Not long ago, all I could do was run.
Each week, armed with Google maps and a shiny smart watch, I would hatch a plot to rack up more miles than the week before. It was all pretty serious stuff; running became an obsession.
I entertained notions of progressing to the London Marathon, then to an Iron Man, and eventually to an Ultramarathon. None of those things transpired, but it was the idea of ticking them off that hooked me.
Like all the rowing I’d done in school, running satisfied part of me – a valuable part – that is fiercely driven, competitive and outcome-oriented. But that wasn’t the main reason I found running attractive.
In hindsight, all that running was symbolic. Unhappy in medical school at the time, I was in fact running away from unseen and unacknowledged layers of anguish within me.
I caught glimpses of doubt and dissatisfaction about my path, but those glimpses petrified me. So in order to defend against fear and whip up motivation to keep going, my body issued a simple command: run.
Rather than slowing down to savour life, it felt better to keep my head down. It felt better to keep dashing ahead through the next ‘hoop’, whether that be a 10K race or the next school exam. I was keeping the truth at arm’s length.
Even after leaving medicine, my running obsession continued – I was in the habit of using it to escape my emotions.
(This phenomenon was captured beautifully in a scene from Shame, where Michael Fassbender’s character goes running to tranquillise his complicated, painful sexual feelings.)
Escaping from escapism
My past year has been filled with many new impressions: I went on sabbatical to Asia with my wife, read a heap of books and went on silent retreat.
I reached a pivotal decision – it was time to journey inwards and quit numbing myself to fear, grief, and other forms of pain. I had decided this before, but this time I did so in earnest. I would no longer be doing ‘inner work’ under the guise of fixing myself, but rather with a spirit of open, compassionate inquiry.
As I started doing so, my running obsession unexpectedly collapsed.
When I first noticed my newfound aversion to hitting the pavement, old conditioning kicked in. I told myself this wasn’t good enough. It felt weird not to want to keep running. I tried to sit down with my trusty map and plot a route to mastery, but it all felt so unappealing, stultifying even.
The reason is now clear to me: I’m no longer fixated on running because there is nothing to run from – I feel the need to be right here, where I already am. Perhaps I have begun the (neverending) process of escaping from escapism.
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The how and why of movement
My intention isn’t to vilify the activity of running, nor any other form of exercise. I only argue that what we do – whether we’re runners, yogis, or trapeze artists – is less important than how and why we do it.
Are we moving to escape reality? To fend off unwelcome feelings? To perpetuate cycles of numbing and desensitisation? In our topsy-turvy value system, moving in such a way often goes unquestioned.
On the other hand, are we moving in a way that allows us to come home? To journey back into our bodies? To embrace the totality of our experience? To become more alive; more open to both pain and joy?
When exercise becomes a purely utilitarian tool – a means to an end – we risk falling into escapism. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with goals, of course. Until there is.
Traditionally speaking, exercise is seen as a sterile gateway to some ‘better’ reality. It’s a way to look sexier, feel happier and get healthier. Does that bore you as much as it bores me? This view of movement misses something vital.
Most children don’t jump up and down on a trampoline in service of some far-off goal. If you hadn’t noticed, they don’t care about toning their abs or lowering their cholesterol. They jump to express something authentic (often joy). They jump to explore who they are through their bodies. They jump to inhabit themselves more deeply.
Any form of movement can be just as rich given the right intention and attention. And far from being a sterile gateway, exercise can help us to embody and practise new qualities of being.
Running, for instance, was an excellent way for me to learn about tenacity. But right now, at this moment in my life, tenacity isn’t a priority. I’m more interested in developing qualities like courage, compassion and grace.
Certain disciplines open me to those qualities beautifully; I’m currently exploring The Feldenkrais Method, yin yoga, and tai chi. These practices ask me to be right here, in my body, no longer running away but back home where I belong.
If any of this resonated, here are three questions I’ve found useful to reflect on:
- How might I be using movement to escape some aspect of reality?
- How are my chosen exercise activities shaping me as a person?
- Who else could I become through movement?