In-body experience

The morning starts with a fluttery feeling in your midsection, somewhere between a stomachache and seeing the object of your junior-high crush in the hallway between classes—excited, but kind of nervous, too. Then the anxiety dissipates until it’s just a low electrical hum buzzing through your limbs, making you want to get up and spaz out the way a little kid might, because if you don’t the pent-up energy won’t have anywhere to go. Then there’s the quasi-religious pleasure of ritual: the unguents, the special clothes, the dedicated drinks, the appropriate soundtrack.

It’s time for a run.

Happiness may be “anticipation with certainty,” but there’s nothing certain about this. In world filled with unknowns, the run is refreshingly physical and direct, true—yet it all depends on getting your body and mind to work as one. Together they need to push past inertia, past the bad pain into the good pain, and past that to the perfect state of flow, that most delicious high. Can you get there today? What will it extract from you? Will you drift down from that high peacefully, rounding the corner back to your block and looking forward to the loosening of your muscles in a hot shower? Or will you be like the frantic boy in D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” staring into space and ecstatically shouting, “It’s Malabar! Malabar!”—only to fall off his toy horse, dead?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Creative visualization is fine, but let’s keep it positive.

Even while lacing up your shoes, you’re already out there in the early-morning cool sunshine, imagining the sensation of everything moving steadily in unison—of heading uphill, needing more, reaching deep for breath, and it’s there. Amazing. All those 5 AM treadmill slogs in the dead of winter are finally paying their dividends—in sweat, in singing muscles, in bliss.

Back when physical labor was a given in everyday life, simply getting enough to eat demanded almost as many calories of effort as a person could manage to consume. Seriously—a slice of bread with butter is a major cultural achievement. Mere survival could hardly be taken for granted, what with the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. It makes sense, then, that this sort of pleasure peak you’re feeling was imagined then as an out-of-body experience: ecstasy means ‘standing outside oneself.’

ecstasy (n.)
1. an overwhelming feeling of great happiness or joyful excitement
2. (chiefly archaic) an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystical self-transcendence
ORIGIN late Middle English (sense 2): from Old French exstasie, via late Latin from Greek ekstasisstanding outside oneself,’ based on ek- ‘out-‘ + histanai ‘to place’

If one’s body was little more than the vulnerable vessel for a nasty, brutish, and short life, of course happiness would entail escaping from it, if only for a while. But look at us now: we spend our days looking at screens in order to work, and then looking at different screens in order to relax. Almost everything we do is virtual. Nowadays, we have to struggle to get into our own skins to feel that rapture. Maybe that’s why you run: the fierce concentration you muster to feel your blood pumping, to celebrate being alive. To have an in-body experience.

7 responses to “In-body experience”

  1. LP says:

    I wish I loved running, as it’s the easiest way to stay in shape, especially if you travel a lot. But without a ball and some form of scorekeeping, I’m hopeless at committing to regular exercise. Fortunately, I have Mr. T. Wager to keep me in shape on the racquetball courts of LA.

    Have you read Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”? I’m tempted to pick it up, even though I’m not a runner, because I love his writing so much.

  2. J-Man says:

    In direct contrast to LP’s need for competitive sport, I’m hopeless at anything that involves coordination with a ball or racket, and I can’t summon enough competitive spirit within me to actually put forth the effort to win a game. On the other hand, I used to love running: the solitary ritual of it all. Running was the closest I’ve ever gotten to meditation; actually, it was meditation.

    I read an excerpt of that Murakami piece in the New Yorker a while ago – it was really interesting. In fact, it’s funny you should mention him, LP, as I was just thinking about that piece yesterday and went searching for any/all of his titles as my next book selection.

  3. g.a. says:

    This post, which I read over coffee as soon as I woke up, changed the way I experienced my morning run today, in a really good way. Thanks!

    Also, “unguents” should be the word of the day! Everyone go out and use it in casual conversation.

  4. Rachel says:

    Ah, two of my favorite recent topics: running and Murakami. I have been on a tear since discovering him earlier this summer–Hard-Boiled Wonderland, A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore, all in a row. Maybe that type of obsessive tendency is another reason I enjoy running so much. Well, that and the absence of balls and scores (I am a klutz).

    The NYT gave a rather tepid review to his running book, as I recall, but the reviewer’s issues sounded like they had more to do with poor translation than anything else. I’ll check it out.

    #3: Perhaps “unguents” was TMI, but let’s face it–in mid-August, BodyGlide is a girl’s best friend.

  5. farrell fawcett says:

    I really dislike running. Very strongly dislike it. But this spring I started using a treadmill. On a few occasions I’ve reached that point of “breaking through” and have really felt amazing. It’s hard to get there. But it is kind of worth it. Kind of. I think.

    Nice post!

  6. Dave says:

    I have very mixed feelings about running, which for me is mostly the bad kind of pain, but this post was a really interesting case for it.

  7. swells says:

    I’m with Farrell–can’t even stand the thought of it–but you make it sound really delightful here, which is tough when I’m the reader. Great descriptions!