Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Wu Wei of Ultrarunning. Beyond Flow.

"Wherever you are, be all there." - Jim Elliot


Wu Wei: (pronounced ooo way), from Chinese Philosophy. Literally means non action. But does not mean not acting. Non self conscious yet perfectly responsive to the situation (Van Norden, 2011). More like effortless action. You lose the sense of yourself exerting effort (Slingerland, 2014).

Flow: What athletes would call being in the zone. "Flow states tend to occur when a persons skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background." (Csikszentmihalyi 1997;29-31)

Mindfulness: "Paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment." John Kabat-Zinn

It's dark and even in August there is a chill in the air, because we are above 10,00ft. Head torches flash around. We start running, telling your mind to calm and your body to relax, your body doesn't want to be doing this at 4am, it knows there are 100 miles to go. A rhythm develops, you trip over a tree root, land on your knee, stumble back up and keep going. Into the first aid station, a half marathon has passed but it feels like no time at all since you started. Half a cream cheese bagel from the volunteers and you keep going. The sun rises over the Rockies, you remove some layers of clothing off. Ascending, it should be hard, walk, but it is easy, there seems to be no gradient, you run up above 11,000ft. Then descending back down. Your GPS has gone haywire and stopped working, you have no sense of time or speed. Down through the trees into Twin Lakes. 45 miles have passed, how long you don't know, 8 hours? A working day? You're not sure. You feel fine, effortless.

You keep going. It strips you to the bone. Worn down like an old weathered skeleton in the desert. Wearing away an older version of you. Eroding the past, eroding who you were. Who were you again? An entire day passes, 26 hours. You're down to nothing, there is no happy or sad. 

Ultimately, running for 24 hours strips away everything until when you finish it feels like 'nothing special'. A lady embraces you and says "welcome home".

Looking Down on Twin Lakes from Hope Pass, Leadville.

And yet another time
It's hard, there is no flow, everything hurts, you retch by the side of the trail, trying to throw up. You go into aid stations, you're not sure what to eat or drink. It all feels clunky. You want it to be over. You grind it out, grimace. It feels like maximum effort but you're moving through treacle. Through the streets of the town, people cheer. It's over and you never want to do it again.

Two runs, two different situations, one of Wu Wei and flow, one not.

Wu Wei and Flow

Wu Wei or effortless action is an ancient concept of Chinese philosophy that has been around since 300-500 BCE and was espoused in various forms by Confucius, Laozi ( Lao Tzu) in the DaoDeJing (Tao Te Ching) and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). It is hard to describe. Van Norden (2011) likens to it to trying to explain to someone how to ride a bike. It's very hard to explain, but when you get it, you just know.

It is kind of like the concept of flow. See the figure below, which shows where flow occurs. You are fully immersed and absorbed in what you are doing.  You lose a sense of time. Flow states are about complexity and challenge, "our personal skill is perfectly calibrated to the task" (Slingerland, 2014, video lecture).

Classic examples are rock climbing, a surgeon, skiing a technical route.

If you're still wondering what flow is, Ayrton Senna explains it perfectly in this clip, 35 seconds in. (and if you haven't seen the film Senna, you need to).

It differs from something like binge watching TV, in that you emerge from the couch potato state with less energy and flow, it saps you of something. Whereas, when you are in a flow state you are energised.

However, Wu Wei is more than flow. People can experience flow in non complex situations like walking around, socialising, playing with their kids (Slingerland, 2014). Wu Wei is being absorbed in something bigger than you and it is positive.

In the classic book the Zhuangzi, there are a series of stories about skill and Wu Wei. One is about Butcher Ding. It is metaphor for how to move through the world.

"Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint." (Watson translation, 2013;19)

This doesn't mean you have to go and become a butcher. It means the barrier is your mind. You need to switch off the analytic part. You move effectively. But it comes with practice. Your body is the blade and it moves through the world avoiding obstacles effortlessly, or in running trails, you run a technical trail with flow not by rationally thinking where you will next step.

Slingerland argues that pursuits like Ultrarunning are not Wu Wei because of the way they are pursued in modern Western culture. He states

"In our culture activities like running ultra marathons or exploring new art museums tend to be solitary and aimed at self improvement"
"It is the connection with a larger, valued whole that allows Wu Wei or true flow experiences to leave us feeling 'clean and happy'." (Slingerland, 2014;46)

"Wu Wei is about more than isolated individuals incrementally improving their personal bests in the Ironman Triathlon or making a new level on Tetris. Wu Wei involves giving yourself up to something that because it is bigger than you can be shared by others."
"An essential fact about Wu Wei is that it is not just about the experience unfolding within the mind of an isolated individual but also about social interactions between people." (Slingerland, 2014;52)
I would argue that Ultra running, specifically trail and mountain ultra running meets all these criteria. It is not just an individualistic pursuit of self improvement. Yes, some of the people racing at the front of the pack are running to win, but most are not. Even the elites at the front are part of a certain ultra running community and culture. And having seen Rob Krar run past me in the opposite direction, I can say if anyone was in Wu Wei, it was him.

There is a reason most of these races take places in wild, mountainous places or desert environments. The ultra that takes place on a track doesn't capture the imagination in the same way. For sure, it is hard and requires a certain mental fortitude and skill set. But it is nature that sets apart the trail run.

The trail has a mixture of monotony and complexity. Simplicity and toughness.

Then there is the fact that pretty much no one runs these races without a crew. You are a team, you are not a lone individual. And if you don't have a crew, there is still the aid stations, the sense of community and support. And why do most people enter these races rather than run alone in the wilderness. The community, the social aspect of like minded people, you are not alone. The tribe.

Leadville 100.

Yes, there is flow, but it is more. The ethics of running in the wilderness. Leave no trace, leave no tracks. Can you be an ultra runner and be a bad person morally?

Default Mode Network (DMN)

A common question is 'don't you get bored running?' and 'what do you think about when you are running?'. The answers are no, and nothing really, I'm not really thinking about anything, I don't know what I'm really thinking about for all those hours. Something has been switched off.

You brain has something called the default mode network. It is several parts of your brain linked together, and it is what you mind does when you are bored. It wanders, you day dream, you think about the past, you think about the future. It is your brains default setting.

But you can quiet it down, you can focus on the present, the now. Several studies show that one way of turning down the DMN is mindful meditation. It helps you live in the now.

In mindful meditation you let thoughts come and go, you don't become attached to them. There is awareness, but a loss of your socially constructed self.

But don't think this is an airy-fairy state. Robert Wright, professor of evolutionary psychology says

"There is an edge to mindfulness. A rebellion against natural selection. A radical re-organisation of the mind." (2015, lecture Buddhism & Modern Psychology)

If you are driving a route you always drive, it is easy for your mind to wander, the task is easy. Its the same on the standard 5k route that you run out of your front door. You know it so well, that you don't really need to think about the run. You start to think about what you are going to buy for dinner and how to quit your job.

But trail running is technical. If you stop concentrating you might fall down a hole, or on a race, you might miss a turning. You need to be in the moment. I would argue that your DMN has been turned down.

A koan is a paradoxical question used in meditation. It helps to break down rational thinking and focus on the now. Such as what is Mu? Who am I? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The question is repeated over and over. Does the repetition result in a flow state? The question is complex and simple at the same time, and the act of repeating it over and over again is also simple on one level.

Is ultra running a moving koan?

Not just the question of why the hell am I doing this?! But the mixture of repetition, relentless movement and complexity.  The trail can be complex, it can be simple, and then it goes on for a long time, maybe a whole day. You have to be flexible but have a strategy but you have to focus on each moment on the trail.

Is ultra running moving Zen. Hakuin (a Japanese Zen master from back in the day) said

"Meditation in action is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness." (quoted in Skinner, 2015;78)
Do Zen, Moving Zen. Calligraphy by Shinzan Roshi.By Shinzan Miyamae Roshi (Daizan Skinner Roshi) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Transient Hypofrontality

There is a part of your brain called the Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC). It is the higher part of the brain involved in decision making, planning, working toward a goal, differentiating between good and bad, working memory and more.

The work of Arne Dietrich shows that endurance exercise essentially switches off the pre frontal cortex. In a similar way to meditation, hypnosis and certain drugs.

"Although the hypothesis of exercise-induced transient hypofrontality was developed to account for the beneficial effects of exercise on mental health, the prolonged disengagement of higher cognitive centers in the prefrontal cortex also offers a neural mechanism that provides insight into the alteration of consciousness known as the runner's high. Some of the phenomenologically unique features of this state such as experiences of timelessness, living in the here and now, reduced awareness of one's surroundings, peacefulness (being less analytical), and floating (diminished working memory and attentional capacities), are consistent with a state of frontal hypo- function. Even abstruse feelings such as the unity with the self and/or nature might be more explicable, considering that the prefrontal cortex is the very structure that provides us with the ability to segregate, differentiate, and analyze the environment" (Dietrich, 2003;241)
So we have
  • a sense of timelessness
  • living in the here & now
  • peacefulness
  • not being so analytical. Switching off our rational mind

In Dietrich's studies total exercise time was no more 50 minutes, at 70-80% heart rate max (Dietrich 2004). Now imagine what happens to your PFC if your are in this zone for 5,10, 24 hours?!

You are returning to the mind of a child in some senses. As the PFC does not develop fully until your late teens.

Down regulating your PFC helps us to break categorical inflexibility. In other words, think outside of the box and not have such rigid ideas. It is one of the reasons that children can play with a cardboard box for hours, they don't just see it as a box. Their thinking has not become rigid and PFC dominated yet.

Or in the words of the DaoDeJing

"Concentrating your qi (vital energies) and attaining the utmost suppleness, can you be a child?" (Chapter 10, Laozi) 

Endurance exercise is literally causing areas of your brain to switch off and return to a more child like mind! Now imagine if you take that exercise out of the lab and transpose it to a natural environment.

I went into the woods.... Attention Restoration Theory

Thoreau famously went into the woods. He realised the power of the natural environment.

Thoreau quote. Source: www.panampost.com

In one study (Berman et al 2008) two groups of students were given a memory task called an n-back task. They had to remember numbers and look for repetition, it means you have to hold 4 numbers in your head at any one time. After the initial task, half the group was sent for a 20 minute walk around the local town, the other half went to the University Arboretum.

Before the walk they were equally matched. After the walk, the group that had been in the more natural environment of the trees were significantly better at the task than the walk in town group.

The natural environment allows your directed attention to be restored and replenished. The natural environment is inherently rich in fascinating stimuli. There is a modest engagement, it doesn't take much to disengage and look at something else. Look at tree, look at the mountains, feel the breeze.

This is unlike the urban environment which consumes your attentional resources and drains you. Adverts are shouting at you, there is traffic. If you are out running, you have to cross the road, avoid getting run over, swerve around people.
"In sum, we have shown that simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control." (Berman et al 2008;1211)

This is why the 10k road run is never going to cut it in terms of restoring your attention or letting your DMN quieten down. Urban environments are draining your attention.

Whereas running in a natural environment is having a restorative effect.

The quality of your mind is affected by your local environment (Clifford Saron, 2015).

Nature is effectively restoring your attention reserves and allowing your brain to work better.

Nothing special. Trying not to try.

Wu Wei is a paradox. Like an athlete trying not to choke when making a crucial play. Or like trying not to think of anything.

It can't be forced. But certain circumstances will allow it to happen more readily.

Ultra running is mix of endurance exercise, repetition and complexity. Ultra running is working at several levels:-

1)It can put you in a flow state. You are at the edge of your abilities and getting constant feedback (you are either moving forward or not).

2)The act of running, the repetition, the rhythm is akin to counting your breath in mindful meditation. It is down regulating your default mode network, and puts you in state of awareness, being fully present in the now.

3) The endurance exercise turns down you pre frontal cortex, the transient hypo-frontality makes you lose sense of time and rigid concepts.

4)The natural environment is restorative and make you feel part of something much bigger.

5) If you are lucky it engenders a sense of Wu Wei. You are engaging with the ground. It feels effortless.

It is beyond flow.
You, the environment, your crew, the other participants, it is all in harmony.

Running is simple on one level. Running 100 mile has no benefit outside of itself.

In the words of Shunryu Suzuki when he is talking about meditation and zen and trying to attain something, it is "nothing special". In that sense running ultra marathon is no more special than not running them, or playing ping pong or washing up. But on the other hand it is a very special experience.

It is a paradox, if you go on to the trail looking to find something or change something or transform yourself, you won't. If you chase after it you won't grasp it. As some Chinese guys figured out over 2000 years ago without running a step.

The trail is waiting, it is always there.

In short, go for a trail run. It will literally change your mind!

It is the totality of the experience. It is carrying everything you need. It is being in the wilderness and switching off from everything. It is sitting in tents at night talking, lit by head torch. It is the specialness of brewing instant coffee early in the morning while chatting. Forest, beach, ocean. It is running at night with your brother, deep in the forest. I emerged from the forest, running the sand covered fire breaks down onto the beach. The sea was crashing in. I ran south. It felt like I could run forever.

"One who is good at travelling leaves no tracks or traces." (Ch 27, DaoDeJing)
Related blog posts from me:
The Trail (Homecoming).
On Mindful Training.
On Wasting Time.
Vanishing Point. Zen and the Art of Training.

This post is massively indebted to the MOOC Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science, taught by Prof.Edward Slingerland at The University of British Columbia.

Csikszentmihalyi M (1997) Finding Flow

The translations of the DaoDeJing are taken from Ivanhoe PJ & Van Norden BW(2003) Readings in Classical Chinese

Suzuki Shunryu (1970) Zen Mind Beginners Mind 

Van Norden (2011) Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy

Translation of Zhuangzi taken from the Burton Watson translation (2013) The Complete Works of Zhuangzi

The Zen Character: Life, Art and Teachings of Zen Master Shinzan Miyamae. Edited by Julian Daizan Skinner (2015)

Slingerland E (2014) Trying not to Try. Kindle version

Journal articles
Berman et al (2008) The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature. Psychological Science


Clifford Sarons The University of Virginia. lectures on the neuroscience of meditation. Tibetan Buddhism and the Modern World

Robert Wright, Princeton University, the section on default mode network and meditation. Buddhism and Modern Psychology

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