Someone asked me the other day: “Dude, what do you think about while you’re out there running hour after hour?” It seems like an innocent enough question, but I really had to struggle to find an answer. You see, I love to run, and I run a lot—In fact, I logged just over 8,200 km in 2013, and I’m hoping to crack 9,000 this year. When I was chatting with friends a few weeks ago, we worked out that if you combine all the time I spent running in 2013, it comes out to 26 days (running 24 hours/day).
I head out the door most mornings at 4:30 to run through the streets of Toronto. I don’t run with an iPod or any other type of headset because I want to be totally aware of the traffic noises around me especially considering I usually run in the street rather than on the sidewalk or trails. I’m a little militant when it comes to runners zoning out to their iPods, and I would be ecstatic if they were banned from races. I really believe that you put yourself, and those around you, in danger when you run in a “music bubble”. Running on a treadmill with an iPod is another story entirely—You might lose your mind if you don’t have something to distract you.
So, with no music to lull me, what do I think about on my runs? I started running competitively about 16 years ago, when I entered a treatment program for drug/alcohol addiction. I needed a new outlet to not only get physically healthy but also psychologically grounded. What I didn’t know at the time was that running would evolve into a spiritual practice in my life. Running tends to quiet my mind, and it gives me space to process whatever challenges or excitements great me throughout my day.
If you listen carefully, the streets of Toronto have their own rhythm—their own chorus. On my morning runs, I’m serenaded by the grinding of the streetcars along King and Queen; downtown I hear the echoes of the early morning delivery trucks; when I arrive back to the Beaches, I’m greeted by the waves lapping up on the shore. I’m also intimately attuned to the sounds of the changing seasons—The screeches of the raccoons in spring, the humidity-induced rumbling of the thunder in the summer, the shuffle of the blowing leaves in the autumn, and the crunch of the ice and snow under my feet in the winter.
Everywhere I travel, I bring my running gear and head out for early morning runs. I only need to close my eyes, and I’m immediately drawn back into the world of the constant battling of car horns in Manhattan, the wind whistling through the pines in northern France, the roosters' sing-song in rural South Africa, and most recently, the guttural mooing of cattle in pastoral England. If you’re a runner who typically runs with music, I invite you to leave your iPod at home next time you head out the door, and you might discover that the best “playlist” is opening your senses to what’s already around you.
I thought I’d end this post with a poem I wrote about my “love affair” with running. When I wrote it, I tried to capture the essence of how important it is to be in tune with my body, and how running has always been there for me when I needed it most.
“Let’s Run Away”
by: JP Bedard
We meet in the dark,
On deserted streets
The rhythmic pounding,
Our subtle beats
As we pass by
Take furtive looks
At tush or thigh
They wonder what
We see in each other
Surely, they say
He could find another
We start off slow,
No need to rush
A gentle grind,
My cheeks, flush
The pace gets faster,
No time to wait
Less gliding, more grinding
Much too hard to tolerate
As do hips
A numbing throb
In my fingertips
Encased in sculpted breast
Entranced by pain
Do others attest
The greatest reward
When I get in,
I still feel your presence
Under my skin
An ache, a twinge,
A whisper deep inside,
In my sole reside
Serendipity has been a reoccurring theme running through my last few posts, so I guess it’s high time I stepped back and listened to what the universe is trying to tell me. What I initially thought was simply a benign feeling of lethargy has in fact morphed into a debilitating sense of apathy. Being a very passionate person, I tend to swing from one preoccupation to another—my mood fluctuates from maniac obsession to waning interest. Lately, I’ve been feeling very out of sorts; what I would label as rootless or rudderless. Having just worked through a prolonged period of introspection, I’ve become a prisoner of the present, unable to envision what I would like the next chapter of my life to look like. Don’t get me wrong—as a recovering alcoholic, I recognize the value in only focusing on today and not projecting too far into the future, but in practice, having a game plan for tomorrow does provide us with a sense of security.
This brings me back to the idea of serendipity. Our family has just returned from a holiday abroad, where we had the opportunity to celebrate my in-laws’ golden wedding anniversary. While we were on holiday, my father-in-law took me aside and told me that he had bought me a book that he thought would be helpful, or comforting, as I’m coming to terms with sexual abuse that I experienced in my childhood. The book is called “The Wounded Healer”, written by Father Henri Nouwen. The premise of the book is that before we can be of service to others, we must first recognize the suffering in our own hearts.
The arrival of this book has been so serendipitous because I appear to have gotten stuck halfway through the process described by Father Nouwen. After six months of intensive self-reflection, I am finally becoming “at peace” with the trauma from my childhood, but I haven't been able to use this self-awareness, or acceptance, as a bridge to empathize with the suffering in others. One of the greatest tragedies of childhood sexual abuse is that it creates a bubble of shame that isolates the child, adolescent, and later adult, from those around him/her. The older I get, the more I realize that my happiness does not lie in material objects or personal accomplishments, but rather in my ability to make authentic connections with those around me I care most about.
As I’m working my way through Nouwen’s book, I’m realizing that my debilitating apathy as of late, may be a symptom of what Nouwen refers to as the plague of the “existential man”. I’ve been spending so much time in my head that I have lost my connection to others, and more importantly, it is this connection established through our shared suffering and joy that makes our conception of a past and, in my case, a future possible. In the words of Father Nouwen: “Only when man feels himself responsible for the future can he have hope or despair, but when he thinks of himself as the passive victim…his motivation falters and he starts drifting from one moment to the next, making life a long row of chained incidents and accidents.”
For me, the way to move passed my apathy may lie in action and connection. I’ve already made the shift in my mind from “victim” of childhood sexual abuse to “survivor” of childhood sexual abuse. It’s now time turn my attention away from my own suffering and start to identify with the commonality of suffering we all share. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about what “my” next chapter should look like, and start asking what does “our” next chapter look like!
It’s often said that perspective is everything, and when it comes to navigating the incessant ups and downs of life, there’s probably no better philosophy to use as your guide. I’m also a firm believer in serendipity, as I’ve been the beneficiary of happenstance at times in my life when I’ve needed it most. This is a rather long-winded way of me saying that once again, my guardian angel was looking out for me today when one of my friends on Facebook posted the following quote: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” I knew I had read this somewhere before, but I couldn’t recall where, so I did what everybody does—I turned to Google.
Turns out this quote comes from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost"—an epic poem that I spent 6 months studying in university. I decided to pull out my old textbook and find the context of the quotation, and that’s when I realized that the true beauty of this quotation is further enhanced by including the line before and after that which was posted on Facebook.
“A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same.”
For those of you unfamiliar with Milton’s poem, the speaker is Lucifer, or Satan, and he and his legions have just been cast from Heaven and now reside in Hell. Milton is demonstrating how resilient Lucifer is in that he is trying to adjust his psychological state to his new physical state. In effect, Lucifer is proclaiming the age-old philosophy of mind over matter. Despite finding himself relegated to Hell, Lucifer believes in the mind’s ability to transcend physical turmoil. What I love about the quote is Milton's stressing that just was we can “make a Heaven of Hell”, so too can we make “a Hell of Heaven”.
I find such solace in these words today because like many people, I tend to become more melancholy and depressed as we enter the long, cold, dark days of winter. If you’ve been following my blog over the past 4 months, you know that I have had quite a transformative year and that I am rediscovering a huge “part of me” that lay dormant for most of my adolescence and adult life. I’ve found myself riding a wave of extreme euphoria one day, to plunging to the depths of depression and apathy the next. Those who know me will attest to the fact that I’m an “all or nothing” kind of guy—I don’t do “moderation”.
So what may have simply been an innocent posting on Facebook, has resonated profoundly with me today. Great writers, philosophers, and spiritualists have been professing the liberating power of making the most of the situation you have been given and transforming whatever Hell in which you find yourself, into a place of comfort and peace. In the immortal words of Dale Carnegie: ”If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
For most people, taking a vacation provides an opportunity to unplug, unwind, and clear your mind for awhile. Having just got back from 2 weeks abroad, I’m not feeling rejuvenated in the least, but rather I’m overwhelmed by an odd sense of unease and disequilibrium. I should start by saying that over the past few years, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel a lot, and during that time, I’ve noticed something unusual occurring—with each trip, I’m becoming less and less homesick. In fact, instead of looking forward to “coming home”, I’m depressed about picking up where I left off.
Have you ever had something in the back of your mind that starts as a little whisper and gradually grows to a feeling that you simply can no longer ignore? That’s exactly what’s been unfolding in my life. What seems to be missing is identifying with what I would refer to as a “sense of place”. To some people, this is a characteristic associated with a geographical location. For others, it’s an etherial attachment to a community rooted in family, friends, and support. This begs the question: “If it’s possible to fall out of love with a person, is it possible to fall out of love with a place as well?”
For the past 23 years, I’ve been working for one of the school boards here in Toronto teaching English to newcomers to Canada. Every day I witness first-hand people struggling with assimilation manifest in alienation due to a disassociation with their “sense of place” in their newly adopted home. I’m intimately familiar with the emotional roller-coaster that my students succumb to as they desperately try to fit into their new surroundings. So it is through this lens of accumulated professional experience, that I too, ironically, see myself as alienated from the place that I have called “home” for most of my life.
When we think about how we establish a “sense of place” in our life, one factor is of particular note—the importance of childhood experiences in shaping our attachment to a particular environment. Direct interactions with family, friends, and school shape our view on life and help establish our “grounding” to a specific place. This primal landscape tends to define where we feel safe and most comfortable. Our path in life may draw us away from this sacred place, but we invariably return to it either physically or metaphorically at various points throughout our life. It’s in our blood and etched into our psyche.
But what happens when our childhood does not unfold as it naturally should, or is in some way truncated by trauma or some other catastrophic event? I wrote in a previous post about my troubled relationship with my mother, who walked out on us when I was 9, and the impact of being raised in a single-parent household led by my father. This has resulted in a fractured relationship with my siblings with whom I now have either no, or superficial contact. It’s also no secret to those of you who have been following my blog, that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I harboured that secret for 35 years, and I allowed the shame of that trauma to denominate and regulate most of my adult life.
When I take all of this into consideration, it becomes clear that the essence of my current feelings of alienation are twofold—a physical lack of connection to this place I’ve always called “home” due to dysfunctional social circumstances, and a more profound absence of an internal “sense of place” as a direct result of acute childhood trauma. I’m struck by the frightening fact that the sense of belonging I thought might come from a geographical relocation may in fact only appear once I have learned to live with myself. It’s so much easier to dream about living in a warmer, more laid-back environment than it is to embark on a trip for which there is no map—a journey to find out who I am and what it feels like to live in this skin. Emigrating from this land may indeed be in my future, but any escape will be futile if I don’t accept that no matter where I arrive, I will inevitably encounter “me” there.