Why the Bad Days Are the Best Days
I was on mile 2 of an 18-mile run, because when you train for a marathon you do stupid long runs, and I was already having a hard time, not physically but mentally. My thoughts were driving me up the wall.
I typically spend the first 3–4 miles of a long run practicing meditation. I don’t put headphones in during that time to give myself the space to be present with my thoughts.
What I do with my mind on the pavement isn’t all that different from what I do with my mind on the cushion, so running has become an extension of practice. Whatever my thoughts are, I reflect on them and let them go.
This day was particularly tough. Within the first two miles, I was swarmed by nasty thoughts of a recent breakup, and I thought, Ugh, not this again. I felt like I had the weight of a cannonball in my chest. I wanted to give in to the powerless feeling and put on my headphones to distract myself. I wanted an easy solution to the pain and suffering. I wanted to brush it away and forget about it.
But I chose to hold off on the distractions for just a little longer. In Zen, teachers encourage practitioners to stay present with uncomfortable feelings like this, because they are opportunities to practice. So I said, Just a little further. They’re just thoughts.
I don’t know what it is, but in some of my online writing groups, I’ve seen several postings lately to the tune of, What do you do when you just don’t want to write? The writers posting these questions are so consumed by the feeling of not wanting to write that they’ve allowed these feelings to take them over and have the power to prevent them from working.
Responses to these by other members are pretty obvious, and they’re tactics I’ve used myself. Some are life hacks: use the Pomodoro method, set a timer, use Internet blocking software, use special writing programs. Others are motivational: remind yourself why your writing matters to you, sit butt in chair and write.
Its all good advice, and at the same time its completely worthless, because these questions assume that there’s something wrong with having those days in the first place, that they have no place in your routine, that there must be something wrong with the writer, if they’re having that kind of day.
Bad days are the best days to write, because they push you to be stronger.
On that 18 mile run when I accepted the discomfort caused by my thoughts, I let go of the resistance of having them in the first place. The thoughts were uncomfortable, but resistance to them made it far worse. Feeling that there was something “wrong” with the discomfort only made the discomfort grow and gave it more power than it deserved. When I let go of that, my thoughts let go of me and we became two entities drifting toward and away from each other.
In that state I was able to run the rest of the 18 miles with no headphones at all and experienced one of those blissful periods of meditation that comes only once in a great while.
Practicing on the bad days teaches you how to cope with the bad days. If I had put on my headphones at mile 2, I would not have learned how to cope with the thoughts. I would not have pushed myself over that hump and learned what it feels like to I finally let go of them. I would only ever know how to be mindful, when it was easy to be mindful.
If you only ever write on the days when its easy, then you’ll never learn what it takes to write through a slog and come out the other side. This is called “persistence”, pushing forward in spite of difficulty. Making it as a writer takes persistence, no matter how disciplined or prolific or skilled you are. And it is not something that is given to you in a creative writing class or from a book or a blog post. It is something you earn by suffering days just like these.
The point of practice isn’t to do it perfectly every single time. The point of practice is to practice. It is to show up at the keyboard, on the trail, or at the cushion.
But I have to be honest with you: not all the days have been like this.
The thing about running is that it gives you a lot of head space to pay attention to your thoughts. Running is meditative, in some ways, which is why it jives with me. And there are other sports that are like that, too, swimming, cycling, yoga, and what not. But for me this is running. What goes on in my mind while I run is not unlike what goes on in my mind when I sit on the cushion.
So I have all this head space, and recently that head space has been filled with thoughts from the breakup: shame, anger, guilt, and pain. Sometimes in that order, sometimes two at a time, sometimes all at once.
There are days when I don’t get past it, days when the cannonball feeling in my chest doesn’t go away. There are days when I don’t let go of the thoughts at all and I have one big stinking crap of a run. On those days I don’t get to that place of non-attachment, and my thoughts completely overwhelm me. My chest feels heavy; I start walking; and I can’t stop crying. Eventually, I turn around and go home and resolve to try it again the next day.
The next day is almost worse. I experience this kind of mini trauma. I think about running, and it triggers what I felt the day before, all those nasty emotions, failure at having quit, and the anxiety of facing all that again. I might go out and be okay, or I might get overwhelmed again. I don’t know what will happen, and I’m scared to find out.
That thing that Yoda says about trying, normally I agree with him. Either you do something or you don’t do it. Shit or get off the pot.
But in moments like these where the memory of a bad experience has marked you, the only thing you can do is try. Trying means that an effort is made, an effort made with no expectations.
Maybe this will be a day where the mark of the bad memory cuts you or it doesn’t. You simply don’t know, but you’re never going to find out sitting at home. So I lace up and go out there to see what I will find.
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