I rarely go into supermarkets these days. For over a year now we have had our weekly shop delivered, and most weeks with a little planning ahead we have everything we need in the one delivery. Occasionally, we miss something off the shop, or else discover we need an item or two we had not expected. When that happens, rather than waiting for the next delivery which could be a week away, I pop into the local shop.
This week was one such week. As I set about making pasta for our Friday night dinner, I decided it would be a nice treat to have garlic bread on the side. Of course we did not have any garlic bread, but no matter I could pop to the shops and buy one.
I won’t bore you with the details of my shopping trip (unless you really want to hear about it of course, let me know in the comments below…) save for the moment it came to pay for my purchase.
The inconvenience store
Like most major supermarkets* and many smaller shops, my local consists mostly of self-service checkouts with a smattering of checkouts run by staff members. As you can probably imagine, the queue and waiting time at the staffed checkouts are usually longer, and with just one item to purchase it is typically a no brainer to choose the self-service option.
Of course on this occasion I đid just that; scanned my garlic bread, waited for a staff member to enter their passcode when the machine mis-weighed my item, then tapped my credit card and left. All fairly ordinary and familiar I am sure to many of my readers. Except this time, the whole transaction got me thinking.
Why had it just gone through the whole process of scanning my own shopping and paying for the goods (in theory) without assistance from those working in the shop? Why am I doing the work for the supermarket unpaid?
I suspect for most of you reading this, and the majority of the people using self-service checkouts, the primary answer will be to save time. In fact, when people are asked why they are using self-service checkouts, that is exactly what they say. The reality however is far from clear, and the idea of the convenient quick checkout may well be a myth.
Personally, I suspect self-service checkouts are increasingly common as a cost-cutting measure by supermarkets (though again this might not be as clear a benefit as it first appears) but it is not really important for the rest of this post. What is important for our discussion is the idea (even if misguided) of convenience and saving ourselves time.
Time for a mindful moment
A couple of years ago, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began posting short video clips on my Instagram account of quiet and peaceful scenes which I encountered on my travels (and wrote about my videos here and here). Typically involving flowers, woodlands or running water, these clips were designed to allow my followers a couple of moments to relax and unwind, no matter where they were in the world.
Mindfulness is an idea which has been in the zeitgeist for a few years now. In the field of psychiatry where I work it has gradually become more acceptable as a treatment option with a growing evidence base to support it, while outside of healthcare mindful ideas can be found from schools to workplaces to prisons and more.
Broadly, mindfulness-based interventions involve learning to develop an awareness of the world around you, and focusing on remaining in that present moment rather than dwelling on the past (sometimes seen in depression) or worrying about the future (which can be seen in anxiety). Developing mindfulness can take time, practice and patience, and is unlikely to come from watching a 30 second clip on Instagram.
So why had I chosen to post short clips (beyond just the time limit which comes with Instagram) under the title of mindful moments if they are not what would be typically considered mindfulness? And why are far more esteemed organisations like the BBC doing much the same?
I cannot speak for the BBC, but I can give you an idea of my thinking. Mindfulness appears to be helpful for people, especially if stressed or anxious. At the same time, people live increasingly hectic lives. So to give busy people, who may well have a shorter attention span to boot, a chance of even a brief moment to relax, I began sharing my mindful moments.
What I realised while I was paying for my garlic bread (see there was a point to the garlic bread story), a mindful moment is not enough.**
Busy? Then relax!
It seems to me, the busier you are, the more important it is for you to spend time relaxing. Unfortunately, most of us find our lives busier than ever, so to me it seems self-evident people need to be spending more time stepping away from the chaos, not just for a moment or two. In fact, I would go so far as to argue we need slow down our lives a whole lot more than just the odd mindful moment here or there.
Choosing to join the (apparently) slower moving queue over the quick line at the supermarket may be one way to slow things down a little. For the added inconvenience of waiting for your turn at the checkout, you get the benefits of not rushing, getting to interact with another human being (the horror) and may just be the first step to a slower, and more fulfilling, life.
To be clear, I don’t think it is just queuing at the supermarket where we should take a step back and slow things down a little. Writing this blog post is in itself an attempt at slowing down, opting for the long form post over microblogging threads and instaclicks. I’m not sure I have every answer to living a slower life, but I have some suggestions which may be worth your consideration as a first step.
Other than speaking to someone in person, what was the last method you used to communicate with others? I would imagine for the majority of readers it was sending a message via text or messaging app. Communication technology has exploded in the last couple of decades, allowing us to have near instant communication with people around the world, but at what cost?
For me, instant messaging comes with one rather big flaw; we don’t spend enough time thinking about what we want to say. It is easy to knock out a message (or seventeen) splurging our train of thought and sharing it with others, but should we be sharing, unfiltered, everything which comes into our heads?
So what is the alternative? How about the good old fashioned letter? It certainly slows things down, gives us the chance to think about what we want to write, and of course gives you the excitement of receiving a reply in the post. If you cannot quite bring yourselves to paper and pen letters then you could use email instead, but try to refrain from replying the instant a message arrives in your inbox.
Other than chocolates, I did not buy anything in a bricks and mortar shop last Christmas. All the presents I gave were purchased online, and let’s be honest it is convenient. Just last week I ordered a baby monitor online (have I mentioned we are having a baby?) and had the option for it to arrive four hours later. Does anyone really need that much convenience?!
It’s probably fairly obvious how to slow down on the shopping front, actually go into a shop to purchase what you need. This has the advantage of slowing you down, but also I suspect the added advantage of buying less at the same time, and reducing consumption is going to be good for us, our bank balance and the planet to boot.
Between Christmas and New Year the wife and I started watching the new Marie Antoinette TV series. As it happened we did not enjoy it, but that is not important here. What is important, at the end of the first episode the continuity announcer said something to the effect of; see the next episode same time next week or watch the whole series now online. Binging box sets has become so common place, TV networks are now offering the option before they have even finished showing the series on TV.
Of course this is certainly not an entirely new idea. I remember buying box sets (physically in boxes) of my favourite TV shows as a child and then binging on a few episodes at a time, but this was always after it had aired on TV. Now we are offered the choice to skip the wait until next week and watch a whole series in a day, maybe even less. But it does leave me wondering, is this enjoyable? Are we benefiting from the suspense and anticipation associated with waiting until the next week for episode 2. Are we actually able to focus and give the show our full attention three, four, five hours in?
I think the answer is no, at least not fully, and I would suggest it is time to bring back the art of waiting, allowing anticipation to build and receiving the reward of the next episode at a more leisurely pace. In fact, I’m going to give you a chance to practice. There are lots of ways we could slow down our lives, but here I am going to give you just three. Keep an eye out for the future posts for more suggestions, and unlike Marie Antoinette there is no option to skip ahead.
Anyone for a jigsaw 🧩?
My initial personal attempts at taking things slow have focused on jigsaw puzzles. Followers of the blog will have undoubtably seen the videos I have been posting intermittently over the last couple of months now. First and foremost the videos are for me to enjoy solving a jigsaw puzzle. Second, they are for me to twaddle on about nothing too important (a bit like this blog but without the risk of typos…). Thirdly, the videos are an attempt to offer my followers a proper mindful moment, not just a few seconds but up to an hour to sit down and relax. Listening to me waffling on might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but hopefully it will be helpful for some.
For others, I hope it might inspire them to find their own way to slow down and find some mental space. This blog post is a second small attempt at inspiration. I don’t imagine I am going to frantically change the world by suggesting we slow down a little, but those who do decide to try the ideas above might just find their world changing for the better.
*I know places like Aldi and Lidl do not use self-service. That’s why I prefaced it as major supermarkets, but maybe that is being unfair to Aldi and Lidl.
**OK I did not realise this exactly at the moment I was buying the bread, I had been thinking about it for some time. Buying the bread was more the catalyst to me writing this post.