Friday, November 15, 2013

On the Feeling of Wisdom

Okay, check this article out from the Guardian.

The article talks about a short film that is a series of snippets of conversations with runners as they ran through a park in England. The film is only 11 minutes long and worth a watch.

So opines the Guardian article about the film: "These questions (Are you in love? Who do you care about most? What do you want to do with your life?) are hard to ask and are not often answered sincerely. Through their steps, their breaths and their focus, runners can answer them." I find this to be true, or at least it feels like it's true. But if it's so true, where do those answers go when the run finishes? I know a lot of runners, and they frankly seem just as screwed up as the rest of humanity.

Ed Whitlock, wise and fast.
What is this runner's consciousness that brings the feeling of answers? Studies have found that running produces endocannabinoids, of which the phytocannabinoids found in marijuana are a close cousin. So, yes, there is a runner's high. As with all altered states, the truths discovered therein seem somewhat difficult to take with us back to sobriety, and that's because altered states of consciousness can often give us the feeling that what we are saying is true without really bringing us any closer to the truth.  Anyone who has been around anyone in an altered state while sober knows this. 

[I googled "deep conversation while high," and this was the first website that came up. I think it proves my point. Folks with a more philosophical bent may also be interested in this William James essay, which relates the experience of truth that Hegel gives us to getting high on Nitrous Oxide: "The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide.": "Something 'fades,' 'escapes;' and the feeling of insight is changed into an intense one of bewilderment, puzzle, confusion, astonishment: I know no more singular sensation than this intense bewilderment, with nothing particular left to be bewildered at save the bewilderment itself. It seems, indeed, a causa sui, or 'spirit become its own object.'"]

When I think about my own running, I want to tease apart the feeling of having answers to questions from the actual having of those answers, and at least leave that difference as an open question with respect to what's going on. The difference between the feeling of knowing and actually knowing would be the difference between running as getting high on endorphines and running as a spiritual practice. The one would be an escape, the other a form of insight.

A primary theme of this blog is that running is an avenue to truth, that traipsing down that long lonely road has something to do with pursuing wisdom. Recently a reader wrote me to say, "you seem to be able to put into words what we can only express in those fleeting moments of ceaseless pain and the ever-escaping "runner's high." That's high praise. But I always feel like I am talking around the insights that I get as a runner, gesticulating towards them, never quite grasping them, never quite remembering what it was that I almost understood. If I am so wise, why do I keep screwing shit up?

Every philosopher in history has noted the relationship between courage and truth. Socrates' great virtue was his parrhesia; his frank speech the direct sign of his wisdom. In running, we reach an less inhibited, more frank, way of being. The pounding and the rhythms, the brisk breeze and the endocannabinoids, sorta shake the truth out of us. This courage running gives us is not the sloppy courage of wine or the brash and belligerent whisky bravado. Our veritas comes in different flavors. The runner's courage is a relaxed and goofy sort of courage, founded less in our own confidence and more in trust of others. It makes us feel sane and connected, strangely vulnerable and also safe.

So maybe it's this: if there's truth or insight in running, it's less in the having of an answer and more in the bold confidence running gives us that someone out there -- a fellow running companion, the spouse back home, the boss, the colleague -- might hear us when we speak whatever answers we have. They might laugh at our jokes or feel our pain. We don't really find the answers out there on the road, but we feel a bit more confident that the half-reaches and guesses out of which we construct these experimental and half-baked lives might be worth sharing with someone else. We remember, in short, that we aren't alone -- or better, that we are alone, but alone along with everyone else.

Is that realization itself an answer or a key to life? No, not really. The pounding-drug-medicine wears off, and back in reality those half-worked out truths once spoken don't always find ears to hear. We return to life's hard questions. We find ourselves alone, alone. So it goes.

Or at least it goes like this until the next escape, when we find ourselves once more out there, running with the runner-geeks, alive and open and exposed, speaking frankly and sometimes even being heard.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Running in the Dark

First, a couple of links for the runner-geeks, then some rumination on night running.

A nice tribute to George Sheehan, the greatest runner/philosopher on the Writer's Almanac. (Nov. 5, 2013)

And, an interesting interview of Anthony Famiglietti (Fam) on Roads, Mills, Laps.

I hope you enjoy those.

The fall time change means one thing for me -- running in the dark. It feels somewhat shameful to admit it, but I am not a morning runner. This is strange because I am generally a morning person. I wake up in a good mood, get to work, do my things. My mind is ready to go, but my body is generally tight and achy. So, unless I am doubling (and it's been a while since then), I run in the evenings.

So, tonight I was out there running at my normal evening hour, and because of the time change, it was dark. For me, it's this way from November through February -- three months of running in the dark. I don't mind this.

When you are running, you become sort of invisible to most people. You are out there on the streets in the most public space, but in a way that makes you a part of the scenery, part of the architecture of the city. We are so familiar that we become somewhat hidden from view and interchangeable with anything else -- just part of someone's commute.

This feeling of invisibility is a part of all running, and night running amplifies it. I have never been one for reflectors or headlamps. I know the reasons for these -- they help the cars see us. But let me ask something: why do we have to be seen? I can't see the people in those cars; why do they need to see me? I would rather not be seen.

Further, there always seems to me to be something hostile about headlights. It's that they are so, well, outwards, so intent on illuminating everything that is outside of them. Riding in a car, we feel invulnerable, and through this invulnerability our senses are muted. Those headlights blind us when we are out on the road; as runners we realize their effect on experience is eliminatory as much as illuminating. In order to produce the effect of control, headlights have to blot out as much of the night as possible.

Running, in general, is a sport of exposure. In running we are exposed -- to weather, to our bodies, to pain, to effort, to our limits, to each other. And at night, we are exposed to the dark. This exposure and vulnerability is one of the most positive things about running. It's what gets our senses up and makes us watch and see and react. The night acts like a stimulant -- my eyes see everything that can be seen; my ears hear more, the footfalls and breathing rhythms come out of the background; I become myself, and I hear myself. I experience myself.

Running in the dark can remind us of all the different shades with which experience is colored. We say that we are "in the dark" because the dark envelopes us. We swim in it, we float through it. It is different than day and light -- quieter, closer, subtler. And, once enveloped, we become more sensitive, more inward, narrowed down to a thin and vulnerable core.

At night, in the dark, we see less, we feel more.
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