A search on Google for the phrase “Seven steps to happiness” yields 65.3 million whereas just “steps to happiness” yields 180 million search results. Clicking some links we see claims of how one can be happy if we are confident, give to others, we exercise, we appreciate others, and so on.
Clearly wanting to be happy is a big need, lots of people have recognized that others are trying to solve this problem, and have started offering a cure for this need. Without wanting to be cynical, it seems to me that the cure on offer, most often, takes the form of a widespread fast-food self-help movement that seeks to breakdown nuanced, complex, and indeterminate things such as subconscious psychology, biological evolution, or spiritual growth into bite-sized “seven steps”. This is a multi-billion dollar market for this that ranges from TV evangelists on the one hand, to exotic past-life guides, to healers.
The wise and humane German philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote a profound book – I & Thou – that has really stayed with me. He talks about how humans really prefer simplicity to complexity and closure to holding the tension of an unresolved question for too long. Closure is prefered to uncertainty and sometimes truth.
Social media and the spread of internet has accelerated the propagation of simple and “clean-feeling” spiritual work. Chanting, meditation consumed in several different ways, yoga in exotic locations, and “Conversations with God” create memes that spread quickly through Facebook, Instagram. We are taught to value ourselves as the most important thing and that our time is valuable and hence the need to get quick answers to deep questions and deep change. The pattern plays in places as diverse as business school, spiritual leaders, self-help celebrity authors, rejuvenation retreats. And thousands of people are paying thousands of dollars for participating in this promise.
I’m convinced that while this might be a starting point or a teaser, it is completely insufficient to drive any meaningful inner change and shifts. The human heart, the wildness in our soul, and the dark parts of us do not lend themselves well to linear simplified coaching.
Slow and deep change moves in non-linear ways and the only pattern that seems to hold true is the presence of “wise-people” who act as guides and make it safe to wander through our uncertainties and who assure us that we are not crazy for not having it figured out our life plan or for wanting something quite intangible and not keeping up with the Joneses. Sometimes these “wise-people” are actual people but at other times these could be something we read somewhere or hear or see something.
One of these “wise” things in my life has been a movie – Into Great Silence – that I first saw several years ago. In this two hour long movie without a single piece of dialogue, the camera follows a group of monks living life in a monastery in Europe across the seasons going about their life and their faith. It was absolutely lovely to see and really hope we have a lot more of such great silence in our lives.
Such inner silence and external wandering enabled by this inner silence mirrors the creative force that seems to underpin most of the universe and that leads to a proliferation of life-forms, endless variety in molecular structures of things, and exploration and mutation as key values rather than a fixed and determinate movement towards any single end-state. Poets and saints have called the structure of the Universe an expression of God’s delight in herself or Lila. Put more secularly, creativity and expression and wandering are virtues and delights and not vices.
Slowing down the slowing down process is perhaps one of the most important things we can do and should be looking to strengthen the slow muscle for ourselves. We should build comfort with slow progress that sometimes might not even feel like progress but becomes that only in the rear-view mirror.
Some things that have helped me is to not worry too much about the 10-30-90 day self-improvement journeys that are celebrated on social media where people remake their bodies, lose weight, strengthen their relationships to a snappy timetable. Seeing such stuff a) Brings with the pressure to hurry up progress on our inner journey, and b) Sometimes is based on less than perfect information where we end up chasing a mirage.
The Living Mountain, a book by Nan Shepherd, describes a woman’s journey to become familiar with one single mountain in her native Scotland over her entire life and how this slowness leads to a really rich understanding of the universal for her. This comes across to me as a profound example of the unintended benefits of slowness cultivated over a lifetime. A role model to truly aspire to.
Founder, Slow School