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Life in the Slow Lane in the Fastest City on Earth

Bill Powers embarked on an experiment to live the power of slow in NYC.

The Slow Year began for Bill Powers as an experiment in minimalism. He downsized his living space by 80 percent, chucking most of his belongings to live in a micro-apartment he termed the “only-room”. With nineteen other apartments in the building, he and his wife Melissa soon discovered how life can unfold outside their own walls. They utilized the roof as an oasis above the throngs. Although Melissa worked long hours at the United Nations, Bill pared down his workweek to two days.

Shortly after Melissa and he married, they took uni-moons, each taking a separate trip somewhere else to celebrate what should have been their honeymoon. He realized then that he had slipped into an intense form of workaholism in which nothing but productivity mattered.

In our post-industrial Information Age, workers have become three times as efficient, yet the bar keeps getting pushed higher. According to Bill, the workplace has evolved into a place of dissatisfaction. “There is no equilibrium,” he stated in my recent phone interview with him.

Early in his book New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, he outlines the time starvation dilemma so many of us face.

”Before slowing down, I lived in a time-scarcity mentality, scheduling my life as tightly as possible and sometimes stressing about whether I was maximizing the utility of each meeting or social engagement. But now, I’m increasingly seeing the scarcity of time as artificial.“ (page 53, 2014)

As I have stated numerous times, time is merely a construct, an organizing principle in our lives. The Western view looks at time in a linear fashion, not cyclically as many indigenous cultures believe. One day it rains. Another day it does not. But the rhythms of time as measured by Nature are like waves and circles, not straight lines into infinity. “Having worked in the amazon and West African rain forest, most people in the Third World have a cyclical idea of time,” he told me. “In their view time is a renewable resource.”

Imagine if we were to live with Nature’s heartbeat instead of against it? Our stress would disintegrate. Our resistance would transform into an all-encompassing acceptance of the Now.

In one of the fastest cities in the world, he found it possible to downshift to a self-paced life.

”I realize a lot of what’s been making me come most alive has nothing to do with the ambition and achievement that used to fuel me. It’s the very simple things: chatting with Juan over striped bass, singing with Bruce and the Jam, feeding almonds to a pigeon with William, savoring Precious’s palm butter in Small Liberia. Sip from each little stream, mutually nourish, kindle a slower city. Who says one has to go hermit and steal away to Basho’s blue mountain? John Milton wrote: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Here, in Manhattan, I feel the heat of my mug, breathe café scents, and I simply look.“ (pages 86-87, 2014)

Our hyper-conditioning that the fast way is the only way has led us down a slippery slope. The more we work, the less we feel. The less we feel, the more numb we become. To ensure we maintain our fast-paced lifestyles, we distract ourselves with technology, further dampening our senses. The only way out of this cycle is to raise our awareness of something beyond the insanity we have created.

What can be done to establish more equilibrium?

Sweden recently introduced the six-hour workday to match people's biorhythms better. Not surprisingly, businesses have found their workers to be more productive as a result of this new policy. Bill told me of people he knows who have decorated their homes from a different era, engrossing themselves in a slower time.

Change is possible. But we need to first recognize that it is necessary.

“If you ask a fish what is water, he can’t say what it is. Corporate control is such a part of our upbringing. Whatever you can do to step out from that messaging and extract yourself, you will find a self-paced life,” he said.

So what can we do to self-regulate in a way that brings us more joy and less stress? Bill offers a few ways to live a self-paced life:

  1. Grow your own food. Planting your own garden – if even in a windowsill – is a powerful way to reconnect with that which sustains us. Chew each bite 30 times. Join a Slow Food community.
  2. Look up. Feel the eros of gravity and light from the stars. Nature provides really powerful connections if we simply look.
  3. Connect with animals. Research has shown that pets contribute greatly to our mental health.
  4. Think about the way you think. A couple times a day observe your own thoughts. Look at what your mind is your doing. You may find a neurotic loop that is not creative or interesting. Know that you are not your mind.
  5. Exercise. Yoga is a grand way to bring consciousness into your life, along with healthy eating and sleep habits. Yogic ideas and practices are about reducing the ego and non-attachment, which means releasing the ego’s need for control. It is not passive, but rather an active method for living on a whole new level.
  6. Find your own sanctuaries. It is possible, even in an urban environment as Bill has shown.

You are the master of your own ship. Which way – and at which speed – will you steer it next?

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