Mental Drift or Mental Discipline?

Many years ago — I believe it was the early 1970s — a study compared the mental coping strategies of elite runners and recreational joggers. The researchers found that the elites deliberately focused their attention — they constantly monitored their form, pace, turnover, inner physical feedback, etc. Meanwhile, the ordinary joggers allowed their minds to wander. The scientists called the elite strategy “associating,” and the joggers’ mental drifting “dissociating.”

I’m hardly an elite. I run like a rhino and have the VO2Max of a sloth. I don’t work to focus my attention to improve my race times, but to have a good time.

I’m familiar with the pleasures of letting my thoughts drift, because I formerly ran that way. I figured that if I stuck to my training plan — “It’s Friday; I’m scheduled to run an hour at eight-thirty pace.” — it was okay let my mind cruise in pink skies of inattention.

Somewhere along the way, I began to realize that the pleasures of running increased in proportion as I emulated the elites.

I also realized that pre-set training schedules are superficial — that the pace-and-distance formula for Friday’s run needed to continual monitoring and adjustment while I was out on the road.

I realized that the best way to monitor my body’s needs was to pay close attention. Over the months and years, I discovered an amazing fact: my most “disciplined” runs were also the most inwardly liberating.

I began to crave those “special” runs. They were so rewarding that I felt it was worth keeping my attention focused from the first step to the last.

Actually, the discipline started before the run. I realized my runs were better when I spent time ahead of time preparing my mind and heart. I won’t go into — suffice it to say that my chosen method for preparing my mind involves driving on the freeway and singing.

As you know, if you’ve read Fitness Intuition, I developed a “method” for fine-tuning my runs. Much of Fitness Intuition came from my own experience. But I owe a huge debt of gratitude to two books by J. Donald Walters: Education for Life, and Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t

These books quite simply tell how life works — and by extension, how running works. Of the two books, Education for Life is easier to read. Out of the Labyrinth is addressed at a college-educated audience; it tackles the “philosophy” of meaninglessness that is so widespread in our time, and shows how the same scientific discoveries that have led leading thinkers to declare that life is without purpose or direction, actually reveal a cosmos that is deeply inspiring in its purpose and design. It’s a wonderful book. (To read testimonials and sample chapters, click here.)

Here’s an excerpt from Education for Life. I chose it because it addresses the need for focused attention. Although it isn’t directed at runners, success in any field requires the same qualities.

“Gnothi sauton,” proclaimed the inscription at the oracle of Delphi: “Know thyself.”

How many times have great minds offered mankind the counsel to “turn within” in the quest for wisdom.

It is this eternal truth-this wisdom-that has been swept aside in the modern rush for more “scientific” values. Yet we see that, in certain respects at least, the greatest scientists have also been great human beings-not great merely because of their brilliance, but in a fuller and deeper sense. Indeed, intelligence alone is a very poor criterion of greatness. There are far too many intelligent idiots in this world, who show a regrettable lack of common sense despite their intelligence.

Great scientists demonstrate greatness also in their ability to rise above petty self-preoccupation and reach out toward broader realities. Lesser scientists generally, like lesser human beings everywhere, have not shown even an inclination in this direction.

Lesser scientists, and lesser human beings generally, are almost by definition motivated by the thought, “What will I get out of it?” It is their pettiness that makes them lesser. The broader the outlook on life, the less the concern with personal gain. Admittedly, there have been great scientists who, owing to egotism or personal ambition, were less great than they might have been. In their work at least, however, they were able to rise above pettiness. Often, indeed, it was their high energy that passed in the minds of little people for egotism.

Great scientists, again, have been clear and calm enough in themselves to be able to focus all their energy and attention on the tasks at hand. Most people lack this ability to concentrate. They haven’t, therefore, that extra faculty of perception which is the final secret of genius. Sensitive perception is a natural product of calm concentration. Another word for it is intuition.

Luther Burbank, the famous botanist, was so inwardly focused during his experiments with plants that his eyes would often remain half closed, gazing inwardly as much as outwardly. Other botanists challenged his findings; yet the new strains he produced proved the reality of his discoveries.

Burbank considered self-knowledge an essential part of the work he did with plants. Who can say whether even insight into the workings of the cosmos doesn’t require, first, a degree of self-knowledge?

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