Being There

You know how part of what runners love about running is just the sheer fact of being outside?
Once in every dozen runs or so, I have these moments where I lift my head up for just a second or two and I'm like: damn -- just LOOK at those trees. Oh, and the sky: it's still blue as all get-out. Or I will see a buzzard drifting on an up-current and think: he and I are the same, in a deeply inarticulate way. We're just here in the world, without much more to it. He, buzzarding about in his (yes, somewhat nasty) buzzardly way; and I, down here below looking up at the buzzard, running along doing my thing.

Back to the same old question: why do we run? Here's another insufficient answer to throw on the pile: it's because running is a practice of presence. Though the new-agers are all a little loopy and smoked way too much dope back in the day and tend to be over the top with their purple colors, etc., they are right about one thing. We have a tendency to live almost everywhere but in the present.

I have a new daughter and among many other things, this is a lesson that she teaches. To be with her is to be in the present because the present is simply where she lives, in her animal way. (Incidentally, this must be why so much of early childhood parenting is obsessively centered on scheduling. Almost every question we get about our daughter is posed in terms of time -- when is she sleeping? when will she crawl? what time does she eat? and the biggie: what's her schedule?) Our world runs on time, and time is almost never about presence. It's most often about what anxiety causing event is about to get here, and it's about the crap that happened. Sometimes it's about the awesome thing that we have planned to make happen if everything goes right, and it's about the sweet things that we once did back in the day when things were different. Time is delaying and deferring, hurrying and rushing, or pacing and holding on.

But presence is of course about none of these things. It's about just being. And, as I was saying, running is a practice of presence. I find when I am out on a run, time can quite literally not happen. I get into a timeless state that I believe is somewhat like the state of a hovering buzzard, or perhaps the state that my infant daughter occupies. Running, I am not in time, but I am present to the world.

The little one and I at MoonPie this weekend. (Thanks, Rafal.)
Being present is a mode of consciousness that is diminished in some ways and amplified in others. The stream of ideas and thoughts happens as always, but it is not inflected with or shaded by the atmosphere of temporality. I guess this is what I am realizing, as I write: time is not a thing or an idea -- it is a quality of experience. So, when we run the world comes to us washed of the quality of time and immediacies strike us more regularly. Time tends to blur the details of things. It shadows every sensation with its possible futures and pasts. When we are present, we see the world more as it is, and we realize upon entering this sort of timeless state that the world in which we live is extraordinarily detailed and vibrant. It is full of things waiting eternally to be noticed, like, for example, the number of petals in a black-eyed suzy or the way in which the thinnest puddle of water can reflect a deep and entire landscape.

In the timeless state of mind, details are amplified, but a sense of order and purpose is diminished. More ordinary states of consciousness are highly purposive -- they are states of mind that have beginnings, middles, and ends. They are involved in projects that carve the world into a set of goals to be accomplished. This purposiveness strips experience of its nuanced and complicated quality and thereby mutes the world of the true wildness of its possibility -- the point of most of conscious life not being to render all worlds possible, but to actually make something singular happen. I think, for example, of my drive home and the way its severe intentionality renders almost all of its experienced qualities into the simplest of categories: the idiots in front of me and the jerks behind me. But of course the blindness of intentionality is one of our most cherished resources. It's how we get 'er done.

These thoughts came to me I suppose because of the race I ran this weekend. It was the Bell Buckle RC-Cola Moon Pie 10 mile race, and I won it. This is pretty much my favorite race -- the hills, the heat, the country roads, the atmosphere, all of these things combine to diminish the temporal and purposive dimensions of running. There is always a point in that race where plans fall away, and you have to tune into the atemporal animal presence (whoah dude) that I have been describing.

I thought about this as I ran out in front of the field. I had chosen not to wear a watch for this race for precisely all of these reasons, but of course being the leader I ran behind a pace truck that had a giant red clock staring me right in the face. Although I was winning, although I was running across beautiful terrain in Middle Tennessee, although I was enjoying being fit and outside and in the world, I could not help but find myself tormented by that clock. Its digital numbers stared at me coldly, reminding me incessantly of the inescapability of time, how it would tick away and be lost forever, and that it could never, in the end, be outrun.

Those same thoughts about the ceaseless passing of time occur to me occasionally when I am with my little one. But then she will smile or cry or just reach towards me, and the world narrows and intensifies and time is lost for a moment, and I am there, without memory or anticipation, an animal once more.


  1. Congrats on the win! But, really... Baby Edmonds steals the show on this post.

  2. Are you familiar with _Doubt, Time and Violence_ by Piotr Hoffman? (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986) The introduction deals with the metaphorical nature of our interaction with time. Your post reminds me of this. Good stuff.

    1. Have not read that book (sounds interesting) but "The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918"(Harvard University Press, 2003)by Stephen Kern is about modernity and its transformative effects on the perception of time. In particular it seems relevant to Jeff's second to last paragraph. In the book He suggests the forces of modernity has propelled humans towards the simultaneity of experience and he does this using phenomology, psychoanalysis, and other philosophies to examine technology, culture, art, and history. I think Kern would say your torment by the clock would be the result of an attachment to the notion of an objective measurable time that really only dates back to the creation of World Standard Time(Which Emile Durkheim was rather opposed to as a western construction). rambling here but As a runner I feel chained to the clock as well but enjoy it the most when that is my least concern. Anyway, great read(your piece that is) Jeff!


  3. It's hard to pick a favorite, Jeff, but this one is up there. I feel like I'm giving people a present simply by directing them to read it, and this is not the first time I've felt this way. Thank you.

    1. So true.
      I think a philosopher/psychologist said it best when he described the difference in attitude created by a person who uses the phrase "I have to" vs "I get to". The more I lead my life with the idea that "I get to" the more present I am in life, and thus enjoy greater pleasure and productivity.

  4. I think about this stuff, but could never put it into words like you did.

  5. If you've never heard it before, try James Taylor's "The Secret of Life"... is enjoying the passage of time. Thanks for another great read.

  6. I love the feeling that I have inside me now that I have read your blog and the comments. Thank you for writing this!

  7. Absolutely LOVE it! Thank you for this reminder, well worded, eloquent, thoughtful!!!

  8. Thanks, everyone! You are motivating me to keep writing.

  9. You won the Moon Pie 10? Damn, that's impressive. I've long thought about entering that race. Maybe it's time to put it on my bucket list. Congrats. Oh, yeah, great blog also. I suck at living in the present, at least that's what my wife says, and I'm always trying to improve a little. I'm sure it's a lifelong pursuit.


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