| 1063 words

How often do you slow down your thinking? I feel like that's not the direction people usually go in when trying to improve their thinking. It's often about solving problems faster, or wasting less time on fruitless trains of thought. Even when you do think slowly, it might be related to tiredness or laziness, which is not a state of mind you'd want to encourage. Slowness of thought, brought about with focus and intention, is completely different than slowness of thought from fatigue.

It's something that's hard to experience, because it requires the right environment and mentality. You have to seek it out and cultivate a situation in which you can get this experience. I've occasionally felt something like this when doing tests or exams, but only rarely. Only when the content is hard enough to require focus but easy enough that I know I can do it; only when there's no time pressure because that alone adds a lot of stress.

Most recently though, I've been really savouring this feeling while playing long games of chess. I don't think I fully comprehended the sensation until my long games of chess, actually; I would not have predicted either the intensity of the slowness, or how much I would enjoy it. I had another one chess game just a couple days ago, and it was such an intense nailbiter that I don't even mind losing. It was anyone's game, and it made 2 hours go by in the blink of an eye. Not even in the most engrossing movies am I ever so enraptured.

It's funny, because a lot of chess is typically played pretty quick. The popularity of bullet and blitz formats, typically just a few minutes per side, has grown a lot and I enjoy those too. Even the slower formats, like rapid and classic, give at most a half hour per side. When I signed up for the chess league through my job and I realized we'd have an hour per side, meaning up to 2 hour long games (!!) I was pretty unsure. Would playing chess for the length of an entire movie even be possible for me?

As I mentioned, though, it is so incredibly captivating to play at this pace. During those games I feel more focused on a single activity than I ever am for anything else. It's almost meditative. My mind clears, because thinking about other things would interrupt all my plans in the game. It's not stressful or fragile though, since playing and thinking slowly is also incredibly relaxing. It's a surprisingly good way to unwind after work for how intense it is.

I always go into these games wondering if I'll even be able to spare 2 hours during a busy evening. And, to be fair, the majority of them only take about an hour. The one I played recently might have taken a little longer, like maybe 80 minutes. It's actually funny, the mental difference between playing with a 1 hour clock and no clock. With the latter I'd think until I feel sure and play the move. When I have a whole hour, instead I consciously try to maximize every minute and make sure I use my time to actually think things through. There are probably some important parallels there for meditation and life in general. Just the idea of the clock makes me careful and measured.

This isn't the only place where I've experienced focus like this before. I have another example, though I didn't realize it until after I reflected on my chess experience. First a little tangent though, about Alex Honnold. He free solo climbs incredibly humongous and difficult walls, which means climbing with no rope and no protection. I actually really like his philosophy and I'd high recommend his documentary, but that's beside the point.

What reminds me of him is his response to people who ask him, "why free solo? Why risk your life for no reason?" His answer: it makes him more present and focused than any other activity. It shuts out the entire world until there's nothing left but him, the wall, and the next move.

I climb occasionally, mostly bouldering, but recently I've tried climbing tall walls in a climbing gym (with a rope of course). I didn't expect this feeling, but I actually understand what he means better now. It's some weird combination of the exertion of climbing, the fear and thrill of being 100ft above the ground, the intellectual exercise of having to figure out your next move or be stuck where you are, and of course the slowness of it all. You end up insanely focused and almost in a state of meditation until you reach the top. Slow and steady wins the race.

In a long game of chess, the same thing happens. The world narrows down to a small circle containing only your, your opponent, and the optimal next move. For as much time as I take to think, I often feel like I could take even longer. If the clock gave us 2 hours each instead of one, and I was less concerned about wasting my opponent's time, I feel like I could meditate on a single complicated move for ages. It's like the mind just keeps expanding the more you think.

Waiting for your opponent to go is also quite intense. You spend the time planning of course, but there's also the microgestures they make, seeing the expression on their face as they think. Noticing if they respond fast or slow, and wondering about what that means for the validity of your moves.

Ohhh and the blunders! Nothing hurts more than making a blunder in an environment like this, but nothing is so delicious as watching your opponent make a blunder after thinking for 10 minutes. It feels a little dirty but also so incredibly satisfying.

I think getting the chance to experience these slow activities with heightened focus is really beneficial. It feels like it has similar intellectual benefits as mindfulness, and living in the present. I'm not sure if you can invoke this feeling artificially, but I really do recommend trying it.