An Unnatural Pursuit
Illustration by Jason Arias.
Fast-paced, on unmarked paths, my walks through the West African bush took four hours, maybe more. I never carried a watch. The point was to lose track of time, maybe even of the path that traced faintly through the pointillist savannah. Mostly, the point was to lose track of the cognitive rush that accompanied every arrival.
At the beginning of each walk lay a camp of nomadic Fulani cattle herders who lived and migrated in the crook of the Niger River’s bend, on land that was more than two billion years old. It was the quintessence of open space. You could picture mammoths on it. You could picture dinosaurs. Its antiquity seemed to magnify its size. So, too, did the sparseness of the campsites: a few reed mats, a hearth built with three large rocks, a small herd of Zebu cows sighing under a thorn tree, sometimes a grass-and-thatch hut, sometimes not, and immense, beveled horizons.
At the end of my walks lay Djenné, an 1,100-year-old town in central Mali. Its neo-Sudanic clay walls enclosed 33,000 residents, a busy market, a gendarmerie, a hospital, a jail, mosques, schools, pharmacies, motorcycles, donkey carts, cellphone dealerships, internet cafés, transistor radios, a horde of social obligations, and a myriad problems that required immediate resolution. It was a prototype of the world I often occupy, and so do you: a world so fractionated by pressing responsibilities that it minces the thought process into minute reactionary snippets—the kind of mental busyness the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “fast thinking.”
I had come to the Sahel to think slowly.
I was researching a book about transience, and I had thought that, perhaps, in the course of my work I could learn whether and how life in sparse environments helps us slow down.
“In the face of ‘too much’ we gradually become dry, our hearts get tired, our energies become spare,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés, poet and trauma counselor. I had hoped to rarify input. On and off, for a year, I herded cattle with a family of Fulani cowboys, who spend their lives ambulating the semiarid grasslands between the Sahara and the tropics and inhabit a very modest pre-monetary and pre-modern culture. I was researching a book about transience, and I had thought that, perhaps, in the course of my work I could learn whether and how life in sparse environments helps us slow down.
Scientists say busy minds make us sad and less alert. This holds true for me. What causes my cognitive overload is probably what causes yours: deadlines, ambitions, chores, parenting worries, and how all of these often seem impossible to juggle. When my mind is crowded in this way I fail to notice the beauty that nurtures it. A cardinal’s enchanted scarlet flight on a monochrome winter run in Philadelphia. The hollow flutter of a moth wrestling out of a cage of agave. The unfathomable embrace of the universe that accommodates tigerfish teeth and the electromagnetic song of the comet 67P both. A friend’s kindness. I grow too hard-pressed to be astonished by the ineffable in the world, my well-being withers, and I become terribly blue, sometimes for days, for weeks.
Mental health scholars and practitioners in industrialized countries have come to identify overachieving work ethics, the 24-hour news cycle, our pandemic connectedness, our desire for instant gratification, and our growing practice of multitasking as the main sources of cognitive pressure. They say it is a side effect of modernity and link it to an array of emotional and somatic disorders: ulcers, migraines, hypertension, heart disease, anxiety, clinical depression. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that “the nature of work is changing at whirlwind speed,” and that “now more than ever before, job stress poses a threat to the health of workers.” The extent to which fast-paced lives jeopardize our mental hygiene has become a kind of present-day platitude, a Gospel of Rushed Living. Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed is an international bestseller. We live, according to Honoré, in a world that is “time-sick.”
But deadlines, stressful trivia of daily life, and incessant communications have been ubiquitous facets of human existence since pre-modern times. They predate Twitter. They predate the Reformation. Our mind became modern 1.5 million years ago, and it became really busy when, during the Neolithic Revolution around 10,000 BCE, most of us clustered into sedentary communities and information exchange grew disproportionate to our brain’s evolutionary capacity. The world has been “time-sick” for a very long time: 2,500 years ago, when an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama began encouraging followers to slow down, his teachings were so revolutionary that he became the Awakened One.
“In the time of Buddha there were no iPhones,” says Abby Seixas, a Massachusetts psychotherapist and author who specializes in helping people counter the effects of high-speed culture, “but he was teaching people to deal with busy minds. So we’ve always had that.”
At a recent exhibit in New York, the performance artist Marina Abramovic had her patrons blindfolded and outfitted with sound-canceling headphones, then set loose, very slowly, inside the gallery. “There is incredible thought pollution,” Abramovic said of the project. “There’s so much to occupy you, but what is your own experience of yourself, alone in a space?”
I was blindfolded and deaf in midtown Manhattan, and it felt like seeing for miles in the oceanic tracts of the Sahel.
I visited the exhibit in autumn of 2014. I quickly lost sense of direction. I knocked into some walls. Maybe it was the same wall. Then I lost track of time. My mind bumbled around some, baffled. And then I realized that I could think more purposefully. That I could choose what to think. I could choose not to think at all. I could change my mind. I started to laugh. Instead of shrinking space, the sensory isolation unfurled something, erased some limits, distilled some forgotten latitude. I was blindfolded and deaf in midtown Manhattan, and it felt like seeing for miles in the oceanic tracts of the Sahel.
Part of the correlation between open space and slowing down is evolutionary: Humans were born in the savannah. Our feet are built to walk on hot, dry soil, our brains are built to endure in boundless expanses. The sheer volume of lucid air fills the mind, the distant skyline paces off a spirit level of calm. Research shows that people draw jagged, pointed shapes when asked to draw representations of anger, and horizontal lines to illustrate peacefulness.
Open spaces, too, take out of the equation some sensory stimulants—verticals, say, or obstacles: they offer a visual equivalent of the solitude we have sought time and time again in our ageless and unnatural pursuit of mindfulness. Jainists have been turning to reclusion since the 6th century BCE; “to live deliberately,” Thoreau retreated into the woods. (Transcendentalists: disciples of an early slow movement.) Today’s “unplugged” meditation retreats and float centers are extensions, or exaggerations, of the attenuated physical and operational landscape of our ancestors: they remind us of the time when we were all walking across the flat vastness of Africa.
Or maybe they remind us of an innate stillness mostly lost, but still inside us. “Immensity,” suggests the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “is the movement of motionless man.”
To still my mind I go to open spaces. In a desert or on the unending ocean shore of Senegal, where I have spent the last several months researching a book about fishing, I pretend that I can physically untangle my thoughts, hang them up separately along the skyline the way a photographer would hang prints in a darkroom, then examine them one by one, at leisure, with iambic distance between us. Occasionally it works.
On the walks to Djenné the paths reached upward in my tracks with tiny golden rushes of dust, rearranged to mark my passing the way they had done millions of times for millions of other wayfarers. Most had been probably herding cows or taking goods to market. Maybe some, too, had been looking for quietude of the mind.
The Sahel measured out time at once in the milliseconds of a bird’s wingbeat and in slices of eternity. It cannelured the world in broad horizontal streaks of land, low tree crowns, sky. At the same time, each littlest thing, each movement—the halfcoil of a snake’s slither, a branch jouncing under a kingfisher’s weight—was separate from the other and full of its own meaning, a koan. At night, when the only sounds at the camp were of cows sighing, cows licking themselves, I could hear each cowlick. Sometimes I felt as though I could steady myself against such micro and macro landscapes.
Like the rest of the world, the Sahel was a thaumatrope flicking endlessly between unaccountable beauty and unfathomable cruelty.
I also saw the Fulani children’s graves near each campsite, saw how the routes of the nomads’ migration charted the course from one dead child to the next. I saw acres of desiccated farmland and pastureland that blew away with the harmattan gusts of winter, millions of livelihoods swept up on the wind like ash. Warplanes that bored slowly through the unctuous ozone above, heading to combat that was converting traditional nomadic routes a hundred miles north of my hosts’ campsites into the newest frontline of the global war on terror. Like the rest of the world, the Sahel was a thaumatrope flicking endlessly between unaccountable beauty and unfathomable cruelty.
Maybe this was what slowing down felt like: a yielding up of room for boundless joy and profound heartbreak. Heartbreak, too, was a kind of emptiness.
I would go to Djenné every few days. Once I’d reach town, I would charge my cell phone, respond to email, check in on my teenage son who was staying alone in our apartment 4,600 miles away, conduct phone interviews pertinent to my research, and read up on the news of the war in the Sahara: in short, multitask myself into the world of fast thinking. By the end of the day I was usually drained. Even without the internet, life in Djenné is very busy. Most Djennénke work in commerce, keeping businesses open nearly round the clock. They spend the rest of their waking hours networking, bartering, rebuilding—by hand—their adobe homes, procuring and preparing food.
The nomads shunned Djenné. They said it was loud and dirty. One man, Ousman Diakayaté, said it gave him terrible migraines. The first time I walked to Djenné with Ousman and his cousins, the cowboys entered the town holding hands, like people jumping from a burning building.
Were my hosts happier because they inhabited a flat and open wilderness? I don’t know. There were too many mitigating factors.
Fulani nomads live and migrate collectively, in extended family groups of between ten and twenty people, and anthropological psychologists say such communality is a good thing. But they also watch the children in these extended families die of preventable disease every year. Mali has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, after Afghanistan, and nomads, who have almost no access to doctors or pharmaceuticals, are particularly affected. The preeminent Fulani ethnographer Paul Riesman wrote that during his studies in Upper Volta in the 1970s he had never observed depression among his informants, but ethnopsychiatrists point out that in many societies depression manifests itself somatically rather than as a state of mind or a mood, and certainly report cases of mental illness and depression among nomads. Subjects in recent research of rural—including nomadic—populations in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe independently described causes of mental illness and depression as “thinking too much.” My hosts thought constantly: about food security and dwindling herds, about pasturelands decimated by overgrazing, farming, and desertification, about an ancient lifestyle under siege by the ever-changing, globalizing world. I have seen them cry from grief and fear. I have cried with them.
They had little more access to modern technology than medieval Europeans, but they asked for and offered up information all day long.
They had almost no down time. Their day was eighteen hours long and they spent most of it pounding grain, fetching water, herding or milking cattle, doing laundry, weaving mats to sit and sleep on, bartering milk and butter, all while taking care of the children. They had little more access to modern technology than medieval Europeans, but they asked for and offered up information all day long. A lot of the conversation was necessary. Some seemed idle. Has it rained in town and how much? Was there grass at a pasture a day’s walk away and how tall? Has the second cousin’s daughter been discharged from the hospital, and what was the diagnosis? How were the cows faring in the heat? In the cold? Was I tired? Look, a bush rat!
The perennial rhythm of their lives was dictated by the needs of their cattle, their patient confidence in the land, their pursuit of rain. Perpetual motion, a constant spatial tug: go on, go on, go on, go on. Their movement regrooved migration routes polished over centuries, with only minor deviations to account for land newly appropriated for rice and millet farms, or taken over by the desert, state borders, war. But they appeared to take their time doing things. They focused on each task and each interaction. Their greetings were unhurried and thorough. A level of cognitive busyness seemed absent, as if the space around them unburdened a space within, a Sahel of the mind. There was room, at dawn, to watch thousands of cattle egrets string endless sedges on blue wind.
It occurred to me that the centering power of the Fulani lay not in movement, not in their incessant calipering of the savannah. It lay in their ability to be absolutely still.
They thought my comings and goings very odd.
“You’re always restless,” they would tell me. “You always need to be doing something, going someplace. Sit instead. Weave a mat. Grind some millet.”
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