Shifting into Neutral

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna to “strive to still the mind,” which reminds me of a point made by 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

It is in your power, whenever you choose, to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

One day, while waiting for the subway, I decided to give it a try.   Instead of fretting at the wait, I put away my phone and stood still.  Anxiety faded, and the surroundings came into focus, as I slowly let out my breath.

A visual image had helped me make the transition: I imagined moving a gear shift into neutral.  Then I wondered, could I shift into neutral while running?


All things are numbers

— Pythagoras (570-495 BCE)

The challenge for me is that even an easy run can sometimes seem hard.  Especially on a short track, where there’s nothing to do but count down the laps.  Boredom creeps in…and morphs into anxiety:  the mind wants to know, how long will it take to get this over and done with — how long until we take a break — how long until we can move onto something else?

Many exercises share this feature — sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks, repetitions with free weights, holding a yoga pose, or worst of all, running on a treadmill — you’re constantly counting down, while trying to mentally just hang on.  The real battle is managing the mind.

If you retired into yourself, as Marcus Aurelius had written, or stilled the mind, as Krishna had advised, or shifted into neutral, as I had imagined —  could you get through the workout with less mental stress?

It seemed worth a try, and I had the perfect place in mind:  the track at the local health club, where the short length (one-sixth mile) and sharp corners make it hard to do any serious training. Counting down 30 laps on this track feels a lot like waiting for the subway.

For this experiment I changed the visual imagery around a little bit:  instead of a gear selector, I pictured a throttle, of the kind jet pilots use to control the thrust.  When the remaining laps began to seem endless, I’d imagine pulling back on the throttle as a metaphor for slowing the mind — and it would be interesting to see if this would happen without the legs coming to a halt.  As it turned out, the image of the throttle seemed to help:  for a change, the laps felt steady and fluid, and after 30 I wanted to run more.

When the conscious mind isn’t focused, it seems to take the sensation of effort and project it over the workout’s remaining duration — and then it becomes alarmed at what seems an unmanageable amount of work.  But it’s taken a simple task and blown it out of proportion: caught in a self-referential loop, the mind becomes anxious about its own anxiety.  Pulling back on the throttle was how I visualized reining in the mind from undirected, unfocused, unnecessary, and unproductive effort.

Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

A few days later, I tried another experiment.  Running on a longer 1.5-mile track that winds around a local reservoir, I discovered I could sustain a steady pace of moderate intensity without meaningful conscious effort.  All I had to do was periodically glance at my GPS watch, and based on the read-out my legs sped up or slowed down automatically to keep me right on targeted pace.  My body seemed to understand what needed to be done, perhaps because my training plans are carefully thought out.

Yet there was a part of my conscious mind that still wanted to be in charge — to be seen making a determined effort — and earn credit for success.  I needed to prevent this part of my mind from interfering by “trying” too hard, when it was more effective to simply “let” the body do its job.

I think this is Krishna’s point when he explains to Arjuna that the wise see knowledge and action as one and the same and therefore “even while acting, they really do nothing at all.”

Could I stay in neutral during a high-intensity workout?  Returning to the reservoir track, this time I was running at close to race pace.  Once again, glancing periodically at the watch, I found my legs automatically adjusting speed.  And once again, when the remaining distance started to feel overwhelming, I called to mind the image of the throttle and visualized myself pulling back.

But now it became apparent that at this higher level of intensity, my conscious mind had a lot to do:  it needed to monitor sensations from muscles and joints, compare them to sensations experienced in past runs, and assess the risk of injury.  And then it needed to extrapolate from the risk of injury to the implications for training plans and racing goals.

After five miles or so, my calf began to tighten.  I ended the run early.

Proceed with steady step, and if you would have all things under your control, put yourself under the control of reason.

— Epictetus

From these experiments, I felt I had learned something new about myself.  That evening, I headed out for an easy barefoot jog, just to get the blood flowing, but after a short distance stepped on a rock, which brought me to a halt.  I put on sandals and stumbled along for a half a mile, foot hurting too much to run, before resuming a very slow jog, but now my calf felt strained.

Two scenarios started flickering in my mind.  In one scenario, the strain was a minor ache with no consequence.  In the other scenario, it was a serious injury that would derail training and jeopardize goals.  I limped around the track, frustrated and grim, trying to visualize the throttle and calm myself down — but my mind struggled with perturbations.  There was too much uncertainty, and the implications for my goals were serious.

Rein in your imagination by repeating to yourself: it’s in my power to drive pain, desire, and all perturbations out of my soul

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

If you have ambitious racing goals, it seems inevitable that you will end up skirting a boundary between progression and injury.

A few days later, I was running on the roads, foot taped to support the strained calf, trying to get in some mileage without worsening the injury.  At first the sky was cloudy, but then the sun broke through, then the clouds rolled back in, then the sun shone through once again — and so it was with the run, with the calf aching on the downhills, then feeling better on the flats, then hurting once again where the road’s camber was slanted, and then I was running smoothly for a mile or two.  At the same time, my conscious mind was monitoring all these sensations and recalculating the probabilities of the two scenarios, and my mood was darkening and lightening accordingly.


The next morning was a long run at a brisk pace, and I felt good.  That evening during a short jog, the strain flared up again.  The next day I was limping around the track at a very slow pace, and looking at the GPS watch did nothing to speed me up.  I was enormously frustrated.

That evening, I came up with a solution to the two scenarios:  the answer was neither to ignore the pain and press on, nor to throw in the towel and stop training, but rather to attempt a short, slow, cautious jog.  With this figured out, a couple of laps around the reservoir felt purposeful once again.  I felt the wind, sweated in the sun, shivered in the shade, and reflected that one day it would be an accomplishment to move at any pace.  The image of the throttle was forgotten.

When I got home and took off the tape, I saw a faint bruise around the ankle.  Now the solution to the scenarios had changed:  taking a few days off would be the next step, and then goals would be reassessed.

All the things which cause us to groan or recoil are part of the tax of life – things which you should never hope and never seek to escape.

— Epictetus

It was an abrupt break in what had been an intensive training schedule.  Without one or two daily runs, there was suddenly time on my hands.  Silence expanded around me like ripples from a stone tossed into a pond.

It was quiet at work, too, and on the way home, I found myself once again standing on the subway platform waiting for the train.  There was nothing to do but put away the phone.  And take a breath.

Retire into yourself. The rational principle which rules our minds has this nature, that it is content with itself when it does what is right, and so secures tranquility.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Shifting into Neutral

2 thoughts on “Shifting into Neutral

  1. […] Last summer I was training for a big event, but also struggling with an injury.  I faced a conundrum:  without intense training, I wouldn’t be ready — but training might make the injury worse.  My mind jumped back and forth between these two scenarios, leaving me frustrated and anxious.  Eventually a strategy emerged:  continue training for the time being, but make the runs short and easy.  Once this decision was made, I felt calmer; a sense of order was restored. […]


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