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How to Embrace the Art of Slow Living, According to Mindfulness Experts

by Alicia Underlee Nelson Apr 8, 2020

COVID-19 has forced us to slow down, restrict our movements, and turn our attention inwards. That’s a major lifestyle change for many of us.

The slow-living movement reminds us to be mindful of what’s around us. It’s about cultivating simple pleasures and using our resources wisely, skills that are suddenly very useful during a pandemic. Slow living began with an exploration of local, sustainable food and has expanded to encompass a more thoughtful, intentional way of life.

The movement is new, but the concept isn’t. Contemplatives, artists, scientists, philosophers, and naturalists traditionally embrace a more deliberate, observant lifestyle. These disciplines offer valuable lessons on how to expand our awareness and appreciation of the world around us and transition to a slower-paced life.

Matador Network consulted mindfulness experts all around the world to learn how we can reduce stress and increase feelings of peace and well-being at a moment when so much is changing. Here are 12 practical tips and simple activities to help you ease into slow living during this time of social distancing.

1. Shift gears to prioritize quality time.

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The Greek language has two words for time. Chronos is sequential and linear. It’s about productivity, results, and breaking time down into measurable parts like minutes and hours. Many Western societies and most workplaces operate on chronos time, so when that system is disrupted (like when routines and responsibilities are upended during a pandemic), we feel adrift.

When chronos time isn’t useful, shift to kairos time. Kairos was the Greek god of opportunity, so kairos reminds us that life is fleeting and we need to seize the moment while we can.

Kairos time is quality time. It’s about finding the perfect moment to act. We experience it when we are caught up in a conversation, dive into a new interest, when we’re “in the zone,” or become so involved in a task that we completely lose track of time.

“In the arts, we don’t think about time,” the late sculptor Bruce Howdle said as he stirred glaze during an interview at Bruce Howdle Studios in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. “Time is not the essence of value.”

Howdle explained that creation is what matters, not the amount of time spent on the task. Since many of our external obligations and previous commitments are on hold, we can prioritize activities we find enjoyable and meaningful, regardless of the outcome.

2. Focus on the positive with a daily check-in.

Our brains are soothed by routine. Artist Nichole Rae, who teaches journaling in Moorhead, Minnesota, says that when routines are disrupted, it’s important to set aside time to create order in our minds. She recommends dedicating a few minutes each day to check in with yourself and adjust your emotional state.

“Our mental health is being taxed. We’re all fearing things, even if we haven’t come down with this actual virus,” she says. “I take a moment to think about what I most need from my day — ‘I need peace, I need calm. I need to be in the present.’ Just list them.”

Then put the list where you can see it — on the fridge, your planner, or on notes around the house. Rae says that the simple act of focusing on the positive attributes you want to cultivate can shift thoughts away from the negative.

3. Get outside to boost physical and emotional health.

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Studies have shown that as little as 15 minutes outdoors can have powerful positive effects on mood, cognition, creativity, and physical health. Being in nature is an easy way to practice mindfulness too.

“It’s a way to escape, be alone with your thoughts, experience nature, get the sense of a bigger world: a place to center yourself,” says Edward T. Welsh, Park Ranger at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Many parks and nearly all public park buildings are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, so do your research before you go and focus on green spaces close to home. Instead of national and state parks, consider forest areas, wildlife refuges, and pocket parks in your neighborhood. Pack plenty of water, stay at least six feet away from other people, stick to trails, and avoid any hard surfaces where the virus can linger, like picnic tables.

At home, pitch a tent on the lawn, take up backyard bird-watching, or relax on the patio. If you’re under orders to shelter in place, open the windows to get some fresh air, tend to indoor plants or take a virtual tour of a national park.

4. Unplug to recharge.

Turning off our devices and directing our energies inward can have profound effects on our ability to focus, decompress, and connect with the people around us. Unplugging shields us from the barrage of coronavirus news and helps us maintain our perspective.

A period of rest is part of many spiritual practices around the world. You don’t need to be religious to make the idea work for you.

Rabbi Jamie Serber of Grand Forks, North Dakota, says keeping Shabbat (the time of rest between Friday night and Saturday night) was challenging for her and her young family at first. But she adds that there are many ways to adapt the concept that will work well during this time of social distancing.

“Jews use this time to unplug, recharge, and be with family,” Rabbi Serber explains. “Some Jews choose to go to synagogue, while others have other ways of connecting with God through art, music, nature — whatever may speak to them. During this time we can all learn to slow down and appreciate the gifts that our regularly busy lives don’t allow for.”

5. Harness your breath to calm your mind.

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Yogis have practiced pranayama (guiding energy through breath control) for centuries. But anyone can use simple breathing exercises to calm the nervous system and return to a neutral state during times of distress or distraction.

“Any kind of breathing practice can really bring you back to the present moment,” explains Moorhead, Minnesota yoga teacher and hypnotherapist Andrea Krejci Paradis. “Square breathing has been around for a very long time. It’s actually used by the Navy Seals to concentrate and reduce stress.”

To try it, slowly breathe in through your nose for a count of four. Gently pause, keeping the air in your lungs for a count of four. Exhale slowly for a count of four. Pause for another four counts. Repeat for 10 cycles or until a feeling of calm resumes. The technique is safe for anyone except pregnant women and those with untreated high blood pressure.

6. Cultivate hygge to increase feelings of safety and well-being.

Hygge (pronounced ‘hoo-gah’) is quality of presence and an experience of belonging and togetherness,” says author Louisa Thomsen Brits in The Book of Hygge. “It is a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted and sheltered.”

There’s no formula for cultivating this Danish concept, or its European cousins gemütlichkeit (German), mys (Sweden), and koselig (Norway). It’s all about what makes you feel cozy and protected.

You probably have everything you need already. Light candles, linger over dinner, curl up with a book in front of a crackling fire, savor a cup of coffee or tea, or gather the family for a movie or game night.

7. Embrace slow food for good health and good memories.

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“Now is a great time for people to learn to cook new things from scratch, like pasta, bread, and pancakes,” says Chef Ethan Habasco of Rowe Inn in Ellsworth, Michigan. “But more than anything, cooking with the family will make a house feel like a home. Even if it is as simple as buying a DIY pizza kit to keep the kids busy, it is something they will cherish and remember. So, try that new recipe, use up the old boxes in the pantry, dig through your freezer.”

When the time comes to replenish your supplies or stock up on staples, try grocery delivery or curbside pick-up to minimize social contact. Since many food co-ops work directly with local producers, they may have a different selection of products than the big box stores.

8. Reduce clutter to restore order.

Clearing clutter can free up valuable space in our homes and provide a sense of accomplishment and order. Melissa Schmalenberger, the Seattle-based author of Simply Organized: Kitchens, advises us to make a list of the tasks to tackle first.

She reports that kitchens and bathrooms are popular places to start, especially now when we’re stocking up on non-perishable food and cleaning supplies. Eliminating duplicates and clearing out unnecessary items can help us feel content, in control of our environment, and expand much-needed storage space.

If you’re easily overwhelmed, start with a space where you can clear a lot of clutter without getting too emotionally involved. You’ll feel a rush of accomplishment and have a lot more room.

“Linen closets are a very satisfying thing to clean out,” Schmalenberger says. ”Towels and sheets take up a lot of space.”

Once you’ve accomplished the first item on your to-do list, the bigger projects won’t feel so daunting. You can also break larger projects down into steps and work on a little each day.

9. Play with pets to improve mood.

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You’re not imagining it. Spending time with your pets really does make you feel good.

“Petting a dog can lower blood pressure and anxiety and release oxytocin, a hormone that is often called the love hormone,” says dog trainer Stevie Mathre, owner of All Smart Pets Training in Ada, Minnesota. “Exercise and sunshine are important for physical and mental health. Training and playing with a dog can help break up the monotony of four walls. That mental stimulation is important for both dogs and people.”

The physical and mental benefits extend to other animals, as well. Pets are already masters at resting and playing, two behaviors humans could use more of during times of uncertainty.

10. Rediscover your neighborhood to curb restlessness.

Familiar streets feel totally different when people are absent or carefully keeping their distance from each other. When the walls are closing in, turn a neighborhood stroll into a walking meditation.

Take note of the things you see, smell, or hear. Record your observations in a notebook, an audio recording on your phone, or take photos like Gesa Sternkopf, a tour guide with Bubo Vimariae in Weimar, Germany.

“What we do right now is exploring places, taking pics of details to rediscover the world around us,” she says. “That’s my advice — see the world around you with new eyes.”

Sternkopf says accessing your city’s tourism information, including apps, maps, and self-guided walking tours, will deepen your understanding of your hometown. Walking by public art, important architecture, or the homes of famous historical residents can provide a new perspective. Many of these resources are available online if you’re not able to leave the house.

11. Creatively connect to preserve social ties.

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Connection can be difficult when we’re physically separated. Thankfully, humans are excellent at adapting. A great social experiment is underway right now as people all over the world are finding creative ways to keep in touch.

Religious communities, classrooms, and workplaces are connecting through video conferences and online broadcasts. Friends and family call, text, video chat, email, and send letters to check-in. Neighbors sing to each other from their balconies and converse from across the street. Kids send encouraging messages to their neighborhoods through signs in the windows and cheerful sidewalk chalk drawings.

Frazee, Minnesota, resident Carolyn Baana embraced the virtual happy hour trend when she connected via video chat with friends from Colorado and California. “It’s just nice to have that visual connection,” Baana says. “Everybody had their cocktails and we all bantered. We laughed until we cried a couple of times. It was like being together.”

12. Try meditation for focus and relaxation.

Anyone can meditate, insists Jean Gendreau, a meditation teacher and writer in Ely, Minnesota. All you need is five minutes a day.

Find a quiet space, get comfortable, and minimize distractions. Focus on a simple in and out breath. Choose something meaningful to hold in your mind.

“Breathe in love; breathe out peace,” she advises. “Let a piece of scripture or poetry float through your mind very slowly.”

If you prefer a little more structure, there are many apps to choose from. Two popular meditation apps, Headspace and Calm, both offer guided meditation sessions that are appropriate for beginners.

Don’t worry if you lose focus. That’s totally normal.

“Even the Dalai Lama still gets distracted sometimes,” says Gendreau. “Realize that you are not your thoughts. Your every thought can be released.”

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