Thursday, April 29, 2010

Random Thoughts Generator

A training partner of mine labels most of his running routes in his log "Random Thoughts Generator." It's true. This is one of the functions of running. I'm not sure if it's the increased bloodflow or perhaps decreased bloodflow, or just the fall of the body into simple rhythms that relaxes that mind and causes it to move.

I thought a million thoughts on my run today.

One thing that happens upon spending years reading philosophy is that thoughts become more and more like things. Maybe this happens to everyone. We develop and hoard certain thoughts, ideas, arguments, questions, perhaps like a child accumulates toys. We have a lot of them, but use a fairly small portion of them. And among the small portion that we use, a precious few become the kind of threadbare and worn objects through which we know ourselves. These one or two mental objects we carry around with us like a child carries his favorite stuffed animal, for no reason other than that they are comfortable, that they are ours. Yes, it is strange.

Here is a thought that I keep coming back to: "Where do our thoughts come from?"

Before we get started, please keep in mind that the last thing that philosophers want is for their favorite questions to be answered. An answered question is like an empty bowl of ice cream: what's left is only the melted memory of enthusiasm, some milk stains in the bottom of the bowl. A great question is like an unending bowl of ice cream.

Let's eat.

Where do thoughts come from?

The first thought that comes to mind is, "Duh, I make them up." But closer scrutiny reveals a quite marvelous puzzle. Where is this "I" that "makes?" Is there another little Jeff that sits in the back of my mind making the thoughts that appear on the screen of my mind? Who is this Jeff? And why does he keep sending such strange material forward? What does it mean to make a thought? It is certainly something different than making a table. Or making a casserole. Thoughts appear almost full-borne, like geese in the winter sky, or trout lingering, dark shadows in a deep pool, occasionally darting through shifting light.

Another thought. Thoughts do not come at all. Socrates thought that thoughts dwell in an eternal realm, always already full and complete, and that our particular minds catch glimpses of the full forms of the universal timeless mind. The thoughts think themselves, just as the stars shine themselves, and we can turn our minds skyward and read them partially and incompletely, as we make out a hunter and his bow from the dim dots of Orion. Thoughts do not come to us; we come to them, peering through our weak and finite minds towards dim and distant objects.

Another thought. Thoughts come from complex chemical interactions within the brain. They are the ephemeral shadows of hard biological and physiological facts. They come from neurons and hormones, nerves and electricity. Thoughts are brain states, lightning storms that sweep through gray matter. They are the blood as it boils.

Another thought. Thoughts come from society. This is a favorite of my students (no wonder--they have spent most of their life in school.) Thoughts come from what groups of people think. From our parents. From the media. From the church. From the government. From the Great Philosophers. But of course this answer begs the question: where did all these groups of people get their thoughts? But my students do have a point; our thoughts come in communicable form, more or less. We think to ourselves, and we think to others. Thoughts come shaped and molded by language, and what is society other than the collection of meanings made, preserved and passed along in language.

Another thought. I don't know where thoughts come from. But there are certain things that I can do to make them come. Perhaps this is answer enough. Where do thoughts come from? They come from a solitary but not lonely twelve miler. They come from a quiet hour with a book. They come from a glass of wine with old friends and lovers. They come from fear and surprise and unexpected encounters. From the first light, the smell of crackling ozone in a thunderstorm.

The mind is not a substance or an object; it is a stream. It is a random thoughts generator. To ask where it comes from is as strange as asking where water comes from, or where birds come from, or ladybugs. The runner cannot say where he gets his ability to cover ground. He can only shrug his shoulders and sojourn on, be thankful that his legs are strong, his stride loose and responsive, that the generator keeps running, flowing, living.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Thinking and Running

...because the artist is controlled in the process of his work by his grasp of the connection between what he has already done and what he is to do next, the idea that the artist does not think as intently and penetratingly as a scientific inquirer is absurd. A painter must consciously undergo the effect of his every brush stroke or he will not be aware of what he is doing and where his work is going. Moreover, he has to see each particular connection of doing and undergoing in relation to the whole that he desires to produce. To apprehend such relations is to think, and is one of the most exacting modes of thought. --John Dewey, Art as Experience

A philosopher-friend of mine who recently read my blog offered the following friendly criticism:

I know that you're trying to combat the gearheads and number junkies by your "just run" philosophy (like the apples and roots post) but it seems important to emphasize that thinking isn't bad. how else do you deal with problems? if thinking is itself a problem (because you can't get out the door or you have the wrong expectations about your runs), that seems like one thing. but if your knee hurts, and has hurt for years, what are you supposed to do? you don't get better at anything by just doing it. or you might, but probably not as well as a reflective practice.

He's right, of course. I say in the Apples and Roots post that thinking just adds more junk. But it's also clear that we need and want to be intelligent about our running. Training is hard. We screw it up all the time. We do the wrong things, and we could be better and smarter with our running. Seems like we ought to call in some thinking to sort this stuff out.

I agree. But here we have to be careful and go slowly. What does it mean to think about running? Or to think about anything for that matter?

Thinking is not valuable in itself. Every philosopher knows this all too well. Thinking goes wrong when it loses an intimate connection with active experience. When the connection with experience is broken, thinking can become a distraction from life, a mode of fantasy. When this happens, thinking is just a manifestation of anxiety, the mind turned inwards and unhinged. Thinking can make us less capable of carrying out our life projects. Reflection can distract us from our problems. It can even multiply problems and create false problems. When this happens, thinking can make us less intelligent.

The value of thinking, then, is not given in advance. It is determined by its influence on and in actual and living problems. Thinking is good if it helps us achieve our goals. Thinking is bad if it distracts us from those goals.

So, what does it mean for a runner to think? In order to answer this question, the problem of running must be well-defined. What is the problem that thinking is brought in to address?

This is where Dewey is helpful. The project of running is more art than science. Running can and does mean many different things to different people, and what it means to think depends upon the total aim of the project of running. Let's keep things simple now and relevant and say that the project of running is to learn how to race fast. That's the overarching aim that my running is oriented towards. I am trying to construct a particular (and peculiar) sort of object: the ability to cover, on a particular day, 26.2 miles in less than two and a half hours.

Running, then, is art--it is an attempt to bring something singular and new into the world. It takes materials presently at hand and refashions them in an attempt to express something that has not been yet expressed. Running is not science. There is not an object out there, ready made, to be explored. The task of the runner is to create something new, a new self, to bring a new quality into existence.

What does thinking mean in this context? Thinking means as Dewey writes, seeing "each particular connection of doing and undergoing in relation to the whole that he desires to produce." So, when I examine my runs, it is the perspective of the orienting goal that guides my intelligence. Thinking about our running means reflecting on the value of each run with respect to the end that it aims to accomplish, just as the artist must see and evaluate each individual brush stroke in relation to the whole that it will eventually produce, just as the writer must evaluate each word that is written in the context of the meaning that it drives towards.

It is exactly at this moment, however, that the difficulty of what it means to think as a runner comes alive. If the artist stops to analyze each brush stroke, if the writer analyzes each and every word as it rolls forward onto the page, the work of art or the work of meaning is endangered. The artist, the writer, must think hard about his work, but he cannot over-think it. Thinking is only intelligent insofar as it actually advances the project, solves and breaks through living and actual obstacles. These solutions are not intellectual, but practical. We know we have a solution when the work of art comes closer to life, when the draft becomes less rough, when the runner begins to make progress. The value of thinking can only be articulated in its consequences for the whole.

It is for this reason that the artist thinks with his brush. There are always moments of hesitation, revision, trial and error, but these moments are solved not through the mind, but in the painting itself. The artist must work his problems out in an actual painting, by marking the canvas.

So it is with running. We runners think with our legs, on the road. Our solutions to problems do not come in the form of mental concepts, but in the realization of capabilities. Thinking as a runner almost always means actually running--trying this, trying that, going easier, going harder--just as thinking for the artist means putting brush to canvas. It is in this way that intelligence is realized because the criterion of intelligence is not criticism or even knowledge, but the production of the end that we set out to achieve, the consummation of an experience.

It's for this reason that I have a tendency to answer questions about running form or even training strategies with encouragement to "just run." Because the running makes the problem concrete; the feelings and obstacles emerge and become immediate instead of imagined. It's not that the running is more fundamental than the thinking. It's that the running is the thinking. It is the carrying out of the project, experimentally, roughly at first, and then more determinately and precisely, bringing something new into the world.

So, yes, reflective practice. But the practice itself is its own reflection. There is no such thing as "just doing it," no such thing as running apart from reflection. Doing, if it means anything at all, just is reflecting, breaking apart, and making anew. To tell someone to just run is not to tell them to avoid thinking. It is to invite them into the actual work of reflection.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

On Natural Conditions and Natural Inclinations

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks and the earth opens up to abysses.
--Blaise Pascal, 1670

Pascal writes here of the way in which life is a movement. We runners know this, I suppose. The logic of long distance might be defined precisely as "drifting in uncertainty." Running requires maintaining contact with uncertainty. This is a more difficult task than often thought.

As Pascal succinctly puts it, our natural condition is contrary to our inclination. We react to our natural condition mostly by trying to escape it. There are two commonly employed methods of escape. The first method of escape from uncertainty is called euphemistically the pursuit of knowledge. Encountering the uncertainty of life, we go about trying to find facts, principles, rules and aphorisms and other sorts of talismans that we can use to ward off the uncertainty. We plunge into scientific or mathematical endeavors, hold fast to religious or political revelations, or at least scour the internet with Google looking for pale shreds of certainty. It is the flight from uncertainty that funds the will to truth.

The second method of escape is more effective and ultimately the first method is a more sophisticated mode of this second method. It is the method of distraction. Being unable to endure the uncertainty of life, we distract ourselves from it by building the sorts of lives that permit only indirect encounters with uncertainty. We make a life of rituals: rising every morning at the same hour, travelling the same roads, working the same job, speaking to the same people about the same things, watching the same television shows, so on and so forth. In such a way the flow and flux of life is channeled and circled, the vast sphere narrowed. Through these routines we make movement stationary.

But even if we are successful at routinizing our lives quite entirely, to the extent that we do not feel or see the uncertainty that underwrites it, we ought not be fooled. Routines do not eliminate uncertainty; they only make it drop from direct perception by drawing the world down to narrow limits. An example from running will perhaps bring this point to light.

Runners are for the most part creatures of habit. We thrive on routine, and running is an extremely effective method of tranquilizing the essential uncertainty of life. I know that I use it in this way, marking the days off in my running log, creating a sense of a knowable and planned future by dreaming of future runs, making plans for future races.

But the runner, in order to maintain his habit, must be more than a creature of habit. The runner must be willing to face, head on, the primal uncertainty of life. Being a living creature, the runner will face moments in his training where his habits fail him. We categorize these incidents in a variety of ways: sickness, injury, loss of motivation, lack of time, overtraining, fatigue, tactical racing errors, bonking, aging, etc., but the common thread that unifies these setbacks is the ugly specter of uncertainty.

When faced with these sorts of setbacks, we can again resort to our two methods. We can go about looking for knowledge that will set us back on a certain path to improvement. The internet is fairly full of this sort of response. Folk finding solace in cures, fixes, secret workouts, plans, coaches, gurus, vdot calculators, and erudite screeds on the lactate threshold. We settle the uncertainty of running by latching onto the certainty of science or the ginned-up expertise of the message-board coach. We justify the meaning of the activity through the realization that there are others just as obsessed, and sometimes more so.

The other common method that runners use is to pretend that nothing is wrong--the method of distraction. We find ourselves denying our injuries, running ourselves down, repeating the same stale training that led us to be stale in the first place. Onwards, we hurtle ourselves down the road, fully enslaved to our routines, absolutely blind to the raging signs of the uncertainty of the effects of that routine. We runners are nothing if not tenacious, but the flip side of that tenacity is insensitivity to the changes that life brings.

So, what is a runner to do? Is there a third option? The best I can offer is this. Perhaps we can cultivate running as a practice of uncertainty. The beautiful thing about running is that it is safe enough to make real encounters with the unknown. The uncertainties of running are small and manageable, perhaps because the act is almost as elemental as uncertainty itself.

In the moments when we find our capacity for change hollowed out by the deep and ineradicable routines in which we enmesh ourselves, perhaps we can find some nobility in our ability to withstand the recurrent questions that running poses. Whether we will get faster is an open question. Whether it is important to be faster is an open question. Whether I can get through this training cycle healthy, happy, and faster is an open question. Whether I will run today is an open question. Whether this next race will be the race in which I do not fold is an open question.

In the grand scheme of stiff routine, these are small openings. But through small openings sometimes blow fresh breezes, enough occasionally to fill our sails as we drift along quite aimlessly beneath the vast and blue sphere.
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