The art of running slowly

I’m getting back into running after a few months’ break. In the meantime, my fitness has evaporated and I’m carrying some extra pounds. Not only that, but my Achilles tendon has been sore for a while, probably due to overtraining on these beautiful but brutal coastal trails. For example, last summer, my brother and I put together a half marathon training run that ended up with a total elevation of 2,500ft. It was a fantastic run. A sea fret filled the precipice off the coast path and only the faintest ghost of the rocks below could be seen through the fog. But the terrain is hard. I remember feeling broken two weeks into my last training cycle.

Dan suggested running with a heart rate monitor. The plan is not to overreach by keeping my exertion within training zones 2 and 3. In my current state of fitness, that means occasional walking, especially on hills, and crawling along at what should be an embarrassingly slow pace. Except I don’t find it a chore at all. In fact, the first run was a minor revelation. It wasn’t a slog or a struggle, I got to stop and admire the view frequently. It helps that I was running down to the beach, I suppose, but there are lots of other details to enjoy. Birds didn’t startle as soon as I came near them… I’m not saying that small woodland creatures flocked to me as I ran, like some kind of Disney princess. It’s just that there’s time to notice what’s there: whitecaps, sunlight in the branches, bitingly cold wind. At least, there is when I’m not compulsively checking my wrist monitor. Hopefully I’ll develop a better inuitive sense of what I can sustain in the long run, so to speak.

There is a method in this moderation, however. The idea is that by running slowly, you train type I (endurance) muscle fibres which are more fuel efficient and help to remove lactic acid. When you run hard, you’re relying on high power, low efficiency type II muscle fibres. This is fine for a while but you can only store so much high energy fuel in your legs. So this might be why I usually ‘bonk’ in the last three miles of a half marathon (…and why beer and a burger is always so appetising post-race). It will be interesting to see whether a gentle way can accomplish more than my usual ‘all or nothing’ approach.

In any case, there’s a nice contradiction in the idea of running slowly. It brings to mind festina lente (‘hurry slowly’ / ‘make haste slowly’), the old motto of the Medici’s and something Shakespeare riffed on from time to time. In English we say, ‘more haste, less speed’… but the lack of paradox makes our saying comparatively flat. Festina lente, to me, is the idea that the best way to accomplish something is to do it slowly, deliberately (but not by charging at it head-on) and perhaps persistently: by working with your fate rather than rashly against it; or perhaps to do something bold in a leisurely fashion. Hey, it worked for Augustus.

The inattentive life is not to be lived

Before he was sentenced to death by hemlock, Socrates rejected the court’s clemency because it was offered under the condition that he cease questioning the people of Athens. The philosopher responded that, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Many have considered the implications of this and the force with which the unexamined life should be rejected. One translation has it that ‘the unexamined life is not to be lived’ which seems more reasonable*.

The circumstances of Socrates’ trial related in Plato’s Apology make the context of this remark clear. Socrates held an unflattering mirror up to Athenian society and the nobles and serious men of the day. It is often interpreted as meaning we should critique our motives, those of our peers, and the conventions and power structures around us. I always felt fully signed up for the examined life (how could you not be?) but, in practice, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Before you can get started you need to examine what will be examined, how you will examine, how long for, in light of what? All very worthwhile things to consider, of course, that point to a way of being in the world.

Let’s try a variation of Socrates’ maxim that has been said in countless ways through the ages: that the inattentive life is not to be lived. It’s possible to imagine that part of what Socrates means when he proposes an examined life is that we should live in full awareness of our experiences. We shouldn’t let thoughts, sensations, events just happen to us while we daydream or calculate or simply not see. To use the term associated with meditation, we should be mindful (although unfortunately, I am frequently not). Meditation is a route to self-knowledge, and perhaps a good way to satisfy the other, related, maxim expounded by Socrates, to ‘know thyself’. As zen master Keizan said, ‘To practise zazen is to throw light on yourself’.

Attentiveness touches the spirit of how Socrates lived his examined life. It’s the gentle pressure that unravels the thread in his hapless interlocutors’ arguments. The gadfly philosopher was reported to frequently sit as still and mute as a statue in the centre of the market, deep in thought and awareness of what he called his ‘daimon’, which seemed to be a kind of inner convening, perhaps like meditation, that guided the philosopher intuitively.

To live every moment of the day with full awareness and appreciation is an ideal to strive for and it’s not surprising or to be regretted that we often fall far short. But the reward for trying is life itself. If we are not attentive to the unfolding of our lives, then in what sense are we living? If the unexamined life is not worth living, the inattentive life is not lived.


*I learnt this via Mitch Green’s Know Thyself MOOC, but can’t recall the name of the scholar who makes a case for ‘not to be lived’ rather than ‘not worth living’.

How big is the observable universe?

In an attempt to understand my place in the cosmos, I wanted to create a pithy analogy that would sum up the vastness of everything in a concise image. Preliminary research went well. I learned that the observable universe has a volume of 4 x 1080 m3, Earth has a volume of 1.083 x 1021 m3, the Atlantic Ocean is 3.104 x 1017 m3 and, going the other way, a grain of sand is 1 x 10-13 m3*.

These numbers didn’t feel intuituve to me. I wanted to find out how equivalent Earth versus the universe is compared to a grain of sand, or a molecule, versus the sea. That might be sufficient if I had a real notion of how large Earth is… which I probably don’t. I bungled the maths and ended up with a variety of numbers that were all too big to understand. Giving up for now, I decided to read a translation of Nagarjuna’s ‘Examination of Conditions’ and failed to understand any of that either. I suppose I was looking to be humbled in a way that made me feel clever.

*All according to Wolfram Alpha.

Buddhism and the human chain

The philosopher of Buddhism, Jay Garfield, gave a great interview to The New York Times’ philosophy blog, The Stone.

Treat the past reflectively and with gratitude and responsibility, and with an awareness that much of our present life is conditioned by our collective past; take the future seriously as something we have the responsibility to construct, just as much as if we would be there personally.

The quote above is given as one way a Buddhist who does not literally believe in rebirth might interpret it as a metaphor. This could be especially appropriate depending on how you understand the notion of no-self. If we were better able to transcend our egocentric viewpoints, we’d spend more time considering our legacy to future generations. There’d also be the eerie kick of imagining our art and ideas rediscovered when we’re gone – salvaged from the deep forest and seen finally in all their strangeness. Maybe even passed on.

Is there a self?

I’ve been following Robert Wright’s MOOC on Buddhism and Modern Psychology. One of the most interesting ideas at the heart of this course frames Buddhism as a rebellion against natural selection. Wright investigates whether by helping us to see the world more clearly, Buddhism, and particularly meditation, irons out some of the perceptual and affective distortions caused in us by the selection process, and so alleviates suffering.

Wright asks us to imagine that we are walking a trail where a hiker was recently bitten by a snake. If out of the corner of an eye we see a coiled up rope on the edge of the trail, we’d probably jump out of ‘striking distance’ of the rope. Despite colouring our perception of the world, the low-level fear that caused us to see a snake in a rope is adaptive. Even if it causes a false positive 99 times out of 100, the misperception still would have helped us to pass our genes on in 1 case out of 100. The downside for us is that our experience of the world has been clouded by fear. He sees meditation at least partly as a way of ‘reprogramming’ ourselves.

Aside from meditation, one of the radical ways in which Buddhism challenges the strategies of natural selection (which often encourages us to act out of a perceived self-interest) is by questioning the existence of a self at all. When the Buddha said, ‘this is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself’ of consciousness, the body, mental qualities, feelings and perceptions, he may have been denying the existence of a self altogether. Alternatively, as I think Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests, his aim might have been to loosen his audience’s (monks) attachment to their own existences and not to rule out selfhood altogether.

I’ll paraphrase the Buddha’s arguments for there being no self as:

  1. a self should persist over time, while what we actually observe is continual change;
  2. if we isolate the components of our being, we see that no individual component houses a self.*

Both arguments remind me of the Ship of Theseus†, a part-versus-whole problem recorded in Plutarch. Over the years, every plank, rope sail and instrument of a ship is replaced. At the end of this transformation, the ship bears the same name… but is it the same ship?

You could view the name of the ship as another component, one which has not changed, but I don’t know whether that would help you to make sense of what’s occurred. The Ship of Theseus strikes me as being a problem of language and specifically the ultimate futility of labelling things. Though it is useful to categorise the world using distinctions and descriptors, the world is harder to divide than we imagine. Perhaps to point to ourselves and claim ‘this is me’ is naïve.



*(It’s worth noting that this is held as an experientially derived truth, rather than one derived from logic. Logic is used here more as a pedagogical tool.)
†See Mitch Green’s Engaging Philosophy.