“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.
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.
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 SchnabelThe 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.