A review and discussion of: World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwan.
Any excuse to do so makes me happy which is part of why I teach writing, photography and other art practices as contemplative forms. So when a poet friend mentioned Christian McEwan’s book, the title didn’t catch me but the subtitle did. I was only vaguely familiar with the titular quote which comes from the poem, To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell. Throughout the book, McEwan uses poetry to deepen her contemplations.
I met McEwan at a conference earlier this fall where she was selling her book. The one-of-a-kind conference was for the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, a wicked organization that funds contemplative programs, classes and even departments (including my favorite, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz and Contemplative Studies). Full disclosure: I got my adjunct job teaching Miksang at Marquette University because of their funding. It was, as one would imagine, an awesome conference. I bought her book, chatted with her a bit and she attended my session on Miksang and loved it.
Yet it wasn’t until I got sick that I picked up her title and started to leaf through it. It is fabulous! McEwan is very well-read and she intersperses quotes, deeply contemplated philosophies, mostly non-judgemental observations and excerpts of her own beautiful poetry.
McEwan spends time exploring statistical evidence and having anecdotal (sometimes judgmental) discussions of how we are slowing down less and less but she doesn’t investigate how scary this process can be.
Slowing down is scary for a lot of people, it is scary for me.
As much as we desire slowing down, we resist it. In order to avoid the space and stillness of slowing down, we keep busy.
In a wonderful interview of Natalie Goldberg, she points out that we resist anything ,not just writing or creativity but things and people we love, all because we have committed to it and commitment makes us vulnerable. Teaching the creative process, it becomes easy to focus on the critic, to focus on how scary the vulnerability of creating makes us. Wanting anything at all makes us vulnerable, any kind of slowing down makes us vulnerable and being vulnerable is scary.
In Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow, there’s a depiction of the darkness we notice when we slow down:
“When a certain light is ignited in the back of our heads, ghostly pictures appear on a wall in front of us. They light cigarettes; they threaten others with guns. Our psyches then are natural projection machines: images that we stored in a can we can bring out while still rolled up, and run them for others, or on others.”
I give meditation instruction fairly regularly and it is a given that a student will comment after sitting for their first session of twenty minutes or so, that they appear to be thinking “more.”
“Are you really thinking more?” I ask them. I know the answer of course, but I want them to arrive at it.
“Maybe I am just noticing it more now that I am slowing down.”
Yes. As much as I tell them that this is natural, often students will stop meditating because it appears to be exasperating the issue they set out to address: thinking. The speed of their thinking, the volume. What we notice becomes, well, noticeable.
McEwan talks about this a lot in her book, in terms of what joys and details of daily life can affect us in their simple power:
“When adults and children spend this kind of time together, it gives them both a chance to slow down, to move away from the me-me-me of human-centered life, and (in David Abram’s lovely phrase) to “fall in love outwards” with a particular place and its native denizens. Such “education” (and the word of course derives from educare: “to lead out,” or “to draw forth”) reaches far back into the distant past.”
It is passages like this that excuse her lack of addressing resistance to slowing down.
It is hard not to demonize our speediness, not to blame the internet, as McEwan is want to do:
Indeed, some experts have come to believe that the Internet is restructuring the very process of our thought…Apparently most of us read in an “F” shape–along the first line or two, and then down, and halfway across a few more lines. “F” reported [Jakob] Nielsen [web consultant], “is for fast. That’s how users read your precious content.”
The fact is we don’t know how much of our changing is related to, because of, or inspired by the internet. But a more interesting question, certainly worthy of McEwan’s far-and-deep-ranging explorations, would be why we are so resistant to slowing down.
Certainly, McEwan, who is a teacher herself of poetry and other slowing down practices, runs into her students’ resistance all the time. She must know this is more than just a reaction to or a result of a sped up culture. So the next time, not to replace this lovely book but to go even more in depth, I would like to see a subtitle “On Why We Don’t Slow Down and/or Create,” or “How to Find the Courage to Slow Down and Create.”
Certainly she provides plenty of inspirational reason to slow down and reasons why it isn’t good to speed up but for most of us inspiration simply isn’t enough. Perhaps the next title could come from one of her favorite questions to ask her students: “What Else Is Found There?” a title close to that of Adrienne Rich’s glorious book of essays on poetry and politics, which McEwan often quotes.
Yes there is world and time enough. Yet, we need to be supported in not just how to slow down (McEwan gives as a list of pithy tactics at the end of each chapter) or why but also why we don’t. Otherwise, to read a book like this makes me wonder, why wouldn’t I want this? We need guidance in releasing the grip of another F—Fear.
It’s crucial to explore both sides if we are going to be ready for this slowing down, for this happiness, and to really choose it.
Miriam Hall is a contemplative arts instructor. That means she teaches people how to write, photograph, do calligraphy, meditate and sometimes even just have discussions with mindfulness, and, when possible, fun. She lives in Madison, WI but teaches all over North America and Europe. See her schedule and more on her classes at
Ed: Madison Woolworth
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