“Slow down, you’re doing fine
“You can’t be everything you want to be before your time… “
Rising to the lips of thousands of Gen Z and millennials on a social media worldwide right now is this song from almost 50 years ago - the sweet ballad ‘Vienna’ by Billy Joel, a Grammy-winning American musician.
In reels online, the song is set to dreamy montages of lazy sunlit mornings, hands clasping a warm cup of tea or walks amidst spring blooms; vacations – of sunsets spent at a beach, running into the tide or into pearl-misted forests on mountains, arms outstretched. Driving at twilight. Even crying.
Hearing the song on your routine scroll on Instagram or TikTok feels personal – a soothing message to let up from daily pressures, and take a minute to breathe. And this hymn for the slow life has certainly resonated with our increasingly breathless, burnt out world, melting into the movement spreading its roots globally – slow living.
In a supersonic world, do I really have time for a ‘slow’ life?
The term itself might conjure up images of an idyllic life away in a rural cottage somewhere, out-of-reach for us metropolitan dwellers who are constantly short on time. The thought arises - ‘Maybe when I retire’. After all, with perfectionism and toxic productivity culture at an all-time high (read more here) and the earth-shaking production cycles of fast fashion, fast food, instant ‘everything’ that leaves trails of environmental and health destruction, we can feel powerless to stop the clock.
The good news is - you don’t need any extra time on your hands to practice slow living. Wait, what?
It’s actually about how you do things. Reema Baniabbasi, counselling psychologist at The Psychiatry and Therapy centre, Dubai, explains, “I would say it is a way of being, a mindset in which you are more focused on getting to a pace that prioritises your values, what is important to you, instead of being very reactive or impulsive.”
I would say it is a way of being, a mindset in which you are more focused on getting to a pace that prioritises your values, what is important to you, instead of being very reactive or impulsive.
“We are constantly in a rush, we feel like time is getting away from us. When in fact, we do have time, and it’s about living in the present moment that helps us recognise that and when we enjoy what we're doing and feel more relaxed and at peace, we tend to be more efficient. It’s about compassion towards ourselves,” adds Nour El Ali, counselling psychologist at Dubai-based BE Psychology Center for Emotional Wellbeing.
Over the years, the concept spread to cities and lifestyles, and now there are almost 300 ‘slow cities’ in 32 countries worldwide under the Italy-based ‘Cittaslow’ movement – from China to Finland. It focusses on preserving local and cultural heritage, small populations and designs cities to promote sensory experiences for the residents.
There are 287 slow cities worldwide currently, and they include Aylsham in the UK, Jingyang in China, Damyang County in South Korea, Silly in Belgium, Alphen-Chaam in the Netherlands and Fonglin in Taiwan.
As an antidote to the culture of life on a stopwatch, the slow lifestyle encourages us to think holistically about what our values and interests are, instead of reacting to or being chained to society’s expectations or harmful economic cycles.
By slowing down, we are providing ourselves in this space to relax and enjoy, be present with ourselves. To check in with ourselves and notice - what am I feeling? And why am I feeling this? So it provides us with a healthier relationship with ourselves and enjoyment of the life we are living.
“It has focus more on quality instead of quantity of what we’re doing. We might focus on – is what we’re doing in line with our values? Instead of ‘oh, this is a list of things we’re doing or achieving’. It also involves living in the present moment and making conscious decisions that will ultimately benefit not only yourself but your community and your environment,” says Baniabbasi.
A minute to breathe
Inhale for a count of four. 1, 2, 3, 4
Hold for a count of six. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Relax, and exhale for a count of four. 1, 2, 3, 4.
This is 4-6-4 breathing technique that helps bring you fully to the present moment, explains Ali.
Settle in for the gentle drift across the lake ahead, because this is where the magic lies. You can take as long as you’d like.
The slow guide to slowing down
With introspection to cultivate self-awareness, mindfulness and a few reminders and techniques, over time you’ll be well on your way to living the ‘slow’ life.
1. Lower your expectations of this process
“So often, when people think about self-improvement, they think about what they want to eliminate, the flaws or shortcomings, and they want to do it fast. But in doing it fast, often you’re doing it in a superficial way and not addressing the root cause of the problems –you’re not taking a step back to look at yourself more holistically instead of what is expected of you,” says Baniabbasi. “It is only when you slow down that you are able to address the root cause and understand yourself better.”
2. Introspect on what is important to you
Over time, you can reflect and identify what you find most important in life. If you’re struggling with this, Baniabbasi recommends thinking back to a time or journaling about when you felt strongly about something, whether it was white-hot anger, deep sadness or euphoria.
She says, “If that emotion or feeling can speak, if it had a face and mouth, what can it tell you about what it was valuing at that time that was important for you? If it wasn’t important to you, then you wouldn’t have an emotional reaction, because nothing would have mattered.”
If that emotion or feeling can speak, if it had a face and mouth, what can it tell you about what it was valuing at that time that was important for you? If it wasn’t important to you, then you wouldn’t have an emotional reaction, because nothing would have mattered.
Or, according to Baniabbasi, ask yourself:
• What are some of the lessons and stories that your family, friends, mentors shared that moved you, and inspired me? Then you can ask – what does the fact that this moved me, say about what matters to me in life?
• What are some past things I used to do as a child or teenager that was genuinely enjoyable and valuable in some way?
• What are the goals that you have set for yourself? What does that say about you? Baniabbasi says, “For example, if you want to exercise three times a week, your value may be loving your body, feeling vitality in your body.”
You can reconnect with these feelings through actions as well, for example, doing an activity you used to love doing in your childhood. Then, Baniabbasi advises asking yourself how you can prioritise those values in your day to day life – what are some small things you can do each day or weekly that reflects these values?
3. For your goals, try to find out what you enjoy about the process
Let’s say your exercise goal is perhaps being fit enough to hike a mountain without being breathless, explains Baniabbasi. She says, “Try to focus on what do you enjoy about the process of exercising – how does your body and confidence feel when you are moving? If you don’t enjoy it, ask yourself - what can you do to make it even a little more enjoyable?”
This could be inviting a friend, listening to a podcast or even finding another exercise you may enjoy more to savour the journey to your goal. She adds, “That would help you stay motivated instead of seeing it as a chore.”
4. For mindfulness, pick any daily activity and think about slowing it down
Brushing your teeth? Eating? Yes.
Baniabbasi says, “If you can’t slow down the whole meal, because of the rush to work, maybe you could at least slow down the first bite. In the one moment before you put the food in your mouth, notice the texture of the food, notice the colours, shades, the steam - and then your anticipation before you bite it, and then take the first bite, and swallow it and notice the sensation.”
An avid bookworm? Instead of sometimes focussing on how many books you’ve read, or pages (we’re looking at you, reading challenges), Baniabbasi advises making sure that you’ve understood all of what you’ve read – maybe writing little questions, reflections or notes in the margins, on your notes app or journal. She says, “Instead of finishing the book, focus on the value you’re gaining from the process of reading.”
Listen and be fully present in conversations, and find your favourite technique to tether yourself to the present – whether breathing deeply, or listening to a song.
5. STOP a few times a day
S – Literally tell yourself ‘stop’ or imagine a stop sign in front of you
T – Take a deep breath. Baniabbasi says, “Telling your body - slow down, you don’t need to be running, you are safe. It’s not enough to tell it in your mind, you need to use your body’s language to put the brakes on.”
O – Observe what is going on in the present moment without judgement, without analysis, without labelling it as good or bad. Anything in our five senses, whatever thoughts and feelings show up.
P – Proceed to respond consciously.
“Not just when you’re stressed, but also when you’re calm – just take stock. Mindfulness was never seen as a quick fix, it is a gradual process to be more conscious of the nature of your mind,” says Baniabbasi. Gentle alarms can help remind you as well.
Take breaks. “It can be as simple as pausing and going to have coffee just because I enjoy that, or going for lunch with our colleagues, ‘Oof, I need to regenerate right now’,” says Baniabbasi.
Youtuber ‘Simple Happy Zen’ calls this a ‘silent, lovely moment’ that you can gift yourself everyday as well, in her video on slow living.
6. Finding a skill or hobby that takes time to build
Have you had a secret desire to learn a new language for years but never seemed to find the time? Or pick up baking, crochet or finally begin on piano. If gardening, Baniabbasi recommends starting with the seed or cutting. She says, “That encourages you to appreciate the process, appreciate that growth is not always linear, there’s always ups and downs. There can be joy in the process, and not just end results.”
7. Practice embodying gratitude
Take a moment to notice one or two simple things every day that you appreciate. “I get really amazed in my work as a therapist – that in many people I would work with, neither side expressed appreciation for the other, which was really unfortunate. They just assume that we appreciate you, they don’t think about the value of expressing it,” says Baniabbasi.
Beyond gratitude journaling, she recommends embodying the gratitude in action – for example, when grateful for food, you can take the opportunity to donate to a food bank.
8. Making choices consciously based on your values
The social media machine churns out new trends with blinding speed, and we’re constantly shown certain ‘ideals’ that can have us reaching for our wallets to conform. Baniabbasi says, “There is a societal and economic pressure for fast living as well – being these mindless, reactive, impulsive consumers to keep the society going and running. Sometimes, we’re just buying to fill a void, because of marketing or because there are these societal ideas of what makes you desirable as a person.
“Slowing down helps us be more conscious of these influences – you can ask yourself, ‘am I in line with my values or am I reactive? What value will this add to my life?.”
Soothing reminders and questions to help
Maybe you’re in a yoga class or with friends, but your mind is running a million miles a minute. According to Ali and Baniabbasi, these are some reminders to check in with yourself,
• I’m in this particular moment, and I want to enjoy this. This is what I’m going to focus on and I will have time to do the other task at hand.
• It’s okay for me to just be in the moment.
• Okay, wait, what am I doing now? And how is this important to me? What value does it bring me?
• Check in and ask yourself - what am I feeling? And why am I feeling this?
• I recognise that this has happened, and a lot may happen in the future – but I am here. Is there a mistake I can learn from, without getting stuck in it?
• I am not a robot, I am a human being – I’m going to take a moment.
• If my emotion could speak to me, what would it say?
In addition to improved relationships and understanding ourselves and others better, Baniabbasi adds that slowing down can also make you feel better connected to your community and environment.
“By slowing down, we are providing ourselves in this space to relax and enjoy, be present with ourselves. To check in with ourselves and notice - what am I feeling? And why am I feeling this? So it provides us with a healthier relationship with ourselves and an enjoyment of the life we are living,” says Ali.