The notion of slowing down has become a common refrain over the past decade. And at the beginning of a new year, it makes sense to contemplate our pace of life.
Reflecting on the speed of change and volume of information and complexity can leave us more fragmented. Between new year’s resolutions, self-imposed goals, obligations, and daily concerns, we can feel fractured and frenetic. Finding time to pause has been a good antidote to curb anxiety.
But we need more. It’s time to appreciate the process of slowing down.
The Essence of Slowing Down
Slowing down is often conflated with waiting, slacking, or delaying.
For our inquiry, slowing down involves becoming fully present to acknowledge, allow, accept, and appreciate the fullness of what is occurring and emerging.
The irony is that slowing down, as we mean it, will lead to speeding up. Sorting through the confusion of slowing down supports the foundation for developing “presence,” a topic beyond the scope of this blog.
Slowing down requires a disciplined set of practices that involve 1) letting go of habitual holding, 2) letting be to cultivate acceptance, and 3) letting come to connect to emergence.
Letting go and letting be are often used interchangeably, which can cause unnecessary confusion.
“Letting go” involves releasing, and “letting be” involves acceptance. Both can be helpful in different contexts because they involve different levels of intention. Together, they offer complementary strategies for dealing with life’s challenges.
The stages and practices involved in letting go, letting be, and letting come, supports the art of surrendering control, a necessary condition for slowing down.
1- Letting go.
Letting go brings awareness to our “holding on.” The key to letting go is increasing awareness to recognize “holding on” in its many forms.
“Letting go” generally refers to relinquishing control or ownership of something or releasing negative thoughts, emotions, grudges, or unhealthy habits. It can involve letting go of a person, a situation, or attachment to a certain outcome, or it could involve letting go of material possessions or relationships.
Until we increase awareness of “holding on” to objects or “holding on” as a tendency, we live in automatic ignorance, drifting and sleepwalking through life. Waking up brings awareness to the old habits and perceptions that drive our defending, coping, or reacting habits.
Letting go may be the most challenging step because it involves slowing down and increasing awareness to recognize “holding on” in real-time.
Letting go involves reframing the notion of going slow inside a process of becoming present. The practice of pausing, connecting to the ground, and breathing supports becoming present as follows:
- Pausing before approaching your scheduled daily events, such as meetings, calls, emails, the gym, playing with kids, and so forth. Pausing creates space to be present for these events. If any preoccupations or distractions arise, capture these for later self-reflection.
- Pausing before speaking to notice your experiences, intentions, and expectations. Remember why you are in this conversation.
Until we slow down, we remain in a reactive state. We download what comes at us and automatically upload our practiced habitual responses. Pausing interrupts and reveals our fixed patterns and supports slowing and calming down.
Otto Scharmer of Theory U describes this downloading pattern as “projecting habits of thought” that enable our sensing and actions. The reactive state maintains our current level of ignorance, perpetuating our existing blind spots.
With awareness, we recognize much of what we download, including the 95% of human experience in our subconsciousness.
Meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh understands that perceptions are the ground of all afflictions and sees letting go as “throwing away notions and ideas that are the base of our suffering.”
It seems simplistic to point to awareness as the remedy to reveal blind spots and support dissolving fixations, distractions, and habitual patterns. However, with increased awareness—pausing, coming back to the moment, breathing, and regular reflection—we can tune into our bodily sensations, surroundings, and fixations to surface our blind spots.
With awareness, we become present to all that fills the moment and begin to notice “holding on.”
Awareness of Holding On
The practice of pausing supports slowing down, coming back to the moment, and being aware of our habitual patterns. We begin to recognize the impulse of “holding on” that highlights letting go.
There is always an undercurrent of trying to prove something. We are chasing some goal, deadline, emotional feeling, or aspiration that produces stress because it is wrapped up in our identity or some fleeting experience we want to endure.
That’s “holding on” or clinging.
We hold on to unhealthy habits or outmoded beliefs by clinging to grudges, material items, or relationships. We also hold on to pleasurable experiences, expectations, or things from an underlying attachment.
Releasing attachments—or non-attachment—encourages a more open-minded approach to life and can help reduce stress. Nonattachment is often misunderstood. It does not suggest rejecting experiences or things; rather, we no longer “cling” to our experiences or expectations of them.
- We set goals and achieve results but do not define our self-worth or value based on them.
- We acknowledge achievements and learn from setbacks without identifying with either the wins or losses.
- We recognize underlying worry, fear, or thinking that finds us possessing unhealthy relationships or outdated possessions or beliefs.
- We notice experiences such as “I experienced sadness or anxiety” as different from identifying with experiences such as “I am sad or anxious.”
Nonattachment is distinct from detachment, which involves a disconnection from our experiences and seems to others like indifference. Instead, we fully connect with our thoughts, feelings, and situations without holding on to our experiences.
The stages and practices involved in letting go, letting be, and letting come, supports the art of surrendering control, a necessary condition for slowing down.
Releasing the Past
Letting go can involve distinguishing the past. I recall this wisdom from my mentor, “working on the future goes best when we can complete our past – and it is very dangerous to put the past behind us before we have achieved some clarity about it.”
With intentional effort and examination, we can complete unpleasant memories or release events that may grip us through increasing awareness, practicing forgiveness, grieving, or deeper reflection.
We will know that we’ve achieved closure or completion when we can remember without reliving our past. A good test is to note if something affects you more than informs you, you’re probably involved in a projection.
By increasing awareness and inviting feedback, we can also release coping that protects self-images, such as being wrong, needing to be right or looking good, or avoiding looking foolish.
Releasing outmoded self-images dissolves any accompanying emotions, such as anger, resentment, or blame, and offers space to see more clearly.
In all, letting go requires slowing down to bring awareness to “holding on.” With practice, we recognize our “holding on” upon reflection or as it arises in the moment.
Recognizing Holding On
Interestingly, our being upset, stressed, or experiencing emotions such as anger, resentment, or blame often alerts us to concealed expectations or attachments, inviting us to let go.
When we recognize expectations or attachments, pausing creates the space between our experience and identity. We no longer identify our self-worth with goals, expectations, or emotions and can move freely.
For instance, our socialized view of “success,” “achievement,” or “progress” often drives our goals, expectations, thoughts, and emotions. Whatever we are proving or achieving includes clinging to our ego, a fixed view, or belief – such as FOMO, comparing ourselves, or wanting more.
Lacking any reflection, we fail to recognize this conditioning. Slowing our habitual reactions supports recognizing the habitual energy that enables “holding on.”
Mindfulness Teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn shares the following perspective:
Humans become trapped in a similar way when we refuse to let go. We cannot move on to what may be a better situation or a new way of thinking because we stubbornly hold onto the old. We get caught by our own desire, by our own attachment to things being a certain way.
Letting go can be difficult, but it is a necessary start for personal growth and healing. As a practice, letting go cultivates the space and spaciousness for “letting be” to become possible.
2- Letting Be
Letting be cultivates acceptance. The key to letting be is acknowledging what is happening and accepting the transitory nature of reality as ever-changing.
“Letting be” refers to accepting or allowing something to exist or occur without trying to change or control it. It involves a sense of non-resistance or non-interference and can involve accepting people or situations as they are, without trying to change them. This might involve allowing a situation to unfold naturally or allowing someone to make their own choices without trying to influence them.
“Letting be” can involve a sense of acceptance or surrender and can be a way of finding peace and equanimity in difficult situations. Acceptance meets life where it is, tastes what’s present, and allows and appreciates existence as it changes and evolves.
Cultivating “letting be” involves exploring our relationship with resistance.
Resistance and Openness
Much of our resistance results from the judgments, thoughts, and anxiety about things not being how we want them to be rather than how they are. We often feel resistance in our body: a trigger, sweat, tingling, tense gut, or racing heart evokes strong emotions.
We resist what we don’t want by insisting on some standard or ideal about how things should be and a certain or predictable way to proceed. This fails to meet reality where it is. For instance:
- We relate to our grown children as teens rather than learning about their adult lives.
- We begrudge new flexible workspaces or technologies instead of understanding how they might support or retain staff.
- We identify with outmoded views or beliefs instead of listening to the stories of those impacted by those beliefs.
- We deny our warts — whether perfectionists, unreliable, abrupt, controlling, distant, etc. — rather than cultivate openness to any insight.
Learning, understanding, and listening lead to openness and letting be.
Primarily, resistance is a reaction to change. We oppose the change or struggle against our desired ideals as a psychological protection mechanism. We avoid issues because of anticipated uncertainty (disagreement, confrontation, opposition, or being upset).
As Carl Jung said, “What you resist not only persists but will grow in size.” Here, persistence is often bolstered by intellectual explanations, justifications, or overthinking – a ruminating self-critic.
Bringing awareness to our self-critic and justifications invites an openness, a surrendering to the unknown that can be transformative.
Being With Resistance
As a practice, being with resistance begins with recognizing the impulse to control, change, or avoid what is happening. As we experience discomfort, stress, or fear, we can pause, breathe, feel the ground, and contemplate: How can I just do this moment?
- Reflect on and name any fear, belief, stress, or sense of control.
- Ask yourself, What am I afraid of losing?
- Become interested in connecting to any fear or worry as an opening to acceptance.
Developing a practice of inquiry—of spacious learning and listening—softens “resistance” and reveals openings and connections.
Much of our resistance results from the judgments,
thoughts, and anxiety about things not being how we
want them to be rather than how they are.
With self-compassion, we can gently tune into our thoughts and emotions. We now have room for letting be. As Buddhist author and teacher Irini Rockwell states:
When we encounter an intensified emotion with these aspects of [compassion], a transformative process occurs. We move from letting go to letting be.
Letting be doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with what is happening; it merely acknowledges it.
Buddhist author and activist Lama Rod Owen implores us “to accept the reality of something before we can begin to change it. … we allow the reality to be present so we can see it.”
The ability to see and say what is happening illuminates our blind spots.
Accepting the Nature of Reality
The second part of acceptance is to accept the transitory nature of reality as ever-changing and accurately discern our participation in that change. We are co-creators, participating in the outcomes we experience.
This knotty premise asserts that nothing is fixed: our views, selves, or realities. Can we accept this changing state as we engage in reality?
If we can, then letting be means letting things be as they are and letting them pass as they will.
If we find letting be overwhelming, it is wise to return to letting go because there is likely insufficient space to cultivate letting be.
With sufficient awareness and space, we develop patience as a practice and capacity. We allow resistance to lead to discovery, openness, and connection. These connections to ourselves, others, and our surroundings prepare us for letting come.
3- Letting Come
Letting come allows for emergence. The key to letting come involves the awareness, space, and acceptance to connect to what’s emerging.
“Letting come” involves allowing – an acceptance, openness, and connection to whatever arises in the present moment without judgment or resistance. This can involve being present with one’s thoughts and feelings rather than trying to push them away or control them. It can also include an awareness of emergence and possibility as we tune into shared thoughts, emotions, or meanings.
Otto Scharmer evokes the mantra, “letting go, to let come.” Without awareness, space, and acceptance, we cannot see what is trying to emerge.
In sum, letting come is the natural consequence of slowing down to let go and let be. With the awareness to recognize holding on and resistance, we become open and receptive, connecting to what’s emerging.
Slowing Down and Speeding Up
In this context, slowing down is a process of becoming intentional and fully aware of this moment. Cultivating the space for allowing and appreciating, we become receptive to facts, patterns, meaning, intentions, and directions connecting to emergence.
Otto Scharmer suggests four layers of listening that we tune into: downloading habitual patterns, factual connection, empathic connection, and generative connection.
As we connect with deeper listening, we no longer identify with things or goals. We no longer grasp fear, beliefs, or fixed views. We may experience fear, but we accept this experience, recognize any avoidance or grasping, and allow its passing.
This level of openness is where slowing down speeds up. A note here about speeding up. This intuitive tendency results from patience with slowing or softening our cycle of expectations (letting go) and accepting resistance, and discerning reality as it is (letting be).
Letting come is not forced as aggressive or reactive as habitual. Scharmer connects it with our “will” as “presencing” or “learning from the emerging future or activating the heart’s intelligence.” This describes an organic versus mechanical process by which we intentionally are moved by, moving with, and moving toward experiences.
Cultivating these states involves a process of learning and unlearning that can be unsettling at first but rewarding throughout. There’s a transcendence of fear to spaciousness and possibility. We meet what’s emerging rather than reacting to fears that often obscure what is happening. We develop trust for acceptance, space, and the unpredictable.
Deep intuitive connections are key. We tune in, become attuned to the taste, and touch life without getting hooked, thrown off, or fixated. We appreciate the fullness of what is occurring and emerging.
We respond to requests, negotiate offers, connect the dots, declare options, make promises, experience relaxed awareness, engage in reflective, quality thinking, and invite conversations to support more connections.
As views, connections, and new questions emerge, we become present to wholeness. We connect with a fuller picture, deeper truth, and emerging direction.
Letting come connects us to possibility.
Finally … Releasing Fear and Control
Ultimately, slowing down through the stages of letting go, letting be, and letting come supports releasing fear and control. At each stage, we cultivate a cycle of awareness and spaciousness that uncovers our experience of being to invite possibility.
Letting go remains challenging. Letting go serves to increase awareness and recognize when we are holding on. Bringing awareness to our habits and patterns can evoke strong emotions and be overwhelming without increasing awareness.
- Slowing down brings discipline to our awareness as we recognize “holding on” to create the space to cultivate acceptance.
Letting be aids in accepting what is as it is and as it is not, helping us notice our resistance to that acceptance. Bringing awareness to resistance surfaces our fixed standards and ideals and invites acceptance of ourselves, our situations, and the nature of reality as ever-changing.
- Here, slowing down cultivates patience to create space for connection.
Letting come supports an openness and spaciousness that connects with possibility. We tune in and connect in rapid, not reactive, ways. Life comes through us, not at us.
Scholar and Meditation Master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche stresses the importance of this cycle.
In letting go of “this,” and “that,” you’re not just reducing yourself to nothing. By means of great discipline, you have a way of letting go, and because of that, strength and energy arise – but not from “me,” not from “want.” In fact, because it is not from “me,” and not from “want,” there is [spaciousness] and the possibility of tremendous freedom.
And it all begins with slowing down.
Reading Time: 12 min. Digest Time: 16 min.
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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.