Do you ever feel like life is just passing you by? Months blend into one another, days blur, and it feels like you are running from one meeting to another. Welcome to the modern world, fast paced, unforgiving and never slow. This all builds up to a lot of stress, feeling disconnected and wishing for moments of slow. But how? How can we slow down in this frantic world we now find ourselves in?
Slowing down boils down to a single concept: mindfulness. Being mindful is about paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. The outcome is the full awareness of life’s unfolding experiences from moment to moment. Easier said than done right? Staying present in the moment when your unruly monkey mind has you focused on what you have to do or haven’t done, isn’t easy.
“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn
Let’s take a moment to think about the transformative power of mindfulness in modern life. Everyday we face many ups and downs. Much of this rollercoaster ride has to do with where we are placing our attention. Much of our time is spent either in future based thinking, or worrying about the past. Subsequently we spend so little of our time in the present moment, that more often than not, it feels like we are always trying to be somewhere else, other than where we are right now. The day seems to be consumed with fears, the fear of failure, fear that we don’t have the right abilities, fear that we won’t find the right solutions to our problems, fear of what the future holds. All of this attention on either the past or the future has an unintended consequence, it tends to speed up time. In other words, it is the cause of much of our frenzied state.
But thankfully there is a solution. If you are able to be more mindful, you then have the ability to slow down time. This happens because you do so fully embracing, non-judgmentally, the unfolding of experience from moment to moment as it happens. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is possible. Subsequently you may be thinking, “okay, that sounds useful but how?” As simple as my next piece of advice may sound, this very tool has had a massive impact on my ability to slow my life down.
Breathing Slowness Back Into Your Life
The essential skill I taught myself to master in this modern frantic world is to breathe. But not any old breathing, such as the unconscious kind most of us engage in throughout the day — but rather purposeful focused breathing. Your breath is one of the most critical links between your mind, body and the outer world. Being mindful of your breath then, is an ideal technique for centring your frantic mind-body-world relationship. In doing so you become more grounded. Being mindful of your breath slows your thinking down, which makes time slow down, as you are now more connected to the present moment.
To understand how this works, you need to know a little bit about the importance of your breath, and how it connects to your inner world — which is completely outside of your conscious awareness. Your brain sits on top of your spine, which is the main highway for your nervous system, feeding information about what’s happening in your body from your peripheral nervous system (PNS) to your central nervous system (CNS) to be processed by your brain.
Your peripheral nervous system (PNS) has two parts and functions:
1. External: Your sensory-somatic nervous system is responsiblefor gathering information about your external environment.
2. Internal: Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for monitoring and controlling your internal organs (e.g., heart, lungs, viscera, and glands). Your ANS also affects your motor nerves, which determine how your body acts and reacts in response to internal and external stimuli.
Your ANS operates mostly beyond your conscious control. It functions ‘behind the scenes,’ usually unconsciously and involuntary. (By contrast, your sensory-somatic nervous system responds directly to your conscious will.) The ANS perceives your body’s internal environment, and after information is processed in the central nervous system (CNS), the ANS regulates the functions of the internal environment. Most of these functions are carried out completely unconsciously. The ANS has two subdivisions: the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
Sympathetic nervous system: Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for what it perceives as an emergency. It kicks into action in high stress situations, such as when you’re afraid, but crucially for most of us, it is equally engaged when a threat is imagined. Sometimes referred to as the fight-or-flight system, the sympathetic nerves direct more blood to the muscles and the brain. Heart rate and blood pressure increase while blood flow to the digestive and eliminative organs decreases.
Most of us in the modern world are on a diet of sympathetic overload, trying to meet deadlines, dealing with toxic co-workers, and a grumpy, aggressive boss. Without even realising it, our sympathetic nervous system is running on overdrive, day in, and day out. If you answered yes to the opening line of this article, “Do you ever feel like life is just passing you by?” then welcome to the world of sympathetic dominance.
Parasympathetic nervous system: Whereas the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action, the parasympathetic nervous system calms it down, bringing your body back to a state of balance. The parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest-and-digest system, balances the sympathetic nervous system. Without the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) for balance, the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system can overwhelm the body with excess energy and adrenaline, causing dizziness, spaciness, confusion, fear, anxiety, and/or other forms of hyperarousal and distress. This is where proper breathing comes in.
Whereas most ANS actions are involuntary, some actions, such as breathing, work in tandem with the conscious mind. This means that by focusing specifically on your out-breath, you will be able to actively engage your parasympathetic nervous system. This is not only the best, but the only tool at your disposal to directly aﬀect your ANS.
It’s the only chance we all have to downshift the sympathetic nervous system from the adrenaline-fueled overdrive that typically happens when facing the frantic world we live in. Bottom line: Your out-breath is one of the few ANS processes that you can have conscious control over.
Because most of us spent little attention on how we breath — focusing on the out breath to activate the calming, slowing down affects of the parasympathetic nervous system takes practice. Being mindful of your out-breath in high pressure situations, or simply when the world seems to be passing you by in a frenzy, will not only help you balance your fight-or-flight response, it will also enable you to remain more present. It is specifically in that moment of presence, that life slows down to a more manageable pace.
”Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
Try this right now: breathe out hard. Make sure you can hear your breath and try to think of something at the same time.
Amazing, right? While you’re breathing out, your mind clears. I view this technique as a way of flushing my thoughts. As long as I’m focusing on my out-breath, I find that I’m able to quiet my mind and manage my emotions more effectively. What follows is the exact exercise I use to practice this skill. With enough practice, this technique will shift over to those frenzied places in your daily work and life where you need it most.
Parasympathetic Breathing Exercise:
1. Focus on the heart: Breathe in and out through the heart.
2. Relaxed in-breath: Keep your throat open. Breath falls into your belly. Ribs move with each breath. Not too deep and not too shallow.
3. Exhale: Focus on the exhale as this engages the parasympathetic nervous system. In-breath, heart rhythm quickens; out-breath, heart slows.
4. Smooth Change: The change between breaths is gentle and slow, like an ocean wave rolling onto the shore, lingering, and then flowing back out to sea.