The Life-Changing Magic of the Georgia Death Race
I am an ultramarathon runner, clinical psychologist, and Zen Buddhist. For me, long runs in wild places are a spiritual practice. I used to think of running and meditation as separate activities, but over a decade of ultras and Zen practice have come to appreciate the trail as an extension of the temple: in Zen we devote a lot of time to zazen (seated meditation), but we also practice kinhin (walking meditation) and oriyoki (ritual meals). To those practices, I add trail running meditation. Long trail races offer rare opportunities for insight about what really matters in life, and what to let go of.
In the airport bookstore before flying to Atlanta this past weekend for the Georgia Death Race, a 72 mile ultramarathon in the Appalachians, I stumbled across an unlikely, yet lucid expression of Zen running principles: “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck” by Sarah Knight, a hilarious parody of Marie Kondo’s bestselling 2015 self-help manual on home organization and decluttering. What Kondo does for the sock-drawer, Knight does for the mind, describing a method to liberate oneself from needless psychological clutter, withdrawing psychic investment in “matching your belt to your handbag, LinkedIn, eating local, hot yoga, paleo diets, the Harry Potter books, Kombucha” and myriad other distractions in order to preserve finite attention and energy for phenomena worthy of attention: friendship, social justice, beauty, etc. Such dispassion, Knight says, entails a certain ethical scrutiny: not giving a fuck is an attitude of both “assholes” and “the enlightened”, the purpose of Knight’s method scrupulously prioritizing the enlightened version. Her whole approach is, consciously or not, quite Buddhist. Contemplative philosophy isn’t something Knight explicitly mentions, but her stance is nonetheless strikingly reminiscent of a theme in the early Buddhist canon: the centrality of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering, and the irrelevance to that spiritual agenda of unanswerable questions about whether the universe is finite or infinite, whether the mind and body are the same or different, and so forth . The futility of perseverating on the unanswerable, the Buddha describes in a famous parable, is like a man poisoned by an arrow who meets a surgeon but who says:
I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker… until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a longbow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey..until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.
Such a man would die before his questions were answered; similarly our existential plight as humans in this dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying, says the Buddha, is the enormous scope of ceaseless craving, cogitation and inappropriate guilt to suck time and energy away from what really matters. Buddhism is hence the original life-changing magic of not giving a fuck — about delusory attachments to power, status, fixed ideas of self or reality, in order to focus on the transient here and now; awakening; the liberation of all sentient beings from suffering. In comparison to Mahayana metaphysics, Knight’s “NotSorry” method involves a somewhat simpler two-step directive (“1. Deciding what you don’t give a fuck about; 2. Not giving a fuck about those things”). In synthesis, it was this conscientious Buddha/Knight approach to fuck-giving to which I chose to commit early Saturday morning as my mental framework in running 72 miles in the Appalachian mountains with 20,000 feet of cumulative vertical gain, in a point-to-point route linking two state parks, Vogel and Amicalola. That is, I would concentrate my finite attention and energy on gratitude for the health and strength to run, stumble, shuffle and trip through the beautiful woods, soak in the views, progress as efficiently as possible to the next aid station, avoid overheating from the unexpected warmth and high humidity (65%), stave off hypothermia on the windy ridges at night, enjoy the long stretches of euphoric flow states when the running felt barely effortful and encounter the low points with a sense of acceptance, just breathing into them one moment at a time: in sum, quite enough experience to process by itself, without worrying about anything else, including one rather important logistical issue I hadn’t resolved in advance of the race — namely how I was going to get a ride back to the cabin I’d reserved in Vogel when I reached the finish in Amicalola, knowing I’d arrive there exhausted, solo, in the middle of the night, possibly drenched and freezing, with no crew or pacer support, and no definitive solutions forthcoming from the event organization or even other runners and volunteers I’d asked at the pre-race meeting.
Amidst the exertion of seemingly endless steep ascents and descents through wooded singletrack trails along a sawtooth ridge line — the State of Georgia has apparently outlawed switchbacks — the foregoing logistical puzzle started to feel overwhelming, scarcely more answerable than the question, say, of whether the arrow that had wounded me was bound with the sinew of an ox, buffalo, langur, or monkey, and the only way I could foresee focusing on the race was to embrace a no-fucks-given equanimity about the potential prospect of many miserable hours wandering around begging for a ride in the wee hours after I crossed the finish line. This deliberate withdrawal of cognitive investment from what I’d stopped trying to control felt liberating, however, reminding me of when I backpacked through India with my friend Steve when we were teenagers and we got on train journeys that lasted for days and didn’t know who we’d meet or when we’d arrive or what would happen when we got there and that not-knowing — in contrast to the years of claustrophobic class-bound structure in British secondary education we’d just completed — was bliss. And so I fell three times, rolled both ankles, shivered, felt tired, stiff and slow most of the day but then somewhere around mile 40 felt everything loosen up and I flowed down the trail for long stretches empty of thought and then within that void the view emerged of a ridge silhouetted at sunset and the thought arose “this is what I came for” and then the image of my wife and children and the yearning to be with them and then the thought repeating itself mantra-like, “I am a father and a husband and therapist and teacher” and I felt joy in the life-changing magic of moving in the forest and of life laid bare in so many ways I really, truly, dearly do in fact give a fuck about.