Finding the Right Discipline

I was trotting up Wildcat Canyon and desperately laboring to get my head straight.

I’d always assumed that running was wasted time unless it helped me find an experience of joy or love inside. It was my assumption that a higher power could not come unless I succeeded in pushing my restless thoughts away. The trouble was, it was an approach that never worked. The only times when I actually found that inner communion were when I gave up, let go, relaxed, and just ran.

On the day in question, I was beating myself up mentally, when I heard the voice of my spiritual teacher. Warm with affection and good humor, he said: “You’re making it harder than it has to be.”

From that point, I began practicing a more benign type of self-discipline. No longer did I crowd my head with self-critical thoughts. Instead, I worked to open my heart. Instead of thinking, thinking, thinking, I tried to keep my thoughts under reasonable control, while giving more attention to being in the moment. Instead of ideas, I looked for experience. Running up beautiful Wildcat Canyon, I paid attention to each new scene that greeted me around the next bend of the trail.

This worked better. Some discipline is necessary, of course; without discipline, my thoughts and feelings wander and lose force. On the other hand, too much discipline makes my running mechanical and sterile.

Trying to feel the joy in each moment was rewarding. How can I enjoy running, if I’m not in the run? My runs aren’t satisfying when I’m looking for results, half my mind adorning some misty future.

I have a client who’s an industrial psychologist. Companies hire him to study the traits of candidates for senior executive jobs. Don warns them when a candidate holds “thirty-something, me/now values.”

I find that too much desire for personal satisfaction erodes the joy of my running. So I’m careful not to follow the urge to go-fast-now-because-it’ll-feel-so-good. I think of it as running on credit — buy now, pay later. Always, the payoff miles are gray with disappointment.

Much better are the runs where I practice “delayed gratification,” the opposite of me/now values. When I resist the urge to go fast, too soon, and instead practice pace discipline, I am always rewarded with rich satisfactions that come in their own time.

How can I do the work well, if my attention is on the results? Successful people are able to focus in the moment. They aren’t multitaskers (that ego-borne label for bustling, self-important inefficiency).

I’m not beating myself up much these days. I’ve discovered some tools that help me get more into the moment. One is the heart monitor. It’s hard to ignore when the monitor tells me I’m running at 80% MHR, when I should be holding my pace under 70% for another 30 minutes.

Another useful tool for finding my way into the moment is putting my attention on one thing at a time: the rhythm of my legs and feet, the sounds of birds and the wind blowing in the trees, a chant repeated silently.

A famous study, done at least 35 years ago, found that the most successful competitive runners “associate” when they train and race — they keep their attention on their running, continually monitoring their breath, running form, and energy. Meanwhile, joggers and mediocre runners “dissociate” — they let their minds wander. “I run for enjoyment,” they say. “I don’t want to make running like work. It’s my time of relaxation.” They’d rather “meditate” than “train.”

Little do they know that meditation is hard work. So is training. So is building satisfying runs. But, like most truly rewarding work, the “work” itself is enjoyable.

I serve as webmaster for a small private school, and recently, I interviewed the middle school teacher, Gary McSweeney. Gary told me he frequently invites successful people to talk to his students, to give them an experience of the qualities that make for success. Gary said, “A virtuoso violinist came to the school, a Chinese woman, and I asked her, ‘Oh, by the way, how many hours do you practice?’ She said, ‘About six hours a day, if I’m lucky. But I don’t really see it as practice. I just love doing it.’”

Gary said, “When these people come to the school, there’s always the model of being bright, heart-oriented, forward-thinking, and expansive. Success always ties into energy, into being able to martial energy and keep your energy straight.”

As a gray-haired runner in my mid-sixties, I still love running hard, although nowadays I need massive doses of rest between my hard runs. Still, the same rules apply as when I was younger. It still takes high energy to find the joy of running. And it still takes discipline to keep my energy straight.

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