Next Right Move (J.O.G.T.8)

“Meditation is painful in the beginning but it bestows immortal Bliss and supreme joy in the end.” – Swami Sivananda

I took a quick look into the Jar Of Good Things for August and had to accept that I didn’t have a helluva lot to say this month. It was full of a lot of simple pleasure one-liners with a couple of elaborate bits that I’ve either already shared or should remain private.

Running came up a lot as my marathon training is starting to ramp up and move me into new territory, which is kind of exciting I guess. I got lost on my first trail run. And I ran my longest distance ever. But those individual stories are relatively uneventful, and I don’t know how interesting it would be if I were to share just how many times my good thing was “felt good after gym today” or “nice (insert number) miler today.” I might be wrong about that. But I’ve been wrong a few trillion times before. Another one won’t kill me.

I also managed to catch up with a few old friends throughout the month. But those were mostly just a quick drink here or a dinner there; and in one case, through a wonderful online message. Again, I enjoyed those all-too-rare moments. But while I haven’t always hesitated to discuss the business of others; unless you want to know that Josh still makes a really solid dirty martini, Ronnie started eating chicken again, or that Crissy is still kicking ass in Africa to make the world a better place, I’m not sure what to share of those exchanges, other than the truth that I value them.

Well, Josh did also hook me up with some new music too; which is always cool and so appreciated. Check this out.

Aug 14. Took the day off to get some work done on my car. Feel like I got a little work done on me too. Allowing a lot more quiet time. Sat in silence for 30 minutes before going out for early bridge club.

I touched on it a few weeks ago, but I think the most significant and oft mentioned topic that I saw in The Jar was my recent embrace of quiet. Since first finding that calm in an auto repair shop’s parking lot on the 14th, I’ve adopted what has become a daily practice of something resembling meditation. I still feel way too inexperienced and sloppy to comfortably use that word. But I am working on it, and it is definitely helping me better deal with my clutter, both materially and spiritually. And that clutter management seems to be manifesting itself in every other area of my life.

Aug 17. Ran 14 miles this morning. Longest run ever. Felt good to break new ground again. Sat down and really meditated for about 30 minutes. I’m going to keep doing that.

I’ve whined too many times about how busy I keep my schedule. I get up at 5:30 a.m. every day so that I can cook and eat a nutritious breakfast before going to work. I’m fortunate enough to have a regular full time job. I run after work two days a week. I go to the gym after work five days a week. I cook myself a dinner of unprocessed whole foods every night. And to do those things in any kind of an efficient manner, I have to work in a couple of grocery store trips each week, a night or two of bulk cooking, and god isn’t even sure how much laundry…but rest assured there is always a load going through the process, and a pile waiting to be folded.

Oh, and I’m always trying to find the time to write my blog amid that chaos. Can’t forget the blog.

It is very unusual for me to be finished with my day and settled before 7:30 or 8:00. It can get insane. And because I have not always understood the importance of being balanced, the smallest disruption would put me on tilt. It drives me crazy for example, when I’ve worked all day, run a long evening run, gone to the gym, stopped by the grocery store on the way home, and then find out that I forgot something and will have to go to the store again the next day. I know. That’s fucking ridiculous. But because I like to tell myself that there aren’t enough hours in the day, that “only because I’m an idiot” extra trip to the store is time stolen from myself. Time I will not get back. Time I cannot afford. Or that’s how I often saw it anyway. As I said, I’m not as centered as I need to be. But I’m working on it.

“You wanna build your IQ higher in the next two years? Be uncomfortable. That means, learn something where you have a beginner’s mind.” – Nolan Bushnell

In that earlier post, I expressed my belief that me trying to explain meditation would be like a wobbly legged new born giraffe trying to explain the mechanics of walking. I still feel that way.
I have almost no clue what I am doing when I decide to shut down my computer, turn off my phone, sit myself down, and close my eyes. I only know that it makes me feel better.

Over the last few months, as I observed the negative effects of my poor stress management, I also noticed that the topic of meditation kept presenting itself to me. And not by the stereotypical patchouli hippies that are so often associated with such practices. I was reading books and magazines about running; nutrition and health food blogs; and listening to podcast interviews with endurance athletes and personal trainers. And over and over again, these different people from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles kept bringing up some appreciation of meditation. Each person’s connection varied in intensity and/or methodology. But every one of them expressed a belief that, when they dedicated the time to a regular practice, they felt better in their skin and life generally seemed to flow more smoothly. And conversely, when they slipped from that practice, tension would again enter the frame of their lives. I know it sounds silly. But shit, who was I to judge? I was getting pissed off because I forgot to buy beets.

Aug 19. After listening to Charlie Knoles interview on Rich Roll podcasts, had a really relaxing meditation session. It almost felt like bricks settling as my body would adjust and release more tension with each inhalation.

A few days after my first attempt at whatever I was going to call it, I listened to an interview with Charlie Knoles. He’s the son of a famous meditation instructor and is now a celebrated instructor himself. It was a podcast that seemed to present itself at just the right time. When I saw the show description, I was leery about how much I would enjoy the interview. I’m obviously open to the idea of meditation but I still don’t always connect well with some of the more “new agey” personalities out there. Some come across as so pretentious that it is nearly intolerable.

Charlie was not like that at all. Instead he was a pretty down-to-earth sounding Australian discussing his unusual childhood, life experiences, beliefs, and methods. And overall it was just a really nice introduction to the enormous world of meditative practice. I can’t remember everything he covered in the two hour interview, but in the course of the discussion he shared a few very simple breathing techniques, what they were intended to achieve, and the biological science behind how they work.

Learning that my breathing was very likely the cause of my ankle issues back in March, and adopting a rhythmic breathing pattern to correct and prevent those same issues has made me very aware of the many unusual sounding connections within the body. If how I was breathing could cause and then prevent so much physical pain, it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me to believe that it could also help me to unwind and clear my head. I’m not sure why anyone would find that difficult to believe.

Aug 21. Even after only a few days of daily meditation I can feel the difference in my mood and alertness at work. I think I might be onto something.

I don’t think you have to worry about me routinely ending my blogs with “Namaste” any time soon. First, I don’t even know what that word means. But I believe my embrace of quiet is going to help me be a better runner and ultimately assist in my search for my authentic self.

My fledgling meditation practice is already noticeably helping me find some kind of balance. It’s only been a couple of weeks. I haven’t experienced any kind of transcendent moments or anything miraculous like that. But I do feel a difference. I feel it when I catch myself running in circles to get my shit done and suddenly notice that I’m not stressing out over the bumps in the road. Whether it be at work or during the Monday night kitchen dance, I’m often running in the same crazy circle I was the prior week, and the week before that. But I’m running that circle smoother and getting things done just that tiny bit more proficiently because I’m calmer and more aware of what I’m doing; or what I’m not doing.

Taking that additional time out of my busy day to unplug, disconnect, and be still in silence has helped me to get more done with the time that I’m not still. And I find it much easier to say “fuck it” when I see that I’m getting overwhelmed. I can only do what I can do, and I do it better when I’m not stressed out. I’ll get the blog out when I get it done. I’ll get those beets tomorrow. I’m driving by the store every day anyway. No biggie. Sure, I know that we’re never guaranteed tomorrow and no one is more aware of my weakness towards procrastination. But that doesn’t mean I should ruin today stressing about what I didn’t get done. Take a minute, settle down, recover from mistakes, and then make the next right move. I’m finding that if I do that, everything does get done. And I feel better too. Maybe this is the next right move in my ongoing “me” experiment.

I’m a newbie at this, so if anyone out there with more experience, knowledge, or understanding than me (that means EVERYONE) has any suggestions about different methods or practices, I’m more than open to suggestions. Leave them in the comments or email me at thatguywithbeard@gmail.com. Thanks. Happy Saturday.

This was the record that I wanted to listen to after my sit this morning. I don’t know why…or care.

Honorable Mentions:

Aug 10. After getting lost and running out of water of my first trail running experience, had a very quiet and super relaxed evening with the Hills. Just sitting on the balcony and talking with both of them for hours. Very cool night.

Aug 13. Ran hill repeats for the first time, and tested my new (and 4th) heart rate monitor. High Street Bridge “hill” isn’t very tall, but it’s long. Couldn’t get my HR up as high as I expected. We’ll see how it goes until I can find a real hill.

Aug 24. Awesome 12 mile run this morning, then got a really great message from Crissy about all of the exciting stuff happening in her life. It was really great to hear she and Steve are doing so well in Africa. Made me feel good. Had dinner with Van, Amanda, Wesley, and Josh. Fun to just chill and chat about food and music.

Aug 31. Wrote my blog sitting out in the sun on my front porch. Beautiful day for some rambling.

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Sitting: The Next Step?

“We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we’ll also have a lot more joy in living.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Whew! Looks like I got lost last week. Honestly, it felt pretty good. I wasn’t totally sure if I was going to make it back this week either. Not because I have nothing to share. I do. But it became apparent that I needed a reboot.

Looking back at the last couple of months, I saw that I spent most of the summer swinging back and forth from cautious enthusiasm to utter dejection. And unfortunately, I was sometimes more than willing to whine about it at length. Sorry ‘bout that. Here’s a flower.

Are we cool?

Are we cool?

I’ve always said that I write this thing as a release mechanism for myself. But I never intended that as an excuse to melodramatically rehash the dark side of my diary onto the web. I’d rather share stuff that might actually be useful to someone, or maybe some of the things that inspire me; something at least more interesting than my mood updates. Hell, I might even want to chat about running every now and then. I am still doing that believe it or not. Still learning. And still enjoying the hell out of it too.

So, I needed a break; a “time out” of sorts. I even made myself sit in the corner, seriously.

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.” – Ellen Glasgow

If there was any consistency to my summer posts at all, it was that no matter which end of the spectrum my mental pendulum swung closest, I was always stressed to near exhaustion. Whether it was anxiety from excitedly running too fast into the sun, or from being burned by hastily getting so close, I just couldn’t calm myself down. I knew it. I know it. And I know it’s completely unhealthy. Stress kills people. And more importantly, it’ll fuck up your running. I’m training for my first marathon dammit. I don’t have time for that shit.

A couple of weeks ago while texting my mom (who can—surprise!—almost always tell when my fuse is fried), I mentioned my awful mood and how I thought I could actually feel the elevated cortisol level in my blood. And I could. I felt like shit. For weeks I’d been sleeping poorly, cognitively sluggish, running bad, recovering slow, and underperforming at the gym. Oh, and did I mention that I felt like shit?

Cortisol is referred to as a “stress hormone.” It’s involved in maintaining blood sugar, regulating blood pressure, controlling the inflammatory response, and affects proper immune function. It’s kind of a big deal. Cortisol has come up a lot in my reading and the effects can vary depending on the situation and duration of the higher levels.

Short spikes aid in the body’s flight-or-fight response. It enhances alertness, helps provide quick bursts of energy, and reduces sensitivity to pain. If I was trying to fight off a bear, those benefits would be great.

But I.
am not.
a bear fighter.

On the other hand, prolonged increases of cortisol levels in the bloodstream hinders quality sleep, disrupts blood sugar levels, reduces bone density, increases blood pressure, and on and on. Decreased bone density, reduced muscle tissue, and shoddy blood glucose levels don’t exactly spell running success. In fact, if unchecked, prolonged increases can develop into a wonderful downward spiral of overall health. Sounds awesome doesn’t it?

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James

Well, I knew what was wrong. I’m an idiot. Now, how do I keep my favorite stress hormone in check? The most consistent answers I found can all be summarized in: eat a healthy diet (check), exercise regularly (doin’ that), get quality sleep (workin’ on it), and well…just relax (um…uh…). After diet and exercise, I’d see mention of more specific things like playing with animals, laughing, “mindful breathing,” practicing your art, sex, kick a hobo (maybe not that one). But they all just add up to “relax,” or at least “release.”

Take care of yourself and calm down. Find balance. Sounds easy enough…for someone who doesn’t insist on doing everything the hard way.

I’ve noticed that when I let myself run too far down the rabbit hole of self doubt or distraction or overwhelming frustration, the world will move to balance itself, whether I’m ready or not. Something will happen to remind my dumb ass to look around and note that there are people looking down the barrel of a gun much scarier than a scattered mind and general discontent. Sometimes that wake-up call is a subtle whisper. Sometimes it’s loud like a bomb. The difference probably lies in how much or little I’m actually paying attention.

So last week, when I received that message and realized I could no longer tolerate my mind heckling me along the path and ruining my focus, I sat it down, got on my knees, and quietly sang this little ditty right into its meddlesome little face.

“Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.” – Paul Simon

Because I didn’t make a conscious connection to music or start actively seeking to deepen that relationship until I was well into high school, I’ve often said that there wasn’t a lot of music in my life growing up. But looking back on it, that’s not true.

My mom has a wonderful singing voice. I was seven years old when my parents divorced, but I still have vague memories of them singing folkier church songs together in the living room while my dad played guitar. Both sang in choirs. And I remember more than a few days at the beach with my mom listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown on the radio. Who doesn’t love some Billy Ocean? Phil Collins? No? Okay.

Like a lot of music nerds, I have an older cousin that found his connection to music very early and exposed me to all kinds of music ranging from early 80’s “metal” bands when I was young to the more underground “alternative” bands as a teenager. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a bare foot nine year old running around singing Twisted Sister songs or Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noise.”

On weekends hanging out with my brother and another cousin, we’d listen to just about anything on the radio; rock stations, pop stations, whatever. It was something to listen to while we never-quite-learned to skateboard. Sometimes we’d just search the dial. “What station do you want to listen to?” I didn’t care. The radio was king until that magic time when I started working and finally had the money to venture into the greatest places the world has ever produced: record stores.

With the help of friends and magazines, I discovered that there was so much more out there. And that was essentially my undoing. Pop music is fine, but who cares? We’re all going to hear it. It’s inescapable. I wanted to hear the rest. I’d hunt down shit I’d read about. I’d order stuff from local stores. Then read all of the bands mentioned in the “thank you” section of a CD’s artwork and find those artists too. I wanted it ALL.

I started listening to music pretty much constantly; in the car, at home, at the beach, at parties, at work, everywhere. And by the time I got a job in an independent record store, I’d essentially eliminated all quiet from my life. Silence was a waste of time that could be occupied rocking out to that new Modest Mouse record. Or Son Volt. Or Mastodon. Hurry up, push play.

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides.” – Artur Schnabel

A really long time ago in a land too far away.

A really long time ago in a land too far away.

The last two decades of collecting, discussing, sometimes playing, and eventually recording music started to characterize me a bit. And whether accurate or not, I was cool with that. I love all types of music. I listen to all types of music. If it’s good, I’ll listen to it. And luckily I enjoy a life where I’m able to listen to it throughout most of my day: at work, in the car, at the gym, on a run…all day, every day. It’s become a given that whether it be CD, podcast, or the radio, something will be playing.

For the vast majority (read: “all”) of my adult life, I have even maintained the silly habit of leaving my home stereo playing all day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. If I’m at home, the radio is on. If I’m not at home, it’s still on; playing quietly to no one and ensuring no chance that I’ll be greeted by that chilly handshake of silence upon my return from wherever. I don’t know if I’ve ever bothered to think about why. It just is; or was.

I may have subconsciously been telling myself that the constant flow of sound into my life was like having a window open to the breeze of the world, whether it was the news and current events or human interest shows and new music discoveries. All the time missing the strong likelihood that it could’ve been more like a hole in the roof flooding my life with suffocating amounts of noise and drowning my own thoughts.

Last Wednesday, I turned my radio off.

It’s off right now.

“Nature’s music is never over; her silences are pauses, not conclusions.” – Mary Webb

Last Wednesday, I had some unexpected car issues to take care of. I would love to live a life where I don’t need a car. But until then, I need to keep mine in working order and last week it made me take a minute to show it some love. Eh, it happens.

I dropped it off at the garage by my gym so that I could workout while they fixed my car. When they weren’t finished when I was done exercising, I decided to go buy a magazine to read while I waited. Of all of the rags in the grocery store, I end up sitting outside in the sun in sweaty workout clothes reading Health & Spirituality magazine, dedicated to different people’s meditative practice. I don’t know why. Yes I do.

I’d meditated a few times in the past, but as I got increasingly frustrated with my body’s escalating stress response, my inability to control it, and how it was affecting everything else in my life, I considered experimenting with a more regular practice. And once I’d planted that seed in my mind, I couldn’t get away from it. It seemed to be constantly in my face. My favorite health websites were posting articles, my favorite podcasts had been sparking my interests for weeks with one endurance athlete or nutritionist after another all commenting on the benefits of taking time out to just sit and breathe, or hum, or chant. Each person would swear by the practice. I couldn’t help but be intrigued. And sitting in that parking lot in the middle of an asphalt wonderland, reading about all of the different ways that people were finding quiet in their lives, and how that quiet directly benefitted them spiritually, I couldn’t help but want to try it. I wasn’t totally sure what “it” was, but I knew I could do anything.

So when I got home, I turned my radio off. And I just sat there. For a really long time. The next day, I did it again with my eyes shut, listening to my breath, for a shorter amount of time. I’ve done it every day since. Not the same way each time. I’m experimenting with different breathing patterns. But every day, I turn off my phone, cut out the lights, and just sit in total silence. It’s fucking awesome.

“Remember, you get to decide what fills your head and shapes your thoughts. Only you can clear the distractions and focus instead on what matters most to you, so stop letting clutter interfere with your meaningful path.” – Erin Rooney Doland

Probably because of the epiphany experienced on my first time out, I’ve always considered myself a “meditative” runner. It’s relaxing. It always makes me feel good. But prior to last week, I’d only run without music about four times. I ran my longest run ever (14 miles) last Saturday with nothing to listen to but my breathing, my thoughts, and the pats of my feet on the ground. Yesterday, I had to take my ear-buds out in the middle of my run because I was struggling and couldn’t concentrate. Maybe it was a poor music choice (it was), maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to podcasts lately, but that music had to go. It was fucking me up. I needed to think…or not think. It’s hard to tell. But I settled immediately after taking them out, and that run ended way better in the quiet.

Did I stop listening to music? Of course not. But now when it’s on, it’s because I turned it on and I’m actually engaged in the experience. I’m listening instead of just hearing. Do I wake up every day now feeling some special “connection” to my earth mother, or my spirit animal, or some other hippie bullshit? No. I have not “transcended” anything…yet. But when I open my eyes after a session, I feel incredibly peaceful. In only nine days worth of paying attention, I’ve noted a difference. It’s subtle, but it’s there. I’ve had instances where I felt a surprising ease in a previously perceived stressful situation. I haven’t been as easily upset or distracted. I’m more alert to my surroundings. I feel more connected to myself. Basically I just feel better.

I’m not going to try and explain exactly what I’m doing or give any kind of instruction about what I think is or isn’t working. I feel like at this point that would be like that wobbly legged newborn giraffe trying to explain the mechanics of walking. I aint there yet. But I do think as I’ve been battling to live in the present and keep myself focused on the next step of the journey instead of the goal on the horizon, that this may very well be the next step…or at least how I get to it.

I rebirthed this blog last fall when I realized that “I gotta run.” What I’m now coming to recognize is that if I want to continue to discover and eventually release the best me that I have to offer, then there is a really good possibility that “I gotta sit” too. We’ll see what happens.

Happy Friday, you should’ve seen this one coming. Enjoy.