Taking the Power from Benchmarks or: Telling your thoughts to Suck It

I went for a run today in one of my favorite spots, very near St Paul Minnesota.  I love it’s scavenger-hunt appeal; there is a little side road to get there that goes under a wooden train track bridge, and I find a place to park at the back-end of a yacht club parking lot. For me, it is the perfect blend of a natural escape (the fallen trees just off the path, making jumps over sticks and brush, no benches or picnic tables or playgrounds) and civilization (a parking lot nearby and this place is 12 minutes from my house). Once I start walking on the roadside paved path, I go just about a hundred feet and it suddenly veers right, and disappears into a thick forest of tall trees and dense bushes.  The cars are gone, it is mostly unused except for the long distance bikers that speed by, and all I can hear are the sounds of the nearby river and the crickets, katydids and cicadas in their late-afternoon chorus.  After my warm up, I begin to run.  The path is ideal because of all of the curves and trees, it gives me new things to look at constantly and I don’t have to stare down the indifference of a long, straight runway.  Another good thing about these curved paths: they give me many points of reference to see how I’m performing on this run.  They become my benchmarks, and since the very first day that I ran this path, I have been comparing myself to what I have done or what I could potentially do someday.

My running distance is improving, I know from these benchmarks that I see along the way that I am running longer and walking less.  I know, for example, that I can run from the first bend in the path all the way to the curve that brings me to the road crossing.   That doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, but for myself I know it means that a part of the path that I used to take in three or four sections of walk-runs, I can now do all at once.

But as I was approaching the road crossing, I wondered: what if I wasn’t seeing this crossing now?  What if it was magically moved another minute or two down the path, past a couple more curves?  Would I still continue to run all the way to the crossing?  Or is my body genuinely needing a break right at this moment?

I guess in other words: am I limiting myself to what I think I can do based on benchmarks alone?

There are many parts of my run that were like this.  On the straightaway that placed me directly under the hot sun for a few minutes all the way to the curve where the giant divit in the pavement needs to be jumped over…would I have made it farther if I hadn’t used this as a good time to catch my breath in the past?  Am I allowing old actions to creep into my thoughts and whisper “…this was a good enough place to stop last time…you’ve worked so hard…who would know that you stopped here instead of further along?”  and I allow myself to give up based on thoughts alone rather than the messages that my body is sending me.

It’s the same in so many areas of our lives.  We eat more than we should (possibly even with foods that we don’t actually enjoy that much!), more out of habit and boredom than actual feelings of hunger.  We restrain ourselves from saying things we want to say out of fear of looking foolish even though we are bursting with the desire to act out.  We stay up too late, eat the wrong foods, drink too much; all in total disregard to the messages that our bodies send us as it reacts to these behaviors.  It also happens in the way we define ourselves; we have mental banners going through our head that tell us things like: I show this much affection, I am this tolerant of strangers, I can run this far, I can enjoy myself this much.  It’s all benchmarks of past actions, not what may be true today!

I wonder what would happen if we moved our center of consciousness down about two feet, away from our heads, and instead made our awareness come from our stomachs, our hearts, our muscles, our breathing?  What would happen if we were actually aware of the present state we were in and made our decisions based on that instead of what we “have” to do or “can” do?  For instance, right now I can feel that my eyes are straining.  My legs need to be stretched and I am physically tired from a long day.  But I stay awake and work on things, ignoring my body’s cues.  I mean, we obviously can’t just stand up in a meeting tomorrow and say “Listen, I have to go.  My body is telling me I need to go have a snack right now, so I’ll catch you later.”.  But there are so many ways that we ignore our bodies when we don’t need to, as well as times that we assume we can’t do something based on thoughts rather than actual ability.

It’s days like these that I can really see the importance of practicing both strengthening skills and meditation skills.  They overlap in so many ways, and the progress I make in one discipline directly impacts the progress I make in another.

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