November 16, 2015
I wrote this months ago, after returning from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, in part to mark the 40th anniversary of both the end of the Vietnam War and the Fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, and also to deepen many wonderful friendships. In the last week, we have entered another horrible cycle of violence, reminding us that we are still far from a world of peace. Violence begets violence. Peace begets peace. I hope this writing helps you connect your inner peace in this troubled time. Slow is from the heart.
In the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh, Vong Metry surprised me with her warmth, greeting me with a smile and hug. She was true to her given name. Pronounced METree, it was the Cambodian version of the Sanskrit word for lovingkindness, also translated as friendliness, maitri. I was here as a vacationing fugitive from the manic, fast-paced high tech energy of Silicon Valley, wanting to learn about different, older technologies and wisdoms, straight from the source.
Metry, 61, had been a classical dancer since the age of 5, and now ran the Apsara Arts Association, where she taught classical dance and performing arts to children and the occasional tourist. She provided an alternative for youth, many of them orphans, and was a conduit for traditions that had nearly been wiped out by the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge forty years before.
On a hot and humid May afternoon in her studio open to the breeze from the lush surrounding lotus fields, she led me through postures and gestures meant to invoke the apsaras, or heavenly nymphs. Needless to say, I was more hammy than heavenly, my body’s inflexibility provoking good-natured laughter from us both. We stopped and turned to conversation instead, translated by my tuk tuk driver and her friend, Sareen. I explained I was a psychiatrist, treating Cambodian patients in San Francisco, all of them survivors of the killing fields. Our connection through the Cambodian diaspora made her willing to reveal her life story. She was forced from Phnom Penh with the rest of the city’s population on April 17, 1975, four months pregnant. She soon lost her baby to miscarriage and was sent to work in the countryside. She boiled bark for food. Her belly became distended from malnutrition. She hid her education and skill to avoid certain persecution by the anti-intellectual revolutionaries, pretending to be a farmer instead. She witnessed the atrocities that led to nearly 2 million Cambodians dying over the next four years.
She credited dancing for her survival, even though the Khmer Rouge would have killed her if they knew of her talent. “I survived because I was dancing inside,” she said, patting her chest. Now, dancing meant survival of the spirit of Cambodia itself. “Angkor Wat is just static, a building. But dance you create. An artist should dance, play music and sing to be complete. Kids these days want what they see on television, hip hop and Western styles. They want everything fast-fast-fast!"
"But slow is from the heart,” she said, patting her chest gently again for emphasis.
Slow is from the heart.
Her words rung me like a bell, resonating throughout my neural synapses and being. I am ardent for the heart’s messages, but they often get lost in the maelstrom of a busy life. I meditate every day, connecting myself to the depths of soul and loosening the grip of my everyday suffering and the thought patterns to which I habitually cling. Still, the mind runs afoul of the heart all too often. Sometimes the heart is forgotten altogether as I push forward on projects, activities, and opinions, and get tangled in frustrations, dissatisfactions and the commonplace quandaries of everyday life.
The heart and its subtle message can seem almost irrelevant to our wired, smartphone-obsessed, social-media-jittery world. Our devices and attitudes compel us to seek instant gratification and popularity. We crave quick answers to even the thorniest problems, as if knowing “the answer” and declaring it with a hashtag would solve our predicament. We search Google instead of our souls, and substitute fast wi-fi connections for the slower but wider bandwidth of real relationships, grounded in the real world.
Slow seems boring at best, and frightening at worst. What will we learn about ourselves when we slow down? What will we miss out on when we disconnect from the infobahn? Who will pass us by, leaving us in the dust of their ambition? Slowing down seems a peril. Speed is linked to our fight-or-flight survival instincts, as well as our drives to succeed, dominate and win at all costs. Age-old wisdom (“slow and steady wins the race”) seems outdated, an archaic relic to be cast aside as we rush into a busy, heady future. Metry reminded me that in our rush, our very hearts are in jeopardy.
Fast surely has its place: a fast-moving spontaneous conversation, infectious humor, sporting skill, a hip-hop dancer’s pops and locks. A quick reflex can sometimes save lives. All require a cultivation of attention, both in the moment and in rehearsal. But when we accelerate, we often stop paying attention. We lose track of our intentions, and the deeper chords of existence. We lose patience and kindness as we push towards supposedly more important objectives and goals. But aren’t patience and kindness worthy goals? Love?
“Love is patient, love is kind…” And love is slow. The 17th Karmapa says that “there is no love bomb. Love takes time.” People tend to grow on us, when we spend time with them. Studies show that contrary to “love at first sight”, people tend to attach to each other and grow in fondness by spending time with each other. I wonder what will become of our capacity to love each other when we spend less and less time with each other, when our time with each other is spent in comment threads and text messages rather than slow attentions, appreciations and gestures. Will we lose our capacity for creative possibilities in relationship and community, and the ability to accept despite difference? We might view each other as annoyances at worst and utilities at best, far removed from the open embrace of love.
We are compelled to fast reaction by the insistence of Facebook feeds and hashtag demands. We get a social media rush from rapid activist outrage. Anger travels most quickly and virally on the internet, as well as in our brains. But Seneca wrote 2000 years ago, “a mind that becomes a slave to some passion must exist as though in a tyrant’s realm,” cautioning against anger’s possessive and destructive potential, but possibly warning presciently against social media’s cottage industries of rants, diatribes, and mob actions. Anger is unavoidable and understandable, given the wrongs we face, but it can overcome love with fast fury. People of conscience naturally rage against the status quo, and demand to be heard and seen, but our internal status quo needs work as well.
Metry’s words reminded me of the instruments of internal change. Slowing down. Pausing. Paying attention. Listening to the heart. Listening to each other. Cultivating compassion and wisdom. In a world of rolling stones, gather moss instead.
She had seen the worst of human cruelty, mind-numbing, catastrophic deafness to the heart’s message. Born of hardship and grief, that message spoke to me. This inner technology, available to all, was more profound and life altering than many screens full of apps. Instead of replacing humans, the technology of the heart required them.
A mentor once asked me what my purpose was in life. The answer arose, slowly, in meditation: to see more clearly and love more deeply. Yet this is frequently against the stream of the world we inhabit. Metry showed me that no matter the resistance, clearer sight and deeper love come from the heart in slow, steady steps, like a sure-footed dancer who knows her art. As we take up the dance, we move in deeper streams.
Back in San Francisco, city of hearts, city of St. Francis, city of head-spinning cyber-evangelism, I found my pace shifting, adjusting to an eternal rhythm. Slow is from the heart, and now I lived on the heart’s time. There was more life here, and more love.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His book-in-progress, Facebuddha, is about the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens. www.RaviChandraMD.com.
(c) 2015, Ravi Chandra, M.D. F.A.P.A.
Occasional Newsletter to find out about my book-in-progress on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks: www.RaviChandraMD.com
Private Practice: www.sfpsychiatry.com
Facebook: Sangha Francisco-The Pacific Heart
For info on books and books in progress, see here and www.RaviChandraMD.com