Wonderful Past All Understanding

It seems ironic that modern trail/mountain running culture is so dependent upon technology and that most runners are rather social-media obsessed when it is often some of those very things people are escaping from. I go into nature to flee from the man-made world, to see things pure and unfettered, away from computers and noise and senseless consumer culture. I head for the woods seeking the raw and quiet world with no screens or advertising, no airbrushed images to distort my reality.

ultrarunning forest

Upon returning though, I eventually end up back at my computer like an addict; I check Facebook, glean what running news I can, dull my senses with the (somewhat fascinating) minutia of others peoples’ lives. I look up something about a mountain somewhere, read the updates, watch the videos, experience the curious online community of people driven to do amazing and masochistic physical and mental things.

Of course I get sick of the computer after a while, when my eyes get sore and tired from the strange glow, and I feel funny and a little sad that I’ve just wasted so much time staring at a screen. It’s strange behavior but my point is that it makes perfect sense. Our need for experiencing both the rawest nature and the most instantaneous social technologies may seem contradictory but the root cause of these peculiar rituals stem from a deep and basic desire. We want to be connected, to be a part of something bigger than our individual selves.

In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm writes:

…The human race in its infancy still feels one with nature. The soil, the animals, the plants are still man’s world. He identifies himself with animals…But the more the human race emerges from these primary bonds, the more it separates itself from the natural world, the more intense becomes the need to find new ways of escaping separateness.

Fromm further believes that this devastating departure from nature is the root cause of all human suffering:

The experience of separation arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety. Being separate means being cut off, without any capacity to use my human powers. Hence to be separate means to be helpless, unable to grasp the world–things and people–actively; it means that the world can invade me without my ability to react.

David Abram, in his book Becoming Animal, believes that in the infancy of our own individual human lives we experience a state of oneness.

The self begins as an extension of the breathing flesh of the world, and the things around us, in turn, originate as reverberations echoing the pains and pleasures of our body. So the clustered trees, the bricks in the floor, and the sunlight are not first encountered as inert or insentient presences…the inwardly felt sentience of the child is a correlate of the outwardly felt wakefulness of the sky and the steadfast support of the ground, and the willfulness of the caressing wind; it is a concomitant of the animate surroundings.

We ‘grow out’ of this original state of connectedness though, manipulated and desensitized by a culture terrified of the nature that it depends upon. Abram goes on:

Only much later…drawn deeply into the whirling vortex of verbal language…is the contemporary child liable to learn that neither the bird nor the storm are really aware, that the wind is no more willful than the sky is awake, and indeed that human persons alone are the carriers of consciousness in this world.

It’s possible to think that maybe in our advanced case ignorance could indeed be bliss, but Abram argues that this isn’t so. The problem is: “…the breathing body, this ferociously attentive animal, still remembers.”

What can be done? How can humans address this existential crisis, how can we heal the heartache? This is no small thing to ponder.

Writes Fromm,

Man–of all ages and cultures–is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one’s own individual life and find at-onement…The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.

The world is filled with examples of people striving to overcome feelings of separateness. It could be argued that all of what we do as humans is a result of this single anxiety. We dress up, work out, strive for career success to attract others, to find romance, in search of a companion. We watch the news, read the paper, listen to the radio to partake in an extended community, to know what others are knowing, to hear and read what others are hearing, to feel in some way how and what others are feeling. We conform, follow trends, watch the same movies, buy the same gadgets, make sure our lawns look the same way; we are desperate for the shared experience.

There’s a reason things go ‘viral,’ a clear explanation for ‘fads.’ Conformity and the herd mentality are natural and deep-seated impulses, which is why so many people seem guided by those very things. Professional/spectator sports are a clear example of our desire to alleviate our aloneness: thousands of people pack themselves into stadiums, screaming for their team, wearing their colors. High-five perfect strangers, thriving off shared energy, deafened by the ecstatic noise of the pack. Year after year, good season or bad season, people can feel a part of something greater than themselves–an extended family–and take comfort in it.

The most important and fundamental aspect of the trail running community, of course, is the people who comprise it. It’s about coming together to share the experience, whether that’s a group run at your local park or reading the articles and comments on iRunFar, and so on. Besides connecting with the earth we also delight in connecting with others who partake in our sacred pursuits, both on trail and on line. “Inasmuch as these rituals are practiced in common,” writes Fromm, “an experience of fusion with the group is added which makes the solution all the more effective.”

ultrarunning community

The work of artists and artisans, creators, says Fromm, is yet another vehicle for attaining ‘at-oneness:’

In any kind of creative work the creating person unites himself with his material, which represents the world outside of himself. Whether a carpenter makes a table, or a goldsmith a piece of jewelry, whether the peasant grows his corn, or the painter paints a picture, in all types of creative work the worker and his object become one, man unites himself with the world in the process of creation.

Trail and mountain runners are artists and creators too, becoming one with their medium, learning the textures of the earth and infinite nuances that make every step unique. We escape our aloneness by literally and figuratively connecting with something greater, our feet treading upon the land’s glorious undulations and our lungs devouring the oxygen-rich air that envelopes us.

Writes Fromm,

One way of achieving this aim [of at-oneness] lies in all kinds of orgiastic states. These may have the form of an auto-induced trance…Many rituals of primitive tribes offer a vivid picture of this type of solution. In a transitory state of exaltation the world outside disappears, and with it the feeling of separateness from it.

Athletes and others often refer to this wonderful state as ‘the zone’ and view reaching that ideal state as the ultimate goal of each run, each performance, each workout. Everyone wants to feel absolute mindfulness, total at-oneness, and it’s easy to understand why. That trance is what sustains us, what buffers us from the anxieties of our existence; “It seems that after the orgiastic experience, man can go on for some time without suffering too much from his separateness. Slowly the tension of anxiety mounts, and then is reduced again by the repeated performance of the ritual.” That brings to mind another example of an orgiastic state that has been known to ease existential anxiety and feelings of separateness but discussion of that ritual is best suited to other venues.

It may seem crazy, this need for both nature and technology to pacify us in our fragile state of adulthood, but the causes, as I’ve outlined, seem rather basic. We just want to feel connected, understood, a part of something larger, something longer-lasting and more significant than our mortal lives. These days we have many options for attempting to find union and so we pick and choose, finding the option that suits us best. One person buys season tickets to their local sports team, another goes to see live music every other night, and another runs the trails tirelessly; alcoholism, drug and sex addiction are more complex and difficult examples, yet still, are all borne from the same seed. Different approaches according to personal preference; same impetus and underlying cause.

One final point to consider, we might lessen the intensity of our addictive behaviors to escape separateness if we looked to nature for the truth of the matter and accepted one overarching notion; that this ideal ‘at-oneness’ is not some unattainable dream, but rather a state that we are forever in, whether we want to be or not. We can be comforted knowing we are inseparably one with nature, with the people and other animals we see, with the air we breathe, and with all that surrounds us. The architect Louis Sullivan put it best:

…the moment we peer beneath this surface of things, the moment we look through the tranquil reflection of ourselves and the clouds above us, down into the clear, fluent, unfathomable depth of nature, how startling is the silence of it, how amazing the flow of life, how absorbing the mystery. Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth. Awhile the spirit and the matter fade away together, and it is this that we call decadence, death. These two happenings seem jointed and interdependent, blended into one like a bubble and its iridescence, and they seem borne along upon a slowly moving air. This air is wonderful past all understanding.

Hopefully our curious love of nature and technology now makes a bit more sense. I know, of course, I will continue on with my rituals. I know I and others will be out there running the trails, surfing the web, traveling in the mountains, getting lost in the cyberspace, sleeping in the woods, Skype-ing like crazy, update their status ten times a day, and that’s great.

nature and ultrarunning

I will remind myself of two things as I move forward, remembering Louis Sullivan along the way: we are already connected to everyone and everything more than we could ever wish for so it’s okay to ‘unplug’ sometimes, to turn off the screen, to take a step back from the frenzy. We must take care not to let this constant barrage of technology and social media run too rampant, leaving us more disconnected than ever before. It is and will be a delicate balance and I pray we fare it well.

In the meantime, we the artisans of dirt, rock, and snow, humble dancers of steep mountain trails, must go and connect with our medium. We will breathe in the fall air as we move through the earth, running along, taking comfort in the fact that we are part of it and therefore can never be isolated or alone.

Now that’s a reason for celebration!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When in life and trail running do you feel most connected to the people and world around you?
  • How to you deal with the dichotomous desires of connecting with nature via trail running and connecting with humans via technology?
Willie McBride

is an avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner who now resides in Portland, Oregon. He owns and runs Animal Athletics, a personal/group training and coaching business, with friend and fellow ultrarunner Yassine Diboun. The two provide services to aspiring outdoor athletes and people of all abilities in the Portland area and beyond. You can enjoy more of his writing and photos on his blog and Animal Athletics' blog.

There are 8 comments

  1. Chris

    Willie!

    CC represent!!

    Beautiful article. I think about these themes often as I transition between the chaos of Mexico City and the stillness of volcanoes that surround it. Humanity is a curiosity… I'mma ponder that on my next run!

  2. J.Xander

    Such is the plight of the modern 1st world dweller. At core a person is nothing without the group. Take the group away, reduce us to a solitary being, and we wander aimlessly, without purpose other than pure survival. We need the group for self definition but the modern 1st world is changing how that relationship takes place.

    There are two basic types of communities: a community of place and a community of interest.

    The modern 1st world has rapidly pushed us into communities of interest and pulled us away from our communities of place. We often feel we share more values with specific online communities than we do with our neighbors. That makes me kind of nostalgic for a community of place that I have never personally known.

  3. Alexp.

    Willie and all the others reading this,

    I think all written in the article is right, but I also think that to feel and to act like this you have to have solved some basic problems like food to eat, somewhere to sleep etc., Then you can go further and start finding your own "life" balance.

    1. Trail Clown

      Well, before the dawn of agriculture, humans ran up mountains and across savannahs and through forests in search of food. That WAS the basic problem, and we may just have outrun other animals (Born to Run) to solve the problem. It just so happens that our nature may involve other dynamics (the art of running, if you will) and other needs (group identity), but the point of my comments is that, while you are of course correct (you can't run without food obviously), the article is completely worthwhile not just because of its emphasis on "life balance" but because running is a very primitive (i.e. related to food, group survival, etc.) activity. And looking at a computer all day and running for no apparent reason are riddles in the modern world. I'd love to solve poverty for the millions who suffer, but in the meantime I'll feed my family with computer work and I'll run at lunch because through it I tap into something essential.

  4. Peter Hubbard

    Willie,

    Thanks for your deep and thought-provoking post (great photos by the way). Your title caught my eye, “Wonderful Past All Understanding,” because as I run and seek to find beauty in nature, I am frequently awed by a sense of my own smallness and the profound beauty around me, both in nature and in other people. It blows my mind and reminds me of David’s reflection in the Bible when he said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” Even though we can’t understand all things, there are some basic instincts you alluded to which we all feel as human beings. I can certainly relate to the “anxiety of separateness” that comes from being uniquely human, even being “lost” in a crowded world of people and social networks. And so, as we try to overcome feelings of separateness, we fill our lives with all sorts of things that aim to satisfy that feeling, though none of them ultimately do. The French philosopher Pascal once said,

    “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

    This quote helps me when I often seek fulfillment and satisfaction in numerous other ways, including escaping into nature with my own two feet on some trail in the middle of nowhere, yet find myself ultimately unfulfilled. I have come to believe that I will only be truly content in this life and the next if I surrender my life not to the natural world, but to the One who made the natural world. He’s also the only One, I believe, who was able to “transcend his individual life.” He didn’t do it by finding “at-onement” like Fromm said, but he did it by making atonement for us, through the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, and therefore brought ultimate peace to us. So why do I run? I run because God gave me the ability to, just like walking or breathing. But what is my purpose when I run? It is to feel God’s pleasure, to be in God’s presence, to remind myself of my insignificance in the world, though Christ counted me significant enough to die for and reconcile me to himself, it is to suffer, to discipline myself, not aimlessly, but with purpose, to share in the world God made and his promises to us of a life lost to ourselves, but found in Him. When do I feel most connected to those around me? When I trust these truths and live with faith in the One who made us.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject, Willie, and for allowing me to share. I’m running a 50k this weekend and these reflections have given me a renewed sense of purpose, I hope you also find true contentment!

  5. glen eley

    Hope this finds its way to you.

    Perhaps you will remember me, from your visiting Lima days.

    I returned from my "walk in the woods" and found Noreen had posted your recent article on the importance of the outdoors in your life.

    I liked mucho, and feel really good that you are out there in the weorled spreading such good testimony.

    Regards to you and all you love,.. glen eley

    P.S.My son moved to Portland NE last year and now I look forwaRD to going there again soon.

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