In Praise of Slow Reading

– Posted in: Blog, Short Pieces

In high school, I took a course in ‘speed reading’. We were lured into it with promises that it would improve our grades and our efforts to “get ahead and succeed in life”. They didn’t mention, because no-one at that time could know, that it would help us read inter-net screens, blogs, news reports and e-mails. No-one mentioned that it would also reduce, and hence neglect to further cultivate, our abilities to enjoy the act of contemplative discovery that can come with deliberate slow reading.

We learned to skim through a text, picking out salient features. At times we would fly through an article so fast that consciously we had little idea as to what it was about yet when tested afterward, as they often did in those classes, we discovered that we had retained far more than we thought. This became a model for ideal reading – fast and effective. Today with Google and proliferating hand-held devices, more and more people are developing habits of reading that paralleled our ‘speed reading’. We skim, looking for headlines, summations, and whatever we currently deem to be important information. The whole process is deceptively exhausting. We rarely feel refreshed after a few hours on the net.

To highlight these questionable aspects of speed reading, imagine a new ‘latest technique’ – Speed Listening! Perhaps we could scan a piece of music, eliminating all the spaces between the notes, since they don’t convey any real information. ‘Garage Band’ or some other audio editing software could do this for us. We could then listen to a dominant trumpet, or the first violin, or a keyboard solo or the vocal melody and disregard the rest as not particularly necessary for the message. Imagine Beethoven’s Ninth with all the ‘unnecessary bits’ – the musical equivalent of junk DNA – cut out. What kind of musical experience would that be? Some might call it ‘noise’.

Reading can involve much more than merely accumulating information. We mingle with a well crafted piece of writing in a flow of contemplation in which the formatting and physical presentation accentuates and augments the conceptual message of the words. I call it slow reading because I feel unhurried. I often find myself pausing, releasing my eyes from the page to reconnect with the sky, the plants, the structure of the room and myself in the act of sitting and breathing. And in this enlarged and more inclusive space, there is room for hidden depths of being to respond to the words and ideas in the way of wandering associations and interiorly felt responses of feeling and understanding. I don’t just read with words. I read with feeling, intuition, physicality and intellectual astuteness. I read with eyes of inter-being.

Unlike a conversation with a real person, where I’ve interrupted them, mid-flow, in order for me to enter contemplation, I don’t have to be concerned about the book getting impatient or upset. It waits for me to feel beneath the surface of the words, touching the import and relevance of what the author has written. Then, when I’m ready, as I come back to the sentence, often re- reading it again, it picks up the conversation where we left off.

I am walking with the author in companionship. Savoring the rhythm and timbre of another way of understanding and responding with riffs of my own, sometimes riffs that surprise me in their freshness and leave me wondering about wisdom and sympathetic magic. In a world where time is not so fixed we, writer and reader, are making music together. It is a kind of jazz, played in the medium of body, speech and mind as we grow ourselves into something we might never have grown into on our own.

I’ve had to train myself to slow read on a screen; to let my face and eyes relax and to enjoy the way my breathing moulds itself around the flow of ideas; to not be seduced by hyperlinks; and to take into account the fact that many e-publications are done with standardized formatting that conveys little of the rhythms and pauses that the author might use to hint at the mysterious world of their own lived understanding. For contemplative reading, I confess I much prefer a real book. To feel the texture of the pages and weight and smell of the volume. The spot of coffee, the crease on page 47, and the way the book falls open at the place where I have dawdled for longer periods.

Years ago the computer industry, trumpeting the paperless society, said that we would be ecologically responsible, saving millions of trees. On this point however I’m going to depart from my passion for environmental parsimony and to encourage you to print the articles from Green Dharma Treasury that have inspired your interest. Then take the printed pages away and sit yourself in a comfortable chair, hopefully in a pleasant place. Relax into your breathing body and in an unhurried way join me in a journey of collaborative discovery.

When I write something I often sit with it for some time, coming back again and again, savoring it in different lights, different weathers, temperatures and atmospheric pressures of understanding. I give this effort of written communication sufficient time to find its way into rightness. Is this what I really mean? It’s a kind of slow writing and it seems only appropriate to receive this crafted work in the spirit it was given, to receive it with slow reading. A good piece of writing calls out to be read more than once.

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I have been receiving many e-mails enquiring as to my health. Thank you all for your concern. I’m pleased to say that I seem to be healing well from the surgery. As to the cancer, I have decided to describe my situation as one of “living and watching”. It sounds suspiciously like what I have been teaching for the last 40 years! At this point if you go to the greendharmatreasury/public-schedule you will see that we are gradually scheduling some teaching. In late April, I hope to be giving a 9 day retreat in Shoreham Australia, exploring the themes of prajñāpāramitta, the wisdom teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. If you are able, please consider joining us.

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