A Curious Detachment

My head was not attached to my body. The legs were churning. The arms were pumping. But the head was not wired into the same circuits, as if it were floating above, an air traffic controller at a sleepy regional airport.

Was it a flow state? Everything felt effortless, but I sat there, in my head, and kept wondering what was going on while my body moved along through space. I wasn’t exactly unconscious, at one with the universe. I was just running.

I didn’t expect this. The night before I’d felt as though I was getting sick. I ate dinner, and then put my head down on the table, exhausted, and my wife said, “Are you alright?” I went to bed. I slept. When Meghna suggested we run, I agreed, but I thought maybe I’d only get a few hundred yards before giving up. Maybe I’d throw up.

I walked to the trailhead. Made some cursory stretching motions. Underwhelmed. Undermotivated. Unconvinced. And then started to run, slowly at first, not really believing it was going to work out, and possibly only in preparation for walking back to the car.

Strangely, I didn’t feel bad. In fact, I felt close to nothing at all.

I glanced down at my watch for the first mile pace and we were going along pretty well. I began to accept that I wasn’t turning back, that I was running, and that it wasn’t hard. I pushed the speed just a little to test the limits of this strange detachment.

Still nothing.

We ribboned along the trail at speed, slowing only at the road crossings, then dropped down into a marsh before climbing the steepest hill on our route. I zig-zagged up its switchbacks and felt as comfortable as if walking on a treadmill. At the top, Meghna hunched over, hands on knees, breathing hard. I snapped photos and wondered, honestly, WTF was going on in my body.

Off we went again. Nothing changed. I was there. My body was there. I was, nominally, steering the ship, but the autopilot seemed to be engaged. I looked around, took in the trees, marveled a bit at this odd, floating headspace, and ran on. If it was a flow state, then it was not like any other I’ve experienced. Instead of that feeling of perfect hyper-focus, there was only detachment.

As with many my flow state experiences though, when we stopped running, I felt immense gratitude for what had happened. It was soothing in that way that a great run can be. I read recently that, strictly speaking, our brains are not for thinking, and that’s a premise I can get on board with.

Ironically, since what I’m doing right now is reflecting on an experience to try to glean its meaning, I believe that our uniquely human, self-reflective consciousness harm us more than help us. All my thinking turns out to be an obstacle to living rather than an aid, and although I know this, I persist in trying to think my way out of a box made of thoughts.

It turns out the best way for me to escape is to run out, to give my mind enough physical challenge that it gets too busy to sustain all that circular thinking. The real reason to run is to destroy thoughts, or at least to strip them back to just what’s necessary. Put that way, it’s surprising I don’t get to that flow state more often.