I’ve been thinking and writing about slowing down lately. We got snow in the MidWest. Lawrence, where I am for a few more weeks was particularly pretty because a lot of our trees hadn’t changed colors yet. So, there were green leaves, some yellow and orange leaves and SNOW!
So I feel like the universe is encouraging me to slow down right asd I’m starting to really connect with the benefits and deep self-care involved in slowing down. It’s such an important practice and the lessons from it change you. In the last post, Slow Down! I thought and wrote about what slowing down is and what it isn’t.
Writing that post, I took a moment to reach back and remember an experience about 18 years ago. I went on a mindfulness retreat somewhere just outside of Wichita, Kansas. It was out in the country at a private home that could have been an intimate hotel, tucked away in the woods with a pool and horses. We spent the day getting still. We swam and indulged in a delicious fresh and homemade lunch when we weren’t meditating and engaging, learning and stretching.
After lunch, in the warm Fall afternoon of our full day retreat, we practiced walking meditation. We each chose a separate area of the large property as out own. There was an open field or two, a garden, pasture, and wooded areas.
I chose a wooded area that had a slightly worn path that circled a large copse of trees. I walked slowly in the dry orange and brown leaves. I rolled each foot from heel to toe minutely, listening to the crunch of leaves, feeling the bones in each foot shift and spread as I slowly rebalanced my weight, staying centered through the pelvis. I relaxed down a tiny bit into my center and my power, released my shoulders, opened my heart and walked with purpose and intent. I watched the patches of brown and black earth give way to a bed of crunchy Autumn colored leaves with an occasional green sprout still working hard to fight the end of Summer. It was the middle of a Kansas country October day, Life felt good. Walking meditation felt like a good place to be.
I heard something crunch near me, but not on top of me, not too near me. I felt my heart speed up and my breath get shallow. I felt panic and the desire to run. My fight or flight can go either way. Often when it taunts me to run, I can gather my strength and want to engage in that fight instinct.
I didn’t know all this about my anxiety and PTSD back then. I kept moving. I kept rolling my feet slowly, one after the other, heel to toe, heel to toe. What would have taken seconds in normal time took minutes. I heard the crunch again and a shuffle. I instinctively looked up and saw blue sky, semi-bare branches and soft rolling clouds. It felt calm and there was no energy of danger or expediency, except in my nervous system. I took deep breaths.
I returned to watching my feet and the ground beneath me move past slowly. I became even more quiet, observing the almost stillness around me. There was still the sound of a gentle breeze and the feeling of calm. The crunching got louder. It had a shuffle to it again. It didn’t sound like anything big, but I was suddenly scared.
Now, scared is not an easy place for me to be. I didn’t just push this feeling away. I relaxed into it. My instinct to run and hide has served me well in a childhood of trauma. Again, more often, my instinct has told me to fight. However, I fought my instinct to make myself small and disappear. I fought my instinct to rush or attack. I continued to breathe, heavily, and to be present with my pounding heart. I remember thinking if I screamed, others could reach me in a matter of seconds, not minutes or hours as my past had prepared me for.
I kept walking, having a trust in the universe that I didn’t know that i had. Really, it sounded like an animal, but I had trust that I was bigger than it was and that it would be more scared of me than I was of it.
Finally, after several minutes, and what seemed liked longer, but only a few steps more, I realized that I was on top of the sound. I stopped and looked around. Slowly. With a sense of wonder, because I’d been so intent on the ground that looking up felt like a huge world had opened up in my little grove of trees, I took in my surroundings. Everything seemed brighter, more clear and open and I felt my heart melding with the sunshine, the trees, the ground beneath my feet.
I know, it sounds hokey, but if you’ve experienced something like this, you know, it’s not hokey and there are no other words to describe it.
It was a beetle. A rather large iridescent green and blue beetle. A scarab, in any place other than Kansas. I stopped. I’ve never seen an insect like it in real life. It continued on, completely oblivious of me. The beetle’s movements matched the sounds that I had been hearing. It didn’t move many crisp leaves. It just determinedly moved through our little forest, which to it must have seemed immense.
In the time that I had become aware of it’s sounds and movement it couldn’t have moved more than a foot, maybe a bit more. Yet, in my silence, my commitment to the moment and my slow movement, my heightened awareness made it seem much bigger. The beetle seemed to me like a large animal crashing through the forest.
This is slowing down. This is what happens when we are intentional and deliberate in our movement. Everything seems bigger, louder, more intense than it would in everyday life. In everyday life we numb out, we watch too much tv, we consume too much sugar, alcohol and caffeine. We dull our senses. We consistently escape from the moment.
When we crash in front of the tv or crawl into bed in our attempts to push everything away, the opposite happens. Pushing the world away in a haze or even in a deliberate attempt to escape actually speeds up time. All of the sudden four episodes and 3 hours have passed, but it feels like just a few moments. It’s this kind of slowing down that makes us wonder, what happened to the day. Easily it becomes day after day of doing nothing, but we tell ourselves, we’re just taking time, it’s just a moment and it’s okay. And it is okay. It’s totally fine. We do what we feel we need to and whatever it takes to get us through is perfectly fine.
What I know though, is that everytime I do that I feel kinda yucky,. I feel heavy and lethargic and sometimes my brain has to bully my body back into regular life. When I do the other kind, the intentional slowing down, it makes me feel better. It makes me feel more me, in the best sense. It makes me feel rested and energetic and whole.
When we set intention to slow our heart beat, slow our brain, slow the moment, the moment feels infinite. That afternoon outside of Wichita, of trusting and waiting to see what was in front of me, was just a few minutes. It felt much longer. The entire exercise was just 20 minutes or so, but it felt like the entire day. .
I stood for a moment in awe of the moment. I watched the beetle. I watched it’s slow and deliberate movement. I listened and learned from the beetle. I delighted in its beautiful colors and smiled at its jerky movements as it navigated the bed of leaves left in the copse of trees. I smiled deeply and felt peace.
This is the gift of being present. This is the joy of the moment.
I have two thoughts about sharing this with you. The first is that in taking a breath, taking a moment, I connected with joy. Joy is our natural state. An open heart full of love for the oft unseen, is joy.
Think about young children and how they find such delight and joy in the simplest pleasures; a first bite of ice cream, seeing a familiar face again, laughing at a puppy or kitten. That child was connected to its natural state, a state of joy, openness and delight. That is the gift of slowing down and being present.
The other thought is to tell you the rest of my amazing story. This alone was a life-changing experience, but then the leader of the retreat sounded a bell and our private time was over. It was time to return to the group.
I picked up my pace and left the wooded area. I came into a clearing next to a horse pasture. I stepped out into the full sunlight, blue sky and unconcealed air and felt refreshed. I felt full of energy and fully in my body. To my left was the fence for the horses and almost fifty yards beyond were beautiful brown and black horses. They’d been grazing when I’d gone into the small forest and as I stepped out they lifted their heads and froze. They stared at me.
Then they did the most amazing thing. They ran towards me. They ran so fast, that I got a little scared. It was what I imagine a celebrity must feel when fans realize who they are from down the street or across a square. They ran, with manes flowing and I could hear their hoofbeats so loudly that I cringed a bit. And then they stopped. They all, five or six giant horses, stopped dead at the same time just a few feet from the wooden gate and stared at me.
And I stared at them. They stared at me. In my delight and that feeling of being chosen, I moved towards them. And it almost feels like I crashed back to ground, cause when I moved towards them and the gate that separated us, they retreated. It was almost like they said to themselves, oh, it’s just one of them and we don’t know her.
It is an experience I will never, ever forget. It was so…different and may I dare say…surreal, that it is sealed in my memory. That is presence and from that comes joy. And this is the gift of presence that I gained from slowing down.
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