Crisis of Values vs. Crisis of Inspiration

When embarking on any great endeavor, there will always be setbacks and doubts. Whether it’s traveling, a new job, moving across the country, or following our dreams, there will be moments when things don’t feel right.

I’ve experienced this over and over again this past winter and spring. First, with writing a book. “Is this worth doing?” “Am I ever going to finish?” “What am I doing with myself??” Etc. And again later on with starting my business. “Is this a valuable creation?” “Will people pay for mindfulness training?” “What does this mean about who I am?” I still feel it sometimes.

When the doubt really gets going, it can start to feel like a crisis. Everything feels wrong, and we begin to question what we’re doing with our time and our lives. Have you ever felt this way? I’m guessing you have.

In my experience, this self-doubt is a result of one of two separate things: either a crisis of values, or a crisis of inspiration. They both feel really bad. Bad enough to derail a major project, even if it’s almost completed. But they mean different things and should be treated differently, so we have to be able to differentiate them.

The crisis of values happens when we begin to realize that we’ve changed, or our work has changed, and what we’re doing no longer aligns with who we are and what we believe in. This is a deep, existential struggle, and it demands a full shift of perspective to be able to see clearly.

We may need to redefine the values in our lives, to regain a sense of ourselves through conversations with loved ones and old friends, or perhaps to take a long trip to clear our heads and get some distance from the day-to-day. I experienced this a few years ago when I decided to leave my office job to pursue writing and art, and eventually yoga and meditation.

The second is a crisis of inspiration. This typically happens when things are hard or moving slowly. Perhaps there is no end in sight for a particular project. Things may feel stagnant despite the constant slow churn of effort.

This can happen at a traditional job, but I’ve experienced it more with big personal projects. They are ideas I still strongly believe in, creations I want badly to bring into the world, but I’m tired of them. They feel like Sisyphean tasks. The projects have demanded a huge amount from me, but are not yet bearing fruit.

This crisis does not require the major life-altering decisions to fix. It may demand a shift of perspective or a reinvigoration of values. Most of all it demands inspiration. This can come from an outside source, or it can come from inside.

External sources such as friends, personal development blogs, and books on the subject are all excellent places to start. Getting back to the important parts of life can also do great things: exercising, spending time with friends and loved ones, cleaning the house, finishing up some other lingering projects.

The thing to avoid, however, is mistaking one crisis for the other. If we treat a crisis of values as we would a crisis of inspiration, we’ll find ourselves continually trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. It just won’t fit. Best case scenario, we’ll eventually realize that and treat it for what it is. Less-best case, we’ll build up lots of resentment and eventually something will break.

The other situation is more dangerous. If we treat a crisis of inspiration as a crisis of values, we may end up abandoning a cherished project, job, or business too soon. We may not give it time to grow and be nurtured, to truly come into its own. If I had a nickel for every book half-written and every business idea abandoned, I would need to rent storage space to store all my nickels. Paying nickels to store nickels does not sound like an awesome business strategy, so I would rather avoid this.

Next time you’re feeling doubt about a big project, take a step back and ask yourself what you need the most. To change your whole life? Or to find new sources of inspiration?

Row by row...

Slow Down and Play in the Dirt

I didn’t think it was possible to get sunburned in February in the Pacific Northwest. And I hear the weather is awful on the East Coast right now. Something about minus forty? Ninety inches of snow? Winterpocalypse?

I just spent the day working on a friend’s farm on the outskirts of town in Portland. We were digging, hoeing, broad-forking (I can’t believe I had never seen this before — basically a two-foot wide, full-body pitchfork) the beds that are going to be enclosed in hoop houses this season. It was 60 and sunny. Sorry East Coast friends. I got sunburned.

It felt so good to be out working in a field (Did you hear about the scarecrow who won the award? He was out standing in his field). I haven’t done this for too long. I farmed in Italy for a half-year way back when, and I was part of a super rad collective garden in Seattle. I also grew up on a family farm in Vermont, but that mostly consisted of chasing goats and chewing on sticks.

So, I miss the dirt. Don’t get me wrong, the city is great. But there is something so natural and healthy about being on a farm. Being near animals, being away from technology, getting dirt under my fingernails, doing some hard work. Finding worms! And snakes! We brought the cat out to where we were working, and in less than fifteen minutes he had caught a mouse. How right is that?

Yeah okay, so I was out there for like a half-day. Six hours or something. I can’t really talk about how slow it felt, or how great farm life is, or any of that. It was a nice one day activity, not a lifestyle I went and tried out. I’ve done things like that before, though, and it reminded me of the wonderful slowness of life out of the city. Stimulation underload. Things can only happen as fast as our bodies can make them happen. And don’t think that I’m saying slow is easy — part of why the work is slow is because it is so hard.

Did I mention that they have goats? Maybe this is from my early childhood nostalgia, or maybe it’s a more universal thing, but goats are just the best. Oh man. They’re so funny. Smarter than sheep, who are friendly but not very interactive. Dumber than pigs, who are too smart for their own good and know something is fishy with the fact that they’re fenced off and you’re not. Goats are just right. Silly and playful, but without making you question your livelihood.

It also felt really wonderful, after doing so much solo work on my laptop recently, to be doing physical labor in a group. Teamwork is the best. So much more gets done. Being in a situation that’s either a bit stressful or a bit difficult for everybody makes group bonding happen that much faster. This is also why group backpacking adventures are so wonderful.

And there will be vegetables! Let’s not forget about the eventual rewards of all this work. I’ve been reading “A Slight Edge” recently, which talks all about doing small positive disciplines over time to reap a reward in the future. This applies to all aspects of our lives, from health and exercise to relationships, work, and skill acquisition. Plant, cultivate, harvest. In our day-to-day live, we’re always wanting to jump straight from planting to harvesting, skipping over the long intermediate period of getting good at something and developing a relationship with it.

Getting into the soil forces the “cultivate” on us. No matter how much work we put into those fields, nothing is going to make there be vegetables tomorrow, or next week. It locks us into the natural rhythm of things, which we’ve otherwise eliminated from our normal lives. Most things happen slowly, seasonally, and only with continued effort. There is a long period of working without results before they start to trickle in. 

This life demands patience. It is a beautiful thing. If we can simultaneously cultivate both patience and determined effort, we can achieve anything. One without the other will either leave us stressed and pushing too hard or complacent and waiting for life to happen to us. But sometimes we’ve just got to get out to play in the dirt.

Great housemates!

Six House Rules To Live By

At my old house in Seattle, my roommates and I decided to make some house rules to help us build community and live intentionally. At first, these were straight-forward, kind of silly things. No Facebook. No internet at home (easy, because we didn’t have internet). No drunk texting/emailing exes (we had elaborate rationale about how calling was fine, just not the passive-ness and permanent-ness of texting). Eat a lot of beans. Okay, this might not have been an actual rule, but it was a fundamental principle the house was built on.

Needless to say, we had a good time with it. Breaking a rule meant a dollar in the jar, to be spent at some future date on something fun for the house. We gradually acquired more and more rules, but eventually started to realize that while these highly-specific stipulations were fun and good for building community, they weren’t helping us to do better or live more fully (except No Internet at Home – that rule was the best!). Instead, we decided to set positive intentions for how we ought to live our lives.

Experience New Things

Well, this seems obvious. Except that a lot of the time it’s not. Often when we’re deep in our routine, we need special impetus to go out and experience something new. Whether it’s an art walk, a basketball game, joining a kickball team (this is a popular thing in the Northwest), or just going for a walk in a new neighborhood, we need to keep it fresh. One of the major advantages of living in a city is that there are more new things to do than can be done in a lifetime. Not to mention getting out of the city, which is wonderful. But even in a smaller place, there is always new experience to be had. This goes hand-in-hand with always learning and generally being a curious, creative person.

Meet New People

Along the lines on experiencing new things, we can always be meeting new people. We don’t have to become best friends with everyone we meet, but we need to keep putting ourselves out there and seeing what kinds of connections arise. As we grow and change, we often find that some of the friendships and connections we’ve had have become stale. Sometimes, this is the perfect opportunity to reconnect and reinvigorate those relationships. Other times, we need to recognize that we can’t be friends with everybody all the time, and that people drift apart. This is a natural part of the mobile society we live in. Slowly, we may find our tribe of people who support and inspire us. Even then, that tribe may evolve and shift as we continue to grow and explore.

Be Mobile

Winter in Seattle is dark. Portland, too, although not quite as much. It’s not freezing cold or blustery like the northeast or midwest. But it’s dark. Cool and wet. Getting out into the world can be a serious challenge to even the most optimistic person’s psyche. The other thing about Seattle is that it’s a city of neighborhoods, and while each one contains everything you’d ever need, there are whole parts of town you never go to. The geography of the city makes it tough to go from one to another. Hence our third rule: be mobile. Get out there and do it! Bike around! Get wet! Play sports! Visit people! Try new parts of town! We basically decided that it was not acceptable to decide to skip an event because of its location. This was one of the hardest rules to follow, but it paid off. As a transplant in a city, being mobile is the only way to get to know an area and meet people outside our immediate circle of friends.

Don’t Hold Back

Do you feel like you’re holding back? This could be in any sphere of life: in physicality, in love, in friendship, in work. There is often a nagging feeling of “I could have done more,” or “I could have been more committed, more present.” Don’t hold back! Just don’t do it. We need to put ourselves out there, be vulnerable, make mistakes. This is how we learn. This is how we build up experience and wisdom. Not by reading about it on the web. By actually going out and experiencing it, by giving ourselves completely to our endeavors. Also, it’s a great thing to yell down the stairs when your friend is walking out the door to go on a date.

Be Generous

Generosity is one of the most magical character traits. It is so wonderful to be around generous people. People who are generous with their time, money, and attention are the ones we like the most. The positivity generous people create comes back to reward them, too. Life is all about abundance and sharing, not scarcity or greed. Sharing whatever we can with people close to us (and people not so close to us, but in greater need) is one of the best feelings. We tried to make generosity a built-in practice in our house, usually by sharing food and making an effort to bring people together however our means would allow.

Practice Gratitude

If generosity is the most magical outward-facing trait, gratitude is the most magical inward-facing trait. Developing a deep sense of gratitude fills us with love for life and appreciation for all the people around us, while diminishing any negativity that comes our way. We have so much to be grateful for. Just the fact that we are alive and here on this planet is astounding. That we live in an affluent and free country? Almost unbelievable. Not to mention a good education, our strong networks of friends and family, our clean drinking water, our relative peace and security. Practicing gratitude every day makes us fall in love with the world. It makes us want to give back, and to make it better for everyone else. It makes us calm, kind, and compassionate. It’s the best.

What are your house rules? What do you live by? What do you like to yell down the stairs to your friends to get them excited about life?

Train Yoga

I recently discovered that the road to the place I love is, in fact, not a road at all. It’s a pair of iron beams, running parallel in perfect unison for miles and miles and hundreds of miles more. And when I say perfect unison, I mean close but with all sorts of bumps and divots, because this ride is not exactly “smooth.” But in India, the train is by far the cheapest and best way to get from Point A to Point B.

This time Point A is a bustling city in the South Indian region of Tamil Nadu: Chennai, formerly known as Madras. Point A is also a place of seeking, of curiosity, of wondering what the world has in store for me, of imagining all the strange creatures that could be living in my water, or worse, already in my stomach. Point A is an American who thinks he loves yoga, but isn’t sure what’s up with all the dots and lines on peoples’ foreheads.

Point B is harder to define. You could call it New Delhi, or probably Rishikesh shortly thereafter, but it would be more accurate to just label it as “Unknown.” I have some ideas of what Point B might look like, but train rides in India have taught me that Point B is never what you expect. It’s better not to speculate, but of course I can’t resist. Point B is a spiritual place, one with a deep understanding of yoga, of the self (if there is such a thing), of meditation, the mind, humanity. At Point B, I am not going to get sick. There will be naan.

The route from Chennai to Delhi is 2,200 km, but because this is a “Super Fast Express” train, takes a mere 34 hours instead of the 50-60 it would take on the regular “Express” train. For those who haven’t visited the subcontinent, here’s a quick primer on seating classes for Indian trains:

Second Class: Bench seats are completely unreserved and they let as many people on as want to go. This can be chaos and is strongly NOT recommended for trips longer than an hour or two.

Sleeper Class: Each six-foot section of the train is broken into eight bunks. Three tiers on each side of the main compartment, two tiers on the opposite side of the walkway, slightly shorter in length.

3A/C: Same as sleeper class, with air conditioning, sheets, and curtains provided for slightly more privacy.

2A/C: Same as 3A/C, with two bunks per side rather than three.

1A/C, EC, CC, Beyond: Various nicer methods of travel which I haven’t explored, some in seats rather than benches, and possibly some in which you practically have a whole cabin to yourself.

Based on a few other medium-length (5-16 hours) train rides I’ve had here, I decided that for the long one I would splurge for the additional comfort of 3A/C. April in India is hot, and although I haven’t seen an actual thermometer in months, I’d say the average temperature has been getting well into the 90’s.

Fate (and my propensity for last-minute planning), however, plays a large role in these decisions, and by the time I booked only Sleeper class was available. No problem, at least it’s cheaper. And by cheaper, I mean dirt cheap. We’re talking $11 for a 34-hour, 2200 km ride. Hence my lack of guilt at the idea of “splurging” for the 3A/C ticket, which would have been about $20.

I should add that I’m traveling with a small statue of the Indian god Ganesha in my bag. It is important to have some divine intervention here. He’s the one with the elephant head, famous for his ability to remove obstacles. So he basically hooks me up on this one: my overnight bus to Chennai drops me directly at the train station two hours before my scheduled departure, leaving me plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast of puri (puffy fried dough) with the typical sides of potato and coconut curries.

The train is not especially late – the rail system is the largest employer in India, and one of the most organized and reliable institutions in the country. Sleeper class is as expected, but the car is older than most I’ve been on: the power is spotty, the paint job flaked, the dirt slightly more caked than on the newer cars. There are bars on the windows, which from photos my mom thinks makes the car look like a prison. But it means the windows open all the way, letting in plenty of fresh, fast-moving air to combat the heat. (Except that fresh air in India is usually hazy with smoke from fires in the fields, and more commonly, piles of burning trash and plastic. This is a whole other story, but basically it’s a huge bummer.)

I get comfortable and immediately take a nap in my upper berth to recover from the poor night sleep I got on the overnight bus. I came prepared for this journey: fully-charged iPod, a journal with plenty of ideas to hash out, War and Peace. Somehow I always end up reading epic Russian novels in tropical places. The train car is hot and the seats are the kind of fake-leather-polyester that gets sticky and releases layers of stored dirt when you sweat on it. Despite my smiles and brief exchanges in halted English/sign language, my compartment-mates seem firmly bent on strewing their belongings far and wide across the benches. This feels like a subtle claiming of territory, a gentle push-back against the white privilege they know I experience throughout the country. I have no way to test this theory. It doesn’t matter – yoga has opened my hips and legs in the last few months. I can squeeze into small spaces for long periods of time.

The trip continues: six, ten, fourteen hours. A decent night sleep, twenty-four, thirty hours. The situation doesn’t exactly get more comfortable. But I start to realize something. Despite whatever difficulties or confusions arise, I still feel calm, relaxed. I’ve adjusted to the discomforts to the point that they don’t feel like discomforts. I am being here with myself, smiling. Occasionally I’ll engage in brief conversation with a curious Indian. At one point a young guy sees I have a ukulele and pulls down his tabla from the upper berth. We jam out for a half-hour and draw a crowd from the surrounding compartments. Even with the layer of grime that has slowly coated my travel clothes and exposed body parts, this trip is really cool. Life is good.

And then it hits me. I’ve been telling myself that yoga, Rishikesh, some vague Point B, is my destination. But I’m doing yoga right here. I am where I am, right now. This is what yoga is all about. I’m exploring the present moment, sitting with discomfort without letting my mind go down the drain. That’s straight from the Yoga Sutras. I’m doing Train Yoga. I would market this back in the States, if only we had a functional rail system.

This trip will give me an opportunity to practice all sorts of more “traditional” forms of yoga, ones with asanas and pranayama and downward-facing dog and (I hope) happy-baby pose, but for now I am glad to be able to sit on a train and just be. To feel the wind on my face, to watch the corn and wheat and cotton fields pass by, to sit comfortably, to breathe. They say India will change you. I’d have to say they’re right.

Can you run a marathon without training?

I’m not going to recommend this. But maybe someone you know has casually suggested, “Oh yeah, if you’re in good shape, you can probably run a marathon anytime.” I used to say this even before I’d even run a half marathon. I always believed it, just never had a reason to test it. But that’s a pretty bold claim to make casually. Also, science.

So when I found out last Saturday that my friend had an extra bib for the Vermont City (Burlington, VT) Marathon happening the next day, I decided it was time to run some tests. After all, I had gone on a three-mile run the day before and had felt like I could have run at least five. My lungs had cleared up quickly from the pollution I acquired traveling in India. So I got the bib switched over to my name and started hydrating for the race happening in 16 hours.

Here’s what I mean by not training: In the six months leading up to the race, I went on a total of four runs. I ran 7 miles one time in March in India, and the heat destroyed me. I didn’t run anymore on the subcontinent. I got home to Vermont last week and went on three 3-mile runs. Then a day off, then the marathon. BUT, I’m in pretty good shape generally, as stipulated in the hypothesis above. I was recently doing a lot of walking in the foothills of the Himalayas, I have a regular yoga practice, and I have experience with long runs, including one previous marathon.

I did some internet research on running marathons without training, just to make sure I wasn’t going to die. People have done it. People in worse shape than me. People do die in marathons, but not training doesn’t seem to be why. OK, I feel encouraged. I also have good body awareness from the yoga, meditation, and other running I’ve done. So, I planned to go with the new-agey tactic of “listening to my body.” I promised to abandon my sense of ego which would be pushing for a faster time, and just focus on finishing the race.

2014-05-25 13.30.19

Blood from a blister that popped around mile 14

It worked pretty well. Around mile 4 I had a brief moment of terror, remembering what it means to run 26.2 miles. But by mile 8 I was in the groove, watching the scenery and slowly letting the miles tick by. I passed the half-way mark about 30 minutes slower than my first marathon, but no big deal, I was in really good shape for that. And, eventually mile 18. I probably kept up an 8:30 min/mile pace until then. But, oof. Hit a wall. My quads started screaming, my tummy grumbling. I started walking at water stations, ran through sprinklers people had put out, and strongly considered grabbing the beer someone was offering from the sidewalk. But, onward!

Slowly, slowly, to mile 20, 21. Two things happened simultaneously. Thing 1: I realized I was going to finish. Even if I walked the rest of the way, I’d finish before they kicked me off the course. Thing 2: The wall turned into one of those evil demon walls that doesn’t just block your way, but actually attacks you as you approach it. Things hurt, my brain was tired of trying. Everyone was passing me, except one girl who was puking on the side of the course. I passed her. But then she started running again and passed me, too.

made it

Celebrating the finish in the medical tent (just to get my toe cleaned up). Mustache is a must for impromptu marathons.

But, for science! I jogged as much as I could, walked a little bit, jogged some more. Eventually I found the finish line and crossed it. I made it in 4:01:53. Pretty decent time, mostly because I had a solid run for the first 18 miles. More importantly, now I know that it’s possible to run a marathon without training. And even more importantly than that, now I never have to do it again.

Maybe you are thinking (or have thought) of being stupid like me. Here’s some advice. Do you think you can finish a marathon? If so, I believe in you. You probably can. It will hurt, but that’s part of the “fun.” If you actually try this, don’t try to push your finishing time at all. I had some moments of wanting to break four hours (I knew I was right on the cusp), but speeding up might have meant pulling a quad or hamstring. It’s not worth it. Listen carefully to your body, and be fully prepared to withdraw from the race at any time if something is not right. Hydrate a lot before, and a lot during, especially if it’s warm out. Your body will be confused, and water helps everything, unless you don’t have enough salt. Eat enough salt. Plan to not be able to walk for two days afterwards.


Here I am not walking

Honestly, running a marathon in three hours was easier than running it in four. Less pain, less uncertainty, less worrying about injury. A lot more training, but I train because I like running in the first place. Now that I know this is possible, I’m not planning to ever do it again.

In summary: If you don’t like running, why would you run a marathon? If you do like running, you might as well train for it.