A New Direction: 5 Stories About Energy

John Novak, a running buddy since the 1970s, is an intuitive guy. I don’t believe he’s ever agonized over how to train. Instead, he feels what’s right. And because his feelings are calm and never wildly emotional, he gets the right answers.

At the time we last ran together, several years ago, I was floundering in my training. I had lost touch with the big picture.

I knew the details of what makes good training. I knew, for example, that a long warmup is good, because it prepares the body for fast running, and it helps harmonize my heart. Research that I cite in Fitness Intuition showed that the heart’s electrical power output jumps by as much as 600 percent in the presence of positive feelings. In my running, I discovered that harmonious feelings gave me a tremendous boost, making it possible to run fast with far less strain.

But I was tangled up in the details and couldn’t find my way out.

I was putting way too much attention on the warmup. I was spending too much time running slowly, while I waited…and waited…and waited for the body to “tell” me when to kick up the pace. I expected my heart to announce “Now we’re ready to go fast.” And it rarely did.

When I ran with John, I wore my heart monitor. I find that the monitor helps me hold a nice, easy warmup pace of 65% to 67% of max heart rate.

John said, “Oh, you wear one of those things? I don’t! I’ve got one at home in a drawer someplace. I run for enjoyment.”

I was taken aback. Was he saying that monitoring my heart rate was inconsistent with enjoyment?

I respect John’s wisdom, and I sensed that he was hinting at something I needed to learn. I was unhappy with my running. I’d become too mental in my approach. Running at a slow pace for 40 to 90 minutes had brought good results in the past, so I felt I had to do it every time. Never mind that it was no longer working.

After jogging for 100 yards – that was a warmup?! – John picked up the pace. Nervously, I glanced at the heart monitor and saw that it had climbed to 78% of MHR – we were trotting much faster than the warmup pace I was used to. But I said nothing and went along with the game.

We ran five miles on a levee that extends far out into San Francisco Bay, encircling the beautiful Palo Alto Baylands. (Photo: The Palo Alto Baylands are a treat.)

Hundreds of runners train in the Baylands, and many of them smiled and said a cheery “Hi” to John as they passed. He’s like that – he’s very much in his heart, and people instinctively feel his kindness.

On the return leg, I noticed that I was enjoying the brisk pace very much. I realized that my running had finally “awakened” from the months of zombified slogging.

Back at the start, I told John I would continue for another 2½ hours, because I was training to run a 50K as a school fundraiser. We parted, and I continued at the pace we’d been running. It was one of the most cheerful, happy runs of my life – as if the true runner’s spirit inside me had been set free and was rejoicing.

I’ve thought often about that day, yet the lessons remained fuzzy until very recently. That’s when I realized that I needed to shift my focus away from the details (warmup, heart monitor, etc.), to the larger issue of training: energy.

Energy is everything. It fuels all five of a runner’s “tools”: body, heart, will, mind, soul. Energy makes the body responsive. Energy stimulates positive feelings. Energy is the fuel for will power. It’s the hallmark of a keen mind. And energy fuels the intensity it takes to do spiritual practices.

John showed me that energy is key. Nowadays, I no longer wait for the body to “tell” me it’s ready to run fast.

Sure, sometimes I’ll need a long warmup, and then at some point I’ll fall effortlessly into a fast pace. But I’ve realized that, most times, I need to “test my edges” during the warmup.

After perhaps 10, 15, or 25 minutes of easy jogging, I’ll pick up the pace tentatively and see how it feels. I’ll check the feeling in my heart, and if it’s positive and smoothly harmonious, I’ll stay with the quicker pace; but if there’s a subtle warning signal, a slight discomfort and unease, I’ll back off until I can speed-up with that feeling of natural “rightness.”

Here are five stories about energy.

Story #1

After meditating on that run with my friend John Novak, I prayed and asked how it’s possible to “get up to speed” quickly. I wanted to avoid those super-long, spirit-numbing warmups. Yet I wanted to generate harmonious feelings and prepare my body to run fast.

Two days later, I ran at Foothill College, where Mary Ellen and I go to the gym. We planned to drive 100 miles to sing in a concert on the weekend, and I wanted to get in a hard workout before the trip.

I began the run with an exuberant burst of speed. But I didn’t slow, as I normally would. I was feeling very energized.

It was unusual. There was no sense that it might be a good idea to throttle back and take a long warmup. Instead, I ran the three-mile loop at a brisk pace, just under 80% MHR, feeling joyful and enthusiastic.

Early in the run, doubts entered my mind: “Is this right?” “Maybe I should be careful.” Etc. The doubts lingered, like trolls lurking by the road to steal my energy.

My mind tried to drag me down: “Do the conventional thing!” “Be ordinary!” “Who do you think you are!” “You can’t run this fast!” But my body and heart pressed forward with joy.

It was easy to shake the doubting demons. The strong flow of positive energy simply washed the doubts aside. It was a wonderful run.

I had found the right training for the day, by following my heart – not by careful logic, but by simply doing whatever it took to keep the energy high.

In fact, what kept the energy flowing was running hard for a while, then backing off and relaxing. It was fartlek, speed-play, and it felt exactly right.

Just before the huge main parking lot, I felt that the intelligence within the energy wanted to run hard, and so I picked up the pace.

At first, I ran diagonally across the empty parking lot very fast, bringing my heart rate to 92%, then backed off and recovered on the slight downhill. During one extra-hard effort I got my heart rate to 97%, but it felt too fast.

I ran 13 or 14 fast intervals of 200 to 400 yards. The running became easier, and the intervals got longer. Afterward, I felt very good, and I was able to have an enjoyable weight workout.

Lesson: Sometimes it can help to “work with” the mind and heart. For example, the mind can help us analyze problems: “Oh, I’m feeling crappy because I’m overtrained – better take a short run.” And the heart can feel what the body is capable of doing.

But, other times, it’s better to go with a strong flow of energy. On those high-energy days, not much tinkering is needed. So long as the heart is moderately harmonious, the mind isn’t crippled by negativity, and the body is reasonably healthy, there’s no need to waste time wrestling with wisps of negative thoughts or feelings. They’ll be swept along in the flow of positive energy, and the positive mood will strengthen as the energy gets stronger.

Story #2

Last winter, I decided it would be cool if I could do pull-ups. I hadn’t done a pull-up in 45 years, and it hardly seemed possible now, at age 66. Hanging from the pull-up bar, I could barely bend my elbows.

After months of doing “negatives” – jumping up and grabbing the bar and letting myself down slowly – I was able to do a single pull-up, and several weeks later I was able to do two.

That first pull-up was a huge high. For the rest of the day, my body and mind soared with happiness. It was great!

Oh, and immediately after I walked away from the bar, an old man – even older than I – walked up and did 12 pull-ups effortlessly. Let it never be said that God lacks a sense of humor.

Several weeks later, I had finished my two pull-ups and was attempting a third. A big Latino football player with an orange-dyed afro saw me struggling grotesquely to bend my arms. Behind me, I heard a scornful snicker.

The next week, the young football player was at the gym again. I was feeling extraordinarily positive. I jumped up and grabbed the bar, bursting with confidence, and did three pull-ups without strain. I didn’t hear a sound, but I could feel the young man’s respect, and apology. (I later discovered that he was no dumb jock – his major was microbiology, and he’d had been accepted at UC Santa Cruz.)

For weeks thereafter, I remained stuck at two pull-ups. I didn’t have the same level of enthusiasm, and my energy sagged. My spiritual teacher said, “The greater the will, the greater the flow of energy.” And a big component of will power is enthusiasm.

Last week, I decided to try an experiment. Before I did my pull-ups, I would prepare my mind and heart. The “stuck” period had sapped my confidence, and I needed to resurrect my enthusiasm.

I took a stroll around the gym and prepped my attitude. I visualized the zest that it takes to make exercise really fun and enjoyable. No big ego-trip, just rip-snorting, energy-making, light-hearted joy. Wahoo!

I leaped up to the bar and did three pull-ups. The last was a stretch, but that was okay.

The lesson? Without enthusiasm, is exercise ever really worthwhile? Every landmark run I’ve ever had, has been marked by extraordinary enthusiasm. High energy goes hand in hand with abundant willingness.

Story #3

Energy operates on many levels. It can be quite subtle, as this story illustrates.

In the mid-eighties, my ex-wife and I joined friends for an afternoon of volleyball and swimming. I’d been fasting on orange juice for three days, and felt spacey and wan. But I also felt wonderful. It was a five-year period when I spent at least an hour and a half a day chanting. I mostly chanted in the car, driving on the freeway or country roads.

We shared a home in a wealthy Bay Area suburb with 17 fellow followers of the same spiritual path. It was a great situation. It’s lovely to cook dinner just once every two weeks, and to be close to people who share one’s ideals. The downside was the boring house meetings on Friday. When the house parents urged me to attend, I would say, “Sorry, I need to drive to Marin to see a friend.”

The “friend” was God. Skipping the meeting, I would drive all the way around San Francisco Bay, 180 miles in 3½ hours. I drove south on 101 to San Jose, then north on 880 to Berkeley, traversed Marin County, and dropped back across the Golden Gate and down the Peninsula, chanting all the way.

To be perfectly frank, I didn’t know squat about chanting. I did it all wrong – I bellowed a lot. I was desperate to feel love for God, and I worked hard to open my heart. But I was doing it from the outside, as if my heart was a fortress to be stormed, because I believed my feelings had to be big and impressive, or God wouldn’t respond.

Years later, I would realize that God answers quickly when we give him whatever tiny but sincere love we have in our heart.

Even though I did it “wrong,” the chanting changed my life. It was similar to when I first began running. Becoming fit for the first time, at age 26, was glorious. It was like entering a spacious new world, the world of the fit and energetic body. I could now run up stairs, carry heavy loads, and work all day without fatigue. The range and force of my capabilities had greatly expanded.

When I began chanting, I entered another new world, and I realized that the heart held answers to problems for which the mind didn’t have a clue.

I remember a dream I had at the time. I saw a lotus flower that was very small and just starting to open. I knew it was my heart. It was discouraging that it had barely begun to blossom. Yet it was, by golly, opening. Obviously, I was headed in the right direction.

God felt closer than ever. He was with me in a very intimate way, even though I rarely succeeded in opening my heart to the degree I thought He expected.

During those five years, I was completely out of shape. I had given up running, because it was making me irritable and was endangering our marriage. Later, I discovered I had a serious vitamin B deficiency, and that running had made it worse. Looking back, I believe God wanted me to forget running for a time, and concentrate on opening my heart. When I started running again, I discovered that the heart’s feelings held important keys for training.

On the Sunday when we gathered to play volleyball and swim, I felt washed-up and wan because of my three-day fast. A house mate had invited a friend to join us. An ex-college basketball player, he was proud of his athleticism. Seeing me looking fey and dizzy-headed, he decided to show me up. He began flirting openly with my wife, in a macho-jock way. (She was beautiful.) I was mildly amused; I was seeking a power that had nothing to do with petty one-upmanship.

The game began and the score see-sawed. Then it was my turn to serve.

Really, it was pathetic – I’m a runner, not a “real” jock. I can’t jump, catch, field a scorcher at shortstop, or make the hard throw to first. And I certainly can’t dribble.

But I reasoned that if I held the ball in my left hand and swung my arm in a horizontal arc, I stood a fair chance of actually hitting it and getting it over the net.

I served and the ball went straight to the former basketball player – who missed it and fell on his butt.

Second serve – to the basketball jock, who hit a net return.

Third serve – well, you get the picture. I scored 4, 5…10, 11 points off Mr. Macho. At the end, I felt so sorry for him that I was sending big, loopy airballs high over the net, yet he missed again and again.

God exercises His boundless ingenuity to teach us the lessons we need, working with whatever resources are available. I couldn’t do a volleyball jump-serve to save my life; yet my dorky side-swing was enough. Evidently, God decided to teach the young jock a lesson in humility.

I didn’t have much physical energy; but through the sincerity of my chanting and prayers, I was connected with the powerful but subtle energy and intelligence of God.

Story #4

At choir practice, we sang a piece called “Brother James’s Air.” Flipping through the music, I remarked quietly: “I hate this song!” The tenor standing beside me was surprised. “You hate it? Why?”

I said, “Because it pulls my mind away from our spiritual teacher’s music.” The song’s insidious prettiness activates that terrible brain region where bad songs are stored until we think of them, and then emerge and play in an endless, crazy-making loop.

After practice, I walked to the car and waved to the woman who’d been standing in front of me. She coldly turned away, clearly upset over my remark.

I drove to Stanford and started my run. I felt hurt by her judgment. And I realized that if I wanted to shake it off, I would have to pray hard for her, until I could feel genuine love flowing in my heart. I would have to get into “giving mode” instead of waiting weakly for her to change her attitude.

The prayer was dry as dust. I was repeating the words mechanically, without feeling: “Bless her with health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy.” My brain was tired, my thoughts unfocused. I couldn’t hold the prayer together.

In the past, I had prayed mechanically for people who had hurt me, until I felt a flow of love and blessings washing away the resentment. But this time – nothing. There was no tiny shift of energy that portended a flow of love. The prayer remained mechanical.

Jogging into the hills, I realized that I would have to go deep in my heart and find the tiniest speck of genuine love. And I knew I wouldn’t be able to find it by vomiting forth words. I would have to work directly with my energy. (Stanford Hills. Believe it or not, this 4-mile loop is part of the Stanford campus. “The Dish” – a radio telescope – is a peninsula landmark.)

I thought of something my spiritual teacher said: “Before there can be an expansion, there must be a certain grounding first.”

I thought, “Yes. I’ve been able to feel love most reliably whenever I pulled back from my emotions and got centered in an impersonal desire to do the right thing.”

I worked hard at it. I stopped praying and straightened my spine so that the energy could flow freely in my heart.

I ran erect in the spine, pulling my energy deeply into my core, and into my heart, restraining my little self so that I could serve as a channel for God’s love. I got very “grounded” – grim with impersonal self-control, yet watching my heart with careful feeling, and holding myself open and offering more and more of myself to God’s inner presence. I refused to allow my energy to be distracted by any lingering wisps of negative emotion.

Soon I was feeling remarkably light and loving. There was a fresh feeling of wholeness and positive energy. The run was wonderful – I ran 20 minutes at a fast, joyful clip, at the end of the 2-hour run.

In her sermon that morning, the minister talked about how our deeper reality isn’t the tiny personality, but the vast Self of God within, on top of which the little ego and personality float like leaves on the surface of a lake.

I thought: Yes, I’m pulling back from the little self. And now I’m feeling the larger Self whose nature is love and kindness.

I no longer felt defensive. I didn’t need to “work out the issues” with that woman. By tapping into a larger, existing kindness, I automatically felt kindly toward her. I didn’t need to crank out a particular feeling; rather, by restraining my reactions, I had united myself to that larger Self whose nature is love.

It was a wonderful experience. It’s wonderful to escape the pain of contractive feelings. Since then, I’ve felt only appreciation and kindness toward her.

It was also a wonderful discovery. Because it showed me, in a very direct way, that changing the quality of our energy is the answer to changing negative feelings. Not twiddling thoughts, or “working with” feelings, but drawing inward, establishing control, and offering our energy to the higher Self, to use us to express Its love.

In Fitness Intuition, I describe research on how raw emotions and mental concentration travel by separate paths in the brain. The surprising thing is that the path of raw emotion, and the path of concentration are mutually exclusive. In other words, “grounding” oneself with intense concentration is an effective way to drain the energy of difficult feelings, so that we can direct it into more expansive channels. Runners know that an effective way to defuse the pre-race jitters is to focus intently on the details of preparation – the warmup, shoelaces, the race plan, etc.

The moral? We can use energy to be happy or sad, reactive or self-contained, contractive or expansive. Mental focus, withdrawal from our own reactions, and self-offering to a higher power can accomplish a remarkable change in the quality of our energy, beyond what mental twiddling can do.

Story #5

Sickness prevented us from going to the concert, so I was able to have a long run on Sunday. It was only an hour and a half, because my 67-year-old body was still recovering from the speedwork three days earlier. But I was able to run briskly almost from the start. And, once again, there was a lovely flow of energy, which held nearly to the finish.

I was free from mental doubts about how I “should” run. My mind and emotions were subordinated to the strong flow of energy. There was abundant energy to run a notch under 80% MHR and enjoy it. No prolonged warmup was required.

Overall moral: I’ve looked at running from both sides now. I spent years trying to understand the details. But the focus seems to be shifting to the bigger picture. It appears that the next step will be a more holistic view: to “just run” and invoke the details only as they help keep the energy strong.

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