Slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go

After stepping down from my busy, stressful – but rewarding – job a couple of weeks ago, I gave myself the best leaving gift: time. Three months, to be precise. A Quarter Gap Year. It’s the second time I’ve done it – the last one involved more long haul flights, scuba diving and temples; this time, the quarter gap year has come to me.

As I enter the second full week of the Quarter Gap Year, I’m learning an important lesson: slowing down.

Last week was a heady mix of feel-good productivity: a Johns Hopkins online epidemiology course, dozens of articles on managing pandemics, a couple of blog posts written, and a book on the impact of childhood trauma. I can think of worse ways to spend my days; in fact, it’s really wonderful to feel my brain stimulated, pinging off in different directions. I’m a strong believer in the power of intellectual free-styling.

It was too much too soon, and wasn’t helped by my over-enthusiastic (and age inappropriate) embrace of Peleton online HIIT classes. While Shakira may have warned us that the hips don’t lie, for me it’s all about the neck and shoulders. Thursday it was a slight twinge. Friday needed a husband rub. Saturday extra pillows for my neck. By Sunday the battle was lost and I spent all day yesterday with my left arm supported, sitting upright on the sofa doing nothing more taxing than TV.

Neck and shoulder issues have plagued me all my adult life. The time I almost had to cancel a holiday (and then spent the first 3 days in bed immobile); when I spent a couple of months with a bag of peas on my neck; the frozen shoulder that necessitated opioids and steroids; the countless other times I’ve had to carefully choose my sleeping position to minimize the stress on my neck. It comes, it hurts, I stop. Rewind and repeat.

Acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, sports massage, deep tissue massage, osteopathy, pilates, yoga. You name it, I’ve tried it. I even had calcium deposits extracted from my shoulders with a very large needle a couple of years ago. I’ll spare you the visuals. Some have helped – deep tissue massage and pilates are stand out stars – others didn’t do a thing – acupuncture and physical therapy were a waste of money (for me).

As good as any of these things are, they treat the symptoms not the cause: stress. Stress impacts my posture, which strains my muscles, which are then vulnerable to the slightest tweak, leading to a disproportionate strain, I compensate by changing my posture, and so the cycle continues until I’m in agony.

Meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective

I’ve found meditation to be the only effective way to treat the cause. In 2017/18 when I was going through undoubtedly the most stressful period of my career, Take Five Meditation studio opened near my office in Washington DC. I’d wanted to try meditation for a while and spent a long time getting round to booking my first class. I hoped it would offer an escape from my daily stress. It did.

More profoundly, after a couple of years practice I came to understand that meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective. When I feel my stress levels rising, when I have to make a difficult call, when a donor falls though; stop, breathe, focus inwards – and let go. Your mind is clearer, you can focus more easily, and your response is likely to be strategic rather than reactive. It’s something you learn in a meditation studio, but put into practice at your desk.

For me right now, the challenge is not stress as I’m used to – I’m blissfully obligation-free for three months. It’s the stress of change, transition, the unknown. It’s the task of letting go of many years of stress and finding what normal looks like again. Unwinding.

As week two of the Quarter Gap Year gets underway, I realize that slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go. Realistically, I know I won’t be able to sit still reading novels and watching Netflix for three months, but a little more idling might just be the most productive thing to do. And if all else fails, Omm…