Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Breathing While Snow Shoeing

DISCLAIMER: Arguably, this is one of the more boring and pointless notes that I have ever written. Please feel free NOT to read the following, as it really is about breathing while walking with snow shoes, and attempts a weak analogy with 'meditation.' If you do read it, do not become angry for those wasted moments of your life--never to return--because I did warn you.

One of the better books I've read was Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Ostensively, Motorcycle Maintenance is about the narrator's life and experiences on a long road trip across Montana, and how keeping his motorcycle running became a useful metaphor for understanding Zen Buddhism. I found Mr. Pirsig's writing to be beautiful and moving for the most part, but I'm unable to endorse it as a primer for motorbike repair or Zen Buddhism. Unlike Mr. Pirsig, I won't even try to draw a greater meaning from what I have learned about walking around in snow (I'm also no where near as good a writer as Mr. Pirsig, but we'll pass on that). Still, I want to talk about a narrow lesson I have learned about breathing.

Some time during the winter of 2007, while my sister and niece were tearing up the pea patch on skis, I spent a little over six hours trudging up and down Mt. Hood (mostly up). I've never before been able to go as far or as long, and my new endurance record is mainly due to the snow's icy crust. On my previous hikes, the snow was a soft powder, so on each step I would sink about 12 cm, as well as lift a kilo a snow. But with a firm crust, my shoes gripped well, and I stayed on the surface. So, without worrying about the snow, I was able to move well, and move quickly. That allowed me to concentrate on my main activity, which was breathing.

As a distance runner, I am a firm believer of that great superstition about lactic acid. What is lactic acid? Beats me. As Bill Murray says in the 1984 film 'Ghostbusters:' "Wait wait wait--I'm kind of weak on the whole good-bad thing," all I can tell you is that lactic acid is "bad." When running long distances, if a body runs at too fast of a pace, you will dump lactic acid in your blood faster than your body can absorb it—or so the myth goes. If you have too much lactic acid in your blood, and you still try to run, bad things happen: that's what is known as 'hitting the wall.' When I run at too fast of a pace—and I do not mean sprinting—and I'm 'tired,' then I know I might as well sit down and read a book, because I'm done running that day. In one of my earlier marathons, I ignored the fact I was feeling bad for about three miles, until a couple of steps past mile 18. That's when I felt like I ran into a large net, and my body was moving sideways, even though I was going forward. There was no sound, other than a few bars of the Beatles singing 'Michelle, my belle' in French, following by the sound of rushing wind, and then I heard a shrill whistling and felt sharp pains in every muscle in both legs. I managed not to fall down (barely), and decided that I would walk a little, until I got my wind back. About half a mile later, I tried to run—but could only jog about ten steps. And that's how I finished that marathon: alternating half a mile walks with jogging ten steps. Not my best marathon experience ever.

So, how does the superstitious marathoner know that lactic acid is building up in the blood stream? By breathing: if during your exercise, you are breathing 'normally,' no worries. But once you begin to pant, or your breathing accelerates, that's when you cross the lactic acid line: you are pouring lactic acid in your blood faster than your body is absorbing it. Keep it up, and you're well on your way to Bad Day at Black Rock. That is why distance runners like to use the 'talking test:' if you can carry on a conversation while jogging, you are going the right speed to maximize your distance and minimize your time. But if you are too out of breath to talk, you are running too fast, and will soon hit that wall of exhaustion. And when you hit that wall, and feel exhausted, you will not bounce back. In short, when your breathing becomes labored, then slow down until you can breath normally--or else you'll be alternating ten steps of jogging with half mile walks.

How do you apply the "breathing test" to walking in snow shoes? Simple. Because you cannot 'slow down' (you are already walking), you stop and rest until your breathing recovers. What does that mean, for someone who lives at sea level, who starts walking at 5,366 ft, summits at 7,300 ft, back down to 4500 ft, back up to 5900 ft, and finish at 5366 ft.? It means your breathing controls your distance, and you stop and stand still as soon as you notice that your breathing accelerates. Does that mean if you're going up a steep incline, and after ten steps you stop and rest, because you're breathing harder? Absolutely. If I needed to stop for thirty seconds, or even a minute after ten steps, I did that: ten steps, rest, another ten steps, another rest—anything to keep my breathing from becoming rapid.

The other breathing problem I have—and one I have heard happens to boxers—is that during a strenuous climb, I'd find myself holding my breath to push myself harder. I've seen numerous boxing films where a fighter was sparing or training with a heavy bag, and the trainer would yell "Breathe! Breathe, damn it! Don't hold your breath!" Similarly, I had to concentrate on forcing myself to breathe, and breathe in a constant, steady rhythm—whether I was climbing a steep grade or standing still because my breathing became too rapid. That's how I was able to keep the lactic acid levels in my blood under control, and go for six hours.

Had my goal been to cover as much ground as I could in ten minutes, then breathing would not have been as important. But I wanted to cover as much distance as I could within my six-hour plus timeframe, so controlling my breathing became my most important goal.

In the few books I've read where long suffering teachers try to show Westerners how to 'meditate,' the first lesson is always on breathing: concentrate on your breathing; do not hold your breath; keep your breathing a smooth, consistent rate; breathe deeply, but not too deep. I have found this advice useful, not because I have noticed amazing revelations while breathing (I have not), but because only by focusing on my breathing, I am able to silence my 'inner voice.' And if you think I have a big mouth, you have not heard my inner voice.

I'm an American—more than that, I'm a West Coast American. That means I love to talk--especially to myself. I love day dreaming. What's the difference between 'meditation' and staring into space for half an hour, pretending that you are one of the 'ramblers' in Reservoir Dogs'? For me, 'meditation' can begin only my internal voice is silenced. When I am day dreaming about being in 'Reservoir Dogs,' I have that internal voice telling the story, painting the picture, planning my lovely dinner date with Elle Mcphearson. Don't get me wrong—I've probably wasted years of my life daydreaming (and have no regrets), but to even begin meditation, you must first silence that inner voice. In Carlos Castaneda's books, don Juan persistently berates Carlos to 'silence that voice;' and until Carlos can first control and then silence that voice, Carlos will not begin his path to knowledge. So far, the only way I'm able to get myself to shut up is to focus on something else, and focusing on my breathing is the only effective way I've found.

Am I on any road to knowledge? Am I advancing along a path of self-enlightenment? Frankly, I doubt it. But what I do know remarkably diverse cultures have distilled common patterns of behaviors. For example, I can't be the only person to see parallels between the Gnostic Gospels (especially the Gospel of Thomas) and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. Looking at both of those traditions, there are commonalities of finding revealed truths, and an emphasis on self-knowledge discovered from inside the individual, through a regime of 'prayer' and meditation. But how do you get there from here?

I have a tape of a 1968 radio interview of Carlos Castaneda talking about his first book, Teachings of Don Juan. During the interview, Mr. Castaneda mentions that he did many things with don Juan that are not included in his book. Pushed by the interviewer, Mr. Castaneda admits they did quite a bit of hunting. However, the stories of Mr. Castaneda hunting with don Juan do not appear until the third book in the series, Journey to Ixtlan. In that book, Mr. Castaneda makes clear that don Juan used hunting as a technique to illustrate the concepts behind the Yaqui way of knowledge. By the same token, if I'm going to sit still and 'meditate,' that would be a waste of time: in no time, my imagination has me off fighting Terminators with Linda Hamilton. But if I'm running a long distance—or snow shoeing up a mountain—I can silence that inner voice and spend six plus hours concentrating solely on my breathing, meanwhile covering more distance than I would have believed I was capable of.

That's the story of my life: I'm unable to get there from here, unless I take the long way around.

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