on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

on learning to be slow

I was doing my routine reading of “on this day” entries when itt made me realise how recent it was that I learned how to run:

I started running regularly sometime in 2018, and back then it felt so hard for me. I could barely run for 100 metres, much less 1km or 10. I remember trying to run my first 500m non-stop and it felt like my heart was going to give out. My heart-rate went up to the 190s.

It turns out that knowing how to run for endurance is a skill. I’ve always thought faster and harder was better, and that it was great to run every single day. As usual I had to stop running because I was getting burnt out and migraines.

Since then I had learnt that exercising too hard increases cortisol, a stress hormone in our body which defeats the purpose if we want to build health. Recovery time is essential for the body to rest and repair, or risk getting injuries or burnout. I learnt to run at zone 2, which is 60-70% of our maximum heart rate, because it improves mitochondrial (which generates energy for us) health and as a by product of that – fat metabolism. So, instead of running like a headless chicken, I slow jog with a watch app that lets me know if my HR goes below or above zone 2. I can now jog for a much longer time if I wanted to.

Apart from the sheer physical effort of running, there was the mental effort. Running can be a really boring activity if you’re used to having your brain constantly occupied by something. When I first started running I always wanted to get it over and done with because it felt like a tedious chore. But not only did running train my aerobic endurance, it also trained my endurance for boredom.

It has become increasingly apparent to me how much my incapacity for boredom and patience affected my life negatively. I’ve always wanted things to happen quickly and needed a lot of stimuli. They sound so innocuous but in reality they affected the quality of my life profoundly. Things can become deeply frustrating if we don’t like waiting, and constantly seeking stimuli brings a whole other host of problems.

Because of the pandemic and the vaccines (strenuous exercise discouraged for two weeks) I started walking round and round my apartment block for at least 30 minutes. That increased my capacity for boredom and repetition.

It was a similar experience for cooking. When I first started I wanted the most convenient, quickest way to make a meal. These days I experiment with slow-cooking predominantly for low heat cooking due to health reasons but I ended up enjoying the process of food taking its time to cook. I used to really dislike chopping, but now I enjoy its meditative quality. I am reminded of zen monk Dogen everytime I catch myself becoming aware of this. For Dogen, eating, cooking and cleaning are not mundane acts, they are zen itself.

I used to charge my devices with the quickest charger I could get my hands on. Now I charge them as slowly as possible, almost never exceeding a 80% charge to maximise battery life. Even my macbook is charged with a 20W charger. It seems like human bodies are like batteries. If we use it slowly and gently they will last longer.

It feels like this capacity for slowness has slowly infused different parts of my life. I find myself a lot less frustrated in general when I have to wait. I’m a lot less twitchy. My capacity for repetition has allowed me to gain a sense of freedom from my previous constant craving of novelty. I used to feel so low whenever I felt there was nothing new for me to experience. Now I simply feel neutral, and when a new experience does come by it feels heightened and not expected like it should.

I am finally meditating again, after so many stops and starts. On hindsight I think it was a mistake to expect my brain to go from hyperactive mode to meditative mode immediately. I am only able to meditate without much difficulty now because there was a long process of gradual slowing down.

For me, being slow is an ongoing lifelong practiced skill. Maybe some people are born with natural patience, but I reckon in this day and age it is difficult to be slow when speed and stimuli is encouraged everywhere. Slowness has to be deliberately learnt and practiced. Slowness can generate new emotions and experiences, because we start to have the attention we could never sustain, and we start to notice things that used to be a blur. The mind opens up with more rooms to hold things in, instead of being a perpetual rubbish chute because we’re constantly bombarded with a firehose of information which makes us lose our agency in deciding what information we wish to receive and hold.

We like being in a state of flow where we don’t experience time passing by because it is immersive. That is great if we’re in a state of flow doing things we want to do. But we often spend our days not knowing where time has gone. It can be an enlightening experience to notice time passing us by and what it carries and means.

I still spend my days in a blur. But to be able to choose when to slow down and to be capable of deliberately slowing down, that is something I cherish learning because it has gifted me a dimension of life I was never able to have before. And that could be a different response to having to wait, instead of frustration.

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