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How neurologist John Kitchin threw it all away to attain enlightenment through roller skating

Posted in health, and philosophy

“I’d say that before Slomo I became the typical, institutionalized educated Western man…and frankly, I intended just to work myself on into oblivion, and get old and die… But now I experience myself like the tip of a great iceberg of consciousness.”

That quote comes from the beginning of a video “Op-Doc” released last week on The New York Times website by filmmaker Josh Izenberg. The film tells the story of a 69-year-old doctor named John Kitchin who turned his back on a lucrative professional career in 1998 to become “Slomo.” Slomo refers to a slow-motion style of meditative rollerblading that Kitchin developed along San Diego’s beachfront walkways. Izenberg’s 16-minute video documentary is beautifully shot and edited.

John Kitchin was raised in a prominent North Carolina family and became certified in neurology and psychiatry after medical school. Early in the documentary, he describes the feelings of spiritual malaise he experienced during the middle third of his life. By all outward appearances, he was extremely wealthy and happy, with a large mansion and exotic cars in his garage. But he knew something wasn’t right. With a soft, Southern drawl, he explains:

“I reckon what I’m talking about is my experience in the middle part of life. A large part of it is a grinding affair—working away, having a family, making the whole thing happen—and at the end of it, most people are pretty worn out. They don’t believe in God, they don’t believe in anything beyond this ephemeral existence that we’re in now. Their attitudes are cynical; they’re what we call in America “assholes,” and I was one of them.

“It occurred to me as I was driving to work and I had a lot of reports to dictate that day, that I was still shovelling shit, which had been the way I started my life on a dairy farm. If I look back on it, I’m just thinking, this is the most absurd and stupid way to get through a life that a person could ever dream up, but we’re all being pushed on to do this.

“And then I had the opportunity to… stop.”

He had begun to notice that he was misinterpreting X-rays and losing his ability to recognize faces. He soon realized that he was starting to go blind.

“So I was thinking, gosh, if I’m going blind—if I’m losing my vision and it’s affecting my work, and my work is very unsatisfactory to start with (and I’m thinking of suicide and that type of thing half the time), why don’t I just cash it in and start a whole new life. Like, be another person. Reinvent myself. I don’t have to be a doctor until the last minute, until I keel off and die that way.”

It didn’t take long for him to discover that all he wanted to do with his life were the most basic things—and to skate. Rollerblading became an obsession for him. And so every day, he would go outside with his inline roller skates and just skate as long as he could, sometimes 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 part of my life. I’d be out there thinking about God, and subjectivity, and every night I just went back to it like some sort of religious thing.

“I think what I’m doing, with all due modesty, is a type of flying. I was always trying to perfect this technique: skating in slow motion. I realized there was an aspect to lateral acceleration which made many of us feel good. I studied this and there’s a neurological explanation for this type of thing. Acceleration stimulates a set of receptors in the inner ear that connects us with the centre of the Earth by gravity. A piece of calcium sits on a membrane so that any change in the relative position of gravity will make this stone roll, and therefore there will be some indication that the body is moving, relative to the centre of the Earth.

“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 that angular acceleration feeling, you can use that for meditation, because it puts you in the zone.

“For awhile, I thought I might be going crazy or something because I’m too happy. I kept waiting for whatever this was, this obsession with skating, to differentiate itself into some sort of diagnosable problem. But that was 15 years ago!”

Slomo has become a semi-famous fixture on the San Diego beaches. Journalist Andrew Kenney has written a nice piece in the Raleigh, NC News & Observer on John Kitchin’s backstory and on how the film got made. It turns out that the filmmaker’s father Paul was an old classmate of Kitchin’s from North Carolina, who happened across Kitchin rollerblading on the San Diego boardwalk one day. When Paul introduced his filmmaker son Josh to Kitchin, Josh was inspired to write and produce a short film about the man’s story.

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