meditation

The Sound of Music

No, not that Sound of Music. A different one. My sound of music.

Yurbuds Inspire earphones

I’ve written previously about having Asperger’s Syndrome. It manifests differently for different Aspies, but for me a very large part of it is an extreme sensitivity to sensory input. Put simply, sometimes the world is just too bright and too noisy for me to bear. What would seem to others ordinary levels of sound and movement can make me retreat very far inside myself, and sometimes precipitate a complete meltdown. It’s not pretty, trust me.

About eight years ago, I stopped listening to music completely. That’s hard to do in our society (think, for example, of the music that’s constantly played in stores and other public places), but being in silence has kept me (mostly) sane, balanced, and happy.

All of that changed recently. For the past four months, I’ve been seeing a naturopathic doctor, who’s been treating me with homeopathic remedies for physical health issues around my thryoid and prostate. They’ve been remarkably effective, to the point where I’ve gone from being a complete skeptic to being a strong believer. But that’s another story…

Of course, I told my doctor that I have Asperger’s. Part of his treatment has been making it easier to deal with. To this point in my life, I’ve coped by doing what most adults with Asperger’s do, that is, condition myself to deal with crowds, noise, and busyness as best I can, and move away from them when I have to. Suddenly, things are different. I find that I can function better in social situations. I can tolerate multiple sources and levels of sound without going nuts. I’m not as rattled by, or fearful of, crowds. And I can listen to music again.

I got back to it gently, exploring YouTube for tunes I knew, then trying out new sounds. The link between the two was Terry Riley’s 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air, a pioneering piece of minimialist/experimental music and a favourite from my formative years. That led me to the ambient works of Brian Eno.

To celebrate all this good stuff, my wife gave me an iPod Shuffle, a pair of Yurbuds Inspire earphones, and an iTunes gift card for Christmas. (The buds are pictured in the photo at the top of this post.) That may seem like small stuff to you, but it’s monumental for me. I now have a very listenable playlist on the iPod of works by Riley and Eno that totals 6 hours and 42 minutes of listening groove.

So far, I’ve only used the iPod while running. A few times while at the indoor track at my local YMCA, and for the entirety of the 6 Hour track ultra I did a little over a week ago. The iPod, the Yurbuds and the playlist were perfect for the ultra. I wanted to complement my physical preparedness with something that would help me realize the attentiveness and mindfulness that would support running for six hours around a 200m track. It worked a charm.

I’ve turned another huge corner in my life. Psychologically, mentally, and perhaps even cognitively, I’m ahead of where I was before. That’s always a good thing. And I continue to discover new music. The latest is the work of drone-based ambient duo Stars of the Lid. They’re about to go on my playlist.

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Running to Enlightenment

Enlightenment

The title of this post may sound a tad pretentious. My apologies for that. But, as much as running has a physical side. it also has a psychological side. (I won’t call it a spiritual side, because I’m not a spiritual person. Instead, I want to look at enlightenment through the lens of neuroscience.)

Here’s a good working definition of the word that I found in a book called Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, by Dr. David Perlmutter and Dr. Alberto Villoldo.

“In the language of neuroscience, enlightenment is the condition of of optimal mitochondrial and brain functioning that allows us to experience both well-being and inner peace and the the urge to create and innovate.”

What exactly does that mean? And what does it have to do with running?

I ran my first marathon in 1980, and, since then, have run five more marathons, three 50K ultras, and numerous shorter distance races. At first, I’d joke that running offered the only glimpse I’d ever get of enlightenment. When I started running ultra races, though, I started taking that seriously. Why did running do for me what other forms of study and meditation didn’t do? What were the physical and psychological elements that made running do what it did? And, perhaps most importantly, what could I do that would enhance my approach to enlightenment through running?

Let’s look briefly at the brain and how it works.

The Triune or Reptilian Brain

The first level of the brain, the triune or reptilian brain is all about the basics – instinct and survival. It governs the body’s autonomic functions, as well as species-specific instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays. When we get seized by a “fight or flight” response to external stimuli, it’s the reptilian brain that owns us.

As you can see in the image below, the reptilian brain is buried deep inside the brain. It goes all the way back to the beginnings of our evolutionary history.

Triune brain

The Limbic or Mammalian Brain

The next level of the brain is the limbic or mammalian brain, which includes includes the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. It’s all about instinct and emotion, particularly the 4Fs – fear feeding, fighting, and fornication. More politely, the limbic brain is said to be responsible for the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior.

Brain map

The Neocortex

Next up is the neocortex, which is about the higher functions of the brain, the ones that make us human. The neocortex processes environment signals into coherent messages, enabling speech, writing, and higher-order thinking. In evolutionary terms, it’s the most recent step in the evolution of the mammilian brain, conferring the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception.

Neocortex

The Pre-Frontal Cortex

The pre-frontal cortex is where the human brain gets all fancy and high falutin’. It’s where reasoning, personal initiative, and the ability to project future scenarios takes place. It’s where we develop and own our individuality and our sense of self. This is where self-realization happens.

In the image below, the pre-frontal cortex is green.

Pre-frontal Cortex

Now, let’s look at how the four-circuit brain/mind relates to running. (Remember always that “minds are what brains do,” as in Marvin Minsky’s famous phrase.)

Coming to Enlightenment

When we run, we use – at the very least – the first three levels of our brains, the reptilian, mammalian, and neocortex levels. When we run well – whatever that may mean for each of us – the pre-frontal cortex gets involved. When a run goes really well, or when we involve ourselves in a lengthy training or racing series, and so get a “long view,” the pre-frontal cortex comes into play. And when we “hit the wall” or go through the “dark night of the soul” that inevitably comes when both the body and mind are completely exhausted, we go down deep into the reptilian brain, where we touch – or even stay for a time – in the place where “fight or flight” (or even survival itself) are the issues we have to struggle with.

It’s my feeling that only when we experience and integrate all four levels of the brain – from basic survival to self-realization – do we touch the “optimal mitochondrial and brain functioning that allows us to experience both well-being and inner peace and the the urge to create and innovate” that Dr’s Perlmutter and Villoldo describe as enlightenment.

That means that enlightenment’s not going to come easily, or come often. The ability to run to the limit of our abilities – and then beyond them – requires a rigorous training program. It requires meticulous attention to nutrition, to pace, to breathing. It requires a time and place where optimization can happen. It also requires the courage to give ourselves to previously unknown physical and emotional depths. The good news – and it’s very good news – is that all of those particulars are available to all runners, at least potentially.

The task we face as athletes is to apply ourselves to the journey of running to enlightenment. The rewards for addressing that challenge are immense and invaluable.

Touching the Emptiness

Emptiness

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

“There is only the dance.” That’s what I’ve been seeking all my life – the stillness at the center of everything, “the place where the definitions are,” as Hunter S. Thompson once said.

In Western society – both secular and religious – we’re uncomfortable with emptiness. In depth psychology, it’s often equated with alienation, the sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness, or self-estrangement. Western religions see emptiness as estrangement from the divine, a spiritual longing that is painful at best and destructive at worst. We fear emptiness, especially the emptiness we suspect is at our very center.

In Buddhism, on the other hand, emptiness doesn’t refer to absence or lack, but to the fullness and potential of the not yet.

As the secular Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor says in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, “To say the self is empty does not mean that it is non-existent. I am empty only in the sense that there is nothing fixed or intrinsically real at the core of my identity as a person. Recognition of such emptiness therefore liberates one to change and transform oneself.”

His point, I think, is that it’s only by looking at the emptiness within us, in fact, by engaging with it, that we become whole.

Buddhism, and other meditative disciplines, engage with the emptiness through meditation. That may be through zazen (“just sitting”), trying to unwrap a koan (a story, dialogue, question, or statement which provokes the “great doubt”), or chanting. The desired outcome of all three is to suspend all judgmental thinking and let words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them. When that happens, all that’s left is emptiness.

Over the past five decades, I’ve experimented with a number of different kinds of meditation techniques, from traditional Christian prayer to sitting zazen to chanting mantras to yoga. Even, for a brief time in my early twenties, psychedelics. The goal throughout that time was (and still is) to come to some kind of peace and some measure of understanding, of myself, of the world I live in, and of reality itself. In other words, to touch the emptiness. Everything I’ve tried comes close, but that’s all. Over time, tantalizing glimpses alone simply get tiresome.

Now, I touch the emptiness by running.

Consider the following, which I posted recently to dailymile, a social networking site for runners:

“Barefoot and kilted, no shirt, no Garmin. Riding the rhythm of my breathing, feeling the world turn under my feet.”

That’s my favourite kind of run. I don’t worry about pace or distance. I don’t wear a watch, or even look at a clock when I set out or when I finish. I run barefoot, because that way I can feel the ground beneath my feet. I breathe, and I get lost in the rhythm of my breathing. Or, more correctly, I ride the rhythm of my breathing, and let that rhythm carry me. My focus becomes a non-focus, and the false distinction between the observer (me) and the observed (the street, the landscape, eventually, the world around me) becomes realized as a non-duality.

When that happens, it sometimes lasts for a very short time, sometimes longer. More often than not, I’m not even aware of it, only coming to realize after I’ve I’ve finished the run that I’ve gone beyond the ordinary, to a place that’s not a place, to an understanding that’s non-rational, to a wholeness that’s difficult, if not impossible, to find in any other way.

I don’t think it’s all about understanding anyway. I don’t even think it’s enlightenment. There’s no inside, no outside, no me, no world. There’s just emptiness. And that’s OK. It’s perfectly OK.

Further Reading

Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel and Grau, 2011
Ron DiSanto, PhD and Tom Steele, PhD, Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, William Morrow, 1990
Mark Epstein, MD, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness, Three Rivers Press, 1999
Jiddu Krishnamurti, To Be Human, Shambala Publications, 2000
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, William Morrow, 2008