The fear of regret has motivated me to do many things- it is so final and so gut wrenching that we try to avoid it at all costs.
For me, I would say the regret that I fear the most is the regret of not making the most of my precious time on planet Earth. It terrifies me to think that one day I might be lying on my death bed wishing I could have done more, seen more, been more. Over the years that’s manifested itself in me travelling the world, climbing mountains, jumping from one project to the next… the list goes on. There’s no time to waste, I’d always tell myself.
So when recently I read a passage about regret in the book Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death by 84 year old Richard Holloway it struck me to my core. He wrote:
Looking back, what I regret the most about the rush is missing so much of my own life. I don’t mean missing it now. I mean missing it then, missing it whilst I was in the midst of it. I am sorry I did not pay more attention to the world while I raced through it… On the hills, which I started walking in as a young boy, it was the movement that was important to me, as well as the dreams I was conjuring in my imagination as I strode on… I wish more of my attention had been spent on the here… the gift that is actually close at hand.
I had to read the passage over and over, because the person he was describing was me.
I have always found it incredibly difficult to ‘enjoy the moment’, especially when I’m in the hills. With a clear goal in mind and the fear that conditions might change at any moment, I’ve always kept my head down and focussed on the movement until hours later I would allow myself to ‘come up for air’. I would get frustrated with team mates who would stop suddenly to admire the view.
When I was studying Yoga in Costa Rica in January I would finish the days studies with a run in the jungle which went up the side of a series of waterfalls. In all the time I was there- over a month, I never once stopped to swim in one particular beautiful crystal clear pool, too busy I was trying to get to the top as fast as I could. As Holloway said:
Getting there was always the point for me- but where’s there?
He does have a point about movement- for me, connecting with my breath, my mind and my body in the hills, the jungle, wherever it is, is all consuming- I’ve always called it my meditation. And of course there have been moments when the natural world managed penetrate through the relentless focus- a spectacular sunset, the sight of a deer in Swinley Forest, ice crystals being whipped up in a gust of wind and falling back to earth like fairy dust.
But at the same time, the drive to get there can be so strong that even when our heart pulls at the sight of an amazing view or the chance to swim in an ancient waterfall, it pushes us on. It says ‘next time’.
With Holloway’s honest words ringing in my mind, I can now see that relentless voice for what it is- an amazing motivator for which I am thankful for, but left unchecked it will leave me winding up the end of my life realising that for all the rare and astonishing places I have been, I haven’t really seen them.
Thankfully, I have seen the flip side. I do know what it’s like to really see a place- to become one with it. For me it’s a conscious effort- like taking a puppy for a walk, I have to keep my restless mind on a tight leash. It doesn’t seem to want to give in at first- it keeps trying to make a dash for the distance. It can’t see the point in dallying along at such a slow pace. Running is out of the question. I make myself walk, and walk slowly.
In Costa Rica one evening I made myself walk my usual running route- oh, how my mind growled and barked at me to just dash off. But I forced myself to look at every branch and leaf. Every vine. Every stream. As the minutes ticked by and my senses grew more heightened I started to see and hear the jungle in ways I hadn’t done before. It started to come to life- not necessarily in reality, but in my mind.
I realised that the key to seeing and connecting with nature is to go into it without any goal in mind- to just be with it. Nature, I believe, gives itself most fully when we are willing to stop and listen. This is something that can never be taught, but something that must be learned first hand.
I wont go into the details of what happened on the rest of that walk, but it was of the most profound experiences of my life. I walked in the way my ancestors would have walked- knowing that the jungle was alive, and it spoke to me. For a while I had been struggling and pushing back from something in my life, and it had led to arguments with those I love most and a form of anxiety for many months, but on that solitary walk I found meaning and answers in the jungle that I had failed to find anywhere else.
When we are willing to let space into our lives- by slowing down, by being silent and by doing all without any intention or goal in mind, new depth and meaning appears.
After finishing Richard Holloway’s book I began reading The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.
Nan wrote in 1945 what Richard and I have most failed to understand throughout our lives so far:
So I looked slowly across the Coire Loch, and began to understand that haste can do nothing with these hills. I knew when I had looked for a long time that I had hardly begun to see.
In this modern world we need nature more than ever. But not to just move through it- but to be with it, connected to it, so that it fills us with wonder. That requires stillness and silence. It needs us to leave behind clock time and become immersed in deep time.
So perhaps our modern tool kit for life should be less about determination and relentlessness and more about stillness. Less of lusting for summits and goals and ticks off a bucket list. More silence. More of letting nature do the talking.
Where does it lead us? Perhaps not directly to greater profits or a promotion, but perhaps- inadvertently so. I find that the balance and the perspective that nature gives me when I force myself to not rush through it is the one thing that keeps me sane, which in turn affects every aspect of my life. It energises and invigorates like nothing else.
I thank Richard Holloway for his honesty, and for alerting me to my own self, blasting along to the finish line of life, barely taking a moment to drink in the view.
I know the moments I am most grateful for are the ones when nature speaks.
And I hope with the time I have still to go, rushing through life won’t be a regret I end up with. And that for Holloway it isn’t too late either, that his own regret has inspired him to go and be with the hills he walked on a boy. And perhaps for the first time- to see them in the unique way that only we humans can.