Friday, April 21, 2006

The lighter side of digging deep...

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The 7th of April is sacred for many South Africans as they ritually lace up their trainers at the crack of dawn and run a 56 kilometer race on the roads going up and down the mountains in Cape Town. The purpose of this ritual is to have fun if one gives a wide berth to the definition of fun. Fun for these poor fools encompasses a euphoria induced by unbearable pain. This annual pilgrimage up and down Chapman’s peak and Constantia Nek is the Two Oceans Marathon. It is touted as the most beautiful ultra marathon in the world as it winds its way along the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans with ‘to die for’ views from Chapman’s Peak. Speaking of death, by the second half of the race most of the runners look like they are in various stages of rigor mortis with muscle cramps, spasms, and bad knees, and one understands that ‘to die for views’ has the same ring of irony as saying ‘if you want to go to heaven, be prepared to die first’.

There’s extensive TV coverage of this famous race but what they show are professional runners in front, who are really aliens. It is running lore that they are dropped off by UFOs on the night before the race and they quickly transform their tentacles into hands and legs, hastily pin their race numbers onto their running vests and show up all innocent looking at the start. You may think me paranoid but I assure you that no human being can run with such grace and speed through distances such as these. Humans are usually at the back of the pack, making up in grit what they lack in grace, faces contorted and limbs askew. This is not televised in the interests of good taste and to prevent children from being traumatized. It is also a conspiracy by the running equipment industry to sell the sport as a benign way to keep fit, with smiling models striding in branded apparel with nary of bead of sweat or a grimace of pain on their plastic faces.

I had run the Two Oceans Marathon last year in the spirit of camaraderie, as the run was advertised as a major Cape Town event. The camaraderie and good cheer I felt for the city wore off by the time I was half way into the race. I hobbled through the rest of it, like a raging old Biblical prophet hurling choice curses and threatening plagues of locusts, toads and rodents on the city and its denizens. This year contrary to good sense and self respect, I decided once again to subject my nether limbs to the 56 km ritual. To make matters worse this was a last minute decision that wasn’t even backed up by the rudimentary training that I had done for last year’s race. Why?? You ask me with an expression of befuddlement as if you were asking about your quiet salary man neighbor of modest habits who woke up one morning, wore his business suit and blew his brains out – why would you do this? Why do otherwise normal people do inexplicable things? The reason was that I wanted to perform an experiment, to test a rather simple hypothesis that would have far reaching benefits to society. If I was to receive an award for my experimental findings, I would hobble up the stage with the stubs that were once my legs and magnanimously declare that “the pain I experienced was a small sacrifice in the interests of science and the advancement of humankind” (quite like the guy who put his fingers through the electric socket to prove that the human body is a good conductor of electricity).

Coming to the experiment, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that we humans tend to take life a tad too seriously thus ending up making it harder than it is. My hypothesis prior to the race was that amidst all the pain and suffering, if I retain a sense of play, laugh through the hard bits, and look at the run like a bit of a Sunday outing then I could get through the darn thing intact ‘skinny legs and all’. The condition however was that the ‘playfulness’ has to be easy and not some grim, furrowed brow ‘I will knuckle-down and try very hard to have fun’ kind of effort. The laugh has to bubble up from the hidden brook of joy gurgling deep down (as they say in all the ‘feel good, pop psychology’ books) and cannot under any circumstances be a maniacal crazy eyed ‘I will laugh at the face of death’ kind of cackle.

So I embarked on the run with a skip in my step intent on laughing through my tears. The first 28 kilometers was relatively flat which I managed comfortably. Then the climb up Chapman’s peak began. Over the years I had set up an overdraft facility in my fitness bank that ensured that when needed I could push a few extra miles without much training. This was one of those times when I cashed in the overdraft which allowed me to trudge on for the next 10 kilometers. By the 38 kilometer mark I knew I was in trouble. My fitness credit was maxed out, my legs suddenly aged by 50 years and I started doing the shuffle that distance runners do when they can’t run anymore but are too embarrassed to let on. For the non running reader let me describe the ‘runners shuffle’- it looks a bit like when you need to go to the rest-room badly but know that if you make a run for it you might not be able to hold it in, so you inch towards the loo in short rapid steps dragging your feet along the floor with a gait that resembles that of an artless ice skater whose skates have been tied together. The shuffle funnily enough is an open secret and by the time I began to shuffle, there were a number of other runners who were also shuffling. So there we were a whole army of ducks making our way down the mountain, the difference was that instead of my usual agony contorted face, I was beaming. My 100 watt smile invoked near violent responses from my running brethren whose fraying tempers were soothed only when they saw that I was a fellow shuffler too (and hence probably in as much pain as they were) and was in no condition to laugh at them. They then shook their heads sympathetically as they would about a senile grand aunt who chuckles to herself constantly for no obvious reason.

During one of his discourses the Buddha is alleged to have silently held up a flower and twirled it between his fingers. On witnessing this, one of his disciples by the name of Kasyapa responded by smiling. It is reported that Kasyapa had won the spiritual lotto, the metaphysical jackpot, the transcendental timeshare- in other words he had nibbled on nirvana, sipped on satori and eaten enlightenment. I am certain my smile as I hobbled across the finish line was nothing like Kasyapa’s. Nevertheless I could have sworn that had old Kasyapa been there he would have said that my smile needed a few lifetimes of work but it was getting there. The reason behind Kasyapa’s mysterious Mona Lisa smile was that he had had a break through of sorts with a direct perception of the nature of reality. He had pulled off a conceptual Houdini and slipped out of the chains of language and ideas. The philosopher Wittgenstein once said ‘our world is a set of carefully arranged sentences’- by which he meant that we are as we think, we think conceptually and we are therefore limited by our concepts. Our perception of reality is rarely unmediated by our preconceived ideas and expectations. Even who we think we are, is basically a set of pre-selected ideas and experiences, it’s like we cast ourselves in a block of ice and spend our lives desperately trying to keep from melting. The only way to break free is to experience something just as it is, unselfconsciously.

I had reasoned that one of the best examples of unselfconsciousness is children at play; the little brats run around the whole day and never seem to get tired. My plan was this; if I could retain a sense of playfulness, through this self-flagellating run, and manage finish the race in a modest time despite my lack of training, it proves that when life lands you in a soup, your best bet is to whip out your swimming trunks and do the back stroke. With some nifty reverse engineering I figured that since I am a new to this ‘have fun while you do yourself bodily harm’ game, the way to remember to be playful while my muscles are cramping is to smile through it. Before you certify me as a moron, let me explain, Kasyapa displaying his ivories was the result of unselfconsciousness (a kind of playfulness), now if I could keep a million dollar smile while my knees disintegrate, view the race as play, then maybe I could savor a bit of Kasyapa’s pie. The result I hoped for was a bright sign with neon lights that said ‘playfulness improves performance’.

You may brand this experiment as a little simplistic, but I had Occam’s razor on my side- Occam wasn’t some guy who nicked himself while shaving, but was a Franciscan friar (William of Ockham) who propounded a theory which goes by the name ‘Occam’s razor’ It goes like this: ‘All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one’- why call it the razor?? I guess it’s called the razor because it helps cut through the BS we surround ourselves with. The question I posed in this case was how does one make it through life’s hardships? There are two possible answers, we could either rant and rave and soldier on while cursing our fate or we could relax, have fun, be playful and get on with it. The fact remains that it is still one heck of a run and it won’t get any shorter simply because you are laughing - but I sought to prove that it does get easier. I think the playful option is the simpler one and the razor seems to agree. Playfulness at its best is unselfconsciousness- one either can start of by being unselfconscious and thereby becoming playful or start by being playful and find oneself becoming less self-conscious. It’s easy, Kasyapa had looked at a flower and smiled, and we could start off by smiling and actually begin to notice the flowers around us. That’s flower power for you.

The experiment was a resounding success; I had run 56 kilometers through the hills and vales in 5 hours 47 minutes which was a whole 5 minutes better than my time last year. It was a modest time with much to be modest about and in running circles it would be graded as a C+ with a remark in red that says ‘needs to apply himself more’. But I was as elated as a kid who had gotten a pass mark in an exam after the closest he had come to studying anything was studying the latest play-station user manual. I would be lying if I said I breezed through it, it was hard and I had the benefit of a base level fitness acquired over the years. But somehow it was a little easier than the last time, I had more fun, laughed a lot more and the hours passed a lot quicker. The scenery was so beautiful it hurt and somewhere in those 56 kilometers I understood to play is to pray. St. Augustine once wrote ‘love and do what you want’- I think by this he meant that if one truly loves then there is a selflessness in all of one’s actions making them inherently beautiful. I would hazard substituting the word ‘love’ with ‘play’ (I think it means the same thing- true love is really a high grade playfulness)- I would say ‘play and do what you want’ for to truly play is to embrace the whole world in one unfolding moment that lasts an eternity.

Playfulness doesn’t allow us any short cuts, we still have to do the dishes and laundry, except that by being playful we realize that the only way not to have to do the “dishes” and “laundry” is to do the dishes and laundry (with a smile). It is in the midst of play that one grasps the essence of what Tom Robbins once wrote ‘I believe in everything, nothing is sacred, I believe in nothing, everything is sacred’- nothing dear reader is too sacred to be play and precisely because everything is so sacred we need to honor it with a sense of playfulness. We spend most of our lives with our ears glued to life’s boom-box wondering when the music will begin when all we need to do is just press play and do the shuffle.

Kabir Sanjay Bavikatte


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