Some months ago I went to Acadia with a couple of my best and oldest friends. Both are savages and proven troublemakers – an unbearable combo unless you have nerves of steel.
We had decided to go camping for a long-awaited get-together, just the three of us. No wives, no homos.
I knew exactly what I was getting myself into and I enjoyed every moment to the fullest. It was at times a truly transcendent experience. Suffice it to say, we almost got kicked out of the camping ground the very first night by a visibly fearful grounds manager. As per usual.
For the first day of our outing, we had planned a bike ride around the park. We did about 25 km that day. And got “lost” along the bike paths, mostly because we didn’t care where we were going until just before dark.
I hadn’t been on a bike for a decade. (OK, OK, I had been speeding once on a bike without brakes – but that’s another story for another time.) I had not been working out, not even running, for a good three months. To say that I wasn’t in great shape would be a rancid understatement.
But I encouraged the guys to ride faster downhill, often led the pack and ended the day without any complaint – or any subsequent muscle pain. I woke up early the following morning in high spirits, with lots of energy and no pain. That after drinking until late into the night and sleeping in a tent at near-freezing temperatures.
I must surely be exaggerating, mustn’t I?
Not one bit. And here’s the little bit of magic behind it.
Your ability to control your body, your organs, your muscles is much greater than you suspect.
You can use your mind’s directed attention to manage physical activity at a level that significantly increases your capability, especially in endurance, and negates adverse consequences such as strained muscles and need for recovery.
This is only ground-level High Awareness of oneself. And a gateway drug of sorts. Just a foretaste of what’s possible when you start removing misplaced beliefs and assumptions, and lean on experience and savagery instead.
Ever since adolescence, people have been making fun of how I move. Whether it’s pool or basketball, they’ve likened my movements to ballet. And they didn’t mean it in a good way. This “they” includes my own mother making fun of me. As a kid.
Then as now, I didn’t care one bit about it. Because I knew what I was doing.
I was optimizing my movements to take advantage of inertia and the nature of motion, save energy for the next thing and get the optimal result.
My understanding of what I was doing became more conscious when I took up karate at about 16-17 years of age. In training, I made an effort to master every detail of every movement first. Only after that would I concern myself with hitting the opponent.
During the most grueling practice, I would remind myself to embrace the pain and go with the flow of what we were doing. I intuitively felt the value of flowing with the environment – flowing with the floor, flowing with the air when I was moving – and applied it in every other aspect of life.
Over time and attention, this practice expanded and deepened to different muscles, movements and even internal organs.
In graduate school, I got a taste for long-distance running as a way to pump my brain with energy and get out the aggression of sleeping 5 hours a day and often being intensely bored the rest of the time.
Mind you, I was often doing 18-30 km a day, some of it in midday tropical heat and humidity. It was no joke.
I learnt to switch between different postures, pay attention to my breathing and liver function, control joint movements and stress, understand how to manage my heart rate and still make room for sprinting – which is the most enjoyable part.
One time I went on a 14-hour drinking binge, got home when the Sun was already high up, and minutes later took a 12 km run like it was nothing. The air was so humid that it felt almost like swimming. And I didn’t feel unsafe for a single instant while I was doing it. I was almost 30 years old.
When I hit up the trails with my friends a few weeks ago, this practice kicked right in. Once you learn the basics of High Awareness, it becomes second nature even if you don’t use it for a long time. It’s easier to forget how to ride a bike, literally.
As soon as I got on the pedals, I was already applying mind-body awareness to driving hard uphill. Without effort. I myself was surprised how easy it went.
What did I do specifically?
Much of it is instinctual and unconscious like any other well-honed skill. Hence the expression High Awareness.
You do something else, your inner monologue concerns itself with other subjects, and you perform top-level all the same. But you remain focused, in control and directing energy towards this unconscious effort consciously, in Awareness.
Here’s some of what I did on the bike and without thinking too much about it:
- Adjusted my seat to an unusual height and received a lecture from my ENFP friend about how my knees were going to be killing me the next day (nothing of the sort happened).
- Shifted my body weight between feet and hands as well as onto the bike seat.
- Changed the sideways angle at which I was pedaling with my ankles. This would have looked very funny and awkward from the outside. It was extremely effective and resulted in exactly zero joint pain.
- Shifted the main thrust of the pedaling motion between my hips, knees and ankle joints. This was a consistent flow shifting of stress, without waiting for any one joint and muscle group to get worn down.
- Changed my forward/backward and sideways body tilt even when I wasn’t making any turns and there wasn’t an obvious aerodynamic or inertial reason to do so. This allowed muscle groups and joints to take turns at complete rest. Low stress is not rest – it’s harmful when chronic.
- Shifted my back posture (especially between convex and concave) and the strain in my back muscles, especially the position of my neck and shoulders.
How did I know what to do when? I was simply paying attention to my body on an unconscious level and using many years of attentive experience to interpret and act on those signals.
To an outside observer, this would have looked like a messy knot of physical awkwardness. To me it was an intricate implementation of direction and control that amplified the enjoyment of the trip. Because effectiveness is such a turn-on.
And I was being extremely effective, especially considering my complete lack of preparation for the specific physical activity. Because my attention wasn’t drawn onto struggling with the bike, I was able to enjoy the sunshine and the beautiful vistas along the path.
What I felt the next day not just in my legs but throughout my entire body was rabid muscle growth, the kind you get after a robust well-structured workout. The slow sizzle of muscle being formed. That’s not painful, it’s exalting.
You can get that elation from your workouts, too, even if you’re not into working out. If you work out, applying the powers of the mind can increase your effectiveness in muscle growth and lower the chance of injury in HIT.
And applying High Awareness to your body and muscle movements is just the tip of the mental powerberg.
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