I have trained myself to move my short legs faster than they were ever meant to go. It is just the way it seems to work around here — keep up or be left behind. This mentality, of course, transcends just the physical; that is, it includes activities like zipping from class to class within the 10-minute time frame we have, trying to beat the Freshman Studies lunch rush and desperately speed-walking to some party at Colman Hall on a clear, four-degree Saturday night. The grind, the race, whatever you want to call it, is an all-encompassing culture at Lawrence that each of us are fueling by telling one other, directly or implicitly, to speed up, hurry up, step up, do more.
I say all this to explain why I was so shocked when, three weeks ago, I first witnessed junior Ben Portzen walking down Boldt Way at an absolute snail’s pace. There are few words to describe just how slowly he was walking — “stroll” implies something quicker, as do “mosey” and “saunter.” Let me just say that by the time I caught up to him — which did not take long — in front of Rick’s Cafe, to the time we reached WLFM House across the street from Big Exec, seven to 10 solid minutes had passed.
Since that first fateful day, I, along with many others, have seen Portzen making his gradual way through campus time and time again.
“Wow, Ben is walking so slowly,” remarked junior Phoebe Eisenbeis. “Is he injured?”
“There goes Ben again,” said junior Gaston Kaison. “Someone should write an article about him for The Lawrentian.”
That weekend, I sat down with Portzen to ask some questions, the most pressing being: “Why have you been walking so slowly?”
Portzen said, “I have become increasingly disillusioned with the relationship between my life at school and my mindfulness practice. [I] reached a point where I felt like those two things were actually incompatible. So, I started to think more deeply about … what substantive action I could take to … be mindful in everyday life.”
Portzen explained this to me in my dorm room in the house where we both live while we put off our homework in favor of this interview and, after the interview, in favor of dancing badly to music that cannot really be danced to.
“Do you think that Lawrence culture inherently conflicts with mindfulness practices?” I asked.
“I think it is not just a part of Lawrence culture, but a part of the culture of optimization that we all live in,” Portzen explained. He went on to say that you can try to use your time as effectively as possible, to use every second you have to do what is most beneficial; I added that as much as many of us try to do this, we fail, not only because it is literally impossible, but because intense productivity is a total Catch-22. Productivity, in the sense of which we tend to think of it, is exhausting. Not every minute, not every day or week or month or year can be nonstop action unless we want to send ourselves spiraling into a mental breakdown.
I am self-conscious now about how preachy, how white-person-misinterpreting-Eastern-philosophy-in-a-glossy-paged-self-help-book this so-called “advice” may read. Thankfully, at this point Portzen brought up a theory derived from Christian literature, which I would feel better about accidentally skewering.
“There’s this idea of distension between present, past and future. [It] talks about how there is no past, and there is no future — those are things we experience through emotions like nostalgia and hopefulness. The present moment is the only time you have to be mindful. So, in a place of institutional learning, a place that wants you to think about the future, that wants you to think about the past, how you can learn from the past and apply your knowledge in the future; where you’re
going to go, where you came from … I think all of that is really good, but at the same time I think it also discourages us from taking a step back and existing in the present moment, without trying to use the present moment as a means of gaining something in the future, or righting something that we did wrong in the past,” Portzen said.
I asked if he has noticed any changes in his mental well-being since he started walking slowly as a mindfulness practice.
“Yeah, I’ve never been this happy before,” he said. “In my entire life. I’ve never even come close to being this happy, it’s absolutely ridiculous. I’ve had my mind completely blown. I will be walking and have these moments of pure childlike joy looking at a tree and seeing how funny it looks.”
I started laughing, because it seems insane to me that walking slowly has actually transformed Portzen’s life — but the man is serious.
“Try walking slowly,” he said. “Just once. There’s no goal in mindfulness, but the one thing that you’re supposed to keep in mind is the emptiness of just letting things happen … letting thoughts just pass.”
Of course, he said that you do not necessarily have to walk slowly — there are other ways to practice mindfulness on this campus. He suggested that this can include simply being intentionally nicer to people and working with compassion.
“For me,” Portzen concluded, “part of walking slowly has been eliminating resistance to my own pain, to the pain of other people … not trying to do anything to make it better. When we soften into that, it’s a lot easier to feel compassionate for the people we care about, and to the pain that they might be going through.”
You will surely be able to recognize Portzen next time you see him because he will be the one walking slower than everybody else. Treat his presence like one of those neon crossing-guard signs that says, “SLOW! CHILDREN AT PLAY!”