In Defense of Slow: Training and Living Against the Grain

    It is better to arise from life as from a banquet–neither thirsty nor drunken.

    -Aristotle

    I stood completely still for two minutes. The creek bubbled next to me, the bare winter wood of the oak trees rubbed together making a haunted hinging sound, the robins playfully flutter-jumped from branch to branch, and my 1-year-old dog Kilian looked up in confusion.

    TWO WHOLE MINUTES.

    I swallowed a long swig of water from the semi-frozen hose of my hydration pack, then watched the air empty out of my lungs in a billowed cloud before me as I exhaled and continued shuffling down the snow-dusted trail. I felt calm. I felt proud. And then … sadness.

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    When was the last time I stood still without a purpose? Not to sit down and check email. Not to stop to sleep. Not to chill out and watch Netflix. Not to check meditation off the list for the day. Not to drink my coffee while scrolling through Facebook. Not to read. But to stop completely, without a purpose, and to be exactly in that time and space.

    TWO WHOLE MINUTES?

    Was I really proud of that? Had my life become so hurried that this felt like big news?

    The sinking sad feeling in my gut was reminiscent. I had been here before! Four years ago, I wrote a blog titled Season of Slow in which I quoted Thomas Merton as calling busyness, “a pervasive form of contemporary violence.” I went on to say that, “I too believe it’s a form of self-violence. Nevertheless, it’s a value upheld and encouraged by our culture where worth is measured in productivity.”

    Without my continued vigilance and intention, busyness has once again crept back into my life. It is, after all, one of the sneakiest diseases of our culture. We accept it as a normal way of life. We enable it without second thought. We believe that constantly doing makes us valuable.

    The origins of this myth are complicated. In the West we see time as linear (versus cyclical, as it’s viewed in some cultures) and so, speeding up helps us reach the end of an imaginary line faster. And because we also value money and we see time as money–the faster we go the more money there is.

    Slowing down has personal implications as well. It can mean facing a truth that we don’t want to. It can mean that we feel the loneliness, anxiety or insecurity that’s been lurking in the background. Stopping may cause us to see things in our life that need changing– change that takes energy, courage and discomfort. I’ve experienced each one of these implications.

    I could also blame my personal addiction to busyness on the fact that I’m very passionate about a lot of things, that I’m an entrepreneur who loves my work, or that I want to maximize my time in this fleeting life. But, being busy is a choice and a state of mind. I am completely responsible for how I choose to spend my time, independent of the number of items on my to-do list.

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    I’m ready again for a different way of life free from self-violence because I’m beginning to feel its ill-effects and I fear I’m not alone. I know I’m more creative when I have time to myself. I know that my clarity and caring is intensified with more moments to breathe outside. I know that my ability to absorb my environment and listen to the people in my life come when I’m not rushing from one thing to the next. And outside of assigning any pragmatic purpose to slowing down, I know it’s just a better way of life.

    I realize that there will always be items on the to-do list. People will always need my attention. I will always want to give my best to everything I do. And I never want to stop growing and exploring. But is it possible to create boundaries and turn the tide of just doing, doing, doing?

    You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.

    -Jon Kabat-Zinn

    Several years ago I began coaching my run athletes with a training methodology called MAF–short for “maximum aerobic function” and Dr. Maffetone, the researcher/coach who founded the method. It is a process that completely changed my relationship with running and helped me fall deeply in love with the sport. The season begins by purposefully running slower than you naturally can in order to get faster, more efficient and promote balance in the cardiovascular system. When I unveil the format of this first training phase, the initial reaction is almost always–well that doesn’t make sense. I can agree that it’s counter-intuitive. Going slow to get fast makes no sense on the surface.

    There are many factors—life stress, hormones, nutrition, mental/emotional health, sleep, hydration, mechanics, previous training–that contribute to getting faster as you temporarily decrease your pace. But, a lot progress comes from restoring the full function of our aerobic system that tends to be underutilized. Year after year, I’m struck by how many athletes resist this method that, albeit its unconventionality in this sport, presents so much less risk of injury/ burnout and so much potential for progress/ restored overall health.

    I think the bottom line of being able to embrace this methodology goes back to being willing to let go of ego and allow yourself to go slower. Most people aren’t willing to do it. They simply won’t permit themselves to–quite literally–slow down.

    In a way, I don’t blame them. It is a symptom of our larger world, not just the athletic culture. Speed is synonymous with better. I don’t believe speed in and of itself is a bad thing. It’s when we only have speed that we become unbalanced. We’ve become so out of whack that we can’t even recognize how fast we are actually going and how constantly we push to make it happen.

    Being slow means that you control the rhythms of your own life. You decide how fast you have to go in any given context. If today I want to go fast, I go fast; if tomorrow I want to go slow, I go slow. What we are fighting for is the right to determine our own tempos.

    -Carl Honore

    After sharing with my mom how I’d been feeling recently, she pulled up an article from one of our favorite writers and beloved humans, Joan Chittister. It ended up being the perfect read at the perfect moment. Yet, as I opened the article I found myself trying to skim it to get to the nugget of wisdom quickly. Aaaaahhhh. It was happening. I was trying to speed-read an article on slowing down!

    I did finally pause long enough to read it thoroughly and would like to share one of the passages that has stayed with me. It is the following story from Indian Johar Rishi that Joan Chittister shares in her book, Welcome to the Wisdom of the World.

    “Once upon a time, a merchant who was vacationing in a small village went to see the village market. At one place he saw a man with a genie and he asked, ‘What are you selling, my friend?’ ‘My genie,’ replied the man.

    ‘Well, what does it do?’ the merchant asked.

    ‘Everything you want to get done,’ the vendor said. ‘It makes the impossible possible.’

    ‘Then why do you sell it?’ the merchant said.

    ‘Because I have no ambitions left,’ the vendor said. ‘It is a wish-fulfilling genie, but it is very exhausting. It cannot stay idle and all the time it needs a new job, a new project, or otherwise it destroys what it creates.’

    ‘I have lots of ambitions, lots of jobs to be done,’ the merchant said. ‘I’ll buy it.’ Then they reached the place were the merchant stayed. The genie said, ‘Now Sir, tell me what I can do for you. Your satisfaction is guaranteed, but before enjoying it you must tell me my next job.’

    ‘You first job,’ the merchant said. ‘Is to build boundary walls and mark my sites.’ The genie clapped his hands and said, ‘All your sites have been enclosed, Sir. Now tell me my next job.’

    ‘You really are a wish-fulfilling genie, I am so happy to have you. Your next job is to create buildings on these sites.’ The genie clapped again, ‘It is done, my master. The factories, the theater halls, the swimming pool and the markets are all crowded with people.’

    ‘Fantastic,’ said the merchant. ‘Now I want you to make me king of the world. Build me a palace. Organize a coronation. Invite all of the important people. Bring poets and musicians and let the dancers dance and entertainers entertain.’

    The genie clapped again and said, ‘You have been accepted as the solemn monarch of planet Earth. Your crown is right here. Dress yourself up and enjoy being the most powerful and important person on planet Earth. But … before you leave, please tell me my next job.’

    The merchant became numb. All his desires were fulfilled. Suddenly he remembered the merchant’s warning: If he could not keep the genie employed, everything he has achieved so far would be destroyed.

    Drops of perspiration started dripping down his forehead. Only one person could possibly help him.

    ‘Genie,’ he commanded, before I become the emperor of the planet Earth, I would like to get the blessing of my spiritual teacher. Please take me to the holy one’s cave in the Himalayas.’

    So the genie clapped again and there he was.

    ‘Bless me, bless me’ the businessman said. ‘I am in great trouble. I bought a wish-fulfilling genie this morning and all my desires got fulfilled. But I bought this genie on condition that I have to keep him engaged or he will destroy what he has created. And now I don’t know what to do with him.’

    The sage was sitting naked on a straw mat and greeted the merchant with a radiant smile.

    ‘Don’t worry, my son. It is very easy to provide this genie with a never-ending job. But first relax,’ said the holy one.

    ‘I cannot relax,’ the merchant said. ‘I am agitated, anxious, excited, terribly disturbed and afraid. Save me.’

    ‘Listen carefully, my child,’ the sage said. ‘Ask the genie to bring the biggest bamboo pole he can get. Then order him to plant it inside the ground very firm and tight. After the pole is firmly fixed to the ground, ask the genie to climb it up and down until further orders. This will keep him busy and you will enjoy your life undisturbed and fearlessly.’

    ‘How stupid I am that I could not think of such a simple solution,’ the merchant gasped.

    ‘When one is obsessed by fear and anxiety one cannot think of such simple solutions,’ the holy one said. ‘First you were blinded by your ambitions and you bought the genie. When the genie became too fast in fulfilling your desires you got scared by the speed with which he carried out your orders. Then you got nervous by imaginary fear of destruction. Go now and feel free.’ The holy one paused for a moment.

    ‘But before you go,’ he went on, ‘know this. I too have a genie. And I, too, have a pole for it.’ Then the holy one opened up this hand and showed the merchant his meditation beads.”

    For the holy master, it is formal meditation. And for me, it is the art of trail running that keeps my genie at bay. I am thankful that my practice of running (ironic, isn’t it?) alone in nature has allowed me to see that I’m capable and worthy of so much more than TWO MINUTES of stopping every four years.

    May we all have the courage to find a way to co-exist with our own genies while still engaging life in a meaningful, purposeful and, perhaps, sometimes slow way.

    2 Comments

    • Lisa Puskarcik

      Read this on my shuttle ride to work in the bustling and BUSY Silicon Valley – 🙂 thank you for it!

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