Momentum: On Skis and in Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about momentum lately, which is more or less wrapped up into my larger ruminations on habitude and addiction, previously expressed.  On my cross country ski the other day, some of these thoughts crystallized (do thoughts crystallize?), or otherwise were further developed in the insane yet lucid delirium of moderate but sustained exhaustion.

In cross country skiing momentum is very important.  It is critical, for a sport that rivals competitive swimming in overall physical demand, to make the most of every bit of kinetic energy possible.  Coming down a hill for instance, it is imperative that you skate hard in order to build as much speed as possible.  This accomplished, upon properly buckling the knees and launching into the next incline you can shoot farther up the hill using less energy, and then jump right into gear and augment your momentum with muscle-power to crash over the crest of the hill in stunning V2 form.

In trying to establish healthy habits I have consistently reminded myself to keep building the momentum.  That is, a habit attained is painstakingly broken.  The more you do something, the more entrenched you become and the more likely you are to continue the activity.  Indeed, at some point, it becomes hard not to.  

At this point in my efforts to establish these desired habits, I feel as though I have done the necessary skating, and am approaching the time in which I have to buckle my knees over the bump and start engaging my muscles to leverage my momentum in the beginning of the uphill.  My minor ankle sprain last week leaves me feeling as though I am coming into a small uphill.  It is in times like these that momentum becomes critical.  Just like I leverage momentum to shoot over the hill on my ski, I must capitalize on the work I have done to train differently and heal properly and effectively, instead of stopping  in exasperation and losing all the momentum I’ve accumulated in the downhill of the past couple of months.  Then I will meet the next hill with even more momentum of habits further entrenched.    

 

Keep building the momentum.  

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On Ends and Means

On my run today a funny thought occurred to me.  It struck me as I was microspiking over the snow, ducking under a striped maple bending over the trail, and dodging a bit of thin ice over a puddle, that I did not always love running.  I remembered the days in which I actually dreaded going for a run.  The contrast is stark when you juxtapose that reality with today, when I found it difficult to sit still at my desk this morning in anticipation of the modest jog that I was planning for the afternoon.  

And I really did dread running. Surprisingly enough, in spite of my disdain for the activity I actually ran quite often.  It was essential to my success as an elite soccer player, which was central to my identity for most of my young life.  I often proclaimed that: “I would far rather run short distance faster, than long distance slower.”  I wanted to get it over with, and I started every run with a deep sigh.    

So my thoughts landed upon the question: When did I begin to enjoy running, and why?  As is often the case on my runs, the answer struck me mid-stride.  Before, I always ran for some ulterior motive.  To train for soccer.  After I stepped away from my soccer career, I ran to keep my weight down for rock climbing.  Whatever the purpose, I always used running as simply a means to some other self-important end.  

Somewhere along the way I stopped running.  I became far too busy as a student, I had other motivations, I smoked cigarettes (a mutually exclusive behavior with running, some might argue), and for a variety of other unimportant excuses.  Perhaps I lacked an end to justify the means.    

About one year ago when I had some time clear up in my schedule I started running again.  I incorporated the practice as part of what I called the “Austen wins his body back campaign”, the idea being that I would begin exercising again so as to not feel so dreadfully out of shape.  At this point I began running, or mostly power-hiking to be honest, as regularly as possible.  A couple times a week at first.  I had a habit of running over Mt. Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado semi-regularly.  Then I added Green Mountain.  Then I would do a Chautaqua Loop, including a free-solo up the second flatiron.  

In any case, I did whatever I felt like.  I was just having fun.  Regardless of what I was doing, the point was just to get my heartrate up as enjoyably as possible.  The exercise, getting outside, or even the excuse not to stare at a screen or be buried in a book for a while was enough.  In short, it was a release that I began to look forward to.  This was the pivotal moment.  At this time, I began running just to run.  It became my release.  I was no longer running for some other cause; I was running for the sake of running itself.    

That was it.  Running had at some point ceased to be a means to an end, and become an end in itself.  Beautiful.

Snap back to the present day.  I am digging my microspikes into the ice as I head up one of the final climbs to the top of White Ledge.  The frozen lakes break up the mass of green before rising into the hills beyond, moving into Maine.  Route 16 snakes along Iona Lake through Albany below.  Keep moving.  

So great, running became enjoyable to me as soon as I discovered how enjoyable it was in its own right, and stopped conceiving of it just as something I had to do to get better at something else.  The natural progression of thought, then, led me to think:  what else did I used to lament and learn to love when I changed the way I looked at it?  

Another moment in my life came immediately to mind.  I remember sitting in a backyard garden drinking red wine with a close friend in the August sun, wholeheartedly contented as I examined a number of bumblebees making their rounds of the flowers.  I was explaining to her my recent epiphany.  “I no longer care about my grades  I told her.  This was at a time in my college career in which I was particularly disillusioned with the structure of post-secondary education in our country, and had decided that to protest the inanity of the system I would simply stop devoting any more energy to a personal preoccupation with a silly quantitative analysis of my performance.  This is not to say that I wouldn’t do the assigned coursework; I am too type A and OCD for such negligence.  Instead I would simply approach the work from an entirely new frame of mind.  I would study what and as often as I wanted to study, and I would write whatever the hell I damn well felt like in my notes, for simply copying down whatever was written on the board is a mindless, monotonous activity that I had lost the patience for entirely.  My studies would no longer be a means to a grade, but would be of an interest to me in and of themselves, regardless of what the professors wanted to hear or otherwise selected to put on the examinations over which my peers were so astutely determined to stress.  

At that point in time I quickly grew far more interested in my studies than ever before and in my last two years of school, despite more difficult coursework and a heavier workload, I earned the best grades of my entire college career.  Only after deciding that I didn’t care about what they were!  I had divorced myself from obsession with the outcome, and become immersed in the process itself.  Inside the process I found the intellectual liberty that motivated me to write an undergraduate honors thesis and to pursue graduate school one day.  I had stopped considering studying as a means to the end of a high grade, and begun to consider it as an end in itself, deserving of my time and attention irrespective of the eventual outcome on paper.  And it changed my life.

I’m over the summit, beginning my descent.  On the south facing side of the ledge there is no snow, so I remove my microspikes and continue on, getting very excited for the trail running that the coming spring promises.  I pay special attention to the slippery oak and beech leaves left over from last fall so as not to slip.  I do anyways.  So it goes.

Focusing on my breathing, I return to my thoughts.  As I consider my newfound discovery, I am eager to ruminate on other areas of my life in which I might discover the same fascination within the ostensibly mundane simply by considering it less a means to an end, and focusing instead on the process itself and the value I might find if I just. slow. down.

I would very much like to live my life as less of a means, and more as an end in itself.  
The sun is setting and the air beginning to chill as I approach my truck, ready to call it a day.  

On Habits, Addiction, and the Blog Before You

A wise person once shared with me the personal conviction that addiction cannot ever be entirely eliminated, only replaced by other addictions.  As a person who suffers (or reaps the benefits of, dependent on context), of what many call an “addictive personality”, I can certainly understand such an argument.  I would also, on the other hand, venture so far as to comment that even the sagest of wise folk say silly, erroneous things from time to time and that such a claim is not necessarily true just because it fell from the lips of someone I personally regarded to be wise.  As with anything, such an assertion will be as true as you believe it to be.

Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about habits lately.  Really, habitude is just a different way of thinking of addiction.  While some may correctly draw inarguable distinctions between the two, those related to brain chemistry, disease and otherwise, I think that some attention ought to be cast upon the relationship between the two as well.  Indeed, those who suffer from the disease of addiction certainly see an effect on the routine, day-to-day habits in their life, and there are no shortage of habits that lend themselves to addiction, or otherwise social circles in which the susceptibility to addiction is elevated.  

You don’t have to agree or disagree; I believe it to be true.  In any case, I have paid considerable attention to the habits that I and/or those close to me have developed, tended to develop, would like to develop, and have not developed in the recent months and years.  Some have been very healthy habits.  Some have been remarkably unhealthy.  Cigarettes exist in my past, but follow me ever so close in the present.  I’ve watched the demons of alcoholism progress, ebb, flow, and linger for most of my life.  I’ve watched friends suffer from drug addiction.  Workaholism exists in my past and present.  At some point, some people come to realize that they have an “all or nothing” personality, and that moderation is a difficult balance to strike with anything of any true importance to them.  I’ve noticed that this “all or nothing” trait predisposes one to addiction, or an increased affinity for habitude.  Ça, c’est moi.  

I have an addictive, all or nothing personality.  It has been a blessing and a curse and has led me to both the most rewarding and most painful experiences of my life.  The blessings of eudaimonistic perseverance, and the curses of hedonism in continuity.  The nocuous effect it can have when it grows attached to a romantic relationship.  It follows rather logically, then, that it would be nothing shy of prudent for any self-respecting individual to try to guide, cater, or shoehorn his or her habits into those that would construct the most healthy or otherwise sustainable lifestyle (easier said than done, I know.)  It is precisely this undertaking that I have pursued recently.  

I ought to be clear; this is not a new year’s resolution, in spite of the fact that it originated around the new year holiday.  I think that the mission with which I have charged myself is better than a new year’s resolution, and is dynamic enough to account for the changing person and the tides of emotions and anxiety that will ebb and flow in the coming year.  Resolutions are too specific.  “Quit smoking.”  “Lose weight.” “Don’t eat sweets”.   Great.  Power to all the individuals that find following such strict, binding directives rewarding or in some cases successful.  I for one would never put such chains on my sense of personal liberty.  Keeping the directive vague allows for its revision, revisiting, and specification at a later date, or several thereof.  “Make healthy habits”.  This is at once far simpler and far more difficult.  I now am charged with not only the chore of interpreting this directive, but making consistent, often, multifaceted changes.  Moreover once forged, these habits will be once again resistant to change.  Therein lies the reward.  

At the end of the day, my point is this: I have given myself this open directive (not out of adherence to any particular tradition, mind you) to forge healthy habits in 2017, in hope that they will follow me for years to come.  I find this important for my long-term sustainability of mind, body, and character.  Some of these habits include running, reading, and writing, all of which I do regularly but not often enough still.  It is for this third reason I stated that you find this page before you now.  

The intended purpose of this blog is unclear to me still.  More than anything else, it just feels like the right thing to do.  As I have often reiterated to myself, I only do things because I want to do them.  This could turn out to be a rambling mess of thoughts that usually end up in my journals, representing a transposition of my thoughts and feelings into something far more permanent, and public.  It might end up a running journal of sorts.  Maybe it becomes a medium for practicing the languages I have learned in the past and will learn in the future.  Maybe noone reads it.  Maybe thousands read it.

The paragraph above doesn’t matter.  What I am trying to stress is that the importance of this blog lies in the process.  Whatever comments come, discussions it sparks, reflections it inspires, are all secondary to the inherent value of just doing it.  It will be a step towards healthy habits; channeled addiction.  It will be a reason to write, and to keep those skills oiled and the words flowing.  It will be a reason to run, and a reason to read.  If not for inspiration, then simply for the sake of being a package-deal.  Like I said, I tend to be very all or nothing.  

 

So here it is.  I’m going all in.  

Austen Bernier