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How running helps meditation and meditation helps running

Meditation helps my running because it teaches me not to get attached to my thoughts. Instead of clinging to the negative thoughts I get at some stage in every race or training session – you know, why don't you stop, your body's not made for this, it hurts, what if you're injuring yourself – I choose to gently favour something else instead of the thoughts. Gently favour my breath or the sensation of my feet connecting with the ground. I take myself out of my thoughts and connect with my body. If my legs hurt then instead of concentrating on the thoughts of the pain I'll put my awareness in the body part itself, usually my hip flexors or my IT band in my leg. With awareness in the place that hurts I usually find that it doesn't hurt as much as my head thought it did. Without the negative thoughts in my head I start to feel good and can keep powering on. It's like a moving version of a mindfulness body scan or the cosmic body technique for those of you that know it. 

But then running also helps my meditation. What I learn from maintaining high levels of physical work rate over several hours is that if I try to force anything to happen through mental strength or control then I quickly get stressed, tight in my running style, expend more energy than I need and go slower. (When I experience this I tell myself to relax and go faster. In relaxing I allow my body to do what it knows to do.) After a few minutes of this I realise that I just can't keep up that level of stress and tension for however long I have to run and I just surrender. Not surrender as in give up, but let go and trust my body, trust that the training I've done before will get me through, trust that if I let go everything will go a lot smoother. That's something I take into meditation. (Don't try to force it, don't try to make anything happen. Have an intention to hold the mantra.) I can't use my brain, my intellect to conquer meditation just like I can't run 42km with my mind. There comes a point in running and in meditation when I realise where I am and how I'm trying to think my way out of it again - my default behaviour. And at this point, I just shrug, smile and let go. 

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An except from Tiger Be Brave

An except from Tiger Be Brave

A couple of years ago I wrote the first draft of a novel called Tiger Be Brave. In this excerpt, the main character, Max, a young, heart-broken and hungry tiger, meets the crow who will be his companion on his upcoming adventure.  

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Water rushed over Max's face and filled his mouth. It hung slack. His belly felt as empty as the sky. Hunger rumbles passed through it like dark rain clouds. He couldn't bring himself to get out of the stream. The cold would soon take care of his problems. He closed his eyes and saw an image of Anya striding over the hilltop to rescue him.  

Something landed on his chest. A crow. Its beak hovered just in front of his face. The crow stepped back and turned to the side, fixing the tiger with a gleaming black eye. Its beak was crabby and gnarled with deep gouges.

"Oh, you're alive," said the crow. Its accent sounded foreign. "I thought you'd maybe rolled over and carked it from shame." It squawked a laugh and shook its head. "Not very good at hunting are you?"

Max frowned. "I've hurt my paw," he said in his thick Russian accent. He lifted the proof out of the water and watched the red drops hit the water and race away down the stream. 

"That little scratch," said the crow, looking down to his left and shielding his face with a wing. "I think you'll live."

Max bristled and turned on his side unseating the crow. He growled.

"I know that," he said. "I just fell on it badly." He shook the water from his coat and padded to the bank trying to hide his limp. The crow hopped after him.

"Not much of a tiger are you?"

Max's empty stomach tightened and blood ran to his head. He turned to the crow and roared. It flapped up to the safety of a branch. 

"That's more like it. Get some spirit back into you. That's what we want to see. Thought I was dealing with a cockroach. Not the king of the forest." 

Max swished his tail and climbed up the bank.

"Now, looking at how scrawny you are I'd say you were in need of a good meal," said the crow.

Max lay on his front under a tree and crossed his good paw over the bad one. He shivered by way of answer. 

"There are so few of you tigers these days that us crows don't get much to feed on." He looked at Max with kindness. "Bugs and worms will keep a crow from death's door but they're not much to write home about. A nice meaty treat once in a while is all I ask for." 

Max bent his head to lick the excess water from his forepaws like his father had trained him. Sitting around all wet was how you caught a cold. He agreed with the crow but wasn't inclined to let on. 

"I've been doing fine, thanks for your concern," said Max. "I've killed plenty."

The crow squawked a laugh again. "Pull the other one!" He swaggered up and down the branch.

"What did you do with the bodies? Dissolve them in a pond of acid you've hidden somewhere?" It snorted and flapped its wings.

"Think you could get a juicy corpse within five miles of this schnoz? No chance." 

Max cleared his throat and decided not to pursue the lie. "Where are you from, crow? You don't sound like you're from here."

The crow puffed its chest and raised its beak.

"London, mate. Greatest city in the world."

It brought its beak down and thought for a moment.

"Shit hole mind."

Max wasn't in the mood for small talk. 

"And what brought you to the Russian Far East to annoy me?"

"I'm only teasing, mate. Calm down. I came here for the clean living. London's all covered in soot and dirt from the car fumes. Not here though. White as far as the eye can see. Not as much fighting over turf neither." He hopped a few paces down the branch as if to prove his point. Then he gave Max a sly look. 

"More chance of stumbling across a nice tiger kill every once in a while too. Not much more chance, but you know … no no, don't be like that! Only messing. You're a touchy one now ain't you?" 

Max sat up proudly and exhaled a heavy plume of breath. His tail flicked snow from left to right and his whiskers twitched. 

"What do you want?"

The crow glanced around to make sure they were alone and shuffled down the branch towards Max.

"I want to help you out, you see. I think we could be good partners. I bring the brains and you bring those nice sharp claws of yours."

The crow jumped down from the branch and pecked at one of Max's paws. Annoyed, Max jerked his paw and sent the crow hurtling towards the tree trunk. "Steady on!" He flew around it and returned to the safety of the branch. 

"Is that how partners treat each other? Not where I come from. Now as I was saying, I'll help you find prey and give you some tips about killing I've picked up over the years. You let me share the feasts. Simple as that. You are hungry aren't you? The faster we can get this off the ground, the faster we can get some food in our bellies."

Max closed his eyes and buried his chin in his chest. He didn't trust the crow one bit but didn't have much choice. His stomach groaned and he coughed to cover the sound.  

"OK, crow. I'm not making any long term deals but let's see how we get on. Now where's the food?"

The crow chuckled and danced along the branch. 

"Go on, my son. I knew you'd come round in the end. Right, this way."

An unexpected benefit of meditation

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An unexpected benefit of meditation

When the dentist texts me to say I'm due a check up, my first response, being the dental coward I am, is to ignore it for six months. When they text again, I force myself to call back and ask if I can "reluctantly" book an appointment. The sweet receptionist usually humours me with a laugh. 

 

The reason for my reluctance has a large part to do with the fact that my dentist has the following annotation on my file: "Gagger". (Stop sniggering at the back.) Since I can remember, dentists digging around in the back of my mouth have always provoked an involuntary response from my gag reflex. This sees me retching and spluttering and generally making the appointments a drain for everyone involved. For me there is the obvious physical discomfort but also the embarrassment of being such a wuss in my late 30s. And for the dentists there may be some professional dissatisfaction at not being able to provide me with as smooth an experience as possible. 

 

So I was pleased to receive a call from the receptionist this week saying my dentist was excited to talk to me about a new technique he'd learned at a conference to help "gaggers" when I was next in. Conveniently, this was only a few days later when I was due for a filling in one of my back molars, prime gag territory. The dentist started telling me about how it could be related to the flap of skin that links your tongue to the base of your mouth and how some people are "tongue tied", which means their tongues have overly restricted movement. Part of the tongue's job is to protect the throat from swallowing anything it shouldn't and the theory goes that tongue tied people can't protect their throats with their tongues and so use gagging as a defence mechanism instead. The dentist poked around in my mouth and got me to show I had free movement of my tongue and was surprised I showed no signs of gagging. 

 

He then proceeded to attach a clip to my back tooth and then a rubber sheet covering my tongue and throat to stop me ingesting the amalgam from the filling. He then went on to perform the dental work, which was the longest procedure I could remember – at least 20 minutes of constant work with drills, picks, suction tubes, glowing heaters that I presume were drying the filling "cement". By comparison it only took around a minute to remove a wisdom tooth a few months ago. 

 

Afterwards the dentist was dumbfounded that there'd been no retching. In years past I would have flipped out in the chair or tried to bite his hand off if he'd done something like this. I almost expected him to say I'd been a "very brave boy" and give me a sticker like I was a six-year-old again. 

 

At this point I mentioned that I'd been meditating for three years and that perhaps that had helped. He jumped on this and started talking about how he had read that meditation works on decreasing activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the the "fight or flight" response, and instead activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the so called "rest and digest" system. I agreed that this was my understanding and he said he'd tried using meditation apps but that they just hadn't stuck. I passed him my business card. "It's a sign," he said and stowed the card away safely.  

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