Sitting still to move forward


For some of the people I coach the pandemic has been disastrous - they’ve lost loved ones, they’ve lost their jobs, their homes. For others, it’s been a welcome chance to stop and take stock - to think about where they are and where they want to be. For everyone, it’s been a change, a Great Pause.


There has also been a tendency to think about how we can use this time to be productive. Initially, lots of people were taking online courses, exploring potential new careers or interests, building their skillset or just enjoying learning something new. But I started to become wary of the word productive, and the connotations that went with it. I started to gently challenge people about about their definitions of productivity, and the potential risks and limiting beliefs that lie beneath them.


So firstly, defining productivity for yourself. I’ve just come across the concept of “internalised capitalism”. Productivity is all about "producing goods in relation to resources" - it’s primarily an economic term applied to businesses or countries. I don’t know when people started to use this about ourselves, or to internalise the idea that we must maximise what we produce in relation to the resources we use, but it's clearly only one lens to look through. Some other lenses we might consider are self-care and kindness, creativity, reflection and insight, potential and purpose.


Once we know what kind of productivity we want, there is the question of how to be productive. There’s a sense that productivity is all about hard work: 'work hard and you will achieve, lie in bed and you won’t, it’s that simple.' But actually, no human being can work hard all the time - it’s unsustainable and leads to burn out and exhaustion. So part of being productive is learning to rest, to relax, to take care of yourself and your needs, and while that may mean exercise and healthy eating, it may also mean eating cake in the bath, binge-watching something captivating, slowing down or just sitting still.


I had already become aware of a yearning to slow down. To pay attention to the small things, the detail of life, to be in the present. This is one of the elements that led me to coaching. And what I’ve learned to do over lockdown, for the first time in my life, is to sit still. That’s it. To literally do nothing but breathe or listen to sounds or be aware of my body. At the beginning it was incredibly difficult to fight the urge to do something, to check my phone, to look at my work emails, to jump up and move. It was also incredibly uncomfortable and I fidgeted like mad. But by the end of a weeklong online retreat with Gaia House, I could sit for 20 minutes at a time, and vowed to do this every day.


It’s hard to say what I get from these 20 minutes each day. They are not productive in the economic sense. I’m not even supposed to be thinking of ideas (although they do pop up). I feel more that it’s a space to be me, to tune in to what’s going on. Sometimes I discover grief or anger and if so I sit with those emotions. Sometimes it’s just a relief to meet myself in a place of no expectation. The time gives me a grounding, a sense of strength and resourcefulness, a feeling that I can manage the challenges of life, and that I don’t have to be constantly doing, or distracted from what lies beneath. Ultimately it helps me to live life the way I want to, and what could be more productive than that?!

“In an age of speed … nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.

In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.

And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”

Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere



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