Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Identifying with our athletic nature

I went to a meditation and dharma talk last night (that's Buddhist lingo for a talk about the world and why we exist and how we might live in the world better and so on; I'm not Buddhist, but I like thinking about why I exist and suchlike things). Kadam Morten spoke about how strong our habits of negativity are, by comparison with our habits of positivity. In particular, he pointed out that out nature is pure, yet for most of us we identify much more closely with what we believe is our bad nature. Guilt, for example, is a strong (and useless) identification with our bad nature. To wit: "I'm not a nice person. I'm always saying the wrong thing;" or "I have no self-control. Why can't I resist that chocolate cake?" or "I'm so lazy. Why did I sleep in this morning instead of working out?" And so on. By calling ourselves bad names, by punishing ourselves anew by identifying our nature as one that comes up short, we have jumped on a treadmill of negative self-deception. One of the most important things we need to do in meditation is to shift our identification, so that we identify with our pure nature, instead of our bad nature. So that instead of saying "I'm...blah blah blah," where blah-blah-blah is whatever negative things you tell yourself, we are saying "I'm a good person."

It got me thinking.

Is part of our pure nature that we are also healthy and strong? I wonder. In any event, there's certainly something to be said for the power of how we identify ourselves. If we say, "I am a healthy athlete," there's a better chance that's what we'll be.

At 24 years old, Carrie weighed 50 lbs more than she does today. She had just moved to Austin, TX. She knew hardly anyone. She ate and drank way too much, by her account, and had recently had her heart broken. She was feeling blue about life, and her life had barely begun. She desperately needed a physical and emotional change in her life. She set a goal for herself to do a marathon by the age of 30. So she screwed up her courage and signed up for a beginning running group. She'd never run before. She worried she'd be the biggest person in the group (she wasn't); she worried she'd be the slowest (she wasn't); and she worried that she'd stand out or embarrass herself in some other way (she didn't). In short, she didn't identify herself as a runner yet. She identified herself as an overweight, out of shape person, albeit one who was going to try her hand at running. Four years later (and two years before her 30th), she crossed her first marathon finish line. It wasn't until that moment that the transformation was complete--she finally identified herself as an athlete, she flicked the self-identification switch in her head to the positive setting for good (okay, I'm sure it's still challenging, it always is). And what a difference that made. Seven years on she's done fifteen marathons, a slew of triathlons and an Ironman (I'm trying not to feel lazy as I write this). She's giving back to the sports she loves, too. Volunteering at races. Raising money for charity through races. And coaching others to accomplish their own extraordinary athletic goals.

Rebecca used to negatively identify herself as a bit of a helpless woman in some situations. That is, until she started running. It changed not only her view of herself as an athlete, but her view of what she was capable of in so many other things. Here's an example I like (especially since I've never yet had the gumption to do this particular thing): Driving to the mall in Houston, TX, where she lives (I know, this is a TX day), she drove over a ladder that was in the middle of the freeway (go figure, but she says the oddest things turn up on the freeway in TX), and arrived at the parking lot with two flat tires. She started to have a panic attack, looking for the "man" who would help her. Not even the security guard was willing. So she took a deep breath and said to herself, "If I can run a marathon, I can totally change these tires." Out came the car manual and lo and behold, she changed the tires. Easy as pie. "I knew then I was capable of many things."
Oh, and by the way, Rebecca has also lost over 60 lbs since she started running in 2002. She's still not small, by Vogue standards, but she can kick those size 4's butts on a run.

It's a whole new world when we shift our focus from identifying with all the negative things we've done or suffered, to identifying with the positive. I'm not saying it's easy. How could it be? If it were, we'd all be zooming around our lives bubbling with positive energy (and the high fructose corn syrup industry would die out, since we wouldn't need to artificially sweeten our lives to get a buzz out of it--I know, I know, I can't help myself sometimes. I admit it. I'm a Michael Pollan devotee). But it's possible; and possible is better than easy. It makes something worth striving for.

One more word from Kadam Morten's talk last night. As he pointed out, one of the most important things as we're making the transition to identifying with our pure nature is to be skillful about how we set our goals. If, for example, we say, "I'm never going to gossip again;" or "I'm going to run a 2:30 marathon my first time out." Well, then we've probably set ourselves up for failure, because we've set an exaggerated goal. Then, because we've failed, we get to re-identify with our bad nature. "See, I knew I was a failure. I couldn't even keep from gossiping for the whole rest of my life;" or "I only ran a 3:45, what a loser I am." Instead, set realistic goals. Turn up the heat slowly. Think of putting all those negative identifications into a pot of cold water and slowly boiling them to death--they're like frogs, they won't jump out of the water, if you bring it to a boil slowly enough. (Okay, that was a bit of a metaphor jumble sale just now.)

We are by nature pure. We are by nature strong and healthy. Let's not let our minds get in the way of our nature.