Runs in Thoughts in Runs

When I was young, my mom, my brother and I used to make at least two trips every summer. One was to my maternal grandparents’ place and one to my paternal ones’. The places and the experiences from the two couldn’t have been more different.

Maternal grandparents’ home was a relatively comfortable place in an old cotton mill town and had all the comforts and luxuries that we wanted – new clothes that mom would buy for us, theaters to watch the latest movies with our uncles, good restaurants to be treated with the best food in town, and street food to test the limits of our taste buds and young digestive systems.

Paternal grandparents lived in a small village, in a place beside the areca and coconut farms that we owned, with my dad’s younger brother and his wife. My dad had left the village when he was young, against his father’s liking, and had moved to town to make a better living. The oldest son, in Indian society, carries certain status and expectation. The idea of my father, the oldest son of his parents, leaving his village, home, parents and the farm, was not something that my grandfather approved of. They hardly ever spoke eye to eye after that. The admiration and love they had for each other hadn’t gone down, but the damage done to their male egos never completely healed. None of us ever talked about it. We were too young then, and it’s too late now. I can only surmise.

It was a humble living in the village, with no dearth of love and affection, but only of the material things. In summer there were power outages that spanned days, sometimes weeks, at a stretch, and nothing much to do. We had a few cows and calves, and a couple of cats and dogs. Feeding them, cuddling them and walking them around was what we did for entertainment. Over the years it turned into a hobby. It amazes me how repetition of an activity changes our brain. We often end up going from being averse to something, to being comfortable with it, to liking it, and sometimes to a point of no return. Every morning we went to take a dip in a nearby river right in front of the village temple, a short walk from our home. The time we spent in the village has been, in retrospect, more memorable than the city life we lived for the majority of the year.

The water in the river was clear, cold, and ankle-deep during the summer; the bed rugged and rocky. Adults helped us cross the stream when we were little. As we grew older, we became more capable and independent. We had learned the necessary skills to make our way across without tripping or falling in water. Rarely do we now encounter such intimate moments with nature. As we made it past childhood to adulthood, we comfortably crossed not merely the river, but also the thin line between confidence and arrogance. What we once viewed as a force of nature to be admired, and regarded, became dull, inconsequential, and even inconvenient. Thanks to climate change, the force really did decline, with the amount of water now hardly enough to fill an aquarium.

The arrogance seems to be an unfortunate truth, not merely of individuals, but of our species as a whole. We think we are the ones in charge, not only of our lives, but of everything around us. We think that we possess the capacity to bend the world to our will, rather than being good citizens of the planet with a fair share of compromises to make and fulfilling our obligations towards it. We forget that while we might have the ability to choose our actions, we’re not in control of the outcomes, that they are up to the forces external to us, and bigger, more powerful than us. We forget that the metaphorical rocks underneath, going back to those streams, could be slippery, and the water turbulent.

There are all kinds of things that could go wrong in the space that exists between our actions and the their outcomes. If nothing does, well, we do what we do best, pat ourselves on the back and move on with our smugness unshaken, or emboldened. It’s those of us who experience helplessness and vulnerability in the face of a challenge too big to overcome who often possess the humility and grace to accept the truth of our fallibility, limits and weaknesses, and of our place in the world.

A few days ago, when I had recollections of these old memories from childhood, a weird and amusing thought came to me. I wondered if I was crossing the river while it was flowing, or if the river was flowing while I was crossing. It wasn’t a scientific answer I was looking for, but a philosophical one. A few days after, while I was running, I found myself pondering over a similar thought, in a different setting. I was asking myself if I think while running or run while thinking.

Thoughts, like a stream of water, are perennially flowing, and perpetually changing their course. Running, on the other hand, is deliberate and has a concrete start and stop to it. I guess there’s a philosophical argument that can be made that in some sense we’re all running towards something all the time, but that’s not the kind of running I’m talking about.

As much as I’d like my thinking also to be deliberate, I find out every time that thoughts can neither be summoned nor be directed at will. Well, I guess that’s not completely true. When we have control over the mind, we can, but when we gain control of the mind is not exactly up to us. It’s dictated by the mind itself. So it’s not as much as taking control, as it is accepting it, when it’s relinquished by our mind. The mind has its hierarchy of needs. When the base ones have been met, it lets you focus on things that are, while important, matter the least, relatively speaking. The less turbulent it is, the better your chances of being able to exercise your will.

As soon as I start running, for example, the first few thoughts are about how my body is feeling. I can’t help it. They just occur to me. This is what I call the “safety system” talking.

Is my body hurting? Legs, back, neck, feet? Is this a safe area? Do I have enough control of the environment?

They’re followed by thoughts about the logistics of the run. This is the “optimization system” doing its job.

Am I going too fast, or slow? How long do I want to run? Is my form proper? Am I landing on my forefeet? How long can I comfortably run, considering how much I ran yesterday? How much do I plan to run the rest of the week? What do I listen to? Do I have my tracker on?

Running pace dictates how clearly I can think. Run too fast and the “safety system” kicks in, taking control back. Run too slow and the “optimization system” takes charge. The pace has to be in a sweet spot where both the systems are content and quiet. That pace is different for everybody, and it changes over time and with context. I think that’s true not merely with running, but with life. We all have a pace we’re comfortable with and goals we aspire to, but knowing what they are takes time and deliberate effort. When I’m training for a race, I want to be more mindful about the pace. When I’m running to get over a hard, or bad, day, I don’t care as much, when I’m running to think, I might run slower than usual. My pace is probably faster than some, and certainly slower than a lot of other people, but as long as I’m enjoying the run and it’s serving the purpose I run for, it doesn’t matter much. When you find the pace you’re comfortable with, you hit a rhythm, at which point putting one leg in front of the other becomes as mechanical as pedaling a bike. Depending on how you’re feeling and the amount of gas left in you, that repetition can go on for as long as you want. That’s when the mind decides that it’s okay for you to take over and focus on what you want to think about.

When I think about thinking, “shower thoughts” come to mind. People often stumble upon good ideas in a shower. I do, too. But I feel like the five or ten minutes it takes me to finish one is not long enough to think through those ideas. It doesn’t provide me the continuity required to go deep into anything, unless, of course, I stay there long enough to let the hot water wash away not merely the dirt, but peel my skin along with it. Shower thoughts make for a good tweet. They can be smart, creative, funny, or even profound. Like people scrolling endlessly on the Internet glancing at posts and moving on, so do you — you mentally “like” the idea, feel good about yourself and move on to the next thought. There’s no dearth of such shower thoughts to scroll through.

One of the few times in the day I get uninterrupted alone time long enough to think through things is while running. It also provides me with a conducive environment to focus so I can dig into the thoughts, peel the layers, connect different ideas and organize them. It gives me the resources to play with the Lego blocks that are thoughts and build a concrete, stable structure out of them. It helps me better understand myself better and the world around me. Thoughts on a run make for good long-form writing, and I say good, not in a pompous way, but rather with a humble realization that the amount of attention involved stands to benefit you in more than one way. At worst, you’ll have spent time trying to understand the nuances of things, and you’ll have emerged having learned something. At best, you’ll have created something that others will find value in and will pay for with their time and attention, which is as valuable a currency as one can hope for.

I have learned from running that it matters more that you run, than where and when you do. So while this might seem like one big, confused rambling, the inquiry has proved useful to me. I now know more about the thoughts I have while running and I know that as long as I’m exercising my mental and physical muscles, I’m making progress.


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