Friday, April 6, 2012

In Praise of Discomfort

“People think I'm crazy to put myself through such torture, though I would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: 'Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.' Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any runner.”
― Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner

I normally never read sports books and I've never been an avid runner, but for some reason I picked up "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. I saw a short clip when I was in Portland about a book about some sort of hidden running tribe and an extreme race across the desert (at the time, I didn't even know it was called). I thought that sounded interesting and something about it stuck in my head, and when I found out what the book was called, I ordered it from the library and gave it a read. Despite being outside of my normal subject matter, I couldn't put it down. I read it in a week (although my running habits have atrophied considerably since then) . It's a terrific read - good storytelling and a fascinating exposition of the human relationship to running. As the book pointed out, humans are the only animals that run for pleasure.

The ultimate running phenomenon is fascinating to me. In a world where we are told that comfort and convenience is the ultimate justification for just about every atrocity around today, and where these two factors seem to be the impetus behind every new product from fast food to 3G broadband, how is it that so many people seem to want to push themselves to the limit, that is, to make themselves uncomfortable, so much so that now even a marathon is not enough? That now people are pushing themselves to run thirty, forty or a hundred miles? Or run for twenty-fours hours straight or multiple marathons back-to-back? It seems almost a natural counter-reaction - in the age where we need to drive everywhere for even the smallest things and some Americans even scuttle around permanently on little golf-cart like scooters, we need to go even more extreme lengths the other direction, especially when physical work is no longer necessary in our daily lives as it was for our ancestors.

Comfort seems to be almost antithetical to happiness. Not only happiness, but to enlightenment. The Japanese have a practice called Misogi in which they make themselves extremely uncomfortable in order to seek enlightenment. This is also practiced by martial artists. The Stoic philosophers also had similar ideas. We seem to have lost touch with this wisdom. It seems like when a society gets ever-more comfortable and convenient, depression seems to go up, not down. Then, why do we pursue this with such intensity? I think it boils down to what a lot of positive psychology researchers have said: we're terrible at predicting what makes us happy. Maybe we should all get a bit more uncomfortable.

I thought of all this due to the recent death of one of Born To Run's central, and most mysterious characters:  Caballo Blanco, alias Micah True, alias Michael Randall Hickman. His death is still a mystery, but McDougall penned a nice article about him for the BBC:
He was an ex-professional boxer, I discovered, who was recovering from a broken heart with long, rambling runs across the Colorado trails. When the Tarahumara needed someone to guide them for the last 50 miles of the race, he volunteered. Something about that night - about the experience of whisking silently through the dark by the side of a stranger from another century - must have affected him deeply, because soon after the Tarahumara left, Michael Randall Hickman went after them. He'd be reborn - first as Micah True, self-named seeker of ancient wisdom, and then, to the Tarahumara children he entertained by snorting and stomping, as Caballo Blanco.
His life is as far apart from the American McDream as you can get. He lived a hand-to-mouth existence with no steady job in one of the poorest and most inhospitable areas of Mexico alongside a relatively poor, reclusive tribe with very few of our modern conveniences. It was hardly a life of cubicles, attached garages and time schedules:
The mysterious thing about the disappearance last week of Micah True - better known as Caballo Blanco, the White Horse of the Sierra Madre mountains - was that for once, we knew where he was. He wasn't bushwhacking a secret new route through the Mexican outback because he heard a bandit was lying in wait for him on the old one. He hadn't set off at sunrise to run all day through Mexico's Copper Canyons to visit the hidden homes of his friends, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians. He wasn't clattering across the Mojave in an ancient pickup truck, hoping to earn a few more months of food as a vagabond furniture mover.
Was he unhappy? Hardly:
Caballo's dream was to let the rest of the world know there was ancient wisdom worth protecting down there in the canyons, and his method was to create a wild, multi-day running festival in the heart of Tarahumara territory. Nine months after he'd shown me how to transform my technique, I was able to return to the Copper Canyons in 2006 with ace runners like Scott Jurek and Luis Escobar for the 50-mile Ultramaraton de Caballo Blanco. Since then, the race has grown beyond even Caballo's wildest expectations - this year on 4 March, more than 400 Tarahumara and nearly 100 outside runners participated, including past New York City marathon champion German Silva. "He was the happiest I'd ever seen him," Will Harlan, one of Caballo's friends, told me. "He seemed to have a tranquillity and centeredness, even as record numbers of Tarahumara descended on Urique to run the race."
And he seemed to have spiritual harmony too. The advice that transformed McDougall's running techniques sounded like something out of a Zen master:
"Don't fight the trail. Take what it gives you," he began. "Lesson two - think easy, light, smooth and fast. You start with easy, because if that's all you get, that's not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don't [care] how high the hill is or how far you've got to go. When you've practised that so long that you forget you're practising, you work on making it smooooooth. You won't have to worry about the last one - you get those three, and you'll be fast."
I'd point out that the reason Kung-Fu was said to originate in the Shaolin temple was because the exercises were designed to use movement to "forget oneself" and bring about enlightenment. Many physical exercises are designed this way, including Hatha Yoga (the real practice) and walking meditation. I think the ideas above can be applied to just about any endeavor. It similar to the psychological idea of Flow.

And no matter how "successful" you are, you can't take it with you. How do you want to go?:
On Monday, he went for a six-hour run with Guadajuko, a Mexican mongrel he'd adopted and called "the ghost dog". On Tuesday, he decided to do a quick 12-miler before hitting the road. Guadajuko's paws were sore, so Caballo left him on the porch and told the innkeeper he'd be back in two hours.Five days later, he was finally discovered by the side of a cool mountain stream not far from the lodge. His death is still a mystery. One of the running buddies who found him said Caballo looked peaceful - as if he'd stopped for a nap at the end of a long, glorious ramble through the woods, and never woken up.
This ties in with two things. As author John Michael Greer has pointed out, we've come to rely on external machines and technologies so much that natural human abilities have atrophied. Relying on computers and other mechanical aids outside ourselves, we have no reason to develop our own hidden potential. In The Recovery of the Human, he says:
[...] Thus one of the greatest challenges ahead of us as the age of abundance ends is nothing less than the rediscovery of the possibilities of our own humanity. The work that needs to be done—and in an epoch of decline, there will be plenty of that—will have to be done with the capacities woven into the human body and mind, along with those additional capacities that can be developed in both by training and practice. The effort that nowadays gets poured into teaching people how to manipulate machines will need to be redirected into teaching them how to bring out the creative and productive capacities in themselves.

Less than a hundred years ago, the sort of awareness I’m suggesting here was a common response of people across the industrial world to the mechanization of everyday life, and less than forty years ago a revival of that same approach—the human potential movement of the Seventies—achieved a not inconsiderable success before it was stomped by the same backlash that flattened the industrial world’s last real attempt to turn aside from the mess it’s made for itself. The recognition that the potential within the individual human being is the industrial world’s most thoroughly wasted and neglected resource has surfaced at intervals straight through the history of industrialism, and been hurriedly swept back under the rug time and again. Go back to the origins of contemporary industrial society in the scientific revolution, in fact, and you can trace the same opposition in the tangled conflicts by which the first versions of modern science seized the cultural conversation of their time from the remnants of Renaissance humanism and set our civilization on the path to its current predicament.

There are immense issues involved in a recovery of the human, a refocusing of attention toward what human beings can do with their own innate possibilities and potentials for learning and away from the quest to replace as many human functions as possible by this season’s crop of computerized gimmickry. I’ve touched on a few of those issues in the sequence of posts on magic that appeared here in the last months of 2011, and plan on bringing up others here and there in the months to come. For now, what I hope to get across is the core idea that the most important resources we have left at this point, the most promising potentials for a response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, are not machines, or potential sources of fuel, or anything else outside the individual human being.
Greer uses the art of memory as one example, but the ability to traverse fifty to one hundred miles in a day by continuous running that the Tarahmara have developed is another prime example. And to think according to city planning experts, anything beyond 1.5 miles is not walkable! It's a paradox of our times that even in the age of mechanical comfort, it seems that other human abilities are becoming more developed. Once the four-minute mile was considered impossible, now it's run even by amateurs in high school. Olympic and other sports records are broken all the time. And marathons have become passe in the age of the ultramarathon (competitive eating proves that not all of these trends are beneficial, however).

The other ties in with the Grammar of Happiness article, about living with primitive tribes in the Amazon. The Amazonian tribes and the Tarahumara are "primitive" people that have survived into our present time. They live with a level of technology we would think of as stone age. They run from place to place and catch all their own food. they must be miserable, right?
By the time I tracked him down, he'd spent nearly 15 years living among the Tarahumara. Their secret, Caballo told me, was simple - the Tarahumara remember that humans are creatures of constant motion, and if we forget that we survived and thrived for most of our existence as long-distance runners, we'll suffer the same consequences as any other caged animal - disease, mood swings, eating disorders, all-around misery. "The Tarahumara aren't smarter than us. They've just got better memories." Learn the fine art of running, Caballo told me, and you can change your life.
I think there's a lesson here, and it's about more than running. It's not just the art of running, it's the art of living we've forgotten. The quote at the top of the page is one of my favorites - why do we consistently confuse comfort with happiness? So many of these human potential things seem to be all about our mindspace. And what is our mindspace like in the modern world? Here's a great quote posted on Of Two Minds recently:
Last year you wrote an essay about what you called the "often-wrenching process of change." (Change and the Process of Transformation August 15, 2011). I think there is a marketing/consumerist aspect to our fears. I think the fear of "being yourself" and wanting to retain that fantasy viewpoint is all about the fear that your real self is NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Most of the country feels this way - not good enough. But we've had help getting there - a million commercials by age 35, lovingly scripted by experts focused on motivating us to consume, often based on improving status or looking better. How could your real self be good enough if you need all those products? Most people are terrified to be stripped of all their things that prop them up, not because they are intrinsically lame people, but because that's how they've been programmed to think. Its very hard to avoid this programming. I mean, really. One MILLION commercials. And I'm certain more time, effort, energy, and creativity went into those commercials than the actual programming - especially given today's reality TV crap. And parents and friends help to reinforce. Its one of the hardest things ever to have a healthy level of detachment from all the stuff.

I once read an almanac (don't ask me why) from the 1950s and in the back, there was this table that I'll never forget. It was a stress table, and it rated each stressful event. Obvious ones like death of a spouse, divorce, getting fired, but JUST AS STRESSFUL were the so-called positive changes - getting promoted, getting married, birth of a child. What I drew from this is that all change (positive OR negative) is inherently stressful. Which ties in completely with what you wrote. Transformation is stressful, even when nominally positive.
One million commercials! Imagine if instead we had one million messages telling us what we could achieve? Or to be kind, generous, thoughtful and forgiving? Instead the messages we receive are: "you are incomplete," "buy this product to make up for your shortcomings," "you deserve it," and "who dies with the most toys wins." As I've often said, we're living in the single largest psychological experiment ever performed, except instead of volunteers in a lab it's being performed on the whole of society without our consent, and there are no controls or supervision. If this were an experiment in a laboratory, the plug would have been pulled long ago on ethical grounds.

Change is stressful, as the article points out, even so-called "beneficial" change. There is very little change in the lives of the Tarahumara and the Pirahã. Yet we keep being told by the people on the top of the pyramid that innovation is the answer to all our problems, and that we need "creative destruction." Really? maybe what we need is little less innovation, a little less destruction, a little less comfort, and the recovery of our own abilities and self-reliance. We need the recovery of the human.

So take a lesson from the life of the late Micah True. Live a life less ordinary. Suffer. Refuse to be spoon-fed. Develop your own abilities, whatever they may be. Go where your heart takes you. Don't fall into the comfort and convenience trap. We were meant to suffer, because that's what makes us human, and paradoxically, it's what makes us happy. What you think will make you happy probably won't. It doesn't have to be running, it can be anything. Don't let someone else tell you what your dreams should be.
“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you're not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you're not demanding more from yourself - expanding and learning as you go - you're choosing a numb existence. You're denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
― Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner

Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.
― Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "...if you're not demanding more from yourself - expanding and learning as you go - you're choosing a numb existence."

    The paradox here is that, like the consumerist message that commercials propagate, this is still a way of saying that we are incomplete, that we should strive to be more than what we have been so that we can be happy. The fundamental difference is that consumerism endlessly teases you with the false notion that once you acquire enough possessions, you will feel complete, but it's like the horse tied to the carrot at the end of the stick - it's an endless chase. On the other hand, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone in order to grow as a person isn't a task taken on to be "accomplished", but simply a recognition that standing still is the equivalent to stagnating and becoming stale, that atrophy is the result of choosing comfort, convenience, and underuse and neglect of the human body over challenge, opportunity, and movement and creating purpose in your life.


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