The last few days have been trying for me as I watched the light of my life – my mother – hospitalized yet again. It scares me to see her like this, and my heart is restless.
As always, I turn to what gives me the most succor: words and, through them, memories.
And this time reminds me of what life is: enduringly fragile.
In 2011, my friend and I decided to climb one of China’s most sacred Buddhist mountains, Emei Shan.
In China, these mountains aren’t rough trails but actual steps hewn into the rock face. Thousands of steps. It’s excruciating, and to see a never-ending staircase to heaven isn’t as poetic as it sounds. At that time, I was young and hopelessly naive. (I still am naive. But that’s another story)
All my life, I have always been in a hurry. I feel rushed for time, even when just sitting down and watching a bird. Or reading a book. I always feel I haven’t done enough. I feel I have wasted time if I don’t do something by someone else’s timeline.
At that time in 2011, I wanted to reach the summit and back in 2 days. Most people take 3-4 days to do the Emei Shan hike. It was winter. We started climbing, and we were struggling. That’s when a woman climbing ahead of us in high heels turned to us and said, “Man man zou.” Or “Slowly slowly walk.”
I smiled. And then I turned to my friend and said, “Hurry.”
We scrambled through the snow and slid down the ice, but we hurried. We were back in 2 days.
My friend hated that experience. And me? I felt very accomplished, but I hadn’t paused at any moment to just sit down and watch that sweeping white or embrace the chortens on the way. I had simply ticked off another box without really knowing what I was ticking.
And it wasn’t the first time either. A few years earlier, in 2008, it was a different country, but the same mistake. I had wanted to summit Mount Semeru, Indonesia’s volcanic mountain. Again, I wanted to rush and come back. We reached the last camp before the final summit in just one day and tried to summit with just a few hours of sleep. It was 2 am. As our guide led us, flickering lights in the darkness, I gazed at the volcanic cloud looming over me, and my head spun. I felt nauseated as altitude sickness set in. We looked at each other – the three of us – and gave up.
Perhaps, if we had taken time, we could have made it.
Did I learn from these two ‘mistakes?’ To take life slower?
As a runner, I have always wanted to run fast. I used to feel that I should run at a certain pace and focused a lot on sprints. But then, I fell in love with endurance running. It began with my 800-km walk on the Camino de Santiago. I observed mountaineers on YouTube this time before starting on that walk and saw for the first time how slowly they climb. I walked the Camino slowly, controlling myself even when 80-year-olds overtook me. I took in the views, stared at a deer (Cheryl Strayed-style), sat down, and spoke with the birds whenever I felt like it.
There was magic in this slowness, I realized. I was breathing. I was alive.
Then, I started running full marathons. But when it came to running, I was still competitive with myself. My first marathon was a mess – I ran too fast in the beginning and could barely make it by the end. The second full marathon in 2020 in Chennai was even worse – I thought I would die.
Then Covid happened, and life as I knew it changed me. All my old beliefs fell aside, and somewhere in my foggy brain, I remembered that Chinese woman in her high heels telling me, “Slowly, slowly walk.”
I saw those mountaineers. One foot at a time. Gently. As if kissing the snow on Everest.
And I started all over again. (And we can also begin again, my friend. Always)
I started long-distance running immediately after Covid. I couldn’t run a marathon for 3 years, but I used that time to learn more about running. And life.
Here’s the secret runner after runner whispered to me: The only way to get faster in running is to run slow.
If you want to run fast, you must run slow.
And that’s when I really fell in love with running. With the long, slow runs, where Garmin beeped a warning if I sped up. I ran slowly, laughing with cows, smiling at my flowers, and ambling along at a pace I never had seen in my life.
When I ran in Chennai this year after almost 600 km of slow running, it was my fastest full marathon ever, enabling me (me!) to come in 6th in the Open Category.
And that’s the beauty of it. That’s the irony. I ran my fastest marathon after running slowly.
It took me all these years from 2008 to finally learn that lesson: Man man zou. Slowly, slowly go.
I was slow in learning it. 😉 But fast in making mistakes.
I have learned now, though, and am trying to be patient with everything unresolved in my heart.
The thing is, life isn’t long. It’s heartbreakingly short and fragile. But we can make our life a slow dance, gifting it with our presence.
I invite you to slow down. Join me in looking at birds. Observe a leaf. Giggle with an ant. And to walk slowly, breathe slowly and deeply.
I send you light and love,
And if you are struggling, the Universe sent me a gift just like that, supporting me as it always does. My darling, Pema Chodron, is suddenly making a Zoom appearance at the Omega Institute. Please see if you can register. It’s free and is on Saturday, April 15. How unsurprising is it that she is going to be talking about new beginnings? And how did she know that I needed to hear her?
“OUR TASK, IN LIFE AND DEATH, IS TO REALIZE WE ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE. WE CAN FALL ASLEEP INTO UNAWARENESS AND STAY STUCK, OR WE CAN WAKE UP.”
6 Replies to “To Be Slow, My Friend”
Wonderful post as always. To be slow means to be in the moment, live in the moment which we often forget to experience . Isn’t it?
Inspiring post. Slowing down lets you be a participant in life. When you go through life rapidly you miss encounters that make life sweeter. It took Dave and I years to learn that while traveling. Like you, we were checking of our must see list. Ha, it took us getting old to appreciate going slower. Sending love and hugs to you and your family.
I like that, Karen. “Participant in life.” Better that than an absent sleepwalker in life.
Love, love the magic of this post. I shudder when I think of Emei and Semeru but I also remember those trips with a lot of fondness. We had some fun even though we hurried.
And see slllllooowwww is good, it gets you there 😉
Haha. How did we come so close to death twice? I want to go back to Emei Shan one day. I want to do all the Chinese sacred mountains. I know who I will go with. You know who. Agreed?
Hahaha yes yes of course agreed