Running is by all accounts a good way to keep fit. Generally when people say ‘fit’ they refer to a state of the body: keeping fit means staying within healthy averages, blood pumping, limbs toned and defined. In many ways the fit body is the tamed body, regular, regulated, watched and kept under control.
But ‘fit’ is an amorphous term, and applied to exercise entails a meaning in excess of physical fitness. Exercise is also good for the mind – along with sleep it is the most recommended treatment for stress and the other anxious and depressive ailments. A fit mind also has the benefit of improved clarity and balanced perspective. In terms of the running mind, some writers have compared the mental endurance of long-distance running to the mindset required for completing a novel.
Beyond ‘fitness’ as such there is the zone. The zone is an enigmatic suspension of space and time, a non-dimensional arena entered by transcendental meditators and the elite athletes we see in sports drink commercials. Players of certain first-person shooter games know the zone. Good poets dwell there in the twilight pause before speech. The zone haunts many spots on the dance floor.
One of the benefits of running is the occasional access it provides to the zone. I couldn’t say how often runners enter the zone. I speak only for myself when I say that for all the freedom the zone offers, there are many conditions that rule the zone, and consequently the zone frequently eludes me. The great thing about the zone is that once I’m in it, I feel like I can run forever. My body works in totality: there are no legs, arms, or lungs, only a particular quality of sunlight and the sound of my feet in perfect rhythm.
There is a paradox then. The worst thing to do when running is attempt to link mind and body by thinking about running. Some may count their breath and that perhaps is acceptable. But pay too much attention to muscle and joint and pay the price: increased thirst, poor pace, jolting motion and breathlessness. Whenever I think about what my body’s doing for too long I cannot run properly.
Like east and west, mind and body do not make sense when purposefully merged. But they do merge of their own accord, making incidental sense here and there. The distinctions are powerful but of course fundamentally imaginary – after all, how far east is still east? Am I still myself without a properly functioning frontal lobe? Spontaneous connections are more given to allusion than logical labour. The attempt to link body and mind seems most successful through indirection.
There are three ways I might enter the zone. If I think one of three things I’m nearly always guaranteed to on one hand, click my body into its simple freedom and on the other, let my mind off its leash. Running and thinking about what your body does while running is as I say above a terrible mistake, but so is running and thinking your personal life, your work, things you need to do. You will feel every minute of your 30-minute jog. The mind enjoys straying into abstraction – that is the mind at ultimate play.
Make no mistake. I could not enter the zone without the physical aspects of running. There must be sweat, a global motor control, an increased heart rate. But for me the following three thoughts hold the key. Actually they are not really thoughts, but rather something between thought and image – a master-distraction masquerading as a notion or impression. I called them celebrity koans once and then stopped when I forgot to think about them while running. Running became as difficult as it can be around this time.
I do not think about these every time I run. They occur to me incidentally, rather than being drawn upon. Hence it was possible for me to forget about them.
Some people only listen to techno while they run, and while I prefer silence I respect that. We must find our own way to the zone.
Generally speaking the West likes to think of the East in romantic ways. I side-step remarks about fixed temporality and languorous femininity to consider the koan as ultimate embodiment of the East from a Western perspective. The koan belongs to Zen Buddhism – the puzzle or paradox that awakens the meditator from the binds of reason in their bid for wisdom.
The Simpsons taught me about the tree falling in the woods. We live through these filters. My neighbour was once employed as a makeup artist by a local television station. Her regular gig was Friday Night Football, applying powder to the faces of the commentators and their special guests as they presented the featured AFL game of the week. She tells me many funny stories from these times – gossip-rich anecdotes about who is very rude, who doesn’t like whom and so on.
Dennis Cometti is a legendary Australian rules sports commentator. A regular of AFL broadcasting in the modern era, Cometti is famous for his smooth baritone and his inimitable facility for humorous metaphor. Such felicitous calls of the game include this description of a player’s handling of the ball: ‘Ashley McIntosh, like a good hair spray … capable of a subtle hold.’ As he is one of my favourite figures of the game – I used to fall asleep to the sound of his voice during Sunday afternoon matches as a child – I asked my neighbour whether she had any stories about Cometti to share. Her story was very short but very interesting. He was a nice man to have in the makeup chair: polite, funny and not difficult. In contrast to his long-time counterpart Bruce McAveny, who is famous for an encyclopedic knowledge of sports statistics, Cometti was not burdened by reference paperwork. But he always carried a briefcase. He brought this briefcase to the makeup room but never looked over preparation material, as in fact he never seemed to carry any. It was a conventional briefcase. I asked her of the briefcase’s contents. She told me that Dennis Cometti’s briefcase only ever contained two things: a bottle of water and a can of hairspray.
The idea of Dennis Cometti’s briefcase is the first of my celebrity koans. When I began to run really well I noticed that if I thought about this briefcase, I would enter the zone. I don’t recall any particular thoughts I’ve had about it, only a general sense of these enigmatic contents filling the briefcase as they simultaneously showed its emptiness. The illogical proposition of hairspray for a voice-over is a mirthful truth that suggests to me there are still men of action in our midst.
The opposite of the idea of a man of action is probably Marilyn Monroe, the screen embodiment of woman. An old housemate of mine owned a book about her life that presented a number of candid photographs of Monroe. Her favourite photograph showed the actress wearing a primitive form of sportswear in downtown LA. She was sweating. Wearing no makeup, with her blonde hair pulled back severely, Marilyn was jogging around the block. Although there is no way to tell, the picture somehow implied she was a slow jogger. Perhaps it seemed like she took small steps, her feet barely leaving the ground. The note that accompanied the photograph suggested that Monroe was one of the first celebrities to jog for exercise. The photo showed a woman making tentative steps at the vanguard of a fitness craze, before it became part of everyday life in the West.
The idea of Marilyn Monroe without makeup is my second celebrity koan. Like Dennis Cometti’s briefcase, I can’t recall any thoughts I’ve had in relation to this second koan. They are private and trivial imaginings, as opposed to the public and trivial imaginings of Marilyn Monroe with makeup.
The third celebrity koan came into my running life quite recently. Not so long ago I learned that Michel Foucault had been a vocal supporter of the Iranian revolution. He visited Tehran, met with a number of high-ranking clerics – including Ayatollah Khomeini – and published a number of emphatic works on the great potential and symbolism of the revolution. His support of the revolution, based on an optimistic assumption that only the East as such was placed to inject political truth into everyday life through faith, would quickly come to haunt him as Khomeini’s regime openly persecuted women and homosexuals in the streets as its first order of business. Known by scholars as Foucault’s ‘mistake,’ the Iran business privately shattered Foucault’s confidence as the French intellectual scene increasingly scorned his position. Interestingly, little has been translated about Foucault’s ‘mistake’ outside of France.
Perhaps Foucault’s support of the revolution was the logical result of his suspicion towards the West’s political structure and the hypocritical, oppressive philosophies upon which it is based. But perhaps an imagined rumour I was recently told was also a motivation for Foucault. This rumour is my third celebrity koan. According to the smiling person who introduced me to this story, Foucault and Khomeini had been lovers, who conducted confidential and passionate trysts under the guise of meeting for political discussion. Should this koan occur to me while running, it always manifests as an image of the two men’s limbs entwined as they caress on the sofa of a private jet, Foucault the little spoon. Note that it is impossible to verify this word-of-mouth rumour as a rumour, let alone fact. I did not ask whether someone had made this story up. Sometimes I wonder if I made this story up. When does a rumour become a rumour? What makes a lover a lover? These are things brought up by the third celebrity koan.