Difficulties and obstacles, if properly understood and used, can turn out to be an unexpected source of strength. It is the nature of things that when you recognize an obstacle as such, it ceases to be an obstacle. Equally, it is by failing to recognize an obstacle for what it is and taking it seriously, that it is empowered and solidified and becomes a real blockage.
— Tibetan monk Sogyal Rinpoche
I’m training for a Vancouver running race right now and have been pondering the runner’s wall — the point in any endurance sport where you bonk out and can’t go any further. Is it real, or is it only as real as your mind makes it? Lace up your Nikes for today’s #SpiritualFitness discussion on:
- Common methods that runners use to avoid exhaustion and hitting the runner’s wall
- What scientists have found actually works for athletes
- How we can apply these sports principles to our life to feel lighter and happier in the face of everyday obstacles
Dealing with the Wall
Runners and other athletes tend to deal with “the wall” and fatigue two ways: By distraction or by association. In other words, by thinking about anything other than the task at hand or by staying present and aware of the task.
For example, you may try to distract yourself with loud music or by thinking about your to-do list. Distraction is one of the most common techniques that runners and other athletes use, doing anything they can to pull their mind away from the sweat and discomfort of the workout. The idea is that if you ignore it, you won’t notice it!
Dozens of studies have actually tackled this theory, and the results will make a huge difference for you both in the gym and outside of the gym!
The Best Way is Through
Researcher W.P. Morgan has spent a lot of time studying runners. His work published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and Psychology Today found that elite marathon runners actually called the runner’s wall a complete myth. Meanwhile, casual, inexperienced runners told him that hitting the wall was an inevitable result of running. What gives? The British Journal of Sports Medicine* breaks it down:
Elite marathon runners…described ‘the wall’ as a myth. They insisted that by associating with one’s body, the symptoms of ‘the wall’ could be avoided. The non-elite marathon participants in the study implied that ‘hitting the wall’ was an inevitable experience that could only be endured by dissociating oneself from the pain. However, the message from the elite runners was that associating with sensory signals ensured that ‘the wall’ could be avoided.
See, runners who brought a sense of mindfulness and awareness into the present moment did not experience what distracted runners thought was the inevitable fatigue and pain of running. This is a prime example of the old adage that the best way out is always through. Or, as Sogyal Rinpoche stated so well, by recognizing the obstacle, it ceases to be an obstacle and instead becomes a source of energy.
The British Journal of Sports Medicine continues, noting that distracting yourself or trying to ignore the present moment doesn’t just cause you to hit the infamous wall, but also makes you miss everything about running that makes it pleasurable. Distraction fails at avoiding the pain, but it succeeds at robbing the present moment of its joy. The journal then concludes emphatically that the runner’s wall has less to do with the actual physical results of running, but is completely “associated with thought patterns [and] internal dissociation.”
Spiritual Lessons from the Pavement
Going the distance in life is no different from running a marathon. When an obstacle presents itself in our lives, we can distract ourselves with sex or alcohol or busyness. We can even distract ourselves with “good” things like family obligations or volunteering for a good cause. But just like scientists found with runners, ignoring or disassociating ourselves from the present only solidifies and strengthens the perceived obstacle. Here are a few ways to put that into practice:
- Bring the power of your presence into the present. Obstacles are when we resist the moment and wish the present moment was something else or somewhere else, like when you’re on a long run and are too focused on getting over it. The simple practice of awareness starts to dissolve the obstacle.
- Stay conscious of the process. Our ego, which derives its identity from pain and struggle, will resist your attempts at bringing your presence into the present. The recognition of this fact cuts the ego off from its source of power.
- Notice when you start to distract yourself, especially if you’re using “positive” things to distract you. If you find your mind shifting away from the present, pause and return to that centre. Awareness and surrender to the present is really all you need to do!
- Be grateful for the perceived obstacle. When you see it as a moment of evolving, of learning and of growing, it can become a source of strength and power that you can tap into. Instead of being something that blocks your spiritual path, it becomes a stepping stone in that path.
Whether you’re running in the gym or running in the gym of life, face the wall. Face the obstacle. Face it and feel it in its moment, and by facing it you can tap into all of the freedom that’s found in our conscious awareness. With this, the wall ceases to exist and like the runners in the study above noted, the wall becomes a myth.