The fine art of paying attention to whatever it is you are engaging in, is quite faintly understood
Sipping tea, which is the namesake of the headline, I was feeling tranquil at 9.59 on a Monday night a few years ago. We had just written to the owner of a potential vacation rental, asking whether he had covered parking. My husband, with his hand on his head, typing “Is the open parking closed?” Notwithstanding, the description of said rental read like a detailed wish list of modern amenities, including something about a videophone, garage parking, ample number of towels, a detailed description of the spices in the pantry and a view of a lake populated with migratory birds. I told my husband to ask if the place was quiet and safe. It did not occur to me that visiting suburban America could not come with too many safety hazards, let alone the danger of noise pollution. In fact, someone I knew had his mother visit him in Chicago, commenting “Where are all the people?”, when he took her to Devon Avenue to show her the vast population of Indians in the US.
Our attention span is eroding faster than precious natural resources. To add to the cacophony of external diversions, our gadgets seem to offer the infinite promise of measuring every single detail of our workouts, sleep time, waking time, calories consumed, friends beaten, frenemies catching up to our numbers, etc. The problem then is in figuring out how to involve Heisenberg, the uncertainty principle, in our day-to-day observations, with our shrinking capability to observe anything at all.
With this thought in mind, I set off on an uneventful run, starting early around 5am. My iPod had cracked the night before and I could not zone out into my usual reverie of modelling in various cleavage-revealing costumes. Yes, I am obsessed with Bollywood. It is so full of real life that it hurts my head sometimes and chokes me up all at once.
Training that quarter had gone abysmally, with three attacks of asthma in varying doses and a diagnosis of early-onset Hashimoto’s disease (in which the immune system attacks your thyroid). When it rains, it pours, I told myself. I could not recall the last time I had felt strong on a run, let alone wanted to run without forcing myself to. That is not the way I engage with sport, I am an all-or-nothing person. In my rush to get out, I had also left my precious phone behind. I hoped for my sake that I was not followed or heckled that morning, both of which had become increasingly difficult to ignore over time. I have started thinking that a woman should reserve the right to get angry without having to carry the indignation of all of womankind on her shoulders. Safety in numbers is good sense on any run anywhere in the world. Some pepper spray also helps. Dressing unfashionably is a no-brainer. Not having a Fitbit to keep looking at might be the difference between observing whether anyone else is on the road with you, in the wee hours of the morning.
The art of running (if it is an art) has been over-philosiphized, verbalized, poetized, printed, reprinted, photographed out the wazoo. You get it. It has basically been overdone from every possible angle. However, the fine art of paying attention to whatever it is you are engaging in, is quite faintly understood, to begin with.
Before getting married, I used to run routinely without any devices. It is not that marriage brought with it an iPod, but it did shrink my time for my beloved physical activities (swimming/biking/running) by quite a bit. It is both good and bad being married to someone I genuinely get along with. The good is it makes for a good cheering squad on the rough days and the bad is that I am just as lazy as the next guy—I’d rather watch a movie than plough away on the treadmill after a long day at work. Having an iPod helps me not think about the effort I have to put into a run. Occasionally, I need this distraction to do the work after those particularly harrowing days at work. Author, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman talks about the social and economic impact of technology, or being wired or connected all the time—I am no expert on neuroscience but his observations on the subject are plain to see and relate to.
In summary, having the latest device measuring our every move is fine and dandy. That having been said, running, while having a deep conversation with the few remaining trees (all named along the stretch from Basaveshwaranagar via Malleswaram to the golf course in Bengaluru) or the friendly neighbourhood dog, comes closest to tranquillity. Dream-like only when observed in silence and paid attention to.
Anu Vaidyanathan is a long-course triathlete, the first Indian to compete in the Ironman and the first Asian to complete Ultraman Canada. This is a fortnightly series on running.