How to leave medicine and find happiness skating
NYTimes.com (video) profiles Dr. John Kitchin, who left a decades-long career as a double-boarded physician. A fellow dropout doc!
You should watch the whole piece, but it’s long at over sixteen minutes, so I’ve excerpted and transcribed the best parts. His story will be resonant to anyone who feels a gnawing suspicion that we just weren’t meant to live the way we’re living.
… I became the typical institutionalized, educated Western man…. I got credentialed in both neurology and psychiatry. I had a full practice and was going to all these different hospitals and doing very well. It was kind of the zenith of my masculinity. I was in the cafeteria line behind an old man who was all bent over, and I’d asked him how old he was, and he said he was 93…. I said, “How does a strapping young man get to be an old codger like you?” And he looked at me and said, “Do what you want to.” And at first I was thinking this old man made more sense to me than anything I’d ever heard in my whole life…[but] I was lost in a rational world for a good 20 years after that.
At the beginning, [my work] was about 90% spiritual, and as the years went by, it got about 90% financial…. I was still shovelin’ shit, which had been the way I started my life on the dairy farm. If I looked back on it, I’m just thinking, this is the most absurd, stupid way to go through a life that a person could dream up, but we’re all being pushed on to do this. And then I had the opportunity to stop.
And his was not your standard retirement:
I remembered that old guy saying “Do what you want to”… and I found out all I really wanted to do was the basic things, and skate. And every day I would come out and just skate [San Diego’s Pacific Beach] as long as I could. And sometimes I would skate like even through the night. I just loved to skate. I loved the feeling, and the more attention I could put to it, the more enjoyable it got. But it was the only really spiritual pull in my life.
People in the community have no idea who he is and continue to make guesses about whether he’s a veteran, some former musician or actor, or just homeless. But he’s become a local personality, and people call him “Slomo” because of how he skates.
I was always trying to perfect this technique: skating in slow motion. I realized that there was an aspect to lateral acceleration which made many of us feel good. I studied this, and there’s a neurological explanation to this type of thing… When I skate, the whole idea is to keep a continuous feeling of acceleration even though it’s very small, and if you keep it constant, the feeling of expansion continues to build. Anything where you can get this angular acceleration feeling, you can use that for meditation because it puts you in the zone.
For a while, I thought I might be going crazy or something because I’m too happy. And I kept waiting for whatever this was, this obsession with skating to differentiate itself into some diagnosable problem, but that was 15 years ago…
Once we see the light, we know that there will be no satisfaction until we experience a kind of divinity, something that’s as close to divinity as man can experience. And I had an opportunity to get into that. When I start skating it happens to me…. The people that love Slomo are cheering for one person that got away, that escaped, and got to freedom where he skates all day, doesn’t apologize. He’s simply doing what he wants to.
This is powerful and subversive stuff.
People like Dr. Kitchin who do wacky things like skate beaches full time can come across as so far off in la-la land that one begins to doubt not just their sanity but their authenticity. But this guy is such a breath of fresh air! He’s humble and grounded. And it doesn’t hurt that he talks like he skates: it’s a slow Southern drawl, and it’s very charming.
Our culture fixates on human interest tales about leaving it all behind, but so few of us have the balls to do it, or we put if off for far too long. I left a career in medicine in part to get off of the Achievement Train, as I call it. I decided I was tired of achieving and had done enough for one lifetime. I didn’t want to be driven by it any more. Now I’ve wandered back into technology and feel like the work is a better fit, but there’s a hamster wheel in every industry, and I’m very sensitive to trading one for another.
It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re living mindfully because we go to yoga and try to meditate regularly and eat real food (mostly plants) and so on. But we’re all vulnerable to the hamster wheel because it’s the fundamental structure of the society we’ve built for ourselves: moving forward without meaning or purpose. I guess it’s part of human nature to seek meaning and purpose, but in modern culture, I feel like we really have to fight against the grain or risk being pulled away in a current moving the opposite direction, toward distraction and reification and living hundreds of miles from loved ones, and needing to book friends two weeks in advance just to meet up for coffee. I’d bet that if our society valued being present, we wouldn’t need to build apps to remind ourselves how to live.
My most important experience with meditation was going to a ten-day silent retreat, but getting away from it all to learn how to be present seems like such a cop-out. Of course you can achieve focus when you remove yourself from the world. Spiritual leaders and masters have been isolating themselves for millennia. But I don’t want to leave the world behind. I want to live in it. I want to have friends and start a family. Sometimes I want to watch old Star Trek episodes on Netflix. I don’t want mindfulness solely as an end in itself.
Slomo rejected medicine but also, more broadly, Achievement. He lives in a studio apartment and skates. He moves forward with a purpose that he chose, and has structured his life in a way that supports that purpose. He fights against nothing. He created a life in which mindfulness goes with the grain, so he never needs to escape it. And he hit on the science of a surprisingly common “shortcut” to meditation; cultures that span the globe have used movement, often in combination with sound and rhythm, for spiritual purposes. Everything from skating to tai chi to jogging to dancing includes some element of constant angular acceleration.
How do you get in “the zone”? More importantly, how do you build a life that lets you get there early and often?