Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Apples and Roots


There's been an interesting thread bumping up and down at letsrun, and here's a quote from one of my favorite posters, malmo.

"The entire point of this or any other training thread isn't that you're going to make a donkey into a racehorse. The point is that you need to train that donkey to mimic what a racehorse does to maximize his talent. The point of all athletic training is to exploit YOUR talent to the max, oftentimes well beyond what you ever previously thought was possible. To do that frequently involves convincing the brain to think like an elite, even if you'll never become one. That means crushing pre-conceived boundaries and clearing the brain of the junk that has been fed to them for many years."

The brain is the most important running organ. This is a point that is commonly acknowledged. However, most people misunderstand this point because they think that what is meant by it is that running is about mental strength or toughness or getting your game face on, or what have you. That's because the brain and the mind are associated with "mental states." We think of its action as having a somewhat magical effect. The supernatural substance of "will" somehow overrides the physicality of the body, breaking with its ethereal power the materiality of the body and pushing it to places where it hasn't been.

No. This is not it at all.

When we talk about the brain, we tend to imagine a hunk of soft yellow material in the middle of our skulls. Yes, this is the brain. But what is essential about the brain is not just what is in the skull, but the array of connections that wind through the body. To say that the brain is in the head is like saying that all there is to a tree is its branches. The brain is woven into every micrometer of the body, as a tree's roots are meshed deep in the soil. This body-brain is what we run with, and the brain is not taught through the image of toughness that we sometimes hold in the mind's eye. No, it is taught through the movements of the body, just as the root structure of the tree draws nutrients up from the deep and rich soil. We train the brain as we run. The mind is embodied, absolutely. To imagine a brain without a body--the brain in a vat of science fiction--is to imagine a tree without roots: such a brain is no brain at all.

What this means is that when we talk of overcoming the prejudices and preconceived limits that hold us back in racing, we are not talking about a purely mental process. Yes, we often represent our limits to ourselves in the mind's eye. And we often imagine breaking those limits. But such imaginations are impotent, in themselves. Asking the mind to break down its own barriers is like asking a wall to break itself. It's absurd.

The barriers that hold us back are broken by means of the body, by plunging the roots of the brain down into richer, deeper soil. It is only out of that soil that we can construct a new self because it touches what is outside of the self, what is real, what is external. The soil of running is mileage. The key to mental strength, the way to burst out of yourself, is to feed the brain's roots with mileage so that its branches begin to grow and extend. The trunk of the self, like a tree, will begin to expand, and the old images will crack under pressure. We break ourselves as a hickory tree heaves up the concrete sidewalk.

What malmo says is right. There's a lot of junk that holds us back. We all know this. But what's difficult is to know how to clean out the junk. Thinking more adds more junk. That's all it does. It's the running, the doing, the flowing rush of movement that cleans out the pipes and washes away the barriers. Run more. The mind has deep roots: the sweet tang of the apple is drawn up out of the blackest and richest soil.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Injuries, Organizations, Bodies

What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy. --Heidegger (SZ, 69-70)

Heidegger is talking here about the way in which really useful things make themselves invisible. When our practices are running well, they flow smoothly along, and we do not notice them at all. The sign of health is a sort of invisibility of the body. And this is one thing that the runner seeks through his practice. The great run is not centered in the body at all, or at least not the body that we normally imagine. The run is not felt in the legs, but in the mind, or--to use a quaint word--the spirit. Running, we say, is flying. Floating on invisible wings.

The flip side of this truth is that the unhealthy body makes itself noticed. Heidegger puts it like this: "The more urgently we need what is missing and the more truly it is encountered in its unhandiness, all the more obtrusive does what is at hand become, such that it seems to lose the character of handiness. It reveals itself as something merely objectively present, which cannot be budged without the missing element." It is only when the body is injured and malfunctioning, that the body presents itself as an objective thing. We begin to see it, to pay attention to it, to be transfixed by it. Out of broken things rises the theoretical mind, the sort of mind that looks at objects instead of being carried along by them in streams of practical movement.

I sprained my ankle on my run last Sunday, fracturing my fibula. This event took my ankle and placed it in the center of my consciousness. An ankle. How strange. We (the ankle and I) have conversations, the ankle mostly complaining, me mostly ignoring its complaints--like an old couple. I wear a plastic brace to protect it, and I walk funny. I will be unable to run for four weeks, says the doctor. My ankle reminds me of this hourly.

Injury is, as they say, a part of the sport. This is true because our sport is about remembering the body. We put it to work so that we can hear its complaints. We turn it into a "handy" object for accomplishing our goals not only so that we can ride the rush of its well-ordered invisibility, but also so that we can communicate with it in a certain way. The running schedule, the workouts, the trials, the races that we put it through are ways of organizing it--literally, turning it into tools--so that it can articulate its demands back to us. We make it bump up against limits, breaking it so delicately and precisely, thereby giving it a voice, this constant companion.

One of the tendencies of contemporary life is to organize the body along certain very rigid lines. The computer is a primary means by which the body is organized. It is curved into a chair, with the arms tucked in front, the fingertips, ass, and perhaps a dull ache in the back the only mode of communication. The position is oddly fetal, hunched, religious, submissive. It is a passive pose, one that organizes the body as a kind of vessel for the mind.

Running is a means to break that pose, to reorganize the body as an active structure moving along different lines. When I run, the body moves with my mind; the active-passive relation is reconstituted as a harmony.

Injury breaks down this pose again, reconstituting it along a different, social axis. Just as we are hunched, bowed, and exposed in front of our computers, the limp of injury constitutes us as passive centers of attention: people hold open doors, gaze with concern, step aside as we walk down the hall. None of this is intentional: their healthy bodies react to the presence of an injured body. But the injured body is very active in relation to the mind; it draws consciousness to it relentlessly. This is part of what's so tiring about injury. In injury, the body's power over the mind is quite strong.

I have spelled out here three organizations of mind-body relation.

(1) The seated body is dominated by the rapture of the mind in front of the computer screen. Here, a clear dualism between body and mind emerges, each tending towards absolutely different purposes. The mind flits quite wildly. The body sags heavy.

(2) The injured body dominates the mind through its persistent uselessness, which chains attention. Again, a dualism emerges, the mind made regular and dull by the attempt to escape the injured body, like a dog yanking at the end of its leash.

(3) The healthy running body: here we have a free organization, one where body and mind are integrated. The body is not chained by the mind, nor is the mind chained to the body. There is, instead, a unity that merges out to vague edges. The whipping and ethereal channels of the mind are filled out into the grounding materiality, the rich sensation of the body in its world. Not the body we normally imagine. Not normal modes of imagination.

It's going to be a long four weeks.
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