Wonderful Past All Understanding

Willie McBride philosophizes on how ultrarunners stay connected with their environment, their world, and each other.

By on October 16, 2012 | Comments

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
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.