Monday, March 21, 2011

Not the Best Run, Not the Worst

Why do I do this? (My feet hurt.) Why? Well, it's the need, I guess, for some sort of authentic experience. (My hip joint hurts.) As opposed to the merely synthetic experience of books, movies, TV, regular urban living. (My neck hurts.) To meet my God, my Maker, once again, face to face, beneath my feet, beyond my arms, above my head. (Will there be water at Cabeza Tank?)
--Ed Abbey, Beyond the Wall

Mr. Abbey, saint of lost causes, and his automobile.

Another godawful eight miles in the books.

The questions recur, or at least they should. They are old ones that we chew on, the cud of experience. What the hell is this all about, this onwards, this forwards, this march to who knows where?

I barely got out the door after a day at work chasing my tail around. There are always good reasons, rational reasons, hella good arguments for just staying put. Like: I ran too hard last week and my legs are tired. Like: The grass really needs to be mowed. Like: Isn't this supposed to be fun? Like: What's another eight miles in the grand scheme of things?

When you carve a life up into the little bits that we actually feel and see, it's hard to figure the meaning. Only rarely does a vision appear of how the whole fits together. Most of the time it's just keep your head down and trust that it will all work out. The other option is to drive yourself crazy with questions, and there's even less point to that. The best argument for God's existence: there must be a higher power because I sure as hell don't know much.

After about 10 too many minutes of indulging these sorts of thoughts, you realize that shit if you are gonna sit around and wonder about the meaning of life, you might as well be getting those eight miles in. So, you head to the door not expecting much at all but at least you've got your shoes on now and turns out it's not even raining.

Down the front steps and you begin a sideways trot. The familiar sequence: the stiff achilles, the stumbling gait for the first mile. Up the first hill still not warmed up. Onwards you go, through the quiet city, past the strolling couples and the goofy dogs. There's even a pink sunset. The stiffness dissipates and the stumble gathers itself into something like a flow, the mind clears, and you've got something approximating authentic experience.

And even if it's not, at least it's another godawful eight miles in the books.

17 comments:

  1. You've artfully described something I've recently learned about myself. I've always been kind of jealous of people who don't ask or "suffer" bigger, complicated and, often, unanswerable questions. Why do I have to feel that heart-pounding sense of being on the edge of a conceptual cliff? You kind of pay the price for being a snob, especially when it's unjustified.

    I've found peace my feet on the ground, and immersing myself deeply in the direct experience of the project, the conversation, the run, the scenery, the song, or the meal in front of me. I've found that authentic experience to be something intensely spiritual and "real."

    This short book seems relevant to your post and may have some value for your research:

    http://www.amazon.com/Practice-Presence-God-Brother-Lawrence/dp/0800785991

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  2. Thanks, Nader for your thoughts. I will have to look up that book. I have always been interested in the qualities of religious experience. That's one reason that my work (I don't like to pretend it's research) focuses on folks like James, Freud, and Nietzsche. They gave us a vocabulary to express the qualities of religious experience in naturalistic terms.

    Running is shot through with religious values. Perhaps it is because running has many of the qualities of religious practice: repetitive, meditative, ritualistic, solitary, not directly practical.

    It was not uncommon at high school track meets to find myself surrounded by kneeling runners on the starting line. Each one asking God to accompany him and give him strength for the race effort. I'd be the only one standing. I saw it differently, I guess. If there was anything divine in the race, it couldn't be summoned beforehand. It would be found in the hellfire of the last 200m.

    I'm rambling. I guess in history, religion has meant many things and has found expression in a wide variety of human institutions and practices. I go back and forth on whether religious vocabulary is the right vocabulary for the running experience. I suppose the question is not really for me to decide.

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  3. "I go back and forth on whether religious vocabulary is the right vocabulary for the running experience. "

    i am not sure i understand this. what is religious vocabulary? stuff like prayer and meditation and experience?

    i don't know... it's a chicken-and-egg sort of thing maybe. for many people, an experience in a religious setting is where they have felt most authentic, most alive, most connected. so the vocabulary they use to describe religious experience are all those words about being alive. those are the same words used to describe any experience that is felt deeply.

    did religion co-opt the vocabulary of experience? did experience latch onto the words of religion? what am i talking about? what are words for? what is authentic communication?

    even if i manage to find the perfect words to describe my experience, i deem them perfect because they describe perfectly my experience to me. when i extend the words to you in an effort to share my experience with you, the words go through your filters, and you absorb them into your mind, and you translate those words into experience so that you can feel this thing i am trying to describe, but you will never feel what i feel because what my words mean to me is different than what my words mean to you.

    right.

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  4. Ace, that's a good post. But instead of chicken and egg, I think it's more like cart and horse. See, you seem to me to be interpreting religious experience naturalistically--people like religion because it makes them feel more alive. The value of religion is seen in terms of its consequences for life. The horse is life and it pulls religion along in its cart. That's the way I tend to see things.

    But I think that more religious folk tend to interpret this in the opposite way: that what makes good experiences valuable is that they bring me into the presence of God--their value is supernatural. So, running is great because it helps me be a better Jew or Muslim or Christian. Religious experience is the horse, and it pulls authentic lived experience behind it.

    See, this is the difference I was trying to bring out in my description of track races: they prayed to God before the race, hoping He would help them accomplish their goals. I sought "God" in the race, through the race, hoping to find him in a moment of self-fulfillment.

    Seems to me that cashing out the value of religious experience in terms of feelings in a living organism is putting the cart before the horse for the truly religious. This is poorly put, I think. Maybe Nader can help.

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  5. Jeff, you're on to something. Non-religious people of good-will tend to speak of religion as a human phenomenon (naturally). Their analyses cannot help but evidence a kind of respectful distance (or patronizing as the case may sometimes be). It starts from a kind of utilitarian premise. Kind of like “Hey, whatever belief gets you through the day is fine by me.”

    For me, running may help spirituality and spirituality may help running, but these are incidental outcomes. Very often running hinders my spiritual life in the sense that the latter, for example, calls for humility, quietness, stillness. Running, especially racing, is about winning and movement. But, you know, inside, deep inside the core of a tempo run, on that tightrope, I feel very quiet and very still. Spiritual life can also hinder running. But to me, this is o.k. because these are two spheres of my one life, one in which I seek God and Beauty. He is all things to me.

    The things you listed - repetition, meditation, ritual, and solitude - all relate to how I run and how I pray.

    But, frankly, I'm still working it out.

    Ace, I loved your post. Somehow you've captured why I find myself thinking in the same language when it comes to running *and* to the spiritual life.

    When I think on the saying of the third-century Egyptian monk Joseph, "If you will, you can become all flame," it "hits" my running self and my spirituality “self.” But, in fact, I'm one self.

    When I race, I understand "laying it on the line" in the same way I understand "becoming all flame."

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  6. "Running, especially racing, is about winning and movement. But, you know, inside, deep inside the core of a tempo run, on that tightrope, I feel very quiet and very still." yes, i get that, too. i think it comes from going so far inside, digging deep, and when you hit the core, that's where it's solid. at least, you hope it's solid. i mean, if it's not solid then you've got whole other issues, right?

    hey, jeff - this cart & horse thing. i am sort of halfway getting what you are saying.

    i get what you are saying by seeking meaning or guidance or strength from outside and asking thtat it be bestowed upon ye before a race (or contest, trial, pressure situation), and how that's different from entering a race and encountering meaning in the race without intending to, and both of those seem different from a third possibility - entering a race with the intent of finding meaning there, that is, what some would call "touching the face of god". so in the first place you are drawing the spiritual in and asking it to bestow meaning on your existence, and in the third case you are entering into existence fully intending to encounter true experience there. the middle case is something sort of accidental, so i am not sure what that means. is this at all what you are talking about?

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  7. "i mean, if it's not solid then you've got whole other issues, right?"

    Absolutely. But, for me, it's still a good thing.

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  8. ace,
    I guess I just want to say that "religion" can mean many different things to many different people, and I don't want to collapse these differences and pretend that we all have the same relationship with God and religious language.

    That's why I feel uncomfortable with using the religious vocabulary. Sometimes it seems to get at what I want in the description of the running experience. But there is a cost because in the end I'm not a religious person; I'm just stealing or attempting to resignify the language. In that attempt to resignify, there is always the danger that the words get taken in the opposite way.

    This happens in my classes quite often. My students always ask me: are you religious? I could answer affirmatively and risk certain things. Or I could answer negatively and risk other things. Neither answer is satisfying to me, because literally I am neither here nor there with respect to the question.

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  9. ah. i think i see now a bit more of what you are saying. over the weekend, we went to see the movie 'paul' - the one about the alien? it's more thinkie than you'd think from the commercials, it's not all fart jokes. anyway, the alien paul could do this thing that seems to be typical of aliens where he could put his hand on your head and transmute knowledge directly into your brain. until we can do that i guess we have to stick with this imperfect word-based communication.

    so when you talk about running and you pull out religious words, do you feel like they are not quite what you are looking for? eh? yes? maybe you need to keep looking then. like teenagers with their tiny vocabularies who pull out the same tired little curse words over and over, maybe we all rely on the same words over and over.

    many years ago i was in a state park with a toddler who was just learning to talk and not too good at walking yet either. she was coming down a path faster than she meant to and sort of out of control, and she said, "that hill is loud!" ha! loud. of course we know better. we know she meant steep, but she had this word that she knew meant "too much" and that word was "loud" so she used it.

    i know you know a million billion words, so i am not really lecturing you on vocabulary. i am simply using vocabulary to have a discussion about itself.

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  10. Holy crap thank the lord for the imperfection of language!! Language keeps us apart, yes, but that's a good thing. I don't want to know what everyone else is thinking. I want to have to interpret and bend it so that I can live with it.

    One of my philosophical friends, Gilles Deleuze, said that philosophy was the creation of concepts. A new thought requires a new mode of expression. You can create concepts in two ways: 1) you can invent a new word or 2) you can pick up an old word and use it in a new way. Both of these cause confusion, but in different ways. The first creates jargon. The second creates the sort of confusion you describe with the toddler.

    So, yes, we all rely on the same words, but when writing, I have to make choices about the language I use. I could use my PhD language--take the route of jargon--or try to use common language in new ways--the second path. That's the path I most often choose in the blog and actually its a primary reason for the blog (though sometimes I forget and do the jargon thing.) As philosophers who live in a world, we have to remember to work with ordinary language, or else we jargon our way out of relevance.

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  11. "I want to have to interpret and bend it so that I can live with it."

    you take what i say and you masticate it, salivate it, ruminate it, until it is something palatable to you? how do you learn, then?

    you take my words and bend them into something you can live with. is this your way of understanding me? or is this your way of denying me your understanding whilst you maintain the fortress of your own thoughts?

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  12. That's exactly how people learn. They digest the words of others. It is a messy process and there's always a part that goes undigested. We are living organisms, not computers, and the end of communication is to live together, not necessarily to understand.

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  13. hey, that's interesting. the end of communication is to live together. fully serious here, i thought the end of communication was to understand, but all this attempting to understand and be understood can make living together difficult.

    but, so... to learn something new, you would have to let the idea change you in some way, right? sounds like you are changing the ideas to yourself, and not yourself being changed by them.

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  14. I think you misunderstood me. ;)

    I like your first paragraph. I did not say that we should cynically try to twist other people words so that we do not have to change and never learn. I just meant to say that the fact that we have to interpret is really a good thing because perhaps the only way I can learn from you--really digest--is not to get it all at once. I have to be able to understand at a rate that I can sustain. The fact that words have to be interpreted allows me some control over that rate. That can be a bad thing because it can allow me to not change at all. But that control can be a good thing because there are some things that I am not ready to know.

    To put it another way: have words for rapid and wholesale change without regard to habits already in place. We call it "violence" and "insanity." The fact that we do not understand each other immediately and have to work for understanding literally allows us (I think) to stay sane.

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  15. Hey man! I appreciate yourt blog because you never sacrifice the urge to just post to post and dilute the content of the blog.. this is a temptation that many fall victim to and eventhought this one is not a race-report.. you were able to engage me for the "god-awful' 8 miles and such..

    and by mile 2 or 3 the stiffness and awkward, stumbling gait have since fell to the roadside unveiling a valiant stride that is unfortunately putting down the landing gear just as the engines are beginning to warm up.. only 8 miles. Great stuff! -
    Gotta Run,
    ChakaKahn
    http://www.facebook.com/WhyMarathon

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  16. I really love your blog. Makes me think a bit more about running and the way it affects me. This entry made me think of a quote/saying that I saw the other day (source unknown): "Being outside is good for your inside."
    Keep up the great posts. :)

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  17. Dear Tara,

    Thank you for reading! Being outside is good for my insides fer sure.

    Best,
    Jeff

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