It’s hard to hold onto a thought when you’re running, except for when it’s not. Some thoughts, the brilliant ones, can pierce through your armor, leaving you breathless with their insight and intensity. Then they quickly evaporate. Other thoughts, the doubtful ones, linger. You can’t get rid of them. They keep returning, even as you try to push them away, to crowd them out with distractions and attention to other things. Like birds chirping. And leaves gently rustling. And sandy grit lightly crunching. And trees sighing.
Why do trees sigh? Is it a gesture of resigned acceptance as they absorb the negative thoughts that we exhale? Or is it an offering of gratitude as they receive the carbon dioxide that is forced out of our bodies?
Do trees sigh? Sometimes I think they do as I run by them. When I’m paying attention, that is. And when I’m distracted enough not to notice the worries that hover, like the humidity on an early summer morning. Thick. Wet. Heavy. A blanket of moisture weighing me down.
Or an anchor, tethering me too firmly to the ground, like the time I had to run at noon, instead of in the morning, which is when I prefer. It was in the spring, before it got too hot, but after the sun was out. Directly overhead. Bearing down. In the morning, my shadow leads me as I travel north and follows as I travel south. But that noon, my shadow was chained to me, no matter which direction I ran. An anchor, clinging to my feet, dragging me down, into the ground. Demanding my attention and distracting me from the joy of moving and being.
Outside, at the beginning of an early morning run, I like to greet my shadow. “Hello friend!” Never out loud, just in my head. I’m hoping to be on good terms with her. She can be so helpful, running ahead of me, leading the way while my legs slowly warm up, encouraging me and distracting me from thinking too much about the effort that I’m about to undertake. And, if it’s early enough, she likes to run below me in the gorge, assessing the progress of the leaves on the trees and inviting me to do the same. I glance down and wonder, What’s lurking behind those leaves? and Where are those voices I’m hearing coming from?
In A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros claims that when you are outside, moving through the world, you are never alone with your thoughts: “Everything talks to you, greets you, demands your attention: trees, flowers, the colour of the roads. The sigh of the wind, the buzzing of insects, the babble of streams, the impact of your feet on the ground.…”
I hear a lot of voices when I’m running without headphones on. Friendly voices that greet me with a “hi” or “good morning” as we encounter each other on the path. Agitated voices, in the midst of a heated conversation or a swear-filled rant, that don’t notice me or my amused smile as l pass them. Annoying voices that drone on and on about something that only register as loud, insistent bellows or whines, but that cut through every other sound: the whirring wheels, the buzzing bees, my jagged breathing. Far away voices, distorted by distance and a bullhorn, that bark out orders to the rowers rowing on the river. Cackling voices, somewhere below me, that erupt with laughter over a joke? a funny story? one of the bodies attached to the voice almost tripping over a root on the path? And a malevolent voice that interrupts everything else to remind me that I am running and that it is hard and that I don’t have to be doing this.
In “Attention and Will,” Simone Weil argues that it is attention and not will or willfullness or stubbornness or clenched jaws or a better attitude or more fortitude that enables us to believe. Paying attention, pure, “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer” and faith and love. A belief detached from the distractions of desire and doubt. But, attention to what? Not attention to the problem of being too tired, of wanting to stop running, but attention to the good, the beautiful. The electric blue yarn bomb on the railroad trestle. The graceful gait of the passing runner. The clickity-clacking from the ski poles of the rollerblader/summer skier. The soft dirt absorbing the force of my striking foot. The act of inspiration as I take air into my lungs.
On the running path, I attempt to pray through breathing. In and out. In and out. Inhaling the world, exhaling the doubt. When this isn’t working, I try chanting: I am flying, I am free, I am where I want to be. Sometimes I resort to a counter-spell like the one that I created during a morning run a few weeks ago: This is my charm, against all harm. I’ll try every trick I can think of or that I’ve read about to distract myself and be fully present in the moment of running on the path. And to keep running and moving. To access another level of existence for a moment. Not to miss it by stopping.
I focus on the wind and its many versions: when it sizzles through the trees, its gentle wafting as a breeze, the times it howls as it rushes past my ears. I catalog the smells that travel from below, in the gorge, and above, on the hill: bacon from the Longfellow Grill, smoke from a fire somewhere by the river, a lilac bush near the path, freshly cut grass from the house across the road. I compose poems to match the rhythm of my feet. Simple verses, usually in 4/4 time, mixing quarter notes with eighth notes, two feet moving for each beat spoken.
And then, if I’m lucky, I reach a moment in the run where I stop thinking and cataloging and composing and worrying and wondering and become a body doing nothing but moving and being. Experiencing the infinite if only for an instant.