on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

a contemplation of the effects of stillness while in Slovenia

Being in Slovenia was an accident. I had planned a trip to Rome to see ancient ruins, and I thought why not swing by to visit my ex-colleague and friend, Romina who lives in Ljubljana – which is an hour’s drive away from the border of Italy.

Allow me to sidetrack for a little bit. I remember a conversation with Romina and her friend a few years ago, and they were saying how they had to drive to Austria to go to Ikea. That memory is permanently imprinted in my mind: for a Singaporean it is just so surreal to buy furniture in another country that is less than a two hour drive away. Venice is also two hours away, Milan is five. I took a picturesque, relaxing, six hour train ride from Vienna to Ljubljana. Can you imagine this is their everyday reality? I can’t.

So the original plan was to just stop by Ljubljana for a night or two just to see my friend, and to spend a few nights in Prague instead. But somehow in the process of research I saw pictures of how beautiful Slovenia’s natural landscape was. I wanted to visit Prague because everybody said you had to, and to be honest nobody ever talks about Slovenia, but I pictured us visiting another city with beautiful architecture and history versus a country where so much of the landscape is still unspoiled. This is one of the rare – I hope many more times in future – when I actually became aware of what my spirit wanted. (Here I don’t really mean spirit in the metaphysical sense, but the essence that exists beyond all that conditioning.)

I’ve taken quite a few trips in the past few years (because I am in a race against time), I have to say Slovenia is my favourite so far (Kyoto is a close second). In Slovenia I experienced a sense of stillness and a slowing down of time, as though I was transported into an entirely different dimension:

right in front of our airbnb in Robanov Kot

For those few days I felt like a whole person, instead of a person who has to make herself fit into the ways of a modern, dense, relentless city. We took hikes that ranged from thirty minutes to three hours, at some areas there wasn’t a single human soul for miles except us. We did however, bump into a couple of horses and pigs:

One could get used to this and take it for granted. But having lived my entire life in dense cities (so dense that San Francisco felt like the countryside to me), I felt like I was under a lingering, soothing, shower of gentleness.

I wondered how I can bring this inner experience back with me to Singapore, to retain that stillness within me. Will I quickly snap back into the haste and stress once I am back in the city? Where every corner I turn there is a tall building towering over me, unable to escape from the fumes of vehicles or the perpetual rush of people.

Lake Bohinj

To be fair it is now autumn, when all the summer crowds have long dispersed. Still I appreciated the quality of the space that was available to me. The unique thing about Slovenia is that you can go from a town to a beautiful, quiet hike in a thirty minute drive (in New Zealand I just felt like I was always driving but maybe I am just a fomo bad planner), so I still had the energy to truly enjoy the landscapes. Something that is more subtle is the sense of safety I felt, because the nearest town was always near enough.

I am so glad I chose to leave Prague for another time, spending almost a week in Slovenia instead. I think this experience is going to make me travel differently from now. I would look for more opportunities to experience different dimensions of stillness. I think it was a necessary process to get the fomo out of my system though. We are so conditioned to look for novelty, but now, only now I feel I have the capacity to experience being still for a while.

For a long time I had felt I was allergic to the city state I was born in. When I lived in San Francisco, each time I was back to visit family in Singapore I would get sick. People would laugh at me, saying it was all in my mind – now I know that actually has an element of truth, because the latest scientific research is showing that our psyche has the power to influence our bodies. But can anyone draw the line between what is considered our psyche, our brain, our nervous system and the physical body?

The latest Apple Watch OS has a noise app, because “Repeated, long-term exposure to sounds above 80 decibels can lead to permanent damage.”. People get heart disease and hypertension from noise exposure. We tend to notice only the extremes. Wikipedia lists a normal conversation at 60 dB. If chronic exposure to 80 dB can cause permanent damage, what is the effect of being surrounded by noise in the 40 dB – 60 dB range almost every single waking minute of your life?

“People living in cities are regularly exposed (against their will) to noise above 85 decibels from sources like traffic, subways, industrial activity, and airports. That’s enough to cause significant hearing loss over time. If you have an hour-long commute at such sound levels, your hearing has probably already been affected. Urban life also sustains average background noise levels of 60 decibels, which is loud enough to raise one’s blood pressure and heart rate, and cause stress, loss of concentration, and loss of sleep.”

– “City Noise Might Be Making You Sick”, The Atlantic

We are like sponges and mirrors. We now know that infants’ stress levels and heart rates are regulated by their caregivers:

“Prolonged separations even can be fatal to an immature nervous system, as vital rhythms of heart rate and respiration devolve into chaos. Sudden infant death is increased fourfold in the babies of mothers who are depressed—because without emotional shelter, infants die. The heart rhythms of securely attached babies are steadier than those with insecure relationships, just as the breathing teddy bear regularizes the respiration of premature infants. Synchronicity with parents (or, in a pinch, with another reliable rhythmic source) becomes the baby’s developing physiologic strength.”

– A General Theory of Love

I wouldn’t be surprised if science one day proves (it is probably out there already) that our nervous system responds unconsciously to the state of the people around us. We get stressed in a room full of stressed people, and we automatically relax when we are around calm people. This is not some new age thing, but a natural consequence of us being social creatures and having mirror neurons.

I am not sure what the future holds for us in context to climate change, but if we do survive it somehow, I remain optimistic that in time to come, we will learn to design societies and environments that will factor in what makes a human being truly thrive. It is not because it is moral or that it is the humane thing to do, but the logical consequence that healthy, thriving human beings will create healthy, thriving, societies. It is a little sad that in this time and age it still feels like an argument we have to make, but I think the leaders in power now are not exposed to this model of thinking (I guess all they learned was Darwin and Adam Smith).

Since quitting my last full-time job four years ago I have been wanting to live differently. I think I have made a lot of progress and have grown a lot in terms of being aware of my unconscious loops and behaviour, but very often even till now I have found myself repeating these unconscious loops in other areas of my life. I am too fixed in certain ways of being, largely influenced by my upbringing in a dense city. This trip made me contemplate how I have to be very intentional about how I want to live, the extra effort it really takes to be in a different mode. Stillness doesn’t come easy, it has to be actively pursued (yes I am aware of the irony of this sentence). I will have to be creative how I can intentionally envelope myself in stillness when I am back home in Singapore.

Note: following this line of thought I may periodically take sabbaticals from social media though I will regularly update this journal, so sign up for my tinyletter if you would like to be notified of updates.