Stop for a moment just now. Sit back in your chair and check in with your body. No, not your mind. Sit back and notice how your body is doing. What is your body telling you, and how do you know? Are you relaxed or tense? Excited or anxious? Can you hear it, or is the voice too faint?
I hope that the answer is that you are feeling as zen as an Emeritus Professor of Zen at the University of Tokyo. Sadly, I suspect that, like me, you're noticing that your internal motor is running a little faster than you can keep up with. This is a common condition it seems, in a world in which we prize busy and stressed as marks of self-worth to be worn like badges. It took me years to notice that I would defensively tell people I was ‘really busy’ at times when business was quiet, because it felt shameful to admit the opposite. As for the last time any of us sat still, without fiddling with a phone, a laptop or a TV remote, well that’s anybody’s guess.
All of this gets me thinking about actual engines, and the Morris Minor that I drove for 17 years, whose engine my dad and I would tinker with. There is a term for engines that are running ahead of themselves: they are called ‘advanced’. Before we apply this our own engines and start congratulating ourselves for being ahead of our peers, in this context the term isn't a good one. Here, ‘advanced’ means that the engine is galloping on faster than it should, using more fuel and oil and ultimately damaging itself. I could turn off the engine to my car and it would keep running for a good ten seconds before petering out. It was slightly unnerving. Without wishing to milk the analogy, my car literally didn’t know when to stop.
The pace at which we live matters not just for our health, but also for the quality of our decision-making. When was the last time you felt that you were racing along wildly, with no ability to stop? And how good were the decisions that you made in that state?
My guess is that you either reacted in an overly-fast, knee jerk way, or alternatively you made no decision, because it felt physically impossible to slow down long enough to truly consider the options. We can motor on in this state for a long time, treading imaginary water and putting off the very decisions that would improve our own and others’ lives, because we allow our minds to tell us that we are too busy. Getting stuck in our heads can prevent us from accessing the very ideas that can liberate us, we’re simply not used to accessing them from other places than our minds. Imagine yourself if you will, not as one person, but as an entity run by an internal board of trustees. For many of us it is as though only one of the trustees gets to have a say, while the others are either cowed into silence, or tied up in a corner. Why do we allow such a waste of talent? When we listen so narrowly, we ignore important things like our intuition, and make even more room for our doubts to run the show. We prioritise the urgent over the important, and the reactive over the proactive.
I’m a huge West Wing fan, and I love the episode in which Leo McGarry has recently returned to work after having a heart attack, and finds himself without anything to do. Suspending belief for a moment that the Chief of Staff might be task-less, we watch as Leo prowls around performing a kind of time and motion study of the White House, only to gather the team and deliver a General Custer style speech about the opportunity that they are squandering. To paraphrase (West Wing fans, stand down) “We work in the most powerful place in the world. We will never have this power again, and yet we get derailed all the time instead of addressing the problems we came into power to fix.” Leo has just framed the problem for so many of us: we can't move forward for running on the spot.
When you’ve been in your head a long time, it can feel near impossible to answer the question I posed above, ‘what is your body telling you?’ Frequently, our bodies get so fed up of nagging us that they take to drastic action to get their message across. In 2005 I was signed off work with RSI and wrists so painful that I couldn’t turn a door handle. The remedial masseuse that treated me told me that it was the result of months of sitting hunched at a spreadsheet, with the tension in my shoulders ricocheting down my arms to their weakest point, my wrists. I had been receiving physical signals that I was unhappy at work for a long time, and I sat in denial for one more late hour after another until finally my body called time, as if deciding that my mind was no longer a responsible adult when it came to my overall wellbeing. I was lucky that for me it was just RSI. For many, like the fictional Leo McGarry, it takes a heart attack to open our ears. Why can’t we arrive at such realisations in a more leisurely, less dramatic fashion?
My masseuse hooted with laughter when I glibly said that I had genuinely thought until then that my body was just a vessel for carrying my mind around. As a former badminton pro, she struggled to believe that it was possible to ignore the engine of your performance. Ken Robinson joked about this same reductive approach to our physicality in his 2006 Ted Talk, where he also pointed out the low priority that is given to dance in every education system in the world, as we privilege subjects that challenge our minds, above those that allow the other parts of us to have a voice. “As children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waste up… and then we focus on their heads, and slightly to one side.” Robinson frames the problem with valuing the mind’s abilities over the body’s as not that we need more Billy Elliotts and Darcy Bussells, but that we need more creativity, and that by prioritising the cerebral, education systems the world over are teaching children out of their creativity, not into it.
Arguably the thing we need most creativity around is climate change and social equality. The toughest challenges require the most imagination, and at a meta level it has taken the planet throwing dramatic climate change at us in the last decade, for us to finally listen to the problems it has been alerting us to for many decades. We really do suck at listening.
Whether you’re a mindfulness afficionado or consider it all just a lot of sitting around, getting our individual and collective motors in sync with our systems might not just help us to see the important alongside the urgent, it might help us to see new solutions to both.
So what will it be, a Kitkat and back to the laptop, or a walk round the block in the fresh air with some deep breaths? For once, why not try the walk?