I hosted an unhurried conversation in London this week. We meet at the Royal Festival Hall, where we can usually find a reasonably quiet space. Only this time, most of the building had been closed for a private booking – a university graduation ceremony. The coffee area that was still open to the public was already pretty crowded by the time we were due to start, and we we expecting a reasonably large group.
I could feel myself starting to panic, feeling angry that this closure hadn’t been announced in advance. We ended up moving outside by the river in the hope of a quieter setting. But with comic timing, a series of noisy distractions began around us – a helicopter passing overhead, beer barrels being wheeled right past where we sat. Inside I was starting to rail at the injustice of it, how dare other people try to get on with their plans for the day around our own?
As I started, I found myself saying that part of the practice of unhurried is finding ways to relax and slow down, even when the environment feels distracting. We could acknowledge the noise and disruption, but still choose to stay cool and be present to the process. I was really talking to myself as much as the group, reminding myself of other times we’d had troublesome background noise.
I was still feeling anxious, but started to feel better as we did a quick go-round as different people checked in how they were feeling. Some were pretty content, others too acknowledged the challenge of getting over the distractions. I usually find that whatever people are feeling, it’s better said out loud so I know, rather than having to guess.
We soon settled into a good conversation, despite a continuing series of bangs, crashes and interruptions. I started to welcome each new distraction as somehow part of the fun. Maybe, I said at one point, we could see this as a piece of performance art. About a dozen of us sustained an unhurried, slow conversation, even as the space around us filled more and more with gowned graduates, their families, their cameras, and as the beer stall nearby opened up. The distractions become part of the fun of our meeting.
Much of our very enjoyable conversation was inspired by this shared experience of being disrupted and lots of ideas and insights were generated. And there was a little bit of bonding that comes from persevering with the performance.
It reminded me of a recent experience where I joined a new fitness class, expecting something low key and focussed. Only it turned out be the kind of boisterous, aerobic session I absolutely hate. I always maintain I could never understand the appeal of paying someone to shout at you as you become increasingly breathless.
I wanted to walk out, but somehow decide to stay for another minute, until minute by minute I was toughing it out. And then there was a switch; I started to laugh inside at my predicament as I realised I was doing something I claimed to hate and was starting to enjoy it despite myself.
It’s easy to get attached to firm notions of “who we are” and “what we like”. But it’s often really good to be disrupted and find that we can, if we persevere, just get over ourselves.
For me, this is why I like the practice of unhurried: there will always new opportunities to panic in response to outside stresses… and then make a choice to carry on, despite the anxiety, and find a funny and/or peaceful way through. And learn something in the process.