Song of the Road

A recent article in the Independent (UK) described a study that found listening to rock music extended runners’ endurance by as much as 15%. Personally, I think the timing of the study couldn’t be better, since it mildly confirms a claim of mine, expressed in a recent article, that music will play a key role in the training of athletes in the future. While the evidence presented by the study isn’t resoundingly convincing, and leaves a whole host of questions unanswered (1. What music is best? 2… ), I suspect its findings will come as no surprise to iPod-enhanced Borg runners.

I use music constantly in my running. I hum, sing inwardly, and sometimes feel so good that I actually sing aloud. And I can’t help noticing that it’s possible to get a stronger, more lasting effect from active music-making my own, rather than passively listening.

I’m reminded of the California International Marathon, which I ran 15 years ago. Several bands were playing along the route, and I noticed that my energy soared as I passed them, whether it was the thump-thump of a high school marching band, the haunting chant of a solitary Scottish bagpiper, or a rock band cranking out standard strangle-juice (please make allowances, I’m 66). But I couldn’t help noticing that my energy swiftly returned to its native level when I moved on.

Mark Allen, the great triathlete, wrote a very interesting book, Mark Allen’s Total Triathlon, in which he urged athletes to “protect their power.” Allen tells stories of triathletes who allowed themselves to be psyched-out by their competitors, and performed poorly as a result. The lesson he took from those experiences is that we must be rigidly on guard against lowering our necks in the presence of our competitors, lest they lower the axe.

While I do believe that there’s no value at all in puppying-up to anyone, least of all some arrogant athlete, I wonder whether Allen understood the amazing power of the positive, expansive heart. I suspect that, like most people today, he visualized the opposite of rigid, warriorly self-control in the form of weak submission. But in my view, the true warrior has a heart that sustains and motivates and drives him. His heart isn’t weakly sentimental, but filled with a power that nothing and no one can withstand.

I’m able to speak confidently about that power, not because I’ve developed it to perfection in myself, but because I’ve observed it in my spiritual teacher. I’ve seen him face hostile people with complete equanimity, without in the slightest degree “giving up his power.” Yet neither did he fall into rigid defensiveness. About 20 years ago I went to his home to talk to him, and when I arrived, a neighbor was sneeringly berating my spiritual teacher about certain local political issues. I was fuming — I wanted to wring the guy’s neck for the disrespectful way he was speaking. But my teacher was completely calm, utterly relaxed and kind. While not accepting the man’s arguments, he treated him with utmost compassion. When he left, my teacher sighed and said, with complete sweetness, “Well, that ____ can be a pill.”

I wasn’t there, but a friend told me how my teacher was swimming in a local lake with friends, when a group of Hell’s Angels roared up on their motorcycles. They dismounted and approached, making threatening remarks. My teacher silently stood up but didn’t say a word, and the bikers turned and walked back to their bikes, shouting, “We’ll be back — we’ll get you!” Of course, nothing of the sort happens. The ancient scriptures of India say that in the presence of a person who has perfected harmlessness, no harm can arise.

I have felt the love that my spiritual teacher gives, from his inner attunement with God. It is not a sentiment; it is resoundingly powerful.

In my book, I describe how, shortly after I reading Mark Allen’s Total Triathlete, I went for a run on a local trail, when a young woman approached from behind passed me. I turned to say a friendly greeting, but she motored by, her face set in a grim rictus of triumph. As she passed, I tangibly felt her desire to steal energy from others. She was an energy vampire, and with Allen’s book in mind I set my will to “protect my power.” When, fifteen minutes later, she trundled by going the other way, I was so rigidly focused and self-controlled that I was barely aware of her. Yet, once again, I felt her desire to steal my energy.

Proceeding down the trail, I realized that in my defensiveness, I was focused on her. And I knew that if I wanted to rid myself of her influence I would have to pray for her. I began repeating a prayer mechanically, saying: “Give her health! Love! Strength! Wisdom! Joy!” I repeated it over and over with complete energy, until after perhaps 20 minutes the inner meaning of the prayer began to take hold, and my heart began to fill with a vigorous, virile kind of love. Soon I no longer had to pray for her, because my heart was expanded with a love that wanted to give itself to everyone. Then I was praying, “Give them your blessings!” It was a wonderful run, and it showed me the difference in power between passive and active love.

On Sunday, I got up early and went to choir practice. It was the first time I’d gone, and I didn’t know the music, but I was resolved to begin a commitment to singing again. So I stood between two robust tenors, David and Patrick, and just paid attention. The choir practiced a very moving song, “Keep Calling Him,” written years ago by a church member. I could feel the powerful vibrations of the song flowing from David and Patrick, and I tuned my heart to its enjoyable flow. But it was passive, like listening to an iPod.

After the practice, I got in the car and drove toward the hills, intending to chant for an hour before the service began. I reckon God decided to have a little fun with me. As I approached a traffic light that had turned red, a cyclist wandered into my lane and did something baffling. He crossed to the left side of the left-turn lane, so that when the light turned green he would have to cross the path of the cars waiting to turn left. I slowly pulled around him and into the left-turn lane, thinking that when the light turned I would wait and let him move to the right side of the road.

As he pulled alongside, he began screaming. “You bleeping bleep-bleep, you want to kill someone, pulling around me? Bleep you, you bleep bleep!” And so on.

I didn’t react outwardly but sat quietly and didn’t look at him, just waiting for the light. I felt peaceful in my heart, and when the light turned I let him cross in front of me, then drove on.

Inwardly I questioned whether I should have said something, but I realized with full conviction, “No, you did exactly the right thing. He was so reactive and angry that anything you said would have set him off again.

I knew I had handled the encounter the best way I could, and yet my heart was disturbed. There was a disharmonious, jangly, discordant vibration inside. My inner harmony was compromised.

I chanted as well as I could, but it seemed to do nothing to change the nervous, unhappy feeling in my heart. Recalling other times when I’d been challenged by negative energy, and how chanting for a long time had helped me find inner strength, I prayed, “I will do anything to create harmony! Please guide me.”

I realized that I needed to chant with power. Not just a pleasant, aesthetic kind of chanting. I couldn’t rely on the beauty of the music to bring harmony. It wasn’t enough. I needed to create vibrations of sufficient energy to change the disturbed rhythms of feeling in my heart.

I began chanting very loudly, with all the force I could muster. Before, when I’d chanted softly, I had tried to align my heart with the beauty and inner feeling of the words, but now I was pounding them out from a full chest, blasting harmonious vibrations to drive positiveness throughout my body.

It was, in a way, a strange kind of chanting, because I couldn’t focus on the feeling or the inner meaning of the words, only the raw power. It was a chant in the Bengali language, by a great saint of the 17th century named Ram Prosad. He was a colorful fellow. He took a job as a bookkeeper, but it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t cut out for the work — he would become so devotionally engrossed that he could only fill up the pages of the account books with the names of God in the aspect of the Divine Mother.

The chant is absolutely lovely. As I mentioned, I sang it in Bengali, which I learned from a wonderful recording by my spiritual teacher:

Emon din ki hobe, Ma Tara,
Emon din ki hobe, Ma Tara,
Jove Tara, Tara, Tara bole,
Tara beye porbe dhara?
Tara, Tara, Tara bole,
Tara, bole habo shara?

It expressed the feeling that was needed to harmonize my heart.

Will that day come to me, Ma,
When saying, Mother, Mother,
My eyes will flow tears?
Heart’s lotus will blossom forth,
Darkness will steal away.
Steal away, steal away,
Steal away, oh, steal away, steal away, Ma, steal away.

I drove a 10-mile loop in the foothills, wandering through picturesque communities, fields and forests and shouting my head off, blasting away at the darkness. I had no sign or foreknowledge that it would work, only my faith that it had “worked” in the past, and that it was the guidance I’d received.

I drove the loop once more, singing loudly, and at last the positive, harmonious vibrations began to take hold in my heart. From time to time a small thought would try to slip in, of what I might have said to “smack” the cyclist. Should I have said or done something? But the feeling in my heart was clear: “No, the way to answer disharmony with power never lies in reacting in kind, or in crafting clever words. It lies in inner harmony, in attunement with the power of love.”

Pretty soon, I no longer felt the slightest urge to replay the scene, nor did I have any hurt, disturbed or resentful feeling. My heart was completely harmonious, filled with a power of love, and I felt healed. I felt only compassion for that man.

I believe that the active heart is IT, in sports and life. The passive heart never gets us anywhere. As I’ve remarked often in these articles, I like to drive to San Francisco to run. I work all week at home, and I enjoy heading out of town to run across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Marin Headlands. It’s an adventuresome run, with wonderful sights: the sailboats on the Bay, an enormous cargo ship crossing under the bridge, the international crowd wandering along the walkway, and amazing views of the Bay from as the Coastal Trail ascends the ridge of the Headlands.

But probably the main thing I get from the trip is the opportunity to sing. I notice that the better my singing goes, the better the run goes. When I’m able to put strong energy and feeling into the singing, it “warms up” my heart to run. The scientists at Heartmath Institute have discovered that the heart’s power output increases 500 to 600 percent when in states of positive, expansive feeling such as love, kindness, compassion, etc., compared to passive “good feelings.”

How does this help my running? The science, surely, is there: the Heartmath scientists discovered that the heart is able to work more efficiently under the influence of positive, energetic, expansive feelings. And, indeed, I find I can run fast with greater ease when my heart’s feelings are expanded.

The Heartmath scientists also discovered a connection between calm, positive, energized feeling and intuition. After singing my head off, I find I make clearer decisions, because I’m able to feel what’s right.

This morning Mary Ellen and I went to the gym, and I warmed up with a 30-minute jog on the track. When I see the other old folks loping along at a faster pace, it can be a bit hard not to feel competitive, and speed up. But I thought, “Your training is good. It’s working. You go very slowly during the week, so you can go hard on the weekend. You don’t have to go faster; in fact, you need to slow down.” So I did, and it felt wonderful. Why? Because I hit the sweet spot where my body “wanted” to train. It was right around 65% of max heart rate — just a slow jog before lifting weights.

Lately, I’ve become somewhat more aware of how different it feels to hold my attention in the heart and in the head. I’ve given myself permission to “run from the heart,” and let go of endless thinking. It’s quite enjoyable. During a long run on this weekend, I realized that what actually happens is a five-step process.

First the body wakes up and gets its systems going so that it can crank out energy. That’s a time for slow running, to give the body time to do its work. Once energy begins to flow, the heart feels happy — it’s a good time to rest attention in the heart and cultivate positive feelings. Then, at some point, those feelings begin to go mooshy-smooshy and become disintegrated and scattered, and that’s when the will power phase starts.

Feeling gains power when we gather our resources and achieve dignity and control. Then the mind can be free to focus and be cheerful and expansive. Finally, if we’re having a good day and do everything right, there’s a transcendent joy that can come. So, five stages: body, heart, will, mind, soul.

Well, anyway, back to music — nothing against iPods, but to paraphrase the Beatles, passive listening just takes me half the way there. What happens when the iPod battery runs down? I say, mix it up, do a little singing, with gusto, con brio, and maybe turn your running into a cosmic dance.

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