“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about” Psalm 39.6
Last spring I took a mindfulness course at a local Y. It was an informative class, not a religious one, and I was most interested in the recent studies on the neuroplasticity of the human brain. One night we’d learn about mindful eating from a nutritionist, another about meditating on loving kindness, and on one of those nights we learned about meditation walking. Meditation walking means that you link your breath to your steps and feel your steps in a way you normally don’t- noticing your heel and then ball and then toe of your foot as each touches the floor. We pushed our metal folding chairs aside, turning off the glaring fluorescent lights and practiced by walking slowly back and forth as though we were all pacing in line in slow motion from wall to wall in the small room. Someone commented afterwards that if anyone from the exercise class next door were to peek in the windowed door and see us, they might think we were zombies. I found myself holding in laughter because I felt silly and uncomfortable at first. But when I finally let go of my self-consciousness, I found walking meditation easier for me than seated meditation. The rhythm of my steps quieted my mind and I didn’t feel it drifting as much as it usually did when I sat in the chair. Since I was trying to incorporate some of the techniques I was learning into my daily life to ease my anxiety level, I thought I’d try the meditation walk on my way home from the school where I drop my daughter off every morning. What I wasn’t prepared for was how strange it felt to be walking outside for all to see so slowly during what is everyone else’s “morning rush.”
I mentioned the Ignatian principle of “agere contra:” to go against, in my earlier piece on Lent: “Making Space.” Well, I thought of this principle as I walked slowly, heel to toe, around the corner, cars racing past me to jobs and school drop-offs on busy streets. Agere contra, I thought to myself. I’ll go against the hurried energy around me and I’ll keep this pace. It was surprisingly difficult to do. In our society, mornings seem to be all about rushing, about getting where you need to go. You almost feel like you’ve forgotten something if you leisurely walk out the door. No one saunters in the morning. No one looks up at the sky, or stops to say hello to a squirrel poised on his hind feet. Children do, they do. (And I must admit, I always say hi to the squirrels, chipmunks, and birds- even without my daughter.) “Is everything OK, Julia?” I heard a voice suddenly behind me. It was someone I’d recently met who took the same walking route taking her two older sons to school. She was walking back with her husband- the two of them rapidly catching up to me. “Did you lose something?” she asked kindly. “Oh, no, I was just…uh, walking slowly,” I replied, feeling embarrassed. What I had discovered is that while meditation walking is relaxing and calming, you don’t even need to do this kind of walking to increase your awareness. Just by walking noticeably slow in a fast world, you’ll find a humbling kind of enlightenment.
There have been two other times in my life that I experienced the contrast of slow walking in a fast place. The first time, I was living in NYC and commuting from Brooklyn to the Flatiron District each morning for work at a publishing company- but I had torn my left hip joint and walking was very painful. Attempting meditation walking in the suburbs was nothing compared to slowly making my way up subway stairs in Manhattan during the morning or evening rush. I would step out of the subway and then just wait for the crowd to shove its way to the steps and clear out. Only then did I attempt to head up the stairs- lifting one leg at a time, up each step. It’s a simple act- stepping aside and letting the crowds disperse without you- but a powerful one. You see things you didn’t see before. Mainly what I noticed was how rushed everyone was- something I wasn’t fully aware of when I was part of it.
I also walked slowly in grief. The first time I stepped outside of my apartment after receiving the news, a friend supported my body as I took one step, and then another. And then for months afterwards, I kept a slower pace- comfortably, at the same speed everywhere I went. In Manhattan to meet my grief counselor, I crossed the street slowly, got in line at Starbucks slowly, opened the door of the bank… slowly. When you are grieving, you feel as though you’re on another plane of existence. Time bends and warps, and it is as though life were a conveyor belt of sorts and you’ve just stepped off for a while. I stared up and down- not straight ahead- at what felt a completely new and surreal world, as I followed my footsteps. I noticed the people around me in a new way as well, but it was almost as though I was invisible- because they did not notice me. In sudden loss, one gains keen, supernatural eyesight into the way things really are-we exist, on a planet, we live, love, and we die. One cannot walk briskly with these knowings in the forefront of one’s mind.
Of course, time as we know it really doesn’t ever stop- and we never really get to get off the conveyor belt. The crossing guard tells me he gets cursed at at least once a week for bravely stepping into the busy intersection to stop the traffic flow for someone crossing. During the morning rush, I see parents pull up to curbs sharply, doors open, and kids run out, as the cars peel away. At pickup, I hear, “”C’mon we have to hurry- we have piano lessons, or softball, or the dentist.” It seems almost unnatural to greet your child with a hug and slowly stroll away together, chatting. At the playground on a beautiful spring day, I hear parents saying, “One more minute – we have to get going to…” We all know busyness is a marker of dignity and importance today.
But…agere contra. Slowing down is less a marker of importance, but more a marker of knowing your true position in the world- of knowing what is important. If you want to notice and feel yourself being here, alive- walk slowly sometime. I treasure my walk up to school with my daughter. We leave fifteen minutes for a ten minute walk, and we take our time. When I pick her up at the end of the day, it’s the same. But I admit, some days I have to fight to keep our pace because all around me I see people rushing or because she too has piano lessons and we should really get going. Agere contra. And on the playground, I love when she asks, “Do we have to leave soon?” and I can say, “Nope. We can stay as long as you’d like.” Did you ever notice how many people always seem to be apologizing for not doing things quickly enough? When the receptionist on the phone, or the cashier in the checkout line, says to me, “Wait, I’m sorry- it’ll just take a second,” I like to answer back, “Take your time, I’m in no hurry.” And I mean it. Not because I don’t have anything to do, but because most things are not as important as we think they are.
Ordinarily, we walk the way our heart pumps blood, or the way our lungs take in oxygen- unconsciously. We wake up in the morning, get out of bed and begin this rather beautiful act of physics and balance without even thinking about it- without pause. The act of walking is taken for granted by all who have no trouble doing it. How soon we’ve forgotten the way we waited with baited breath as a child balanced for the first time and began to walk. How miraculous it was! I think maybe that mother who asked me if I’d lost something just because I was walking slowly, might have been on to something. I find it when I slow down and feel the earth beneath my feet, when I keep my pace despite the hurriedness around me. “We are mere phantoms as we go to and fro,” writes the psalmist. Paradoxically, in slowing down, I find and know my phantom-ness- and I find- my life.
*This post is inspired by and dedicated to Alina.