Wednesday, October 23, 2013

James Fell Meditates . . . While Lifting Heavy Things

James Fell shared this article over at the Good Men Project, a reflection on his exploration of meditation to help him focus and relax while trying to run a 3:25:00 Boston Marathon. I don't know if he made his time, but he learned a lot about his own approach to meditation.

Like James, I tend to be most focused and in the present moment (other than during sessions with my therapy clients) while lifting heavy weights. There is nothing like a heavy squat day to keep your mind focused in the moment . . . failing to do so could mean serious injury.

One of the thought leaders in this field is Rob McNamara, author of Strength to Awaken, Make Strength Training Your Spiritual Practice and Find New Power and Purpose in Your Life (2011). You can listen to (or read) a nice conversation with Rob (conducted by Vince Horn) over at the Buddhist Geeks Podcast.

How the Universe Responded When I Tried Meditation

October 19, 2013 by James Fell

James Fell meditates. He just happens to be lifting heavy things while he does it.

That’s the last time I listen to Jane Seymour.

It was her idea. She was telling me about how great Transcendental Meditation is, and how after a 20 minutes session she obtains amazing powers of concentration. She also told me that her son, a musician, does TM right before performing; again, to help with concentration.

It got me thinking that perhaps it was worth a shot. Not because I have trouble sleeping (I don’t), or that I’m stressed out (I’m not), but because if it actually does help the mind relax and focus, then perhaps it would be something that could get me in the proper headspace immediately before my attempt to qualify for the Boston Marathon this fall.

I’m learning that concentration is going to be key. I can’t just power my way through this like I did in Los Angeles last year. In the past few months I’ve learned a great deal about proper running technique, and being able to hold form and run in as efficient a manner as possible is critical to sustaining the 4:40 per kilometer pace (roughly a seven-and-a-half minute mile) for the entire 42.2km in order to finish in under the required 3 hours and 25 minutes to meet the Boston Athletic Associations time requirements for my age group.

Sorry about all that metric stuff for my American readers. I know it weirds you out, but I’m running this race in Canada, so I need to think in kilometers. If you get confused, there’s an app for that.

Anyway, maintaining proper form and pace takes a lot of concentration, and when I run my mind has a tendency to wander. I used to listen to music all the time while running, but had to stop that because it hampers the ability to concentrate. Music is great for beginner and intermediate exercisers; it helps them create a “dissociative state,” which means it distracts them from the discomfort of training and allows them to push harder and longer. However, when you get to an advanced level, music actually inhibits running performance. To go to the wall, you need to be in an “associative state,” which is like embracing the pain, or something. (Read my entire article for the Chicago Tribune about using music for fitness motivation here).

And I’ve been doing some runs at marathon pace and putting all of my brainpower into expending as few calories as possible. This isn’t about fat loss – if I was chasing that an inefficient technique where I ran like I had a scorpion shoved down my running shorts would be the best way to maximize caloric burn per mile. It’s about enhancing my ability to sustain the fastest pace possible for the full distance, and to do that I need to not waste a single iota of energy. It means perfect form, with minimal vertical movement, a soft landing on each stride. A glide like I’m on a low-flying magic carpet.

Yeah, gotta think about all that. Get to the meditation part.

As a confirmed skeptic, I don’t go in for what Eric Cartman would refer to as “tree-hugging hippie crap,” so I began my investigations in to meditation not by going to any official Transcendental Meditation site, but by reading what others outside the organization had to say, and I found this story, which automatically put my guard up. Meditation may be valuable, but I balk at lining someone’s pockets with thousands of dollars to lead me down the garden path and off the deep end into mystical bullshittery.

I’m a pretty good do-it-yourself learner, and I didn’t think I needed some $2,500 yogi-guided course to learn how to relax and enhance my concentration. So I searched some more, and came across this article at “How Stuff Works.” It seemed pretty basic, but since I wasn’t trying to learn brain surgery I figured basic = good enough.

I should mention that during this whole learning process I was sitting on the deck at my parents’ condo on the coast of B.C. with my wife. She wanted to give it a whirl too, so I read her the basic instructions I found at How Stuff Works and we decided to try it and see what happened.

The first thing I noticed was that there was too damn much stuff to remember. Breathe in and pretend like it’s a lotus blossom opening in your stomach, and then the lotus blossom closes when you breathe out. Let your mouth hang partially open. Don’t close your eyes, but don’t focus on anything either. Imagine some kind of totem image in your mind. Repeat your mantra over and over. (TM says you’re supposed to get your mantra given to you from an official yogi as part of the $2,500 fee, and then keep it secret so it doesn’t lose it’s magical powers, but I don’t mind telling you that the one I came up with was running specific: “glide” was the word I chose.)

As far as a totem image goes, an appealing part of the female anatomy popped into my head – my wife was sitting next to me, remember – so I went with that.

And it was all too much.

After a while I ditched most of it and just tried to relax and do the opposite of letting my mind wander, if that makes any sense. This was about being able to enhance concentration for focusing on running form, so I just imagined good running technique over and over in my mind while lying there in the sun next to my beautiful and also meditating wife, who finished top of her class from med school and has never shown any indications of lacking the ability to concentrate.

It was a few minutes later when I felt a wet blob fall on my chest.

“Son of a bitch!” I exclaimed, looking down at the brown goo that had suddenly appeared on my bare pectoral muscle. “A bird just shit on me!”

My wife burst out laughing like I hadn’t heard in a long time. “Well, I guess that tells you what the universe thinks of your ability to meditate.”

With love from The Universe.

Yeah, we all had a good laugh. The bigger laughs came about 10 minutes later.

After cleaning up I’d given up on the meditating and was just enjoying a beer on the deck when my 14-year-old son came out with a look of undisguised mirth on his face. “Dad,” he said, “I should tell you that I was up on the next deck above eating chocolate ice cream, and some fell from my spoon and landed on you. When I heard you swear I couldn’t help it, I just ran away laughing.”

Well, everyone else laughed harder. For some reason I was disappointed that it was ice cream and not poop. Not sure why. Perhaps I’m warped.

Anyway, screw meditation. If it works for you, great. I don’t think I need it. Every time I lift weights it’s an act of supreme concentration, and during my pace-holding runs I’m learning how to put all my concentration into holding proper running form and pace. I’m learning by doing. I don’t need to enhance my calm or de-stress, because neither of those things are issues for me. I already engage in plenty of meditation; I just happen to be lifting heavy things while doing it.

– Originally published on

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