Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a visual arts class about the reconstructive nature of memory. This came at a time when I was reeling from two nights of nightmares, the sort in which the dreamer is screaming, screaming, and no one hears or even looks up. I did not remember the content of the dreams when I awoke.
The mind is a powerful place.
I thought about this on my run later in the afternoon, a run that I didn’t want to go on but I know my mind and body well. Not wanting to go due to mental fatigue meant that the right thing to do, without question, was to go.
As it was, the gathering clouds beckoned. The wind blew in a way that hinted at a gift of cool afternoon rain but that could, in the tropics, blow over and leave us with nothing at all.
I watched my mind as if from a perch high above the treetops as I ran along the canal. I watched it growing negative, judgemental, downright nasty in its commentary of the strangers passing by. And I laughed because I understood – because I knew.
What I criticized in others was precisely what I feared in myself.
The sequence of thoughts did not come as a surprise – after all, I know my mind and body well. It was easy to draw a line from a book I’d read to the dreams I’d had to the venom my mind conjured. Easy because I’d been there before.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived a very long time.
And I laughed when the sky darkened further and the wind danced through the trees. A child again, I danced with it.
At the end of my run, I spent a few minutes stretching in the park. And that was when it began to rain.
I was stretching after my run on Tuesday morning when I heard three pops. Uh-oh. I’ve been a reluctant but reasonably dedicated runner since university and I’ve been a dancer my whole life. It is not good when something pops while you are stretching.
My right hamstring grew stiffer as the day went on and I did what I normally do, which is to forget that icing immediately is a huge help. Tiger Balm later in the day helped instead.
I felt much better the following morning but I’ve learned a few things in a highly active life and one is not to push it. That being said, working from home has brought an entirely different pace and shape to the day and feeling my body move before settling in at my makeshift standing desk has been an anchor, something that signals to me that I have transitioned from my world to the work world.
About ten years ago, I started practicing yoga early in the morning to support a roommate who was trying to build a healthier lifestyle. We practiced in our living room in our university apartment with the aid of a video series. It wasn’t until many months later than I actually took my first yoga class but videos are still the most common way that I practice. And so, unable to run but no longer limping and feeling a need to anchor my day, I modified the poses in a yoga video.
The point of yoga is to breathe, which is easy to forget. I understand that many people use yoga as a workout and it certainly can be. You’re supposed to get the blood and body moving and it feels really good. Especially at the beginning, the poses are new and it takes time to get used to what to move and when and where. But the point of yoga is to move with the breath. The poses are simply a way of moving the body to follow the breath.
As I breathed through each pose, modified differently on the right side than the left, I thought that this actually made for a nice metaphor of living in our Covid-19 world. I know that countries are tackling this pandemic differently and I have certainly seen Singapore’s response develop since January. But no matter where we are, life is different than normal and we are finding ways to modify our lives in order to keep breathing, to keep doing whatever we can to hold onto what is important to us. And in the situations where we cannot do so, where the relationships or activities or work that bring us meaning have transformed unrecognisably, we have found ways to modify our lives to cope with this reality.
The depth of human resilience has brought me awe in the last few weeks. I’ve written about human fragility but I think I’ve overstated that and neglected something that I now understand about human determination, dedication, and flexibility. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that everyone I know is stronger now than they were before, and probably stronger than they thought they could be. I’ve been looking for silver linings and perhaps this is yet another one.
I went for a run again this morning before work after last night’s rain and immediately found my socks and shoes soaked from the muddy ground. I shrugged off the discomfort and laughed with the childish joy one experiences running through a mud puddle.
And then the body moved with the breath, perhaps slower than a few days earlier, but the body moved with the breath.
Growing up, I was highly motivated by sticker charts. Need to do something I didn’t like doing? Make a sticker chart. Counting down to something? Sticker chart. I liked the sense of accomplishment and I loved the stickers, especially the really intricate, detailed ones that you had to carefully peel off the backing paper and painstakingly adjust before sticking down because there was no peeling them back up again.
In my adult life, I’ve maintained slightly more advanced versions of sticker charts. There’s a minutes meditated counter in an app on my phone, a 1000km running challenge in a different app, and I can set my annual reading goal on yet another app. (And there are my blog statistics, but I’m going to leave that out of this discussion.)
Recently, I’ve started giving up those external motivators because it felt like the right thing to do. I spent the weekend out of town, mostly without wifi, doing yoga and eating spicy food and it gave me time to reflect. The post below explores what I have learned.
Annual Reading Goal
It’s no secret that I read a lot. I find it interesting to keep track of what I’ve read because I can look back on patterns and try to fit what I was reading into my memories of life at a certain time. Additionally, it’s helpful to look back on my book list to figure out when certain ideas changed and consider why that might have been.
For a couple years, I used Goodreads to set a reading goal and I noticed a change in my reading when I wasn’t sure whether or not I would reach it. Does this book “count” or is it really an extended essay or article? Do I start this shorter book that I’m sure to finish or do I invest myself in a long one? Do I take the longer train ride to get in a few more minutes of reading?
When I started riding my bike instead of taking the MRT and realised I was fretting a little bit, I decided a reading goal was no longer a good idea. The point is that I read what interests me, I learn and I talk to people, and I learn some more. The point is not to read a certain number of books.
Last year, I didn’t set a reading goal and found that I was much more impulsive choosing books and reading several books at once. They took however much time they took, and I found myself doing a variety of different things with my leisure time. Rather than read on the treadmill to make sure I was keeping up, I stopped on my outdoor runs to meditate by a nearby pond. Rather than sit in cafés over the weekend to read, I rode my bike, cooked dinner with a friend, and settled myself down to people-watch.
I still read something every single day, but I no longer feel guilty if that something isn’t a book that can count on my app. Rather than collect trophies, I’m trying to balance the time I spend in the book world and the time I spend in the real world. It’s a lot easier to hide in a book but I’m glad to experience the world where I am, too. There’s a lot to learn out there!
1000km Running Goal
I started running when I was in university as a way to deal with stress. Many of my friends ran and although it was a real chore for quite some time, I felt better when I exercised than when I didn’t. I’ve gone through occasionally obsessive periods in which I have to run and get really antsy when I don’t. These moments still occur (it has recently come to my attention that the itchy, visceral need to move my body right now is not normal) but I’ve calmed down a lot when it comes to running.
This shift has been gradual and likely has something to do with living in a climate where running is usually really unpleasant. Maybe all of this will change when I’m no longer living on the equator. But for several years, I participated in a 1000km challenge through an app and I steadily met the goal. I used to get a little anxious when I realised I was falling behind or when I started to count how many times I’d have to run over a particularly busy period in order to stay on track. Getting anxious over running, however, was completely counter to why I started running in the first place.
I got into rock climbing about a year and a half ago and immediately recognised that I enjoyed climbing and what it did to my body far more than I enjoyed running. Running got me outside, which is high on the list of reasons why I continue doing it, but the climbing gym (and real rocks when we can arrange it) worked my body and mind very differently than running ever had.
2019 was the first year I didn’t complete the 1000km challenge and I opted not to enter for 2020. For a long time, running was the way to feel strong physically and the way I judged my fitness and compared myself to others. Climbing, however, showed me that there’s a very different type of strength, fitness, and agility that actually suits me much better. I still dance and practice yoga regularly and that’s what my body does well.
This is not to say I’ve stopped running; I haven’t and I likely won’t. But it’s one of several active pursuits now and not the one that dictates the pace of a weekend morning or the flow of an evening. And surprisingly enough, I actually like it a whole lot more.
There’s nothing wrong with stickers. But there’s a lot wrong when the pursuit of a sticker detracts from the original purpose of an action. I’ve grown a lot more adept at figuring out what I need and I’ve grown more confident choosing X over Y. Just because I usually do things one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way, and just because something used to be my primary driver doesn’t mean it will always be.
Over the last little while, I’ve learned to balance. I’ve learned to maintain routines that fit and adapt those that do not. I’ve learned to be more spontaneous and less concerned with maintaining something that, for all intents and purposes, I was maintaining mostly out of habit.
And I’ve also learned that there’s comfort in pattern and sometimes, when I’m feeling out of sorts, the best thing to do is to return to those patterns and reset.
It’s nice to take a moment to breathe, isn’t it?
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place