The Rebellious Act of Slowing Down - A Love Letter to Maria Popova


I've heard all about the science behind the amazing effects of meditation and all the successful people that do it but I just didn't want to. I had things to do and they seemed way more important than sitting there for five minutes, not knowing if I was breathing or thinking right.

Is this it? Am I meditating? Did I get it? Of course I know it's more than just one sitting, I'm not stupid. But did I start right? 

The typical conversation going on in my head when contemplating taking the time to meditate is the defensive whining of a little boy:

Me: "I don't want to."

Also Me: "It's five minutes."

Me: "I don't want to."

Also Me: "Why?"

Me: "Because I'd rather read or write or text my friends or eat something or watch a movie or finish some chores."

Also Me: "That's the idea."

The endless questioning is exactly the reason we need mediation. We need to calm down, to be okay with sitting still while the world still spins. We're rushing. And for what? The world is morphing at an insane speed and everyone wants to go just as fast. We want the good stuff now. No, yesterday! Thank you.

The hard truth is that the good stuff takes time. I'm sure you're shaking your head right now. You've heard of the overnight successes, you know the companies that pop up out of nowhere and sell for millions. You're not buying it.

I hate that idea too. We want to believe that we can move as fast as the world can. But this might just be the tough pill we need to swallow. We can't keep up with the pace we've made together. Everything takes time.

British filmmaker Adam Westbrook explores this idea in a video essay series titled The Long Game. He makes the bold statement that years ago, far, far away, the great Leonardo da Vinci was a loser. At age 30, da Vinci had too great of a vision and too little of skills. He could barely get work. But, as we know, because we know of him, da Vinci kept at it. It took him sixteen years of work to sharpen his skills to match his ambitions (or Ira Glass would say, fill the "gap") and eventually paint his first masterpiece, The Last Supper. He was 46. 

And, yes, our world is very much different from da Vinci's. It was more than 500 years ago. But Westbrook asks an important and frightening question of our modern speedy society: Why wait? Or in Westbrook's words: "This celebration of youth, coupled with technology, has distorted our perception of time — the world moves faster, and so do our expectations. Today, we want success in seventeen levels, or seventeen minutes, seventeen seconds — and when the promise of something new and better is just a click away, who wants to wait seventeen years?"

Intelligence is not guaranteed in the Age of Information. Google can retrieve the facts for you but more information just means that, there is more information. What we're still left with is the need to figure it all out. What do we make of it?

Maria Popova. Click here for Brain Pickings.

Maria Popova thinks about this question tirelessly. Brain Pickings is Popova's blog, a seven-year-old exercise in refining her wisdom, making connections and making sense of books, art, design and philosophy in her own way. Popova's Brain Pickings is where I found Adam Westbrook's work. Or what a young Hunter S. Thompson thought of the meaning of life. Or how some of the greatest geniuses ever spend their nights. Her goal is not to prescribe antidotes to the problems of the world, but detail her personal journey figuring out "what it means to lead a good life" with the hope that she could also help others. Millions of readers every month suggest her journey is worth following.

And I've known about her work for some time, not to toot my own horn, but only recently has it hit me so hard. While her writing is beautiful and articulate, her interviews on two podcasts, The Tim Ferriss Show and The James Altucher Show, solidified my appreciation for her work - not just from the blog but what you can gather from her life. I can hear the presence and the passion in her voice when she describes her gripes with higher education or her workout regiment. And it's reassuring in this world to know someone is genuinely thinking of ways to figure it out for themselves and to the benefit of others. 

And it shouldn't be surprised to note that Popova started her blog as an email list to seven co-workers, back in 2006.

There is no hack to wisdom. 

Honestly, though, the Long Game scares me. It's not the discipline it takes to stick with something for years, or the lonely nights putting something together, it's the thought of not enjoying my success when my bones start to hurt or I'm responsible for a family.

Of course, there are plenty of things wrong with that, I'm starting to digest now. There is no making it. Sure, there is a better situation where my college debt doesn't exist, the self-doubts quiet enough for my writing to flow freer, and life delivers more experience. But the existential questioning never ends. You don't wake up one day, clap your hands together, and determine you're done searching. This isn't Office Space.

The other hole in my fear is fear itself. I'm worried right now and I worry when I get old, I wonder what I'll think. Is this so bad? Is this okay? Philosopher Alan Watts warns that this constant looking ahead with fear can lead you to wake up at 40 or 45 feeling cheated, never enjoying the present moment because you were always living elsewhere in a dreaded future. 

How do you enjoy and experience the present moment?

It is a practice, an exercise.

Listening to Popova on The James Altucher Show, I practiced staying present and thinking about her words without letting my mind wander or my eyes dart around the subway. I found myself getting angry at the slow-walking tourists when I went above-ground and wondered why. I exhaled. What's the rush?

I went to the Strand bookstore and re-experienced the joy I always found wandering around the stacks, accepting the fact that there was so much to read and know and ponder that making a decision spoke volumes. The bookstore was an exercise in slowing down. There was no mouse click that would instantly zap my brain and show me something somewhere on the spectrum of useless to useful. You couldn't pick up a book and instantly know it. You need to make the investment, the gamble, the desire to buy it and run home to devour it.

And in the middle of my calm happiness of enjoying the bookstore, I was pulled to the back-cover of Pico Iyer's The Art of Stillness:

"At some point, all the horizontal trips in the world stop compensating for the need to go deep, into somewhere challenging and unexpected; movement makes most sense when grounded in stillness. In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still."

I put it down, breathing a sigh of relief. Just those simple words felt incredible and calming at the same time. It was a mediation in a paragraph.

It was just enough that I thought I didn't need to buy it. I'd put it on my list and get it next time. 

I walked downtown and bought myself a second pair of jeans but even in the dressing room, I couldn't remove the thought of stillness from my head. Iyer's words sounded like a rebel yell with the calm presence of a Tibetan monk. It was like spitting in the swirling dust of the universe. It reminded me of the Mark Twain quote, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

How perfect.

I went back and bought it, inadvertently sharing Popova's first of seven most important learnings: Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

And even now as I make the finishing touches on this bit, I can still remember my hope at the start of the day that the thoughts would just pour out and I'd quickly wrap this up in an hour with a nice, little bow, delivering it tomorrow to national acclaim. But that's missing the point. It's about figuring things out. It's about helping you figure things out. It's about us exploring. Not rushing to the finish line. 

And for that I'd like to take the time and say, thank you, Maria. You're an inspiration.