Across time and throughout the world, human beings have swung a pendulum from one end of the spectrum to another in an attempt to find balance. It's part of our nature. In the modern age, for example, we were so excited about the industrial and technological revolutions that we often made the proverbial mistake of throwing out the baby with the bathwater: We replaced nature with skyscrapers, play time with PlayStation, meeting in person with meeting in cyberspace, and healing touch with the surgeon's blade.
What initially was supposed to serve us and give us more time to enjoy life ended up controlling us and pushing to work harder, longer, and faster. What initially was supposed to connect us left us feeling more isolated than ever. And what initially was supposed to optimize our health ended up interfering with our ability to get and stay well. As New York Times bestselling author Vicki Robin remarked in our phone interview, "Technology has advanced our lives in certain ways, but then it holds us back in many others."
Having reached the outer limits of our indulgent and excessive lifestyles, today the pendulum is swinging back toward the ancient ways and their associated wisdom, through the growing international "slow" movements -- slow food, slow money, and slow medicine, to name a few. "Slow living means slowing down and thinking twice before you do something," said Orly Munzing, Strolling of the Heifers founder, in our phone interview. "It doesn't mean that we live in the back woods and that we're homesteading and all that. It's just being mindful."
In other words, we are realizing that faster does not always mean better and that over the long run, faster not only can slow us down but also can kill us. As an upshot, we are rethinking how we approach our bodies, lives, and planet.
"I think that it would be a misunderstanding of the slow movement to say that it advocates always doing things slow," elaborated Charles Eisenstein, author of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, in our phone interview. "Really what it is advocating is that when it is time to be slow, be slow. And when it is time to be fast, urgent, and forceful, do that, and learn to recognize the difference. I think that in our culture, we are habituated to always be doing things fast and efficiently and forcefully ... So we get into a pattern of urgent action, even when it's not appropriate, even when we realize that the way were are doing things is actually making the problem worse."
Fast food, for example, while obviously convenient, robs us of essential nutrients that our bodies need to function properly. In addition, it eliminates the creativity, love, and community associated with food that is made with fresh ingredients from local farms and that is prepared by people we hold dear. Mass-produced, super-sized burgers, fries, and shakes not only overwhelm our systems with empty and far too many calories, but they also lack the essential "ingredients" of connection to our neighbors, our land, our loved ones, and ourselves -- all critical to our body-mind-spirit wellness.
The word "health" comes from the Anglo-Saxon root word haelen, which means "whole." In its essence, health truly is a state of wholeness. Just as we cannot separate body, mind, and spirit, so can we not separate ourselves from other beings, the world in general, or the universe beyond it. Health is truly the sum total of everything; therefore everything is relevant and important to health.
Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA, called the notion "systems thinking" in our recent interview. In the case of food, he said, "It is the connections between climate, season, farmer, farmer knowledge, harvest, post-harvest handling, the songs of the harvest, value-added processing, shipping, and the relationships that are borne out of transporting and selling the products -- all of the thousands of little steps that are taken to deliver food from field to fork, from lake to plate." When one cog in the wheel is compromised, the entire wheel is compromised.
And so the slow movements are collectively hitting the pause button on the mad dash to acquire that which is perceived as bigger, better, faster, and stronger, at any cost. They are asking us become aware that there is in fact a cost, to determine exactly what that cost is, and to consciously decide whether we want to pay the price, now and/or down the line.
Living on an island north of Seattle, for example, Robin became aware that local stores had only three days' worth of food supply. They were entirely dependent on their food coming in on semi-trucks, via ferries from the mainland. Knowing that economic and energy resources are limited and the climate uncertain, Robin started looking for a way to relocalize her food system. And so she challenged herself to eat within a 10-mile radius, over the course of one month. The experiment in turn led to her most recent book, Blessing the Hand that Feeds Us, in which she questions the food system we want for "health, community, and fairness."
By taking little actions in our personal lives and contributing in some way to our local communities, Munzing said in our conversation -- whether through money or service -- we can help slow down the frenzied pace of our world, bringing ourselves and our society back into balance.
A simple step like gardening, for example -- which I routinely "prescribe" as part of a wellness plan for my patients -- can revolutionize our health, our personal sense of peace, and even our money system. We return to the earth for our source of nourishment; we till the soil with our own hands; we witness and come into alignment with the slow and gentle pace of nature; and we reap the harvest of the freshest possible produce. In doing so, we benefit on many levels: We get a body-mind-spirit workout; we boost our immune system by touching the dirt; we eat nutrient-dense food that tastes fantastic; and we regain control of our food source, and therefore, our economy.
Certainly, there are many challenging issues facing us today in the modern world. We can tackle them in a frenzied, anxious, short-sighted, and disjointed way, employing the very tools and attitudes that contributed to our distress, or we can take a step back, recognize the depth and complexity of our situation, approach the system as a whole, and work together to calm things down. By connecting to each other and our planet, we can counter-balance the fast rush of chaos with the slow rhythm of our beating hearts. As in the case of the individual body, this shift from the sympathetic (flight/fight) to the parasympathetic (rest/digest) mode will activate our natural healing mechanisms -- collectively restoring wholeness, and with it, health.