It all started so promisingly, I seem to remember. The Art Of Empty Miling. But where did it all go wrong?
Take four scenes:
1. The phone rings. It's Sunday morning. I look at the clock on the little table by the bed. 7.50. Tam gets up and runs downstairs muttering something like, 'Who's this ringing at this time?'
I hear her voice as she talks on the landline, making her way back up to the bedroom. I gather it's Our Kid she's talking to. There's no other reason he'd call this early except to pass on bad news.
When Tam's finished talking, she lays the phone on the duvet and looks over at me. I'm waiting for it.
'It's your Mum, Chris. She's had a heart attack. They're taking her to Lincoln.'
Twenty minutes later, we're on our way out the house. We'll drop the superheroes off at Nanny and Grandad's, and get straight to the hospital. Tam double-takes as I come down the stairs clutching a tee-shirt, shorts and a pair of running shoes.
'What you doing?' she says.
'Just taking my running stuff,' I tell her. We could be there all day, I think. May as well take my gear. If there's no time while we're waiting, I could always get Tam to drop me off somewhere and I'll run home. Whatever, I could do with getting a run in sometime.
Tam rolls her eyes. 'You were out all bloody day yesterday, Chris,' she says, 'Your Mum's in hospital!'
As we're approaching Lincoln an hour later, a worst-case scenario passes through my head. It seems unreal, but it's a possibility. What if - just what if - we get to the hospital and we're ushered aside by a nurse with unthinkable news. I think back to the last time I saw my Dad alive. Kissing him goodbye - the first time I'd ever kissed him. Telling him I loved him - the first time I'd ever done that too. Driving home to the flat in Boston, Our Kid behind the wheel and the Sasha remix of M People's 'How Can I Love You More?' on the stereo.
I glance down at the running gear by my feet in the passenger footwell, and wonder how my priorities have gotten so skewed.
It turns out Mum's ok. A blockage in an artery caused a heart attack, but a stent's already been fitted. In a couple of days she'll be allowed to go home.
We leave the hospital mid-afternoon. Tam drops me off in Harrington and I run ten miles home.
2. It's lunchtime at the factory. I open the office door and plonk myself down on the swivel chair with an exaggerated sigh of desperation.
Tam's in no mood for giving sympathy today.
'What's up with you?' she says.
'I'm fucked,' I tell her.
In the course of three or four weeks, the workload at the factory has gone mad. The summer season is on us, a staff member's got a job round the corner, and I've moved from doing not a lot for 24 hours a week to full-on grafting for between 40 and 50 hours. On top of 100 mile running weeks, I'm totally spent.
'All that bloody running you're doing,' Tam says.
'All the working I'm doing,' I tell her.
'You need to get things in perspective,' she goes on, totally ignoring what I've said. 'You're your own worst enemy. I know you're training for this race, but you keep on adding other stuff on top. First it's that 'I'm going to run every day for a year.' Then it's that, 'I'm going to do a full Blarney'. 100 miles every week for 10 weeks? Bloody stupid. No wonder you're tired. You need to listen to your body.'
I make some weak attempt at arguing back, but really can't be arsed.
I eat my lunch in silence and go back to work well before the half-hour's up, just to get out of the way.
My mood's no better by the time I get home. After a few barbed exchanges, I get out the door for my second run of the day when I'd much rather be taking a nap on the sofa.
Surprisingly, after 3 or 4 miles, I've run the fatigue from my legs and I'm looking forward to the next hour before I arrive back. It's then that I think of the superheroes. Is this the first time I've ever come home and said not one word to them? So caught up in this running fiasco, it was as if I'd forgotten they were there. Then I remember it was Lightning's first day of school exams. I imagine how he would have been waiting for Dad to come home just to ask if he'd done ok. Instead all that mattered were myself and my miles.
I stop for a moment. Literally stand still for a few seconds. 'What am I becoming?' I think. I don't hang around for an answer, however. I still have another 7 miles to do.
3. It's more like an October morning than one in mid-May. The mizzle hangs low over the road ahead, the wind blowing the fine rain against the flimsy fabric of my running jacket, causing it to stick to the sodden tee-shirt underneath. I'm wet through. I'm cold. I'm tired. I'm half-way through a dawn 12 miler.
The unmistakable sound of an engine ahead automatically steers me to the edge of the narrow country lane. I look forward and see an orange sports car tearing towards me. For a second, I'm tempted. Take two steps to the left, Chris. Just stand still. And pretty soon your run will be over.
Back at the office sometime later, I'm eating my breakfast. A hot shower has restored my spirits. I can't help though but think of the morning's run. I put my thoughts down to the 'urge to jump'. I'd talked to Tammy about whilst we were on holiday at Christmas. I'd been unable to lean on the railings on a cliff-side walkway. It hadn't been a fear of heights that had freaked me out when glancing down at the hundred foot drop to the rocks and the crashing waves beneath, it was that little something inside my head that told me, 'Go on then - jump!' The same little something that made me uneasy on balconies, caused me to stand well away from the track at railway stations and tempted me to pull on the handbrake when driving in the fast lane of the motorway. I'd done some research on the phenomenon on my return home and found it was fairly common. It's origins are hazy, but it appears it's unrelated to a true desire to end it all.
But as I think of this morning's run, this knowledge is cold comfort. For the fact is, at the moment that car approached, I would have given anything for that run to end, rather than continue. How on earth has an activity I've loved for so long become so stale?
4. It's half-past 6 and the evening's getting away from me. It was nearly two hours ago when I'd made to get off from work and get my mid-week long run in. Just about the same time as a couple of old customers decided to drop by to stock up on some colouring boards for the forthcoming Bank Holiday. After half an hour of pleasantries, I'd left them to scour the shelves and put together an order for themselves whilst I slunk off to the office, my temperature rising, my core becoming more agitated. To hit 110 by the end of the week - my target for week 4 of The Blarney, I'd need to do at least 15 tonight. At this rate, I won't be home till 8. I hadn't even had time for tea. Hungry, wound-up, pissed-off, I sit in front of the computer and check my e-mails.
Nothing new, but a recent one entitled 'Game Changers' nudged at me. Since Christmas, Cainey, Our Kid and I had been on this 'game changer' kick. We'd take it in turns to nominate a person who we thought had really made an impact on their chosen field - had 'changed the game' - and the remaining two would, after some research either accept or reject the nomination. Any person receiving a majority vote made the list, that would grow as the year progressed.
I'd really enjoyed our little game, and through it had come across some staggeringly inspiring people. Cainey's last nomination, however, had left me cold. Jill Taylor Bolte. When I'd initially received his e-mail, a quick Wiki search had enabled me to suss that she was some sort of brain scientist. That was enough to totally put me off. I'd kept putting off any further research - just wasn't inspired - but now I figure it's a good time to get stuck in and at least use this time stuck at work to do something mildly productive.
An hour passes. I'm knocked for six.
A connection has been made. I now know what to do. I now know what's gone wrong. I now have a vision of how to put it right.
Jill Bolte Taylor is an American neuroscientist. She studies people's brains. Her TED talk, A Stroke Of Insight, is just over 18 minutes long, and with 15 million views is the 2nd most widely viewed TED talk of all-time. If you are at a loose end for just over 18 minutes sometime soon, may I suggest you take a look?
If you think, 'That's just not for me' (just like I did), or just can't be arsed, I'll cover the main points for you.
Jill Bolte Taylor starts with an examination of the human brain and the fact that it is clearly divided into two hemispheres. The right hemisphere works as a parallel processor, whilst the left works as a serial processor. Thus, the two hemispheres think about different things, care about different things. They process information differently, and therefore have different 'personalities'.
Taylor goes on to describe the two hemispheres. Hers is not the stilted language of a scientist, however. It is obvious she has been somewhere most of us haven't. (Her language reminds me of the feeling I had for three weeks recently whilst reading Mark Helprin's 'Winter's Tale'. The feeling I have when listening to The Waterboys' 'The Whole Of The Moon' - this feeling of the interconnectedness of everything - something that I can appreciate in theory, but, up till now, has escaped me in reality.)
On the right hemisphere:
' (This) thinks in pictures and it learns kinaesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems, and then explodes into this enormous collage of what the present moment looks like, what it smells like, tastes like, feels like and what it sounds like.
I am an energy being connected to all the energy around me by the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And - right here, right now - we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And, in this moment, we are whole and we are beautiful.'
On the left hemisphere:
'(This) thinks linearly and methodically. It's all about the past and it's all about the future. The left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment and start picking out details, details and more details about these details. It then categories and organises that information, associates it with everything in the past we've ever learned, and projects into the future all our possibilities.
The left hemisphere thinks in language. It's that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It's that little voice that says to me, 'Don't forget to pick up groceries on the way home.' It's that calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. But, most importantly, it's that little voice that says to me, 'I am. I am.' And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me, 'I am,' I become separate. I become a single individual separate from the energy flow around me, and separate from you.'
On the morning of December 10th 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, aged 37, suffered a massive stroke. Although she made a remarkable recovery over the course of the next 8 years, it was to change her perception and her life totally.
Conscious and calm throughout the initial stages, she, as a brain expert, figured out that her left hemisphere was shutting down. Rather than panic, she remembered thinking, 'How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?'
The events that followed form the emotional crux of her TED talk.
'As I lost my left hemisphere, I experienced a totally silent mind. I was captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. Because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the outside world. Imagine what it would be like to loose 37 years of emotional baggage. All my stress was gone, and I felt lighter in my own body. I felt a sense of peacefulness. I felt euphoria.'
Somehow managing to call an ambulance, she remembers curling up into a foetal ball and letting go, surrendering to the 'transition'. But it wasn't her time. On waking, she says:
'I could not identify the position of my body in space. I felt...like a genie just liberated from her bottle, and my spirit soared free, like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.
And I thought, 'I'm still alive, and I have found Nirvana. And if I'm alive and I have found Nirvana, then anyone who's alive can find Nirvana. And I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate people who knew they could come to this space anytime, and that they could purposefully choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace.
I realised what a tremendous gift - a stroke of insight - this could be for how we lived our lives, and it motivated me to recover.'
Her final words are the most important:
'We have the power to choose, moment by moment, who or what we want to be in the world - right here, right now. I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are, I am the life power of the universe. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of the left hemisphere where I become a single individual, a solid - separate from the flow, separate from you.
These are the 'we' inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when?
I believe the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of the right hemisphere, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.
And I thought that this was an idea worth spreading.'
Jill Bolte Taylor's words had a devastating effect on me. To say that in the last two weeks, I've felt the stirrings of a spiritual awakening sounds clichéd and ridiculous. Nonetheless, it's true.
What I'm experiencing affects the whole of my life, of which running is just a facet. However, since this blog is a running one, or has been up to this point in time, it's my relationship with running that I shall consider first.
Having been right in the first place, my running in recent times has gravitated away from Empty Miling and towards the false concept that we now universally acknowledge as 'running'. Always up for self-experimentation, at the back end of last year, in a post entitled 'Acts Of Erosion', I outlined my intention to examine the fine distinction between running as work or play. Blown away by the legendary preparations of Kyle Skaggs and Pam Smith, I wanted to know what it must be like to spend months working towards one goal. I chose a race, and for the last few months I've been obsessively training with a single objective. Although I'm still a few weeks from the end of this trip, it's taught me many lessons, the most important of which is that I'll never do this again.
I don't break promises. I shall run my race, but after hearing Jill Bolte Taylor's words, never have I been so convinced of the power, and the truth, of my 'empty miles'.
By gearing my running around a future performance, my daily miles had moved from a valuable right hemisphere-based activity - the value of which was simply the here and now, the union between myself and my surroundings - to a left hemisphere-based act of drudgery, constantly accompanied by the internal commentary of what I should be doing for that all-important, up and coming race.
Think back to the four scenes I described earlier. That's just not fucking right. Is it?
In the two weeks since I watched that talk I've continued to run many miles, but my perception of them has changed. And - just like that - with a change in perception, my running has become enjoyable again.
After this race is done, my running will be unshackled by the constraints of 'performance' or future events. My miles will be entirely empty. None of them will be run with a goal in mind. My movement will be daily meditation.
Bullshit? You may think so. But ask yourself a question. When someone asks you, that next time, 'What are you running for?', rather than gushing out the same old, same old like, 'I'd like to break 3 hours for a marathon', 'I want to beat my 10k PB', or 'I'm after coming in the top 3 in my next ultra', wouldn't it be great - liberating - just to say, 'It just makes me happy.'
There's this feeling I keep writing about. It's been with me all my life. The Sound Of Fire. Keep On Burning. Call it what you will. This deep-seated restlessness that pushes me onto the next thing. (That pushes me onto the next thing - that future goal which is bound to make me happier, right? - but detracts me from fully experiencing what I'm doing right now.) I've spoken about it before in positive terms. This force that drives me to ask questions, to seek endlessly, seemingly confident in the fact that an end result at some point is bound to bring satisfaction. To bring contentment - a word I've previously scorned, but now know is my ultimate goal. Love is contentment. And contentment is Nirvana.
There's no escaping it. I hold my hands up. All along, I've been wrong.
I've wasted the precious moments of my life too caught up in the thoughts of the past and the hopes for the future. I need to kill Keep On Burning if I'm really to live. For Keep On Burning is just left-brain chatter, white noise drowning out constantly what is real. What is now.
I've never been truly happy. It's only now that I realise that this is not because my life doesn't contain all the ingredients for happiness, for it does. No, it's because, for any time longer than snatched fragments, I've never been able to silence that inner voice that's always pushing me on.
A future achievement would always make life better. That's what it said. And so I wasted my teenage years studying obsessively for the highest exam results. And so I wasted my 20's and 30's working the longest hours I could. And yet, once I'd arrived at the destination, things were always the same.
My return to running after a break of several years was with the best intentions. Empty Miles. Some time each day when I'd feel stillness, when that voice would go away. Until I fucked that up too, and the voice started guiding my running away from what I deep-down knew it should be into something more in line with this crazy society, warped out of shape by 'competition', where foregoing the present in favour of the future is drummed into us from nursery school.
I look at Tammy and the superheroes, and see their happiness. I've got the same things as them. Why can't I feel it in the same way?
The voice has been with me for as long as I remember. I guess it's a sad reflection of my priorities that only when it began to impinge on my enjoyment of running did I truly realise that it was time to make a change.
I knew something was wrong. In honesty, I've probably known for a long time. And it was Jill Bolte Taylor's words that finally- in an almost revelatory fashion - made me decide to do something about it.
That word - 'journey'. It's a word that makes me cringe when other people use it, but one that I use all the time. In this particular case, I can think of no other word to adequately describes what I now face.
With this public admission, I embark upon the most important and difficult trip of my life. A journey in search of the present moment. A step to the right. I have little idea of how to get there as yet, although that uncertainty is part of the indescribable pull. Google searches over the last couple of weeks have included: Eckhart Tolle, Buddhism, the Findhorn community, Russell Brand, Tommy Franklin, David Cain, Sri Chinmoy, transcendental meditation, soul surfing, slacklining, yoga and loads of other stuff that offer me just the merest of clues. The information I've gleaned has enabled me to take the initial steps I need to.
Phrases from unlikely sources have also pointed my direction of travel:
- Jeremy Vine stating on his Radio 2 show that should he ever address students about to embark on life after university, his advice would just be two words, 'Seize Love'.
- a caller to a 5 Live phone-in after the death of Stephen Sutton who outlined her 'meaning of life' as simply, 'Do as much good as you can. Have as much fun as you can.'
- the lyrics from Duke Dumont's new song, 'Ask me what I did with my life. I spent it with you.'
And running? I've a feeling that running - Empty Miling - might play an important role in the years to come. But I could be wrong. It will either fit or it won't. If it doesn't, it's something I'll gladly give away.
After all, for one journey to start, the previous one has to end.