The Necessity of Knowing how to Slow Down as we Support Others
Slowing dowwwwwn seems to be the theme for me lately…
Maybe it’s because slowing down has been one of the hardest, and most transformative, practices of my life. Maybe it’s because it has also been coming up a lot with my clients, many whom are therapists themselves. Maybe it’s because how much suffering and dysfunction we participate in, and how hopeless and defeated we can feel, when we don’t know how to slow down. Maybe it’s because I got to witness firsthand through the retreat a couple weeks ago what happens to people’s nervous systems and minds and beings when we slow down.
Ha! Maybe I better slow down here and explain what I mean by slowing down!
I don’t mean speaking s.l.o.w.l.y. or moving slowly, or sitting still, necessarily. Although that might be part of it, a person can be moving very slowly, or speaking very slowly, or even sitting still, while there is a lot of overwhelm, including chaos (ie quickness) in their thoughts and dis-regulation in their nervous systems. Think of it this way, when our thoughts are urgent, or fast, or scattered… we may not be in a slowed down mode, even if we’re sitting still and being quiet. Conversely, we might be very active, and also simultaneously be in a slowed down and present mode.
Let me explain. What I’m actually talking about is attention engagement, which includes where our attention is going, and what are attention is able to include/attend to, as well as what our attention is not including or tending to. I’m also talking about our level of curiosity, and beginner’s mind, which already necessitate some kind of mental slowing down and somatic inclusion just by their very nature. When we remember a person who has been present with us, we know that their attention and their being has been engaged with us. When we’re cognitively and internally slowed down, we are present with (attending to) what we’re doing, who we’re with, and our somatic experience. We can feel our butts on the chair, the breath in our bodies, and be aware of what is in our mental attention.
When my mental attention’s engagement is slow and curious and/or in beginner’s mind, the subtext resonance of that is- “oh hold on, I’m not going to jump to X conclusion and assume Z. Instead, I’m going to (slow down and) ask (myself or other) some simple and open questions and discover what is going on- right here and now- in real time.” I call that living in “actual factual”, as opposed to living in thoughts, assumptions and/or ideas/fantasies. Feeling the breath and/or feeling something of this moment- like the floor under my feet or my butt on the chair- can help the brain and the nervous system with this as we exist as relational connected system.
Sounds simple right? but we know pausing and connecting our attention to the ‘here and now’ can be one of the hardest things to do in the world. And let me be clear: slowing down is a doing, and it often takes some effort because we’re used to pretty much living out of thoughts, with the ‘here and now’ nowhere in our immediate attention.
When we don’t know how to slow down, we’re stuck living in a limited reality where we can easily spin out and/or live our whole lives from our thoughts, and miss what is actually going on in our bodies and with other people. This makes connection- with our selves or with other people- really hard. We’ve all had this experience- you’re having a conversation with someone, and the second you’re done speaking the other person jumps in immediately, and you can tell they have not really been listening, because they just jump in with their own agenda/or experience. There is a good chance that their attention’s engagement and/or body awareness has not been present, and that their curiosity and state of beginner’s mind has been low. It doesn’t feel so good, does it? I mean, we like it when people are present with us! Likewise, it also doesn’t feel good when we lose our sense of Self/aren’t present and aware of ourself and instead go on everyone else’s emotional and psychological rides. Phew, that is exhausting.
To be fair, and to throw compassion in the mix, we’re all guilty of this sometimes. I mean, curiosity and actually being in our bodies and present is not big in this culture, so it’s often something that doesn’t come second nature. We actually have to work at it- ha! we have to slow down, so that we can then slow down and engage with what is here and now.Not easy stuff!
The art of slowing down includes being willing to notice our experience, and invites us to be in relationship with that experience. Once our neural pathways have been trained to do this, it becomes easy and second nature, just like anything does with practice, but at first it can be uncomfortable and awkward. It can also feel really scary. Amongst other things, there can be a fear that we won’t get things done if we slow down. We also might find ourselves feeling really unsettled, and disoriented.
It can feel really risky to see what happens with this new way of being, but in my experience, and in the experience of my clients, slowing down allows us to be creative and productive in a whole other way, not to mention feel better. I mean who would have thought, but I “get more done” when I am in a conscious relationship with my thoughts, nervous system and the present moment, likely because I am more connected with mySelf as a participant on this planet.
Slowing down doesn’t just benefit me- it also helps me to be a more present mother, partner and a friend. And as a person who professionally journeys with other humans, I would not be of any real service to my clients if I was not mentally and internally slowed down and somatically present. Furthermore, it is my experience that we can’t really support our clients/others, until we ourselves feel safe to engage in this practice of slowing down. Which makes this pretty critical territory, and involves asking ourselves some important questions. How can we support our clients/others in learning how to be aware of their experiences, when we ourselves have not learned how to slow down and be aware/present? And just as importantly, how sustainable will we be able to be in our supportive positions if we don’t know how to be in healthy relationships with our thoughts and nervous systems? Before long, we’ll inadvertently get drawn into other’s crisis or challenges, which can lead to unsustainable exhaustion for those of us who are supportive for others in any way, whether it be with friends, family, or in our professions.
Phew, I am pretty sure most of us know this territory in some way or another. I invite you to connect with some simple practices to support your journey in learning how to slow down. For further support, consider my upcoming 8-month 2022 Matrix Integration Exploration which will be geared towards mental health, well-being and healing professionals. Art work by Karen Thursby