TO RUN OR NOT TO RUN?
I started out this week as I start out many weeks – creating and then staring at a long list of aspirations for the week, wondering where to begin. As always, exercise is on the list. On Monday, as I pondered the week ahead, I knew I wanted to make exercise a priority, and on that particular day I was feeling drawn to go for a run. The idea of going for a run felt right. I was telling myself, however, that I want to have the discipline to do exercises I’m not as good at, exercises I don’t have as much strength or practice in, like strength training or yoga. What’s the better approach to take? Listen to (what feels like) my intuition and do the body movement practice that comes more naturally to me (running), or is taking a more challenging route the way to go? Of course, part of the answer to that question lies in my goal, my objective: what am I trying to accomplish with the exercise? I’m not training for a marathon. I’m not training to join the AVP Tour. I’m not training to become a yoga instructor. For now, I settled with the goal of simply moving my body for an extended period of time in whatever way it wants to. I went for a run. It felt great. And yet, I think I have some work to do to hammer out a sustainable exercise routine I can stick with and and commit to through the winter.
COMMITMENT TO MEDITATION
This is the week I took the idea of meditating regularly and turned it into a practice. I meditated every morning for twenty minutes before the family woke up, including Saturday and Sunday. I even snuck in an extra afternoon session on Sunday.
Before I go on about this, I have to admit I have Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words ringing in my ears from his book Wherever You Go, There You Are. I’m paraphrasing, but he says that if you find yourself wanting to talk about meditation, about how great it is, about its benefits, about how other people should try it… you should take it as a sign your mind is a little too active and go meditate some more.
I don’t take his advice lightly, and I’m holding it mindfully as I write these words. My intention with proceeding about my experience in my first full week of consistent meditation is not to preach nor to entice nor to persuade; it is simply to document my own experience.
So far I have been using the Headspace app. I’ve used the app before, albeit inconsistently. I like the idea of using a roadmap that someone with expertise has developed, so that’s what I’m doing. In the app, they have a course called Headspace 365, which is a meditation program with one lesson per day for an entire year, and it’s from the very earliest version of Headspace. This is where I’m starting my journey. I had dabbled with this before, so I’ve picked it up where I left off, with a series called Take 20, where I meditate for twenty minutes for twenty days in a row.
Here are the things I observed and thought about during my first week of consistent meditation practice:
I’m noticing interesting things happen with my body as I sit on a cushion on the floor for twenty minutes. After a few minutes of settling in to the meditation, I will make tiny body adjustments to remain comfortable. I notice my spine making soft “cracks” as it realigns itself. I notice my sinuses audibly opening up.
I notice just how tight the muscles and tendons around my hips and pelvis are. In order to be able to meditate for longer stretches at a time, I’m going to have to spend extra time working on hip mobility and flexibility.
Diaphragm diaphragm diaphragm… it’s what I focus on most when meditating. The uncomfortable sensation in my hips are always the main area I notice when I do the body scan my meditation teacher instructs toward the beginning of the sit. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing allows me to maintain an erect but not rigid posture, by using my diaphragm to expand and contract the belly as I breathe. I kind of just discovered this on my own, but I wish someone had taught it to me sooner!
I love how the teacher queues the end of the meditation. After concentrating the mind on the breath for about twenty minutes, the final prompt is to “let your mind be totally free.” In that moment, you let go of any concentration and let the mind do whatever it wants. If it wants to think, let it think. If it wants to be still, let it be still. It’s that moment when I feel like I really see what’s on my mind, in my subconscious. Sometimes there’s a flurry of activity. Other times, it’s actually more still than when I was focused on the breath. One day this week, in this final stage of the meditation, I had a flash of Yellowstone National Park, and then of going outside today, and then (randomly) of brushing my teeth with charcoal. And then I thought of my friends, spending more time with those I love and hold dear, to deepen and enrich those relationships before we move to Costa Rica in summer 2023. It’s interesting to observe my thoughts without judgment, let them come and go, and then look back at them later for further consideration.
During most of the meditations I’ve done in the past two weeks, the same thought has surfaced at some point or another: “Next time I’m about to meditate, I’m going to grab my journal in addition to the cushion.” I have yet to remember to do so. One day this week, when I was feeling it was an especially potent meditation with important insights surfacing left and right, I again reminded myself to grab a journal next time, to be able to jot down insights either as they come up or immediately after the meditation is over. But, as meditation training goes, I then do my best to cast that thought, like all thoughts, aside. I tend to visualize dumping the thought into the river, as you might toss a stick or a leaf into a river and watch it float downstream, out of sight, out of mind. But as I cast aside the thought of grabbing a journal next time, another thought surfaced.
I was reminded of a Paul McCartney interview I heard where he explained that many times when he and John Lennon were crafting a new song, they wouldn’t necessarily write it down or record it right away (say, if they were in a hotel room). The interviewer asked Paul something like, “Weren’t you afraid you’d forget the song, or some piece of it?” Sir Paul replied, “Not really. We knew that if the song was good enough, we’d remember it. How could we expect the song to be a hit and get stuck in a large audience’s ears if it wasn’t catchy enough to get stuck in our own heads?” And it occurred to me during meditation that I could apply the same principle to the thoughts that come during this contemplative state, this state where I’m concentrating on letting thoughts come and go with no attachment, no effort to remember them, just noticing that they are there, and as soon as I notice them, I return my attention to my breath. If I have an insight that feels so important that I have to stop meditation to write it down in a journal, then it’s probably an important enough insight that I will inevitably remember it after the meditation is over. The cost of breaking the meditative state is high, because it takes some time to sink into that present awareness, at least for a beginning meditator like me. So, perhaps I don’t really need the journal nearby, after all.
Toward the end of the week, I had one, one , stretch of five consecutive inhales and exhales where I felt a true lightness, a deep sense of ease, where I was holding no tension in either my body or my mind. This was new, and it felt utterly peaceful and brilliant. These few seconds were a window into the bliss a continued meditation practice might lead to.
The most epic meditation moment of the week, though, came not during my steady early morning practice, but in the bonus session I snuck in Sunday afternoon. We were just finishing “family bathtime” in our bath (with a rotation of adults and kids until everyone’s had a turn), and one of my kids was still lingering in the bath, playing calmly. My wife and other kid were already downstairs, and as I got changed, I noticed a potential opportunity for some quiet me time, so I sat down on my bedroom floor, within eyesight of my kid in our bath, but facing the window, away from my kid. Had I not seized this moment and done exactly as I had done, I would have missed the chance to hear her sing. There’s a song in Mary Poppins called “Feed The Birds,” and as my kid was gently playing with a plastic duck in the bath, she gently cooed this lyric over and over, “…Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen, she’s calling to you.” As I sat ten feet away, eyes closed and facing a quarter-turn away from her, it was as if my daughter was speaking in the third person, talking to me subconsciously through her song. Her words were simple and few, and she was calling to me. It was as if she was saying, “I am able to hold this state of calm because you are showing me what calm looks like, and I am living out my true nature right now, which is to sing this beautiful song.” In this moment, I could feel joy radiating throughout my entire body. It was deliciously soothing, to have this reciprocal and positively reinforcing state of calm between my child and I.
When she was done singing, she continued to play, and another cool thing happened. I was able to hear her playing aloud to herself (pretending to be the voice of the duck and of herself) without actually processing the words, without having any attachment to or effort of following the plot or story, just noticing the sonic quality of her voice, noticing that the sound brought me pleasure and happiness. It was like when you’re in a play room with a kid, and they are busy playing with their toys and you are busy reading a book; you can hear them playing, but you’re busy with your own thoughts or activity so you don’t actually know what they’re saying. It was like that, except I didn’t have any distractions. No book, no phone… I was just sitting there, but mindfully tuned in enough to just let her talking wash past me as calming but meaningless noise. It almost felt like I was able to be like a baby, a baby that hears the soothingness of its mother’s voice, even though it hasn’t the faintest clue what she’s saying. I could hear the lighthearted, earnestly loving tone my daughter was imparting onto her aquatic Dora the Explorer mermaid toy, and I was able to stay focused on my breath enough to NOT be processing the actual language, but to be moved by her sincerity and affection she was emitting. It’s incredible what sitting and actively doing nothing can do!
It’s time to put this idea out into the world. I came up with an idea for a project I’d like to pursue this week. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve written in my journal about it, the more I’ve read things adjacent to this idea… the more it makes we want to pursue the idea.
The name of the concept is – Naturally Better. I even created a splash page for this idea that I will build out over time, which can be viewed here – KevinCarlow.com/Naturally-Better.
What is it? Is it a podcast? An essay? A book? I don’t know exactly. I know I want to document the journey of creating it. The idea goes something like this.
Naturally Better is for people who want to get better and improve their lives, naturally. In the post-industrial, technological age that we’re in, humans have come to rely on and live with machines more and more. We sit in chairs, stare at screens, crank up thermostats, and eat food wrapped in plastic. Is this natural? This is not the way our ancestors lived for millions of years. Our ancestors lived in ways that were in balance with nature and the earth.
Naturally Better will examine what it means to get better. How can we improve, have ambition, improve as a person, as communities, as nations, as a species, and as a planet? What is needed most to get better? Most would argue that the conditions of life now are vastly improved from how they were 200 years ago, at least by many metrics: infant mortality, average life expectancy, management of diseases, % of people in poverty… This looks like progress. But we are also now seeing that our current systems are not sustainable. Our systems rely on non-renewable resources – fossil fuels. This is a finite resource that has an end. Plus, we are in overshoot – we overproduce and overconsume. So… how do we get better, in a natural way?
At the same time of wanting to get better and make progress in the right ways, we also want to explore what it means to accept how things are right now. That you are enough, what you have is enough, and that getting “better” might actually mean learning to appreciate and accept what is, to live with a sense of satisfiability, and just in that understanding and accepting, we can become better.
We’ll explore what it means to be better. A better version of one’s self. Does that mean adding new skills to your arsenal, learning new things to be a more whole and rounded person? Or does it mean chipping away at our outer shells, the layers of assumptions we’ve acquired through the years of growing up and being in society, so that we can chip away at the true best self that’s already inside each one of us? Does better mean change, or does better mean learning to accept what is?
We’ll explore natural ways to live better, to feel better, to improve wellness and happiness. Body movement and exercise, natural foods, sleep, ways to live more sustainably, ways to be more in tune with our natural bodily systems, to affect them and be in more control.
We’ll talk to people who are experts in ways of living more naturally: plant experts, homesteaders, food scientists, sleep experts, meditation, somatics, rewilding, yoga, movement…
We’ll discuss why we hesitate to be outside more. For children, the outdoors is a place of endless wonder. Why and when does that stop?
I live in the digital age. I didn’t choose that; I was born into it. So what can I do with the unchangeable conditions I was born into and still live as naturally as my conditioning will allow? What new conditions can I create to improve my connection with nature?
Naturally Better is for the everyday person. Rare are the people that become masters, world-renowned experts in their fields. There are a lot of aspects to our lives – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we buy, our relationships, our careers, our sleep, hobbies – how can we become experts at all of that? This podcast aims to explore the most important topics to a naturally better life and uncover simple, but not easy, steps anyone can take to nudge their existence in a more natural direction.
My ultimate goal with Naturally Better is to heal myself and learn more about becoming more natural, and share these lessons so they can spread to others to help heal the world, and in that way I can do the thing that I feel uniquely situated to do.
Of course, all of this might change over the coming weeks, but now that I’ve put it out there for the internet, there’s only one way to go – forward!