Tempo is a little like breathing—easily taken for granted. But like the surge of appreciation for breath when the wind gets knocked out of us, dramatic changes in our tempo can have a profound effect on our perception of, our engagement with, and our enthusiasm for what unfolds within and around us.
In his book, Time Shifting, author Stephen Rechtschaffen says, “It’s when we slow down that we show up.” In a world where multi-tasking is less the revered talent of a select few than a price-of-entry survival skill across a whole spectrum of society, where connectivity is measured in gigabytes per second, and where bandwidth, no matter how robust, leaves us chafing at its limitations, slowing down can seem the worst kind of torture.
And yet it’s transformative.
In the early 1970s, I attended my first taijiquan class. Even then, long before smart phones, social media, the internet, or personal computers, I was shocked by the tempo. The sustained slow motion of the taiji movements made me angry. An accomplished athlete, I felt uncoordinated. My knees wobbled, my balance wavered. I hated it.
But I couldn’t stay away. It touched me like very few things ever had. I sensed, even while my muscles and ego struggled on the surface, a stillness and silence reverberating inside. So I resolved to learn this art of slowing down, of what taijiquan calls “empty stepping” and “being present.”
More than forty years later my knees still sometimes wobble, my balance has been known to waver, and my ego still resents the embarrassment when that happens. But I love the place the tempo has brought me to.
Of course, there are other ways of playing with tempo, of changing the rhythm and cadence, and of just slowing down. One of my favorite is bicycling.
I’ve ridden a bike for sixty years, but it wasn’t until I started playing taijiquan that I realized cycling is another form of stillness in motion. That’s a magical combination. It gives us the endorphin rush that comes with movement, and it opens us to the illumination of insight that comes with quieting the mind and settling the dust.
Bicycling also has the advantage of transporting us at something like 15 mph. For those constitutionally averse to being stuck in one place, that’s enough speed to keep the world moving. But for those who travel most often by car, bicycling is slow enough to rock that world, doing far more than just keeping it moving—making it come alive.
At 15 mph, you can actually hear, smell, and taste the world as you pass through it. I discovered that dramatically in 2015 when I rode my bike a thousand miles across the Great Plains from Minneapolis to Malta, Montana. I experienced it again the following summer when I rode from Seattle to Redwoods National Park in Northern California, and in 2018 when I rode from the northern tip of California to San Francisco.
All three trips were with the nonprofit organization, Bike The US For MS, and were inspiring, rewarding and humbling. They restored my faith in the generosity of strangers, they reminded me again of the incredible beauty of this planet that we call home, and they made me feel like a kid again. It was really, really fun.
Almost all of that would have been missed if I was traveling in my car.
tadpolejourneys is a blog about tempo and transformation. Sometimes it will borrow from lessons learned in taijiquan. Sometimes it will recount adventures from the saddle of a bicycle. Sometimes it will be about the small and momentous encounters in our lives that make us pause and take notice. Maybe for just a moment. But maybe, just maybe, that taking notice will take root and become a semi-regular habit.
There’s a joy in that kind of repetition. Rather than becoming stale, it keeps us looking at the world with fresh, new eyes.