mental illness and move away from mental health.
Analytical thinking is the main method of thinking taught in schools, but it isn’t the only mode of thinking available to us. There is a second mode of thinking that is much more natural to us and can bring us back to mental health.
This second mode of thinking is called free-flowing mode. It’s also often called creative intelligence, intuition or reflective thinking. The primary purpose of this mode of thinking is to enjoy life, operate at peak performance levels and solve problems where not all the variables are known. In free-flowing mode, we can generate novel ideas not considered yet. For this reason, this mode of thinking is often called inner wisdom, insight, creative or divine inspiration or out-of-the-box thinking. In this mode of thinking, we experience thinking as effortless. It flows from moment to moment and is responsive to whatever is happening or needed at a specific moment in time.
Some people might not even consider this mode of thinking as a form of thinking, but it is a powerful way of engaging in thought for complex problems or challenges that doesn’t have one right answer. Professional sports players or musicians are in free-flowing mode, when they are “in the zone”. A public speaker might be in free-flow mode when he/she is delivering an inspirational speech and is responsive to the audience he/she is speaking to. Writers and teachers reflect on experiences of “flow”, which they describe as an effortless state where thoughts and ideas continue to bubble to the surface, and they are able to write or create without feeling like it’s hard work.
As mentioned, children play in this mode of thought most of the time. Free-flow thinking allows us to use information in our memory, but in creative and new ways not considered before. When we are in free-flow mode, thoughts and ideas seem to come to us out of the blue. Thinking takes no effort. Most people have experienced how their best ideas or the solution to a problem they’ve been struggling with comes to them “in the shower” or “on vacation” or “while driving my car” or while “taking a walk” etc. The answers come when we are engaged in other activities and not trying to “force” an answer or solution.
Free-flow thinking has the following advantages:
- It’s stress-free.
- It’s easy. It’s not tiring.
- It’s ideally suited for dealing with the unknown, where all the variables are not known, or a creative solution is required.
- It allows us to practice at peak performance and enjoyment simultaneously.
- It comes naturally. We are born with it.
Essentially engaging in free-flow thinking comes more naturally than engaging in analytical thinking and helps you slow down to the speed of life. Instead of feeling rushed and stressed to find an answer, you observe what is unfolding right in front of you in the present moment and trust that your intuition will provide the guidance you need to find a solution. Even though this way of thinking comes naturally to us, many of us have unlearnt how to engage in free-flow thought, and struggle to get ourselves back into the moment. Carlson and Baily offer four keys to finding your way back to the present moment.
Getting back to the moment
According to Carlson and Baily, there are four simple keys to finding your way back to the present moment:
- Deep listening without judgement
- Seeing the wisdom of not knowing or not having the answer
- Trusting in the free-flowing mode of thought
- Putting your problems on the back burner
Firstly, very few of us actually listen to others. Most of us listen only for the gaps in the conversation when it is our turn to speak. Or we listen for where we can share our opinion or experience. Most of us have been indoctrinated through education to listen exclusively with our analytical or process-oriented minds engaged; which is focused on concentrating and memorising. Consequently, we compare what we hear with what is already familiar to us and we end up agreeing or disagreeing with the data that enters our minds.
Consider what happens when you are listening to music whilst focusing on memorising the lyrics or analysing the melody or figuring out what key the song is being played in. You might be able to describe certain details about the piece of music, but it is highly unlikely that you would have been touched by the piece of music or experienced any real enjoyment of the music.
Now consider what happens when you are listening to music without trying to memorise the lyrics or criticize the melody or figure out what key the song is being played in. In other words, you are simply absorbing what you are listening to without judgement; you are listening to the music, because you enjoy it. When we are listening in this way, our thoughts flow with ease and we can become touched by life as it is created in each moment. When we are listening in this way, it is easy for us to stay in the present moment and to gauge when we have become disconnected from the present moment and then bring our attention back to it.
When you are listening in analytical mode to others, it’s the same as when you are listening to analyse a piece of music. You are aware of your own thinking and you are basically focused on your own thoughts without really taking in what the other person is saying. Two types of thinking take us out of the moment and prevent us from listening effectively: (1) interpreting and (2) agreeing/disagreeing.
When we are interpreting, we are simply listening to the extent that what someone is saying relates to our own experience. We are thus filtering their experience through our memories. Consequently, we are in effect re-experiencing the past instead of being present to what is unfolding in the moment. We are basically determining what we like and dislike about what someone is saying based on how it fits into our existing belief structure. For example, if your spouse is telling you about a disagreement she has had with the neighbour and you are drawing conclusions before she has even finished speaking. You might think: “I’ve heard this before. She’s always arguing with someone. That neighbour sure is difficult.” Your experience of the moment is thus contaminated by your own assumptions or memories from the past.
When we are agreeing or disagreeing with what someone is saying, we severely limit what we can learn. We become trapped in our own existing beliefs. You’ve probably had a conversation with someone who offers running commentary on everything you say: “That’s right. I know. No, that’s not right. Yeah. No. Right on. I don’t think so.” This can become frustrating. You don’t really feel listened to. Instead you feel evaluated or judged.
Neither of these modes of listening qualifies as true listening. True listening involves receiving what someone is saying without judgement or without your own inner commentary. True listening requires a quiet, open mind where new awareness can arise, even about a topic that you might have had experience with previously. It’s that aha moment when you realise “I’ve never thought of it like that before”.
In true listening, we can recognise our own thoughts and distinguish them from what the other is saying. We are present in the moment, receiving what is being said as it unfolds. True listening is respectful and loving and ensures that we stay in the moment. We are not thinking about what we will say next or how the speaker’s experience aligns with our experience or is completely misaligned to how we see things. We are simply holding space for the other while being open to learning something new. It allows for a deep connection with the other person and an emotional experience of what is being said in the moment.
Secondly, often the answer to a problem is not immediately obvious. We simply don’t know what to do next. Einstein is often quoted as saying that “you can’t solve a problem at the same level of thinking you were at when you created it in the first place”. When we find ourselves stuck on the same problem, spinning our wheels, it’s time to notice that a new way of thinking is required. We need to empty our minds of analytical thinking and allow space for free-flow thinking. Being willing not to know right now, and having the humility to admit that our analytical thinking is not providing us with the answers we need, is the first step into free-flow thinking. If we can learn to be comfortable with not knowing, we would be able to relax amidst chaos and confusion, because we can trust that the answer will reveal itself when it is required. Forcing answers or pretending that we know or trying to convince ourselves that we should know what to do, speeds our minds up and pulls us out of the present moment. Often, the answer comes when we are no longer trying to force it. “A fool always knows; a wise man never knows”.
Thirdly, once we can accept that we might not have the answer or that we don’t really know what to do next, we can trust in the free-flow process. Free-flowing mode is sometimes more powerful, creative and effective than our analytical mode of thinking. Have you tried to remember the name of someone or something and gotten stuck on it, only for the name to pop into your head later when you were no longer thinking about it? Or do you remember experiencing a blank on a test or exam, only for the answer to appear in your mind after the exam was already over? According to Carlson and Baily, it is no accident that you remembered something when it was no longer important to you. Our memory and creative thinking don’t function well under pressure. When we slow down and relax, our free-flow thinking takes over. We don’t have to do anything except for letting go of our insistence on finding the answer immediately.
Many of us get stuck in the habit of rehearsing our lives. We mull over things in the past, or go over and over in our heads what we have to do today, or fret about things that must be done in the future. Doing this, keeps our minds busy and speeded up and thus not at the speed of life. Whilst preoccupied with our to-do-lists and lists of should and shouldn’ts, we are constantly engaged in analytical thinking mode. This prevents us from being open to the present moment and robs us of our spontaneity and responsiveness.
We have convinced ourselves that if we aren’t constantly reminding ourselves to put gas in the car, or pay the phone bill on time, or get that memo off to our client, we will forget and become less effective. So, out of fear of becoming less efficient and functional, we stay stuck in our analytical or process mode of thinking. This is simply not true. Being engaged in free-flow thinking does not mean that we will become forgetful and less efficient. In fact, when we are in a relaxed state of mind, present to our surroundings, we discover an intelligent flow of thinking that always informs us of what we need to do when we need to do it. As you slow down, you will actually become less forgetful and you will live and work smarter. Your memory, insight and creativity will improve and instead of rushing around, scrambling for answers, you will remain calm, focused and relaxed when you are approaching challenging situations.
Lastly, old gas stoves used to have a back burner that was used for slowly brewing vegetables, broth or soup. If you want flavoursome broth or soup, the secret is putting all the ingredients in the pot and then allowing it to cook slowly on the back burner. You basically leave it alone, only occasionally stirring the pot. The soup needs to cook slowly. If it cooks too fast, the flavours might not blend properly, or the ingredients might burn. The back burner of the stove required little attention; you could cook something on the faster front burner at the same time.
It’s the same with complex problems we don’t have immediate answers to or when there are unknown variables. Putting these problems on the back burner of the mind, means that we trust that our intuition will combine the ingredients in the right way and provide us with a solution (i.e. a delicious and flavoursome broth). So, you are not dropping the problem altogether, you are simply no longer trying to force an answer.
Carlson and Baily reason that putting problems on the back burner of our minds does two things:
- It allows you to slow down to the present moment, pay attention to what is happening and actually enjoy your life.
- It puts the most intelligent and creative part of your mind to work on the problem.
Another way of looking at this idea of putting things on the back burner, is allowing for the silt in a lake to settle so you can see clearly to the bottom of the lake. There is nothing to do, but allow our busy thoughts to settle, so that we can see more clearly and notice the obvious answer lying at the bottom of the lake of our minds.
What challenges and frustrations can you put on the back burner today? How can you allow space for your natural, intuitive intelligence to guide your thinking today? What would be the value of slowing down to the speed of life today? What are you not noticing while you are sped up in your busy analytical mind? What moments of joy are you missing out on by not slowing down to the speed of life?
- Carlson, R. & Baily. J. (1997). Slowing down to the speed of life: How to create a more peaceful, simpler life from the inside out. New York: HarperCollins.