Broadcaster and journalist Will Self on why slowing down can offer a shortcut to happiness and productivity.
The other evening I went to the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s South Bank arts complex to see a performance of the American composer John Cage’s ‘4’ 33”’. The piece is justly celebrated as a landmark of the avant-garde classical repertoire, and I cannot believe that there was anyone in the audience who wasn’t aware of what to expect.
I myself was looking forward to ‘4’ 33”’ as a sort of psychic palate-cleanser. It had been the usual fraught day – I hadn’t suffered from hunger, bodily distress or emotional anguish, yet there had been a steady accretion of stress as the condition of twenty-first-century mass urbanity infiltrated my being.
The dodging of traffic on busy streets, the avoidance of eye contact with my fellow citizens, the influx of emails and text messages and phone calls, each one demanding a response or an action. I live directly beneath the flight path into Heathrow Airport, and even if I try and impose a sense of monastic calm on my household (difficult with adolescent boys in residence), at 6am every morning I am awoken by the echoic groan of intercontinental jets hunkering down over the city and preparing to void themselves of frowsty travellers. It’s a noise that brings with it all the intimations of a wider world of hunger, bodily distress and emotional anguish.
”Most car commuters say the reason they drive to work is because it gives them time alone. But it’s time alone sopping up tension as you engage in the slo-mo game of chicken that is driving in jammed streets.”
At the Queen Elizabeth Hall a rather dweeby-looking man walked on stage to the accompaniment of dutiful rather than rapt applause. He took his seat at a grand piano and opened the lid. He laid his fingers on the keyboard and then… nothing. He depressed none of the keys, he played not a note and apart from moving his hands to his lap and then back to the keyboard again about halfway through, nothing at all happened for the next four minutes and 33 seconds. As I say, I had been happily anticipating ‘4’ 33”’ as an opportunity to listen to the silence and to meditate, so allowing the day’s crumpled thoughts and impressions to blow away into the void.
Of course, I appreciated that the silence wouldn’t be total – I expected ambient noise: the rumble of the tube trains underneath the concert hall, the rustle of clothing, the susurration of a few hundred people breathing in a confined space. But what I didn’t expect was this near-frenzy of coughing, groaning, yawping and yawning. I could hear the sproing of seat springs as people fidgeted and scratched – then there was the laughter. At first just isolated titters, then actual small gales of merriment – and all this because there was nothing to distract them, no amusement, no entertainment but what was between their own ears.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “There’s more to life than simply increasing its speed.” Yet as I sat there, concentrating on my own stillness, it occurred to me yet again that for many people the pace of modern life really does affect them like a dose of amphetamine – which means that when it’s withdrawn they suffer similar symptoms: irritability, inability to concentrate, lassitude and depression.
In many ways there’s nothing more irritating than a Damascene conversion along the lines of, ‘I used to be a speed-freak but now I take life oh so slooooow…’ But I’m not about to ask you, dear pushed-for-time reader, to abandon it all for the life of a meditative mendicant, toting a Habitat begging bowl and strolling from town to town in unflattering yellow robes.
”Mahatma Gandhi famously said, ‘There’s more to life than simply increasing its speed.’”
Nevertheless, in the past decade or so since I stopped driving everywhere in excess of the speed limit, leaping on and off intercontinental flights, working 16 hours a day, and generally doing the best I could to increase the speed of my life, I’ve adopted some strategies – and that’s all they are – that I believe make negotiating all the hurly-burly of a an accelerated existence that much more bearable.
John Cage’s ‘4’ 33”’ stands as emblematic of these strategies because, paradoxically, many of them don’t take up much time at all – or, rather, the time they do take up couldn’t be usefully employed anyway. Slowing the pace of life isn’t, in my view, a form of downsizing (whatever that may be), but rather a way of increasing enjoyment, awareness and productivity.
My slow days begin at the beginning with a school run conducted on bus and by foot, and continue with a morning entirely free of electronic communication – no phone, no mobile, no computer at all in fact. If, like me, you’re an urban dweller, a car isn’t a luxury – it’s largely a status symbol and a kind of hut-on-wheels, in which you sit to grab a little me-time. Indeed, most car commuters say that the reason they drive to work is because it gives them some time alone. Maybe, but it’s time alone sopping up tension through the steering wheel as you engage in the slo-mo game of chicken that is driving in jammed streets.
Walking and cycling are both modes of transport that allow for an exact timing of journeys, so if you have to get somewhere punctually they’re desirable. Public transport, by contrast, encourages a certain fatalism: it’s out of your control, so why not sit back and use the ride profitably to do something else? Longer train journeys I find ideal for sustained work (I once wrote most of a novel travelling around Germany by train), but even short rides can be used profitably once you make the mental adjustment. I find alternating the two methods involves exactly the right combination of self-will and determinism we need to accept the truth of our position in the world: some things we have dominion over, but mostly we are in thrall to the Goddess Fortuna.
”Computers linked to the wide world by Wi-Fi seem to promise the user all kinds of efficacy, but what they can’t produce – yet – is ideas.”
For knowledge workers like you and me, I believe that sustained periods of wired existence can be usefully contrasted with complete radio-silence, hence the mornings spent with pen or manual typewriter and paper, rather than succumbing to the glittering allure of the VDU screen. Computers linked to the wide world by Wi-Fi seem to promise the user all kinds of efficacy, but what they can’t produce – yet – is ideas.
Disciplining oneself to compose ideas off-screen takes some doing for those of us who came to maturity playing the plastic piano – it took me two or three years – but the dividends are a greater harmony of thought, and a deeper intensity of concentration. When you know you can’t be distracted, and there are no displacement activities a keystroke away, then you’ve no choice but to knuckle under. When you turn to your allotted period of screen time, it too becomes more focussed and effective – no, you don’t need those real deer-hide oven gloves available from Lapland.com. No, you don’t.
Then there’s ‘4’ 33”’ of silence. Again, I’m not saying you need a mantra, or a guru, or an exercise regimen – simply taking a short time to be quiet can be a vital restorative, setting yourself and the world back into some sort of meaningful equilibrium.
I’d be being disingenuous if I said that these small strategies were the only ones I’ve employed this past decade – in fact, my search for a slower and more placid lifestyle has led me in radical directions others blanche at. I regularly walk 20, 30, 40 and more miles through cities. I find that turning up for a business meeting and telling the CEO you’ve come to see that it took you a day’s sustained physical activity to reach their office concentrates all minds wonderfully on the matter to hand (or foot). I also have considerable time for that adjunct of the slow movement – localism. When you start to walk a lot more, you inevitably begin to examine your immediate environment with closer attention, and so the values of community and meaningful work – as against distant call centres – begin to gain greater purchase as well.
But perhaps that lies in the future for all of us. For now: thank you. If you’ve got this far, even if you’ve mostly disagreed with the ideas I’m setting forth, you have at least given them some sustained – and almost certainly quiet – contemplation. How much better that is than the audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, most of whom I could’ve cheerfully – and slowly – throttled.