I wake at 4:15 every weekday morning. I creep downstairs and plug in the coffee. I check my email and social media, make sure my swim bag is packed, get dressed, drink one cup of black coffee, then unplug the pot before leaving for the YMCA.
I pull into the parking lot at about 4:50, in time to see the older couple, the man with a cane and the wife with a walker, push through the front doors. I turn off my music, lock my car, and go in. I slide my card through the reader, a computer beeps somewhere, I say hi to Doug or Crystal or whoever is working the front desk and has been kind enough to get up even earlier than me to make sure the lights are on, the door is unlocked and the pool cover is off. I use the boys locker room instead of the men’s because I like the cool tile floor instead of the carpet in the men’s room, and because I can be alone with my thoughts, change into my swim things at my own pace, not have to jostle with anyone for locker space, and can hear all the groans, clanks, and scuffles as the building comes to life.
I shower, walk into the men’s locker room to make sure the sauna is turned on, then wait for the click of the deadbolt when the lifeguard unlocks the door to the pool deck. I see the morning regulars, pull on my swim cap and goggles, get into to the pool and do my laps, usually splitting them between breaststroke and freestyle. I swim for about twenty minutes. I don’t count my laps. I swim until I feel done, then I get out and sit in the sauna for about ten minutes to stretch out and relax. I shower, get dressed, drive home, sometimes stopping to take pictures of the river if the light is right. I get home around 6:00.
I make sure my daughter is up and getting ready for middle school. I plug the coffee maker back in and make my breakfast, usually eggs over easy with toast or muesli. I drink another cup of black coffee. I have an hour before I have to get dressed for work, so I read or do some writing. Around 7:00 I get dressed and drive my daughter to school. I get to work around 7:30, and usually have all my emails read and answered by 8:00 when the rest of my co-workers start arriving. I grab more coffee and fill my water bottle. I have the whole day ahead of me. I help people: students, faculty, co-workers, parents, customers, vendors, delivery drivers.
Most of my work life consists of being the arbitrator of other people’s desires. I measure other people’s wants against my own, and then decide how best to proceed. I do the best job I can with the materials at hand. I subjugate my ego.
I eat my lunch at a regular hour, sometimes treating myself to a soft-serve or a lemon square afterwards. I walk around the campus, deliver packages to the mail center, stop in to the library to see what’s newly published, sometimes I meet faculty or associates on the quad and chat with them, ask after their research, their kids, what they did on sabbatical, what they’re working on now. I’m pleasant, witty, always professional.
In the afternoons I might write some emails, deal with problems that have crept up. By 5:00 I’m ready to go home. I try as best I can to leave the troubles of my workday behind me. At home I help my wife shuttle kids to and from sports practice and games, make sure there’s food for dinner, give homework help, make sure cellphones are charged, forms are signed, teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, and bedtimes happen at a reasonable hour. Then I read a little more, or paint, or maybe edit some pictures I took during the day. I make sure my swim trunks and towel are dry and I re-pack my swim bag, set up the coffee maker for tomorrow’s coffee, place all the things I’ll need in a pile by the door: my bag, wallet, keys, glasses, clothes, flip-flops, iPod.
I’m in bed by 10:00 to sleep for tomorrow’s new day. This is what I do. On Friday nights, I go the local high school football game, if they’re playing at home. I do some yard work on the weekend, do laundry, shop for groceries, go to the beach or for a run or for a swim if there’s time. I take my kids where they need to go, or if they’re travelling by bike or by foot, make sure they check in when they get there. On Sunday nights, my wife and I might turn on Netflix and watch whatever series we’re currently hooked on.
At forty-seven years old, this is my life right now. A Zen archery master, Awa Kenzo, wrote, “Do your best at each and everything. That is the key to success. Learn one thing well and you will learn how to understand the ten thousand things. Ten thousand things are one; this is the secret place of understanding you must find. Then everything is mysterious and wonderful.”
I submit to you that all we need try to do is one or two things well. We live our life, we remain present and cheerful, we make the coffee, we wash the dishes, we fold the laundry, we sleep, we wake. This is all we need to do. Please take comfort in knowing that it is more than enough.
I’m eight days in to my 30-day barefoot running program and here are three things I’ve noticed.
1. When I eat less meat, I run better. As Chris McDougall explained, when our species was just starting out we did indeed need concentrated sources of high-quality protein to fuel the growth of our huge melon-heads. But now that we’re fully grown, do we need meat all the time and at every meal? The quick answer is no. Fear of protein lack, like fear of terrorism, has taken over our consciousness. I don’t know all the science. It’s all conflicting and conflicted anyway. All I know is: when I eat more nuts and seeds, more leafy greens, more fruits and berries, more green superfoods like spirulina and wheatgrass, more vegetable protein, and less dead animals, I feel like a gazelle.
2. I’m calmer. Running without music, as it’s necessary for me to do so I can really concentrate on my breathing and form, has turned my runs into moveable meditation sessions. I’m calm when I run and this serenity has stayed with me throughout my day. For example, yesterday afternoon I discovered a flood in my basement. I went downstairs to do some laundry and it looked like SeaWorld without the orcas. No problem! I found the offending pipe (there was a tiny hole in the cold-water feed that runs up to my kitchen sink), sealed it shut, and will call a plumber. So we don’t have cold water in our kitchen at the moment, but hey, who needs it? I’m a barefoot runner. It’s all good. See how easy that was?
3. I direct my mind to the soles of my feet. The barefoot running program I’m on doesn’t just concentrate on correct form. It also reintroduced me to the sensation of actually feeling my feet touch the ground. I’ve been walking barefoot, lightly jogging barefoot, and wearing my barefoot running shoes for longer runs. All these activities draw my attention to the soles of my feet. Highly padded shoes have made our feet weaker and put up a barrier between our bodies and nature. Modern running shoes are just a blip on the continuum of the history of human running. Our ancestors ran barefoot, or with simple, thin, homemade sandals. By learning barefoot running, I’m not only allowing my feet to tell my body what naturally feels right, I’m connecting with the ancients. In an old Zen story, two monks are arguing over a flag flapping in the wind. The first monk says the flag is moving. The second monk says the wind is moving. The Zen master, overhearing the argument, says it’s neither the flag nor the wind that is moving. It’s the mind that is moving.
Like my mind. Moving, down, down, touching earth.
- Don’t give a fuck.
- Learn proper form.
- Drink wheatgrass and/or other green foods.
- Go meatless.
- Grow long hair and/or a beard.
- Find the right shoes.
- Or no shoes.
- Leave your technology at home.
- Lose the Lycra.
- Run when you feel like it.
- Take naps.
- Drink a shit-ton of clean water.
- Get a roller. Not that kind of roller. The foam kind.
- Get naked.
- Down with coffee, up with green tea.
- Take a sauna.
- Find your drishti.
- Eat less, run more.
- Work less, run more.
- Maintain creative indifference.
- Maintain creative fidelity.
- It’s OK to walk.
- Think like a child.
- Stand up.
- Do something else.
- Lose your boss.
- Take your time.
- Relax. Breathe. Have fun. This is your Original State.
I’m done with day four of my barefoot challenge and it seems the stars are aligning. Another 30-minute walk this morning, posture resets, and stretching. Later in the afternoon, I went to a sporting goods store and found a pair of barefoot Merrell trail shoes on sale for half price. I started reading ultra-marathoner and vegan emissary Scott Jurek’s biography today, and I’m learning a lot. I notice it’s important to be mindful when starting a new journey, but to not let the details get me down. I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to write everything down, to make lists and resolutions. I have a manila folder that says “running” on it where I stuff all my self-help scraps and notes. I’m wearing my mala beads, remembering to stand up straight even when I’m not practicing my running form, trying to drink less coffee and more green tea, upping my intake of nuts and other healthy fats, using my myofascial roller to ease the stiffness of these old joints. On some advice from a friend, I even bought a few bags of Epsom salts and starting soaking my feet every evening. An element of serenity is starting to manifest. I feel calmer, my mind is quieter. And I’m starting to understand the appeal of the whole mani/pedi thing that my women friends are always on about. I think about my brother and sister monks, running around Mount Hiei right now, in their flimsy straw sandals, carrying lanterns through the night, and stopping to pray at all the appropriate shrines along their path. I run around my college track, dodging the occasional toddler, stray dog or tennis ball, keeping my eyes on the horizon.
Day three of my challenge was another 30-minute barefoot walk, some posture resets, and ten ankle circles. Before I left my tomb-like basement office to walk over to the field house for my workout, I watched Chris McDougall’s 15-minute TED talk. Again. If you’ve ever doubted that humans were indeed born to run, then watching this will change your mind. I’ll let Chris speak for himself, but one of the ideas he asks us to consider is that we evolved as a roving band of pack animals. Equal parts competitiveness and compassion. And of course, that running was a key part of our survival. Without the ability to run long distances in hot weather (no other animal on the planet has this skill), none of us would be here today. Running used to be a part of our daily lives. And it used to be fun. For many of us, as McDougall points out, running is instead a painful chore, something we do because we had pizza and Ben & Jerry’s last night. But it doesn’t have to be.
I noticed again today that walking barefoot demands mindfulness. Maybe “demands” is too strong a word. Encourages, perhaps. I stand erect, gaze at the horizon, rather than the ground, and walk slowly and consciously, trying to stay aware of the sensations of every step.
During breaks in Zen meditation, we perform what’s called kinhin, or conscious walking. We pay attention to every thought, every breath, every step. The Buddha said that when a monk sits, she knows she is sitting. When a monk stands, he knows he is standing. And when monks walk, they know they are walking. Sounds simple, but try for even five minutes to walk with complete mindfulness. Our modern ways of rushing from place to place, pulled by our conscious and unconscious desires, makes it almost impossible to do so. Unless we have practice.
I was also thinking again today of the running monks of Mount Hiei, who I’ve written about elsewhere, and who I consider my spiritual brothers and sisters. They run their marathons in flimsy, homemade straw sandals. Rain or shine. Day or night.
I’ve begun wearing a mala bead bracelet I bought at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery in Woodstock, NY when I was there recently for a writer’s festival. It’s fragile, but reminds me of my commitment. To follow through with my 30-day challenge. To move past fear and pain. To ultimately use this body as an instrument for awakening.
One set of workout clothes, one empty mayonnaise jar, one plastic garbage bag, one slightly-crazed helping of enthusiasm. This is my plan, probably minus the mayonnaise jar (I use an actual water bottle) and the plastic garbage bag (too crinkly and distracting). Starting this morning, I kicked my Tastykake habit to the curb and began my early-morning sessions at my local Y. I set my alarm for 4:15 am, turn on the coffee, slip into my gym clothes, and am on the indoor track, with some Radiohead in my ears by 4:45. I run/walk for 45 minutes, do some planks, relax in the sauna and head home by 6, to wake my sleeping family and get ready for my work day. This has been my habit on and off for the last five years or so, but winter, especially around the holidays, always seems to knock me off course. The body wants to hibernate and pack on the pounds for a long sleep, but we have to resist the urge. I quit drinking almost six months ago, and had an overly-optimistic idea that this fact alone would allow me to magically shed weight. But I made up for my steady diet of wine and beer with other substitutes, namely root beer, pizza, and slice and bake cookies. And the occasional box of swirly frosted cupcakes.
But as I watched Silver Linings Playbook for about the fourth time a few weeks ago, I realized that it doesn’t take much to change your life’s course. One of the reasons I think I’m a Buddhist is that I don’t really believe in the soul. I’ve never been convinced that there is some kind of inherent, untouchable me-ness to me. I seem instead to define myself simply by my likes and dislikes. In this age of self-curation, this is what most of us do, I think. The ever-present facebook “like” is the defining gesture of our day. I’ve always had a weak sense of self, easily swayed by other’s beliefs and actions, which may explain why at such a young age I believed that drinking would make me cool. I followed other people’s examples and twenty years went by, unthinking. I’m still swayed by three-star reviews in Rolling Stone. Almost any criticism of a work of art that I love will make me second-guess myself. And yet, works of art can inspire me for my own good. My weak self also responds to motivation. Like the kid I was who actually believed he was Han Solo, so I also, even in adulthood, find it easy to take on the character traits and motivations of others. Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings, with his minimalist approach to better health, inspired me to put down my bad habits, don the metaphorical plastic bag, and get out on the road. Or at least the indoor track.
The larger theme here is really: what makes us who we are? If our true self only materializes when it bumps up against things we either like or not, then might we be less fixed than we think? But if we are more than our likes and dislikes, then where is that immutable core of our self? If one day I’m sitting on the couch eating an entire pizza and drinking three A&Ws, but the next day I’m in workout clothes running before the sun comes up, which one is the real me? Or do we refine our life as we live, burning off the excess baggage until we become a fine-tempered instrument, beyond birth and death? Maybe the reason I’ve always been drawn to the details, fictional or not, of other people’s lives, is my belief that if I just adopt a few utilitarian rules, I can finally refine myself. Maybe I think a pair of old gray sweats, a water bottle, some running, and a little enthusiasm will be enough to turn the corner on my lethargy and self-sabotage. Or maybe it’s late, and I should just go to bed. The coffee is ready to brew, and 4:15 am comes early.
I’m not an expert, so you probably shouldn’t listen to anything I have to say. I’m forty-six years old and just growing my first beard. If you can call it that. After about a month, it still looks like two old porcupines, fighting over the scraps of my chin fat. I started it in solidarity with my bro-mates over at Movember, but now that we’ve eased our way into December, I just don’t have the strength to shave it off. My wife tolerates it. My kids are a little afraid of it. And it’s not even a real beard. More of a goatee/Fu Manchu hybrid, with a distended soul patch. Still, I’ve come up with a few rules to help novices like myself contend with our blossoming facial vegetation.
1. Don’t mention your beard. Ever. It should be obvious that your beard speaks for itself.
2. As a corollary to #1, don’t apologize for your beard. Ever. You don’t need to tell your friends or coworkers, your bosses or lovers, that you are “trying something out” or that you’re “waiting for it to get past the ugly phase.” As one blogger put it, growing a beard is our birthright as men. It’s one of the few things that differentiate us from women. Contrary to what hipsters believe, growing a beard never goes in or out of style. It’s like saying breathing goes out of style. It just is, for all times. Don’t apologize.
3. Condition. Moisturize. Whatever you want to call it. Use your daily skin cream, aloe vera, beeswax, Bag Balm, leftover macadamia nut oil, old sunscreen, whatever. What you don’t need is any fancy-pants Billyburg beard oil that sells for $29 an ounce. If you want to smell like pine trees, woodsmoke, and damp earth, go outside and rub some dirt on your face. It’s much cheaper. And way more authentic.
4. Resist all urges to stroke your beard in public, especially when talking to women. I have a theory why a man’s hand instinctively reaches for something hairy that is adjacent to a moist opening, but I’ll leave that for another post.
5. Enjoy it. You’re a man, with or without a beard, of course. But while you have it, revel in it. Some of us can’t grow beards. Babies, for instance. Do it for those who can’t.
Besides, my old pal Henry would agree. And you can’t argue with greatness.