Last week I struggled with my long run. The issue was not so much physical as mental. I found myself counting down every kilometre, my mind jumping from fatigue, to boredom, to hunger (I’m still running fasted, although with my distances mounting I think I’m reaching the tipping point at which I can do this) and, although my splits were no different than usual, each kilometre seemed to go on for twice as long. I pushed through 25 kilometres, as I’d planned, and while it wasn’t a bad run, it was just that little bit tougher than I would have liked. I chalked it up as good marathon day practice – a reminder of what a run with my head in the wrong place could feel like – and resolved that this week I would work as hard on my mind as on my limbs to prepare me for my long run.
In the week I listened to an interview with the Runners Connect coach Jamie Dodge, in which she had placed emphasis on enjoying the journey while running, both during training and in races. She noted that many runners, when they cross the finish line, are more keen to tell the stories of the various things that happened during the race – the people they met, the spectators cheering them on, the scenery, the route – than to obsess over their final times, and I count myself within this group. Listening to her made me realise that the journey really is the important part for me; I love being able to go out and just run. I like being able to escape on a run, listening to podcasts or music as I go or to run and chat with friends as we pound the pavements together.
It was with this idea of just enjoying the journey in mind that I set out on my long run this Sunday. I was slightly anxious about keeping my mind on course, but as it was I needn’t have worried. I had downloaded a series of podcasts and within seconds I was totally engrossed in the first: an episode of Radio Headspace featuring an interview with Maria Popova.
You know the feeling when you hear, read or watch something and you suddenly feel like you want to share that thing with everyone? That was how I felt listening to Maria Popova speak. She is the creator of Brain Pickings, a website which began as an email newsletter to seven friends and which now has over seven million visitors each month. As Georgie Okell, presenter of Radio Headspace described it, Brain Pickings is an ‘online archive of interestingness, inspiration and meaning’.
The idea originated out of, on the one hand, Popova’s idealism of what learning could be and, on the other, a dissatisfaction with her college liberal arts education, which wasn’t the edifying experience she had hoped for. In search of something more, she supplemented her classes with long visits to the library, reading and reading some more, dipping into different disciplines from neuroscience to philosophy, and allowing the cross-pollination of ideas from one subject area to the next. In this way, Brain Pickings became a permanent online record of her own thinking and personal development, while at the same time becoming a source of inspiration for her readers.
I would urge readers here to explore the site and to listen to the interview, but before you do I wanted to touch on some of the points that really resonated with me.
Popova’s comments on communication really struck a chord as they outlined behaviours that I often find myself guilty of. To read and write and truly engage with the material that goes into Brain Pickings, Popova noted that she has to close her inbox and cut herself off from the constant beeping of emails, text messages and social media updates. She observed that communication today has a sense of immediacy which creates a false sense of urgency, and while we know that this sense of urgency is a fictional product of the technological environment we live in, we all still find ourselves buying into it. We live in a world of reactivity, where people are so quick to form judgements and to act on those judgements, reacting rather than reflecting and responding. It is important to recognise this and to take a step back when we can, to allow our mind to explore our thoughts and ideas properly, and to observe and listen to the world without the need to trigger a response.
This sense of immediacy of information and the urgency to react extends beyond emails and text messages to much of the content we encounter online. The list-like content and catchy headlines of many articles and blog posts demand our attention, promising instant information requiring only minimal engagement. We are attracted by so-called ‘click-bait’; short-form material engineered to catch our eye rather than to generate appreciation or understanding. The result is that many people ‘mistake attention for appreciation’.
Popova aims to move away from this approach to writing and her site includes more and more long-form pieces where, as she explains, ‘there is an opportunity to explore nuance, clarity and context’.
One means of extracting ourselves from this culture of urgency and immediacy is through meditation. Popova observes that ‘the beautiful thing about meditation is that it’s a reminder of how to be in yourself and in the world without this compulsive reactivity.’ It is important to give yourself the space to take a step back and make an internal investment to be more reflective.
By reading and engaging with the experiences of others we are able to feel a resonance between our own experiences and emotions and those of others, across different times and spaces. Reading about emotions of love and doubt, hope and fear experiences by those around us, we may discover deeper meaning and a greater understanding of ourselves, and in doing so may feel less alone in our experiences.
On finding your path
Sometimes, when we encounter particular philosophical teachings, or learn from historical narratives, read about science and linguistics, literature and mathematics, something in our minds just click and we find ourselves exploring new paths or taking our lives in different directions. Sometimes it can be something as small as having a particular conversation with a person, or going on a retreat, or even listening to a podcast or radio show.
For some readers, Brain Pickings has acted as this apparent catalyst for change, of which Popova observes:
‘I’d be a fool to believe that I had catalysed whatever change someone has gone on. People are on their own path, and there are things that may help them to clarify that path, but I think they would have arrived anyway. But there is some reassurance in seeing things playing out in other people’s lives to act as a point of reference – in the lives of people that we as a society see as successful…People step into what they already are, they just find a context which makes it easier to access what is already in them.’
One of the most profound comments from the piece was on finding your purpose in life. On this, Popova affirmed that you find your purpose by doing. She quoted the book Conversations with Picasso, in which Picasso observes that ‘in order to know what you’re painting you have to begin to paint’. A lot of people are misled by the ‘fetish of finding their true purpose’ and it makes them afraid of going down the wrong path. The result is that instead of doing everything, people end up doing nothing.
Allowing yourself to accept that your life may not have one sole purpose, and that the one thing you deemed so important at 21 may not be the thing that matters to you as much at 31 or 41 frees you to ‘just live, with attentiveness and awareness of the world’, and discern from that what it is that gives you a sense of purpose.
‘If you come at everything with too much of a fixed plan you could cheat yourself out of so many things because you can’t envisage you future self’s values and how you will develop…Keep checking in with yourself, what brings you happiness and nourishes you.’
As you have probably gathered from this post, my mind was so active going over all of Papova’s words that my long run flew by; I will certainly be downloading some more Radio Headspace for my run on Sunday.