The Art of Living Subtly and How It Decreases Everyday Stress
Monday October 24, 2022

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“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.” —Leonardo da Vinci

To take a walk amongst the beauty and magnificence of Mother Nature is to take a lesson in how subtlety functions and why it functions so well for the benefit of each plant and animal that reside in its particular ecosystem.

Beginning with the silence found while walking underneath a canopy of tall stretching-to-touch-the-sky pine trees that are awash in the most beautiful natural music – a birdsong here, a whisper of wind there, a squirrel chirping an alert of a human in its neighborhood overhead – we experience momentarily the de-stressing qualities of Mother Nature’s greatness. What is needed to function well can be beautiful and deeply savored, treasured in fact. And in this case, when it functions seemingly effortlessly, you have found the sweet spot.

What subtlety looks like in our everyday lives:

  • Observing instead of passing judgment (criticism or praise in excess)
  • Being loving based on what would be received as love by the person we love rather than feeling resentful or becoming angry or pushing for what we ‘need from them’.
  • Accepting instead of criticizing.
  • Navigating life’s hiccups with the understanding that this too will pass if we respond thoughtfully, rather than reacting and blaming unnecessarily turning life’s natural ebbs and flows into full blown dramas.
  • Honoring what you need to feel at peace instead of taking advice or following what has never felt ‘right’ intuitively.
    • without creating a fuss, a scene or starting an argument
    • simply saying no without attacking or blaming others and then partaking (or not partaking) in what you need to do to feel nurtured and nourished

The above choices may at first look not appear to be effective in the long-run for creating a life of less stress. Aren’t I being less engaging, passive or silent? And how can any of these three behaviors provoke progress? But the art of living subtly is at first not something glaringly obvious by onlookers, but to us, the person who is living subtly, we are living consciously, we are fully present and not living by default. What we are doing is taking in a wide array of information from the outside world and giving ourselves choices about how we will proceed to live with continued contentment or even more contentment in our everydays moving forward:

  • what questions can I ask to learn more information?
  • who do I want to make an effort to spend time with based on how I feel around this person/group/community/etc.?
  • what more can I learn about this subject before I make a decision that is best for me?
  • what am I feeling and what has caused me to feel this way?
  • what perceptions are standing in my way of living more deeply, more lovingly?

Perhaps living subtly is less an American approach to life, as it was in 2012 that upon my trip to England and then the Continent, specifically France, I wrote my first post on The Art of Subtleties, as I noticed a distinct difference in how citizens on either side of the Atlantic go about their days. An overgeneralization perhaps, but when we live in a world where we feel pushed to constantly have an opinion about seemingly everything (from global events to whether or not the ‘thumbs-up’ emoji is dead), it can feel nearly impossible to live subtly. But here is why considering inviting the art of subtlety into our lives may be exactly what would bring what we seek (if we are seeking more peace and contentment).

The Art of Subtleties (from TSLL Archives, August 2012)

When we don’t rush (to judgment, to opinion, to a decision, etc.), we discover more. We discover more that keeps us enthralled, or we discover we are actually not interested at all, and were merely drawn to this ‘something’ due to circumstances that correlated rather than caused. Case in point, maybe you were drawn to that particular person because of their conversation, or maybe it was simply their beauty or style, but because you were needing to feel seen, to feel validated or accepted, it wasn’t them specifically that you were drawn to, but in that moment, they provided what you needed. When we give ourselves time to observe rather to pass judgment and make concrete decisions, we find more peace, create more room for possibility and reduce decisions made hastily.

The Grammy-award winning singer Norah Jones speaks to her desire to infuse her songs with subtlety ever more so as her career progresses, revealing, “What I was going for in the first two albums I didn’t necessarily achieve. Because I was young and because it was my first time out. And the second album was such a ‘quickie’ sort of ‘Let’s just get it over with!’ But the kind of music I make, there’s a lot of subtlety in it. And I think it takes a couple of listens to actually really get it” which leads me to the next worthwhile benefit of living subtly to deepen the quality of our life . …

Subtlety hints, rather than screams. It tickles our curiosity, and then we are inspired to continue to explore, and if it is something that will provide value in our life, the many layers of awesome detail and depth underneath deepen our clarity which simplifies decision-making moving forward.

When listening to a symphony play in harmony in-person – you in the audience, the conductor and artists on stage – when you watch the musicians, each playing their own individual instruments, you begin to appreciate the magnificent piece of artistry that has been created, and your awe deepens. The subtlety is presented when you listen to the composition, taking it solely in through your sense of sound – it is seamless, seemingly effortless and well, pardon the pun, lyrical, without one ‘lyric’ being sung by a human voice, yet there is so much to explore and savor. And thus, to appreciate. When we strengthen the skill of appreciation, life brightens, days are more enjoyable, and we desire to expend less energy to dwell on what is not working. Subtlety is one way to strengthen this muscle that is appreciation.

So much of what we seek to feel more at peace is quietly residing within each of us, and as Deepak Chopra writes, “the subtler levels are more sensitive, awake and meaningful than the gross.” In other words, by drowning out the subtle pieces of information within us with brash actions, excessive noise, limiting ideas, either-or choices, we are not able to dive deeply into what wants to be discovered, but what wants to be discovered, what each of us uniquely has within us, are the keys to our unique life journey – how to live to honor our true selves.

It is when we begin to live subtly, that we begin to make choices moving forward that put us in surroundings, company and in the presence of ideas and beauty that speak to the subtle, sensitive pieces within us that spark the ideas that become our aha moments of discovery.

But if we are too busy and/or consumed passing judgment, criticizing, blaming, arguing, clinging, we bring unnecessary stress into our lives and expend energy living a life that isn’t conducive to living with contentment.

So today, consider ways in your everyday life where you can step back and observe, accept, listen, honor or be truly loving, and discover how gradually, with consistent practice, you begin to see your life transform into a far less stressful mode of travel, and in fact, become all the more enjoyable.


12 thoughts on “The Art of Living Subtly and How It Decreases Everyday Stress

  1. Hello, it’s interesting that you observe that, ‘living subtly is less an American approach to life’. As an Australian I find the American approach to humour lacks subtlety and I avoid US comedy movies as I do not find them remotely funny. The English do humour so well, understated, dry, witty and a weeny bit sarcastic – usually delivered with a dead pan expression or a twinkle in the eye.

    1. Gabrielle, I completely agree with you! You are spot on – thus American ‘living [less] subtly”. (my error if I didn’t make this clear in my post) English humor is something I greatly enjoy for its depth. You have to be paying attention and listening. You are not told, but must have outside knowledge and have paid attention to the context clues throughout. I always enjoyed teaching satire in my rhetoric class because for most American students it was hard to detect when we watched or read English text/film because as Americans we are so used to being ‘told’ what is funny as it is blatant and often without depth (although I would argue John Oliver’s show is well-done). Thank you for stopping by and confirming what I have observed as well. 🙂

      1. Thanks Shannon, I posted and then wondered if I had been a bit harsh! Glad we are on the same page. Also wanted to clarify for your American readers, I used the Australian /English spelling of humour. We tend to put the extra U in – eg honour, neighbour, behaviour, or an extra ME eg programme. Or even another A – eg anaemia, paediatrician, gynaecologist.
        All very interesting.

        1. Gaby,

          Not too harsh at all. I appreciated reading your perspective. ? And love that your spell words as English/Australians spell them. I go back and forth on many of them (cozy/cosy). Love to play with language and appreciate our international community of readers.

          1. I totally agree – A Cozy Murder Mystery just doesn’t have the same vibe as A Cosy Murder Mystery!

  2. I found this post to be one of my favorites. I can only hope that we Americans can live more attuned to the above ideas of subtlety. I think we would all be much happier and more compassionate to each other.
    I also totally agree about the total lack of subtlety in American humor and in a lot of other aspects of our culture. Thank you for this post.

  3. This is so interesting I’ve read it twice, once for the content & once more to savour the details. I’ve been a confirmed proponent of “no drama” since I was in my mid-20s & watched how so many of my contemporaries didn’t only live lives of constant & huge drama but actually created much of it through poor — but (often unconsciously) deliberate — choices. It baffled me then & still does, but I recognize so many of the behaviours & actions you mention here as ones I’ve adopted over the years to keep the drama — my own & the effect of other people’s — at a minimum. I haven’t always been successful, of course, but you have reminded me of how important it is to allow life to unfold with grace instead of constantly being at odds with it & the people around us. I think the word “subtle” is exactly the right one. Thank you for reinforcing what I’ve long found to be a non-negotiable.

  4. I love your posts….PS, We Americans can be funny, we can be content, we can be dramatic and subtle and like all of the world we have our times of grace and times when we don’t show up as our best self. I love your posts, and your podcasts and all of the perspective you share. Thank you Shannon.

  5. Shannon I just love this word. Subtlety is an art to be practised by those who wish to live a more harmonious life showing consideration to others. Our world is so full of noise not just America that we need to cut a lot of it out to live subtly.
    I am British so I’m biased when it comes to Brtish humour but I recall that the BBC imported a few American comedians over the years and they went down a storm. I was glued because it was so different . I also love French humour but some non French don’t care much for it. If we generalise we miss out . I think we should acknowledge cultural differences subtly ?

  6. Hi Shannon, living subtly is an art, isn’t it? I do prefer a bit of mystery about myself…and find it intriguing in others as well. You may have shared this before, but do you mind sharing what types of dahlias are featured in this post? I believe you have highlighted cafe au lait before, but I cannot identify
    these. They are so beautiful!

    1. Happy to share! So the large pink one is the Cafe au Lait and the white one is a Siberia (waterlily) dahlia which did very well this year even with just one tuber. The similar pink one is actually called Peaches. 🙂

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