while you were sleeping

morning run

Image description: Morning sun ray shines through tree branches. A crow flies above.

I woke up early this morning. The light was fading into my eastern-facing bedroom window by 5:00 AM. I was up even before that, mentally busy and reflective. I remembered how, six years ago, I would watch the dawn slowly creep into the house as I listened to my sleeping newborn, soaking in the precious stillness of the time between night and day. The days were lonely and the nights were tiring, but the in-between would always bring a smile to my face. This morning, stirring from the covers, I turned off my alarm, trudged to my closet, and grabbed some running clothes. I could either be awake and horizontal, or awake and on the road. I decided to ditch bed and greet the morning on foot.

There is a great peacefulness in leaving a slumbering house at daybreak. The roads are clear of cars, and the crossing lights turn immediately in my favor, as though my fingers shoot out electricity. The dew glistens on grass, the clouds part away to frame slanted sun rays, and the birds indulge in the day’s first mating songs. As the run progresses, I encounter a handful of other runners. They are smiling, too. We share a secret euphoria. No troubles from the day are being hashed out or replayed; they simply haven’t happened yet. Traversing the streets of a quiet town evokes the euphoria a child feels on a snowy morning; that sense of stillness; that sense that my surroundings are my own private treasure.

Eventually, I glance down at my watch, and realize it is time to head home. The morning begins to ripen. Car doors open and shut and silhouettes are seen in kitchen windows. The neighborhood is waking up. I return, quietly, through the back door. Gently removing my shoes, I softly walk back up the stairs to my daughter’s bedroom. Sitting down at the foot of her bed, I watch her slowly stir from sleep. Her bright green eyes flash open. She takes her warm hand, placing the palm on top of my knee. “Mama! You’re home.”

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Nourishing the process

Yet, we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate… It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and the sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins… Contrary to what we usually believe, movements like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

Self-esteem…is something completely different in the incremental system. It is not an internal quantity that is fed by easy successes and diminished by failures. It is a positive way of experiencing yourself when you are fully engaged and are using your abilities to the utmost in pursuit of something you value. – Carol Dweck (Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development)

tunnel

Image description: Spring green foliage peeks through a dark sandstone tunnel.

The quest for Optimal Experience is a hunger that I share with many of my closest friends and family members. As an introvert who is completely at peace with introversion, I do not require many in my circle to feel connected and uplifted. However, when individuals radiate intrinsic motivation, I am immediately attracted to their presence. Striving to achieve something in the long-term as an incremental journey is at the core of how I stay motivated. Living in a society that worships instant gratification, short-cuts, and quick fixes, it is sometimes challenging to find opportunities to nurture the internal locus.

When we watch the flames of a bonfire lap up, curving around the logs and branches, they seem chaotic and impulsive. But as Judy Brown reminds us, “the flame that knows just how it wants to burn can find its way.” The seemingly fickle fire is, in many ways, a metaphor for motivation. We often describe motivation as a finite resource, something that is either earned or depleted—or, in a broader extension—the overall label of an individual’s value. “He’s completely unmotivated!” is a phrase I’ve heard rattled off numerous times during my career as a higher education professional. We identify motivation as a quantity, as a measure of judgement. I challenge this assumption through a belief that motivation is an intrinsic and malleable asset we all possess. Like many other dimensions of personality, ranging from grit to empathy, motivation is muscle that must be exercised intentionally and regularly for the purpose of building its strength.

Given that belief, I turn to the idea that motivation, like the flame, finds its way. As stewards of our minds and bodies, we maintain some control over how we stack the logs and feed the fire. We also develop, through patience and observation, the retrospection and experience to understand that obstacles are not failures. Usually, when I am building a fire in the back yard (especially on a windy spring afternoon), it takes several attempts to get going. Then, after the fire establishes itself, it still requires care and attention in its infancy. Each fire is different, depending on temperature, the air, and the moisture of the wood… and while it is tempting to douse a dying flame with lighter fluid, the magic of combustion is short lived. Slowly but surely, the fire becomes a great experiment, as the creator identifies the nourishment that is needed.

Therefore, one cannot claim intrinsic motivation without keeping a watchful eye on what various dimensions of that motivation require. There is a gap between aspiration and practice. Those of us who are future-dwellers may mistake a lofty and distant idea for an exercise in incremental growth. Setting our sights on a hard-earned achievement is futile without daily dedication to the path leading to it. In my life, this often amounts to finding different portals for engaging with my goals. For example, I use this space to reflect on my running practice. Of course journaling is different from logging miles. If I only wrote about running but never laced up my shoes and went running, then I would be deficient in my running practice (and you would likely wonder what I thought I was doing!). However, if we flip the situation, if I ran without reflecting, then I would still lose. Why?

Because for me, writing and pondering is how my running fire likes to be fed. I do not always have time to publish my reflections on this blog, but I frequently journal about the spiritual and emotional dimensions of running. It helps me connect those dots in my mind. Like other humans, my brain works tirelessly to craft a narrative, to find purpose, and to understand the relationship between experiences. These are the building blocks of motivation. Through making meaning, we find it.

I believe it is worth it to reflect on how we are successful in certain ways and why. Remember, our society maintains an extremely myopic definition of success. Think about what produces pleasure, satisfaction, fulfillment, and brings you back time and time again, even when there are episodes of difficulty. Even when not everything works out perfectly. A few examples from people in my life I admire:

-Hand-weeding and tending of a restorative habitat garden

-Regular composition of poetry

-Lifelong practice of Bach’s solo works

-Writing soap opera scripts (for personal enjoyment) for more than a decade

-Recreating and preserving folk quilt patterns

-Regularly participating in a bowling league

-In-depth and ongoing study of maps and geography

These long-term journeys, nourished through intention, appreciation, and hard work, are the successes. It is easy to feel discouraged, to feel left out, and to feel cheated that we haven’t “arrived” at some grand conclusion of happiness and success. As I reflect on these feelings, however, I realize that the process of listening to what fuels my endeavors and passions is the true reward. Here’s to the incremental, the slow, the steady…  to knowing we can find our way.

ALL GUTS!

SnohoWomen'sRun2

Image description: Picture of me running and sweating, from the waist up. I am wearing a dark green tunic, white cap, and a bright yellow backpack.

A few years ago, I participated in some weekly track workouts through the local running club. I was newer to running, and wanted to learn a few tips before embarking on my first marathon. Though my interested in repeatedly circling the rubber university track eventually waned, I did pick up a basic vocabulary of running, some valuable information about form, and a newly formed love/hate relationship with planks. The takeaway that remains with me to this day, however, is the concept of “all guts.”

I’ve written about this on the blog before, but there is a certain point where intellect, calculation, risk awareness, and planning fail the runner. This is usually during the last stretch of a run or a race. Picture this familiar scene:

You are rounding a bend at a slight incline for what seems like the hundredth time during the race. Sweat has accumulated as salty patches at your hairline and on your upper lip. All you smell is salt and your own sweat. The sun is starting to beat down more strongly. The chill of the morning is dissipating. The arches of your feet are starting to feel the effect of miles of friction. Your fingers are starting to tingle. Your lips are gummed up with stringy mucous. You pass the penultimate mile marker, gearing up for the last stretch…

This is precisely where “all guts” serves me so well every time. Good running is about mindfulness and clarity of mind, but those methods of mitigating the noise lose efficacy over time and distance. Beyond that, particularly in a race day situation, there are so many other variables pulling at the brain for attention. Stimuli, time goals, self-imposed expectations, these are all in play as one powers through the corridor of bystanders tinkling cow bells and cheering you on. Sometimes it is too much. Sometimes, often, you want to crash. That last terrible wall looms, the one that cheats you out of a strong finish, the one that cheats you out of a time goal. That wall is self-doubt, and it amounts to folding when you have a perfectly good hand.

When I get to this place, I start to whisper cheer to myself “all guts, all guts, all guts.” Sometimes I say it under my breath as I run the last mile. I was introduced to this concept during mile repeats at track workouts. We were encouraged to run the fastest mile we could, as a way of setting a base personal record. Finishing the third lap, there was this one coach who would yell “all guts!” as we curved into the fourth a final lap. He said it kindly, but excitedly. And each time, this reminder was very effective. It was a cue to shut of my frontal lobe, embrace my primal humanity, and simply run hard.

I was running a 10K race yesterday, and feeling strong throughout. I knew I was averaging somewhere between 8:15 and 8:30 a mile, and that is pretty speedy for my body at that distance. Shortly after hitting the 5 Mile marker (and running for a few miles up to that point in relative solitude), I turned the corner to crowds of race volunteers and people. The appearance of all of this broke my focus and I was suddenly aware of my own exhaustion. My legs, spoiled from my penchant for trails, realized I tricked them into a road run. I really wanted to slow down and take a long walk break, but I didn’t. Instead, I kept running and did a brief body scan. Was I feeling sharp pain? No. Did I have a side cramp? No. Was I short of breath? No. I was feeling that overload at the end of the race… I was feeling the last wall creep up. “ALL GUTS!” I shouted in my head, “ALL GUTS! ALL GUTS!”

And I shouted that all the way to the finish line until I crossed, looked up at the clock, and realized I set a new 10K race PR.