The Psychedelia of Running

Maura McNamara
Nov 18, 2018 · 7 min read

There are two practices that have saved my life: running and psychedelics. In that order. I could write a book about psychedelics, and might. This essay is a love letter to running. It is a prayer of gratitude.

My early twenties were captive to a quiet desperation that took the form of compulsive, destructive relationships with alcohol and food. For years I couldn’t socialize without drinking, and I couldn’t drink without blacking out, awakening to the grim reality of the previous night’s horrors as related by my boyfriend through a light sheen of humor over deep disappointment. Binge eating happened alone, accompanied by binge watching and binge masturbating. A furious cycle through various pleasure buzzers that kept me mostly safe from acknowledging the black sludge of self-loathing dripping through my chest and also totally quarantined from relaxation or joy. Despite the outward trappings of a privileged life in New York City with a talented, handsome boyfriend and a world class education, I lived in a muted bandwidth of sensation approximating but just adjacent to life.

I shamed myself for these behaviors even as I performed them over and over, trapped in a hopeless cycle of destruction and disgust that I thought simply amounted to my experience of life this time around. It was a devastating fall from the grace of an ecstatically creative childhood, which I tried to justify as the inevitable wage of adulthood even as I mourned it. I regarded “happy” and “successful” people as others, somehow blessed by the gods with an ease I was simply not to be allotted in this lifetime.

I started running after breaking up with said talented, handsome boyfriend. While we had come to the mutual realization that we weren’t making each other very happy, I was devastated by the dissolution of our shared universe and obsessively wounded by the speed with which he seemed to be moving on. Inconveniently, we had decided we were better off without each other about ten months into a year-long lease that neither of us could afford to break early, and several times in the final months of cohabitation, I fled the suffocating proximity of our one bedroom apartment for Central Park, where I would stand choke-crying on the butte of some glacial boulder, picnickers in the vicinity treating my publicly-private grief with the respectful apathy of any good New Yorker.

And then, one time I just didn’t stop running. I found myself circling the reservoir again and again, running far longer than I ever had before in my life. In seeking to anesthetize the pain oozing through my chest cavity, I had inadvertently run myself into the void of bodylessness. I came to, staring at the fountain, all breath and no feet, feeling as though I might have just run twenty miles and might run twenty more. I was a torrent of stillness and quiet. A vacuum. It was bliss. Turns out: the suffocating presence I was fleeing was not my actual boyfriend, but the boyfriend in my head with whom I had been carrying on a relationship at deafening decibels day and night as I played out my grievances and judgments over and over again. Physical exhaustion does wonders for hollowing the mind.

Until that moment in Central Park, I resented running. At my fancy middle school, prowess at PE on the fancy track made of crushed up Nike soles was just another fancy meter stick for how breezy-how easy-how toned-how rich, and I did not register on any of the leaderboards. As a teenager and through college, “jogging” was a lashing that I thrust on myself regularly as atonement for my fat and lazy failures. Among the many games I played with myself like measuring my worth in the number chips I hoarded or the varying pressure of my underwear elastic against my belly, forcing myself to turn over angry red digits on the treadmill at my university’s windowless gym was a joyless ritual I both hoped and deeply doubted would finally transform me into the good version of myself. I resented the people who gazelled effortlessly at their stations and refused solidarity with those strugglers sweating nearby.

Somewhat in awe of the heartbreak magic that had unlocked a new kind of running, I decided to test it, signing up for a half marathon a few months later and telling everyone I knew so that I couldn’t back out without widespread embarrassment. I quickly discovered that after breaking the six mile barrier, there is little difference taking on eight, ten, thirteen miles. Once I decided I was going to run long distances, much of the work was done: I was a runner. This is a lesson I would learn, and continue to, many times over. After all, there are many reasons not to run. Running in itself is not a series of pleasant sensations. It is often aching feet, jabbing pain in the torso, hot cotton lungs in humidity, fingers stiffened to claws in the cold. The reward of running is a long, slow relief, unlike most of the immediate but fleeting pleasure delivery systems I’d exhausted in the past.

If I let my mind have its way when I ran, it would riot with gripes and excuses, and sometimes simply pain: you can’t breathe! this isn’t fun! you can’t do this! Any pretext to end the sensation of discomfort, to convince me that I was not one of those chosen others who can, in fact, do it. When I decided I was a runner, I also decided I would not engage that voice. If it would say anything to make me stop, it was not to be trusted. I realized that listening to music was a bandaid that would mask the voice, but not make it cease, so I abandoned wearing headphones. Liberation lay in becoming bodiless.

Learning to observe physical sensation without needing to have an opinion about it — good or bad — has freed my mind from associating pain or discomfort as a drama that is happening to me. I can choose to experience labored breathing as my breath massaging my body from the inside. I can experience my bones pounding the ground as a healing rhythm mirrored by my heart pulsing blood through my body. My ears are free to marvel at the wind rattling the trees, to catch the hilarious snippets of commentary that roll off the wake of passing cyclists. Ultimately, this practice of disregarding my thoughts while running is a gift to my entire life. It is the same practice that can acknowledge without indulging the voice that cries woah woah this is not for you! when a psychedelic starts to tear me from my personhood, or hey hey your leg is definitely going to fall off if you don’t stand up! ten minutes into a two hour meditation. The same practice that helps me navigate difficult conversations without exploding, to meet fear and anger with spaciousness and humor. If there is a gap in my resolve, those cries can rally to the most hellish scream of stop stop stop you are dying! But the less I listen, the less it protests. And in its place blossoms the most exquisite calm.

That first accidental run in Central Park became thousands of miles and several marathons. I anticipated agony or at the very least boredom in all the training hours required at longer distances, but instead I’ve been staggered by so much freedom and joy. I didn’t have these words in Central Park at the time, and I wouldn’t until drinking ayahuasca in the jungle a few years later, but running was the first time as an adult that I understood the infinite capacity within me to withstand and endure. There was the time I got stung by wasps at the start of an 18 mile race that I still had to complete in order to qualify for a later marathon, and the December half I ran along the Brooklyn waterfront where gusts of wind occasionally lashed icy waves over the balustrade into our path. Enduring despite challenges is intoxicating. It becomes private superpower. The body is capable of so much more than we think. So is the mind.

Running is psychedelic because it brings me to the present moment by force. When you are lost in the timelessness and placelessness of psychedelics, there is no one else who can show you the way, no one who knows more than you do. But dwelling in fear or worry or resentment on a long psychedelic trip is simply too exhausting. Too harrowing. Eventually, you have to lay it down. Running is the same. Neither experience makes room for anything but surrender. There is no where to go, no one to be, but present. Learning to dwell in the moment — whatever it is, however uncomfortable or different than anticipated — has brought me into a peace that makes my life worth living. The present moment is infinitely unfolding, completely alive. It has become the only place I want to be, and magically, running and tripping have opened portals to that presence that do not close when the physiological experience ends. They have taught me that I can choose to be at home in any moment by taking responsibility for my experience of the world. I no longer meet new social situations with apprehension, no longer seek alcohol or food to escape the burden of being myself. Escape where? I’m still here. I might as well accept the gift of being me, make it an art form worthy of a lifetime.

At times I still struggle against both practices, fighting their demand to surrender. Of course there are days when I have to drag myself out the door, when I am too tired, too distracted, when I can’t remember the point of this excessive gauntlet in the first place. I make it to the park simply because this is what I do. I am a runner. And once I make it there, once I am in motion, once I am just breath — I am swept with gratitude. The only voice that resounds is a sigh: Oh, hello, it’s you. Welcome back.

Written by

Artist and seeker. Host of The Unbroken Chain podcast. www.maurajames.com

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