I wrote a few pieces about running in college and looking back at them they were all very descriptive. They have little observations about how a shadow might look, what my breathing was like, how I reacted to a car that almost hit me. To me, those are signals that I was very much present and aware. It’s unfortunate running has become an entirely different activity.
Since then it’s slowly lost all semblance from that period. Every night same run, same speed, and one song going over and over. So they’ve all blurred together – there is not one night that stands out, it’s like they never even happened. I once listened to Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’ thirty or forty times in a row. When I used to run on the treadmill on my building, it was the only way I could handle spending that much time in a tv-less basement. I stopped when it dawned on me that I’d often run for 40 minutes breathing heavily as I ran towards my own reflection and not even notice that I’d done it. There is something wrong with that. Very wrong.
This is exemplary of having no middleground. Another way to put it might be a “state of unthinking” – rather than reflecting on what has happened or working on what will happen. And simply being busy to the point where you’re not thinking anything isn’t a solution either. There should be a period where you’re simply present, reacting and receiving to what is going on around you.
So how do you become present and aware of the moment? (I’ve since learned that Buddhists called this “mindfulness”) Montaigne wrote that we should have rooms in our house that have nothing in them. You should spend time in them, he said, and be alone and without distraction. I went through my apartment last week and thought “if I was moving right now, what would I not take with me?” and got rid of all that stuff. I figure if you have less, there’s less to consider and less, ultimately, to fear losing. Or, what about turning off the soundtrack and ending its delusion right now. Finally, if descriptiveness can be indicator of someone’s presentness, why not act like you’re going to write about the exact moment you’re in?
I’ve heard that 15 seconds is about what the mind can comprehend as the ‘present.’ Watch yourself as you butt up against that barrier while you’re running. Each second you can go on past that is one you’re not subjected to regret, hope, anger, sadness, expectation, anxiety, stress or uncertainty. You’re just there. And by being there, you’re in control of yourself and your emotions. The resistance I felt at 15 seconds can be worked out just like a muscle.
As I ran last night I caught myself smiling for the first time I can remember doing it since I ran in college. I thought, ‘what a nice night’ and when I got home I didn’t feel the need to rush in and write something down before I forgot it. I was just finished.
I tried this recently while playing guitar. It’s an exercise for increasing your focus. Doing something as repetitive as running or playing scales naturally makes you zone out. But trying to stay in the present, feeling the strings under your fingers, finding the sweetspot on your fingertips, listening to all the background noise from you sloppily nicking other strings will improve your technique more than mindlessly repeating the minor pentatonic scale while thinking about what’s on television later that night.
Some good books are available to help develop awareness of the present. These are:
The Inner Game of Music
The Inner Game of Tennis
I’ve read The Inner Game of Music. The information from it has changed the way I learn and practice.
I’m lucky to have a very minimalist dad.
Living at his house now all we have in our kitchen are a kitchen sink, a fridge and enough cooking utensils and plates to get by. No cupboards, microwave, coffee maker, etc. Maybe that’s why I still keep my clothes in cardboard boxes.
Just a quick note about Buddhism: I recently heard someone talking about meditation and that the main mistake people make is thinking that meditation ends when you stop. That’s bad. The real aim of meditation is to realign your thoughts so that when you aren’t meditating you are still in that same state of awareness/clarity/ease/happiness. It’s like practicing how you want to think so that you start thinking like that all the time.
Thanks for this. Christ you’re an insightful guy.
Did the polar bear make the cut?