Tag Archives: Mind

Friedrich Nietzsche’s guide to running

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

New laces. Baseball cap. Rain jacket. Copy of “Ecco Homo”.

What do these four items have in common?

They’re what I need for a late Fall run in the rain. While the first three items might be familiar to most runners, I’d bet that few whip out the work of a 19th-century German philosopher before they pound the pavement.

Why should they? Because Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ecco Homo” deals with the concept of difficulty, the area where wishful human expectations hit the wall of cold disappointing reality. That’s a familiar concept to anyone trying to knock out a sub-44 minute 10k in Portland’s October wind and rain.

Every runner knows that he or she is often just one outing away from a  difficult session – the tough day when you’re contending with nasty weather, or you don’t feel well, or your long-planned prep appears to have had little effect.

Each runner has a way of handling this. Some run through the difficulty, grinning and bearing it, while others avoid it altogether, turn over and grab an extra hour’s sleep on a Sunday morning. I’ve been both runners at different stages, usually feeling aggrieved by circumstance in the process.

Nietzsche suggests a third way – acceptance.

“To regard states of distress in general as an objection, as something that must be abolished, is the [supreme idiocy], in a general sense a real disaster in its consequences…almost as stupid as the will to abolish bad weather,” he wrote.

The plantar fascia

The plantar fascia

(The marathon-running novelist Haruki Murakami put this another way: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”.)

The challenge is to incorporate Nietzsche’s ‘distress’ into your workout, to get up close to it and make it part of the session. Physically we can build muscle by lifting weights – why not apply the same principle to mental weight?

Like the rain, difficulty is not going away. Like the niggling pain in my ankle or the ache of a shin splint, it can’t be abolished.

Later today I’ll head out for a 30-minute run knowing that I risk aggravating my on-off plantar fasciitis. But I’ll take my training advice from the “Ecce Homo”: “Pain does not count as an objection to life”.

In other words, get out there and just do it.
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Taking away some of that Bull Island zen

Dawn over Bull Island

Dawn over Howth Head, August 2016

My physiotherapist better look away now. Because this is a post about something that I really shouldn’t be doing much of but, despite all advice to the contrary, can’t give up.

It’s running. Or jogging, or slogging, or the next best word that describes my morning efforts around Bull Island.

On the mornings I can run that is. A burgeoning case of hallux limitus, a fairly common arthritic disorder that’s struck the big toe of my left foot.

A year ago I wrote about how the condition could eventually end my running altogether. Twelve months on and a canny regime of ice/walking/bicycling/rest has ensured that I can still get out for 5k twice a week. If I’m feeling utterly reckless I’ll stretch that to 10 – and pay for it afterwards.

But stopping is not an option. Most runners know the empty, distracted feeling when they miss a planned outing. Those who are injured know that they will do anything – make whatever time sacrifice, take whatever supplement, stretch whatever muscle – to get back out again.

Why? It’s not to get a physical workout – there are less painful ways to do that. It’s mental – or it certainly is in my case. When I’m off the track I miss the calming, clearing effect of a good run.

Running man

Running man

Over the years I’ve tried many things to quiet my mind. But nothing even comes close to the effect of 25 minutes running in the outdoors.

In recent weeks I’ve needed this more than ever. Planning, packing and preparing to leave Ireland has been exciting – but the flipside of the excitement, the anticipation and the bittersweet series of goodbyes has been my mind’s switch is jammed to ‘on’.

And so I’ve turned – despite the pain, which is manageable – back to jogging. Not just any jogging either, but a workout on Bull Island and Dollymount Strand, the sandspit that sits to the north of Dublin city centre.

This has been my gym in recent years, and it’s one I’ll miss. When my running ban was in effect I’d walk there, in any season and any weather.

But the best time to run in the area is on an August morning, shortly after a 6am sunrise. If you’re lucky you’ll catch dawn breaking over Howth Head, on one side, and over the city of a million slowly waking souls on the other. Most likely you’ll be alone, blank before the heavens, while your thoughts will have the decency not to intrude.

I’ve no idea where I’ll be running next month but – physios be damned – I will be. Whatever the location I do know one thing – I’ll take some of the Bull Island zen with me.

Dublin from Dollymount Strand

Dublin from Dollymount Strand, August 2016

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Off the edge of the sea

dolymount1

 

Buoyant, sometimes white or black,

But mostly an unobtrusive grey,

They hang off the edge of the sea.

The clouds off Dollymount don’t move –

Midway from here to the Isle of Man they remain

Simply there, a reminder.

A little rain falls on all, the singer sang –

Some days it comes down, most days it doesn’t.

On the day the sun’s up and the air’s clean and we’re all

Almost assured of our place, the clouds don’t come to shore.

They’re there, though.

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‘I started to imagine another me somewhere’

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC Pic: Anish Kapoor

Sky Mirror at Rockefeller Center, NYC
Pic: Anish Kapoor

“Turning all this over in my mind, I started to imagine another me somewhere, sitting in a bar, nursing a whiskey, without a care in the world. The more I thought about it, the more that other me became the real me, making this me here not real at all.”

– Haruki Murakami, ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’

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So how are the other Cormac Looneys doing?

The one I left in my early 20s studying in the library at Trinity College? The one I last saw as he walked to La Taqueria in The Mission in 1998 to pick up dinner? The one who cursed the cold as he slipped half an hour behind while descending from the Zumsteinspitze in 2010?

They’re fixed in my memory, set in linear time.

But are they? Is each one where I left him, back there in my past? Did they move on too, just like this me did? How did their lives develop? Are they happy? Are they alive?

They exist – if you believe (or understand) the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This concept suggests that multiple versions of me exist, living an infinite number of  lives, succeeding and failing, living and dying, in parallel with the Cormac Looney who is currently typing these words on a screen.

pic1Each version of me that I can recall (in fact, an infinite number – more than I can comprehend) lives on, as an alternative me. The me that walked to the taqueria is as real as the me who didn’t and who is typing these words.

This begs an unsettling question. As Murakami’s character asks, which one of these is the ‘real me’? Is the ‘real me’ somewhere else, and the me existing here in Dublin in 2015 just a quantum shadow? Does a ‘real me’ exist? Can a ‘real me’ exist?

Am I the total of an infinite number of Cormac Looneys, all bar one of which I will never be aware of? Am I universal? Am I immortal (given that at any given moment I can both die and not die)?

This is all possible, indeed it’s scientifically undeniable.

But one final piece of the jigsaw remains, without which the mind-bending wonder of many worlds remains just an almighty cosmic tease.

How can I be aware of these other me’s?

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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Why walk when you can saunter?

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

When was the last time you had a good saunter?

Not a bracing walk on the beach after Sunday lunch, or a sweaty stroll around the shops, but a mind-emptying couple of hours spent outdoors, putting one foot in front of another?

Can’t remember? In that case you may be risking your happiness, your mental health, your limited days of existence as a sentient being in a world that offers soul-blinding experiential delights.

Henry David Thoreau thought you were. In 1861 he wrote his treatise ‘Walking’ (neatly summarised on this Brain Pickings post), in which he described the benefits of sauntering for those who otherwise endured a sedentary life.

By Thoreau’s standards that would be most of us nowadays. (Elsewhere in ‘Walking’ he writes: “I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day.”)

The Walden philosopher, at leisure to stroll thanks to – it seems – the donut-baking generosity of his mother and sister, extols us to get up and move.

But it’s not that simple.  Sauntering is not a physical act, it’s a mental one.

You can stroll off along a beach, for an hour or more (as I often do), believing that you’re immersing yourself in nature and renewing your sensibilities. But you’re wasting your time – the act of motion is not enough.

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

How often we find ourselves strolling while distracted? Thoughts of the day-to-day easily pervade – work, appointments, plans. How much of my walk is wasted as I  fiddle with my iPod’s song selections or its ear buds?

Thoreau again: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

So even the great Transcendentalist himself pondered his shopping list while perambulating around Walden Pond.

Aware of this, Thoreau set to practice what he dubbed ” the art of walking”, the highest form of which was the act of sauntering: walking with a presence of mind, a focus on the body, the land, the air, the everything, and with the affairs of “the village” left behind.

It doesn’t come easy. Thoreau stated that “it requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker”.

Or just finding the right path.

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New year? It’s time to turn to Plan Be

One thing at a time... 'René Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden' Pierre-Louis Dumesnil

One thing at a time…
‘René Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden’
Pierre-Louis Dumesnil

Be.

Did you wake up this morning with a list of resolutions? Are you about to eat less/drink less/spend less, work more/exercise more/sleep more?

Good idea. There’s a strong chance that, in a week’s time, you’ll be fitter, happier and more productive.

Over here…I’m going to be.

Planning forward, dwelling back, trying to think through more than one task in the here and now – this is my usual daily MO.

And so for the first few hours, and hopefully days, of this new year I’ll be sitting here, or there, trying to be.

The word sits atop a multitude of philosophical and psychological concepts and practices, from Rene Descartes ‘corgito ergo sum‘ (can we trust any sense beyond thought?) to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘moment-to-moment awareness‘.

In my case it means focusing wholly on a single task in a single moment. One concept, one piece of work, one memory, one sensation, one thought.

Focusing on this ‘one’ also avoids the pull of distraction, a mentally-toxic wrench which corrodes clear thinking. (And makes us unhappier as a result).

This resolution is more than the usual casual advice to ‘live in the moment’ – the moment being something ephemeral and impossible to grasp (existentialist me asks if it even exists).

It’s to focus, to notice, to accept, to process, here and now.

This is Plan Be for 2015.

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‘He wanted to stay in that cafe forever’

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If Christmas means anything it means home – a place or a sense of home.

The lucky ones will find themselves there today, at home, among friends, family or even alone.

I woke this chilly Christmas morning in one place I can call home, Wexford, the town where I was born. Lucky, I rose with a sense of peace, my wife alongside me, other family members stirring.

The feeling of home struck me so strongly that I was brought to another place, taken from the streets of Wexford to a snow-struck hill town in North Carolina.

A young man sat in a cafe there, in a poem by Charles Bukowski. There’s no mention of Christmas, or home, but the verse is suffused with peace, a feeling of contentment and acceptance, the Christmas spirit.

“…the meal was
particularly
good
and the
coffee.
the waitress was
unlike the women
he had
known.
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
from her.
the fry cook said
crazy things.
the dishwasher,
in back,
laughed, a good
clean
pleasant
laugh.
the young man watched
the snow through the
windows.
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
forever.
the curious feeling
swam through him
that everything
was
beautiful
there,
that it would always
stay beautiful
there.”*

—–
*Charles Bukowski, “Nirvana”.

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Time, music, place: Broken Bells, LA

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A piece of music can be an instant ticket to a place or a time.

As I get older this phenomenon – notes firing down neural pathways, the intersection of time and music and place – preoccupies me more and more.

I’ve written about it here previously and an event last week brought to mind again. We visited with family and friends in Los Angeles, a busy trip involving catch-ups, food and drink, 30c days and one or two late nights.

This charming man - with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

This charming man – with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

One of those was spent at The Orpheum Theatre, where we caught a show by Broken Bells, the band fronted by Brian Burton and The Shins‘ James Mercer (the latter of whom I’d the pleasure of meeting afterwards).

And one of their encores on the night was Citizen, a song I’d heard umpteen times since picking up the band’s 2010 debut album.

Unlike the recording, heard live the song became an elegiac showcase for Mercer’s voice and his cry of ‘what’s it all about anyway?’, backlit with Jacob Escobedo‘s beautiful visuals.

The performance led to the rebirth of the song in my head. So much so that in the week since the show, which also saw my return home, the track has soundtracked my memory of the trip.

Listening to its chorus now, as I type this, puts me directly back in the LA light, jet lagged but energised, my memories a mix of freeways, glasses, huge amber skies, food and conversation.

I probably won’t listen to Citizen again for another six months. When I do – as with another song in another California at another time – it will bring me back, quicker and truer than photos or conversation, to LA in a few days in the late October of 2014.


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A shocking need for distraction

'Everyday robots on our phones'?

‘Everyday robots on our phones’?

I’d like to think that I wouldn’t do it, or that I’d at least be able to last longer than 15 minutes.

But the truth is that I’d be like the majority of men.

I’d trip the switch, give myself the electric shock and spend days afterwards wondering why I did it.

Luckily I didn’t take part in the experiment run by psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities, so I’ll never find out (nor do I plan to).

The test, details of which were published last week, was designed to find out why most of us find it difficult to simply sit and do nothing.

As part of their study the researchers picked 100 people and asked each of them to sit in a room and think. Just the subjects, the four walls and contents of their heads.

Left alone with just their thoughts two-thirds of the male subjects, and one-quarter of the female, felt so uncomfortable that they opted for the only distraction available: giving themselves with a mild electric shock.

Or as one of the scientists put it, somewhat depressingly: “Simply being alone with their thoughts was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid”.

'In the process of getting home.'

‘In the process of getting home.’

Like most people I’d like to think that I am one of those self-contained, focused, individuals who could sit in such a room and happily devised shopping lists or silently hum a tune, without zapping myself.

But could I? My morning commute, for example, sees me sit in an enclosed space for about 15  minutes. And I rarely do it without some distraction, either by way of my iPod or my phone.

I convince myself this time spent checking emails, reading news sites and scanning Twitter is productive. But I still do it on days when I’m not working, or even on vacation.

So perhaps it’s less duty and more distraction. (Something I’m also conscious of in my daily battle for silent time).

In timely coincidence the same day I read of the experiment my wife played me a song called Everyday Robots, written by Damon Albarn.

We are everyday robots on our phones
In the process of getting home
Looking like standing stones
Out there on our own

Which just about sums up the 18.53 from Connolly.

Mind you, I’d never have been aware of this mass distraction crisis unless I’d read of the room test. And where did I do that?

On my iPhone of course, standing on a train, during a 15 minute commute.

Sign me up for a shock therapy.

 

 

 

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