Monday, January 24, 2011

Effort as an Organ of Perception

Running is a simple thing. In some ways the simplicity of running--its very emptiness and absurdity as a task that literally ends where it begins--is what makes it fascinating. Running is like an empty page, a kind of tabula rasa, upon which we etch our daily mark.

It is strange to think that all the libraries of the world were once white pages, but inside each book sits a florid and turgid world, a reservoir of meaning carved out of emptiness. Just as the whiteness of the page provides a stimulus to the meaning-making power of the human mind, so too does the simplicity of running call forth a multiplicity of interpretations. Running is many things exactly because it is so simple.

I think I can expand on what I mean by this by referring to the metaphysics of John Dewey. Dewey had a name for the basic character of all experience. The word he used was interaction. He saw that our lives were essentially built out of a multiplicity of interactions. We leave our marks on the world through the exertion of our forces. The world, in return, acts upon us. The basic challenge of every living organism is to maintain a state of equilibrium in its interactions, and through these interactions to grow and develop. At the beginning of his greatest work Democracy and Education Dewey describes the living organism as one that literally makes its life through the interaction with forces:

The most notable distinction between living and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal. A stone when struck resists. If its resistance is greater than the force of the blow struck, it remains outwardly unchanged. Otherwise, it is shattered into little bits. Never does the stone attempt to react in such a way that it may maintain itself against the blow, much less so in order to render the blow a contributing factor to its own continued action. While the living thing may easily be crushed by a superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into a means of its further existence. If it cannot do so, it does not just split into smaller pieces (at least in the higher forms of life), but loses its identity as a living thing.

This is a very profound paragraph, it seems to me. It takes us to the heart of why a simple task like running can come to mean so many simple things. The reason is that meaning of the activity of running taken in isolation is indeterminate--it only gains meaning as an interaction. When we go out to run, we engage with forces that reflect back upon ourselves. Like bats sending out sound waves in order to dodge stalactites, we use our running to make out the contours of ourselves. The meanings of the run are found in these reflections.

The difference between us and bats is that the cave in which we fly is internal as much as external. When it comes to knowing ourselves, we are blind as bats. Our eyes look outward, not inward. Like bats, however, we can gain self knowledge indirectly, by reading ourselves through the interactions we make with the world. The better we are at this task, the more we can learn from the signals that bounce back. Out of the interplay of forces, if we pay attention, we can read a kind of topography of self.

Good picture, but not only do knowledge and action take place with a world outside,
but we also must learn repeat these same interactions with our selves.

Through the different intensities of training, through a variety of races, the failed workouts, the runs with friends,  the daily grind, the hundred mile weeks, the first steps out the door after a long layoff--through each of these acts we send inwards a kind of radar-signal. This signal is what we mean by the vague term "effort." We watch how this effort bounces, how deep it runs, and we react and learn about ourselves through the forces of resistance that this effort encounters. Effort is the name we give to internal vision; it is vaguer and less precise than the vision our eyes give us--perhaps it is not healthy to know ourselves as well as we know the world around us--but effort is still an organ of perception. Racing, running, and training require reading what we find  about ourselves through our efforts accurately and reacting to this information intelligently.

I began this post with the thought of a run as a kind of unblemished canvas, a spur to multiple free creations. My thoughts have drifted now to running as a type of uncovering of a pre-existing self through the organ of effort. How free are we to create the runners that we are? Which of our capacities are predetermined, which are the ones we have created? These are not easy questions. The the space of the interaction lies between these two extremes--our selves, like the world, are concrete and open, not empty or decided.

Each run thus stands before us, and we before it. We do not know what insights it will yield. It appears blank, not unlike a canvas before the artist applies his brush strokes. But we fire up the interaction, first jogging, laying down broad streaks of effort, then the rest of the run follows. We are often surprised by, often familiar with, the selves we find--or is it create?--through the play and perception of the subtle and vague palate of effort. In this way, as living organisms, we maintain ourselves by renewal.


  1. i'm trying to come back again from being injured again. it seems i've been injured pretty much constantly since about '07. well, the spring of '09 was great. anyway, i'm starting to make a bit of a comeback, starting to have some days that are, if not "good", at least not completely bad. i'm starting to establish some consistency of working out nearly every day. not usually running (yet), but doing something fit-wise. the problem is that i don't trust my sense of how much is too much. on a good day, i want to swim 5 miles, i don't want to stop but my fear of getting injured holds me back. there's got to be something between too much and fear and not enough. my sonar is all out of wack.

  2. Sonar, that's the word!!

    You said it: there is something between too much fear and not enough. Something is there.

  3. not "too much fear and not enough" -- too much effort which leads to injury and fear which leads to stagnation and not enough effort which leads to backsliding. there's that sweet spot where the effort leads to growth. the problem for me is stopping at the sweet spot and not going after more more more.

  4. "too much and fear and not enough"

  5. you know what would be cool? the ability to edit a comment. that would be cool.

  6. Ha. If you want I can erase everything and you can start over.

  7. nah. listening to me is messy, but it's worth it!

  8. Totally! Plus it makes it look like a ton of people are really excited about this post. But no it's just ace.

  9. One of the core foundations of Systems Thinking is that it is the study of the interaction of things within a system, and the system within a larger system. To demonstrate this, we use diagrams consisting of feedback loops. The beauty of this construct is that everything is connected to something else, and it allows you to identify those connections and see the interactions.

    I think this idea is important. It seems to me a lot of people ignore the connections, and focus on one thing. They break training down into a linear process, when training is a system, a group of interactions.


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