Despite the growing public buzz over mindfulness, I never paid much attention to this attribute. Then the simple Swahili advice, “Pole pole,” changed my mind.
Mindfulness is a big buzzword these days in the self-help and wellness communities. It is presented as a virtue with various mantras and paths to attainment:
- “Be present.”
- “Take time for what matters.”
- “Observe, don’t judge.”
- “Live in the moment.”
The key message of mindfulness, as it seems to me, is “Simplify.” Don’t focus more than necessary on what you did or what happened to you in the past or what you have to do in the future. Focus on doing the best you can at your present task. Maintaining this focus on simplicity has become more difficult in the modern world. With more tools, diversions and obligations, it is hard to concentrate on any one task and easy to feel overwhelmed.
Mindfulness is offered as a safeguard against paralyzing psychological angst and sometimes as a means to spiritual wellness or something like enlightenment. To be honest, it’s a term I never thought much about during the normal course of my life. And on a blog devoted to topics related to physical wellness, psychological health doesn’t get much attention (spirituality and enlightenment get even less). But psychological distress has been linked to physical pain, including headaches, neck aches, heartburn, nausea and back pain. And physical pain undoubtedly acts as a psychological stressor.
Early last month, my wife and I set out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. At 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level, Kili is Africa’s tallest mountain and the highest free-standing peak in the world. We had planned an eight-day hike, a gradual ascent over the first six-and-a-half days and a quick descent the final one-and-a-half. The first day was easy. We drove from our hotel at about 4,500 feet to the trailhead at 11,200 feet. After a hearty lunch, we set out on a ninety-minute hike over relatively flat dirt and rock trails. I experienced some shortness of breath and a touch of light-headedness, but nothing serious. One day down, seven to go.
The second day served as our wake-up call: five hours of steady uphill hiking, much of it over steep, rocky trails. We hadn’t mentally prepared ourselves for that combination of incline, duration and elevation. I had a headache all day and felt light-headed every time we reached the top of a ridge, both of which I attributed to the elevation. I live in Chicago, less than 600 feet above sea level. On the second day on Kilimanjaro, we reached an altitude of 13,800 feet.
By the time we made it to our camp that afternoon, I felt exhausted. And I was pretty sure my wife was going to kill me for dragging her along on this adventure. I had no idea how I was going to make it through six more days, especially the twelve-hour hike on summit day, a far longer, steeper, darker and colder climb than the one we had just struggled to finish.
Day three started out as a continuation of day two. We began with a steep climb up a 500- to 1,000-foot tall ridge. The guides and porters, even those who barely speak English, have one constant piece of advice for climbing Kilimanjaro: “Pole pole” (pronounced “poh-lay poh-lay,” Swahili for “slowly”). Walking pole pole means walking slower than you think possible. It means short, slow steps, almost a “one thousand one” count per step. The pace is so deliberate that you can almost have a complete thought with each footfall. The point is that if you start thinking too much about all the distance you still have to cover or how hard the hike has been up to the present moment, you will give up entirely or you’ll go too fast and risk altitude sickness and exhaustion.
Instead, you have to focus on taking one step at a time and maintaining a slow and steady pace. If you can manage that focus—far easier said than done—you’ll get to the end before you know it with minimal wasted energy.
On day three, we walked pole pole up the steep ridge. We stopped to let the porters pass us on the narrow trails. When we felt out of breath, we stopped to take a sip of water. We made it to the top of the ridge and continued down and up several more ridges for the next few hours. That afternoon, we made camp in a far better physical and mental state than the day before. We had a strategy that made the rest of the hike seem at least possible.
Four days later, we summitted Mount Kilimanjaro. We began our summit hike at 3:30 in the morning at a starting elevation of about 16,000 feet. It was dark and cold as we headed up the steep trail to the top of the crater that forms the crest of the mountain. We struggled to find solid footing in the loose rocks and dirt of the trail. The altitude caused my heart to hammer in my chest, and my breaths came fast and heavy. It felt like I was working twice as hard as I should have been.
I focused on moving slowly, pole pole, and taking controlled breaths through my nose. I reminded myself that I was used to elevating my heart rate and feeling out of breath. We moved steadily up the incline, climbing for the better part of five hours. The sun rose. The temperatures increased. I was doing okay. Then I pulled myself over the top of the crater and collapsed to a seat on a rock. I suddenly felt like I had just finished an intense Crossfit workout while drunk and after having just been awakened from a deep sleep. We had reached Gilman’s Point, just shy of 18,700 feet, but we still had to hike about 1.5 miles and ascend over 600 feet to reach the summit.
We went on, pole pole to the extreme, toward the peak. It took us close to two hours to cover the final leg of the ascent. But we made it. In the grand scheme of things, our climb was a short journey. It was only an eight-day trip. The summit day was only twelve hours. It seemed daunting at the time, but we went pole pole and kept moving, and the time and distance passed by.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro proved to be a test of mental strength as much as physical endurance. Almost every hike was steeper and at a higher altitude than the previous. The only way to reach the summit was to go slow and not think too far ahead. After the second day, I found myself focusing on the present moment with each step, cutting out negative distractions and simplifying my task. “Pole pole,” I reminded myself. “One step at a time.” “Breathe.”
No, I did not achieve a mental Zen state in eight days. I’ve come to believe that, for most people, mindfulness is more of an equilibrium than a steady state. It is a technique used to rein in your thoughts when they stray too far. As I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, I practiced mindfulness, but my mind wandered constantly and I had to regain my focus over and over again. Pole pole became a mental cue to help me stay mindful of the task at hand.
I think physical challenges offer a nice testing ground for strategies and skills that translate to other areas of life. Physical challenges are more accessible and immediate than the mental, psychological and emotional variety. “Climb that ridge” is a concrete obstacle that poses a far more identifiable challenge than “Overcome depression.” But the skills that apply to climbing a ridge, like mindfulness, planning, persistence, openness to help, etc., apply to other obstacles. And physical activity is often prescribed to help deal with depression, grief and other forms of emotional and psychological pain and distress.
I got a crash course in mindfulness on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. But I expect to apply the pole pole mindset to many other aspects of my life.