The Runner and The River Turtle
There was once a man who lived alone in a small wooden cabin deep in the forest. He dreamed of becoming the greatest distance runner in the world. The man would rise every morning, lace up his shoes, and jog for hours on end. He’d imagine his next race as he ran: the feeling of crossing the finish line, the sound of the crowd cheering, and the admiration of his friends.
He had run since he was a child, having always trailed behind his older brother, a successful track athlete. His brother had been the naturally strong, good-looking type, successful without having to put in much effort. For this, the man had always felt both admiration and resentment. On his runs, he would think back on the many times he came in second to his brother, the endless praise of their parents that was never directed at him, and even the little gifts he’d receive from family in consolation for being the perpetual runner-up.
One day as the man was running by the river, he saw a small turtle crawling along the bank. As he passed it, he thought to himself, “how horrible it must be to move so slowly,” then continued on his way, the roar of future crowds echoing in his head. The next day the man once again came across the turtle, and again noticed its lack of speed and progress. He felt disdain towards the small animal as he sped by. When he passed the turtle for a third time that same evening, he felt inclined to stop.
Kneeling down, he whispered, “If you move like that you’re never going to get anywhere.”
The turtle looked back at him innocently. Then, to his surprise, it slowly replied, “I arrive with each step I take along this bank. You run for days and never reach your destination.”
The man jumped back. “That’s nonsense,” he thought to himself. “I know just where I’m going and exactly how long it will take to get there.”
The turtle shrugged its tiny head in and out of its shell.
“You’re running in the past, towards the future. Those are the only two places to which you’ll never arrive.”
The man fell silent. Slowly, he rose, turned, and took one step away from the bank, then another, and another until he was deep in the forest. He walked all the way home that day, for the first time feeling the sun on the back of his neck and hearing the wind as it whistled gently through the tall pines.
In recent years, the term mindfulness has become ubiquitous in the west. Despite this, our culture has made pragmatically understanding mindfulness and incorporating it into our everyday lives more difficult than ever. The intermittent buzzing of a phone in our pocket jolts us out of the present; the five thousand advertisements we’re exposed to each day pull us into mental states of distracted craving.
This doesn’t make mindfulness impossible, but it does complexify our path towards it. Since the modern barriers to mindfulness are phenomena that didn’t exist in previous eras, we need to rethink what an impactful mindfulness practice looks like in the modern world and in our own individual lives.
To do this, we can approach mindfulness from a more accessible and relatable angle. Viewing it through a habit that we engage in on a daily basis – waiting. While mindfulness may feel abstract and difficult to grasp, waiting is common, simple, and identifiable. Its inherent place in the human experience makes our understanding of waiting an entry-point that can open a path forward for those struggling to feel the effects of mediation or understand esoteric spiritual texts.
To introduce the relationship between waiting and mindfulness, I’d like to tell the story of how I began connecting the two. A story I’ve titled: realizing I had one foot in the grave before having ever really lived.
Now with a name like that, you may be thinking I’m a banker or insurance salesman who’s been grinding away behind a desk for the past 30 years, and that my solution is going to include some ecstasy, a tattoo, and a few weeks on a beach in Thailand. That may have made a great story, but it isn’t mine. What made me realize I had one foot in the grave wasn’t a lack of excitement, but rather an increased awareness of passing time.
I was sweating away an afternoon in my shadowy, electricity-less living room in the Liberian road town of Salala, listening to the yells of school children playing outside the elementary school across from my house, and thinking about an upcoming trip to Japan. I was exhausted, having just finished a particularly heavy workout to counteract the creeping stress of isolation common to international development workers. I hadn’t had a hot shower or running water for six months, and had eaten every combination of oil, rice, and hot pepper one could imagine. I wasn’t unhappy. I loved my Liberian friends and neighbors. But it all felt tiring. In that moment, Japan seemed like an oasis, the relief needed for physical and mental rejuvenation. It was all I could think of, as I sat…and waited.
Then a thought occurred to me. There were seventeen days until I boarded my flight to Tokyo. While those seventeen days felt like a lifetime, I knew that when they were over, I would look back and all that time spent concentrating on the future would exist only as an unpleasant memory. The potential enjoyment of those seventeen days would be sacrificed and the memory of waiting retained. I then thought further into the future. I knew that after arriving in Japan, something inside me would dread returning to Liberia (not out of dislike for the country, but rather in the sense that we often wish our vacations could be extended). I worried this dread would cause me to focus on the number of days I had left in Japan before returning, reducing my enjoyment of my time there, and potentially even souring those memories. Waiting in dread of returning appeared to be equally damaging as waiting in anticipation to leave.
It was focusing on the future during both these “waiting periods” that would cause unhappiness. Focusing on leaving would prevent me from enjoying the days prior to my departure, and focusing on returning would reduce my enjoyment of the trip itself. A lack of presence would detract from each experience regardless of whether it was objectively difficult (waiting to leave) or pleasant (spending time on vacation).
If I continued on this path after returning, there would be more waiting for the next big event. Then the experience of that event would similarly be worsened by a focus on the fact that it would eventually end, a cycle that could go on forever. I thought, “If I wait for this trip right now, I’m going to spend my whole life waiting, and die having never done anything else.” It was sickening, bringing on a bout of intense anxiety and fear. Was I on a path to perpetual waiting that could continue throughout my entire life?
In that moment, the present felt like a flame, slowly burning its way across a long wick in a pitch-black room. The dancing light was the only thing visible and real. By focusing on the dark ahead or the ash left in its path, I would risk missing the beauty of the fire. This is the root of mindfulness.
I had been somewhat familiar with the idea of mindfulness before that moment. I had an intermittent mindfulness mediation practice, and had even led a mindfulness session at a psychological support retreat several years earlier. However, it was then that I made the transition from knowing to understanding. From then on, mindfulness meant not waiting.
Waiting was living outside of the present. It was rejecting the reality of time, and allowing the mind to become preoccupied with memory or fantasy. Conversely, mindfulness was the mechanism through which perpetual waiting could be stopped and presence could be cultivated.
We often ponder what we need to do to be mindful and present, failing to see the other side of the coin, which entails what we need to stop doing. This is equally critical in avoiding the trap of perpetual dissatisfaction with life and the present.
Having books, a meditation practice, or other tools, without critically examining them within the contexts of our individual lives is like being shown how to build a house without being told that we need to live inside it to benefit from its shelter. Mindfulness is a tool, presence is the house we build with it, and the realization that we need to stop waiting allows us to finally go inside and sit by the fire.
“Not waiting” is an important stepping-stone on the path into the wild because time is observed differently in nature. You don’t need to read Walden to understand how relatively important the concept of time is to our civilization, as compared to the wild. In nature, time passes. In civilization, time drives, gives significance, and dictates how we live. It’s this time-centric perspective that gives birth to the concept of waiting. Animals allow time to pass, however they don’t allow it to torture them. A bear finds the perfect moment to swat at a fish, a bird nests until it’s time to migrate, and a spider sits silently as flies meander into its web. These actions are hunting, nesting, and sitting. To call them waiting would only make sense from our human perspective since animals are not suffering as a result of wanting to be elsewhere.
Waiting State of Mind
When we think of waiting, we imagine idly sitting at a bus stop or in a doctor’s office. However, this only characterizes the “activity” of waiting, failing to capture the more damaging underlying waiting “state of mind.”
Imagine it’s Tuesday and you get a call from an old friend who wants meet up at a local restaurant on Friday. You’re excited because you haven’t seen them in years even though you used to be very close. Despite your excitement, you aren’t about to go to the restaurant immediately and sit for three days in anticipation, so one could argue that you won’t be waiting in its most conventional “activity” sense. However, your friend remains in the back of your mind that week as you go about your business. Maybe your mental preoccupation with the upcoming reunion makes you restless and distracted. Perhaps this restlessness leads you to duck out of work a few minutes early, skip a workout, or watch re-runs on television instead of starting a new book.
These things may happen because fixating on the future takes energy and effort. When we spend our energy thinking obsessively about the future (waiting) we reduce the amount of energy we can dedicate to the present. This means that even if we’re not physically waiting, the mental state of waiting can still impact our lives. Even when we’re physically present, we can be mentally absent. In light of this, it may be helpful to redefine our understanding of waiting to include “mental preoccupation,” or waiting as a state of mind rather than a physical action. The real danger of this waiting is that we often don’t even realize when it’s happening.
Since we can be in a waiting state of mind while doing other things, it’s also important to mention that we can be “doing nothing” without waiting at all. In a sense, this is mindfulness mediation, the practice of cultivating presence and awareness. We can even be physically waiting but not in a waiting state of mind, as long as we are content and present. Take for example, a man sitting at a bus stop, listening to the birds chirp in the trees and watching pedestrians walk back and forth on the opposite side of the street. The bus arrives after twenty minutes, and he gets on having not “waited” for even a moment.
The idea that he was able to physically wait for the bus without “waiting” is important because the waiting state of mind is often more burdensome than the activity of waiting. Meditation can be one way to pull ourselves out of perpetual waiting and into the present, however it is not the only way. Simple understanding and recognition of waiting as it happens can also be enough to put an end to the cycle. The man at the bus stop may have recognized he was becoming anxious thinking about how long it would be until the bus arrived, deciding instead to observe the vibrancy of his surroundings. With that simple realization, he stopped waiting and began joyfully experiencing the present moment.
While waiting isn’t absent from the animal kingdom, the perpetual waiting state of mind is far less prevalent. A friend recently pointed out to me that her cats wait for food each day, knowing when it will come and even purposefully arriving at their bowls early. While these animals engage in the activity of waiting, there’s no indication that they allow a waiting state of mind to detract from their enjoyment of the rest of their lives. Like the man enjoying himself at the bus stop, animals remain present, even as they physically wait. When this waiting seems to bring them anxiety, we can also consider that they’ve been domesticated and are perhaps adopting a human practice that they too find unnatural.
Good Things Come…
It’s often said: “good things come to those who wait.” At its heart, this adage expresses that we must accept the natural passing of time and cast away our desires for immediacy. In other words, it tells us that forcing things prematurely will diminish their value.
While this is a noble sentiment, it could benefit from a slight rebranding, taking into consideration our understanding of waiting as a mental state rather than an activity. When we understand waiting as a mentality, we see the idea of waiting and the idea of time passing as separate. The former is the mindset we have while the latter happens. Therefore, there’s no connection between “waiting” and “good things happening.” Instead, the connection is between “good things” and the passing of time, regardless of whether that time was spent waiting or not. So, we can clarify that “good things come to those who allow an appropriate amount of time to pass between the present and an anticipated event.” Catchy, I know.
Is this an important distinction or tiresome semantics? It’s simply an example of how reflecting on concepts such as waiting can dramatically shift the meaning of truths that we often take for granted. Let’s break down the adage just a little further by considering two scenarios. First, lets think about the effects of truly waiting for good things to come. Here, we’ll likely fail to appreciate or maximize the potential of the time leading up to the anticipated good things since we’ll be focusing only on the reward of our waiting. When those good things come, our orientation towards the future will make our enjoyment brief, after which we’ll move on to waiting for the next reward. In this scenario, waiting may have brought good things but it also diminished each part of the experience. Conversely, if we’re present while allowing time to pass, we can live fully in the time leading up to an anticipated event, enjoy it as it occurs, and continue to live presently after it is over. So perhaps we can conclude with a third version of the adage that is both accurate and simple by saying, “good things come to those who are present.”
A swan will sit on its eggs for six weeks before they hatch, present, protective, and attentive. It will show no visible signs of boredom, impatience, or discomfort. A person, taking a train home will get frustrated after twenty minutes of inactivity. Both the swan and the person have good things coming, and both must allow a given amount of time to pass, but only one of them will wait and only one of them will be anxious as a result.