Immediately, my mind settled into a now familiar pattern of awareness. What happens if I focus on trying to make each step feel a little lighter? What happens if I focus on keeping my hands and wrists soft? What happens if I focus on feeling the movement of my sternum?
As I moved through each question, I felt my body relax more and more into a comfortable rhythm, a comfortable way of being, even while running. Why? Because what happens when I soften my hands and wrists is that my entire upper body relaxes, my jaw relaxes, my arms swing more naturally.
This isn't about focusing on what I want in a positive way rather than negative (lighter footsteps rather than heavier or softer hands rather than gripping) though that may lend a helpful voice. What this shift is really about is the way the question is asked. It's an open-ended invitation to observe, to take notice, to be curious, to see what is available to learn from that moment. The goal isn't to make my hands and wrists softer. The goal is to notice what happens when I do. When I notice a greater sense of ease, more relaxation through my body, it becomes pleasurable to pursue that experience, and the body and brain will remember that.
I started this mode of questioning in relation to physical movement through taking Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement classes with Alice Boyd which you can learn more about on her website. Alice guides participants through intricate and subtle patterns of movement (there are hundreds of different lessons) that unwind old habitual patterns and introduce the body to new ways of moving and being in the world. Throughout these classes, Alice is regularly asking questions like "What happens if you move in this particular way?" and "What happens if you do the same movement with less effort?", and "In what way do you need to involve other parts of your body, to make a particular movement easier?". And always, always cautions against working toward any sense of achievement or reaching any particular goal. It's all about awareness, observation, and what the body can learn about itself in the process.
Generally, I would categorize myself as a process-oriented rather than product-oriented person. But there are always a few blind spots, the places in life I keep pushing for an exact, desired outcome and my brain and thinking become rigid and stuck.
My writing practice has been and can still find its way into one of those rigid and stuck frames, especially when studying in an MFA program where the primary intention is to become a better writer.
I was rather stunned in my first round of MFA poetry workshops to discover a similar mode of "What happens if..." can be applied to writing. H.L. Hix, one of the poetry mentors in the program, often remarks to the student whose poem is being workshopped, "I don't know how to write your poem, but what I do know is to make suggestions of things you might try as you write your next draft." And he will then list anywhere from two to twelve possibilities you might consider as you approach the next draft. "What happens if you write a draft in which you focus entirely on sound?" "What happens if you write a draft in which you change the order of the lines?" "What happens if you write a draft in which you bring the strangeness of that line forward and make it more direct?" "What happens if you write a draft in which the strangeness is submerged, more subtle?"
In the times when I can let go the part of my brain that wants to believe knowledge lies on the opposite and upward end of a straight line that began at knowledge point zero, exploring these "What happens if..." questions becomes not about the need to write a poem, but about a relationship with language, about stepping back and observing, about noticing what's happening within the poem, letting go of the personal need to write a particular line and being open to what the language can teach me.
Building that curious and interactive relationship with language means that writing isn't a chore. It's fun. It's engaging. It's intimate. It's revealing.
When I have a question about a poem I'm working on, it's less about exerting skill and force upon the words and willing them into submission. Instead, it's about showing up to see what I can learn from the language, to see what happens when I interact with the poem in particular ways. To observe, to notice, to learn from that awareness.
All of which brings me back to my run this morning and my pure enjoyment of realizing that questioning mode toward awareness was something I easily slipped back into in spite of not having run for several months.
But another part of my brain was also at work, a part that was fussing about an entirely different project. The project I've started to refer to as the wicked step-sister of the creative thesis. The project that has brought me to tears on multiple occasions, that has made me wonder if it is worth completing the MFA, a project that is still not complete.
And then, in the midst of my self-satisfied fussing about how difficult this project is for me, a question wriggled through. What would happen if I interacted with the project differently? How can I approach completing this paper with more ease?
The unfortunate part is that it kind of took all the fun out of my fussing. That is the danger of awareness. It often results in realizing that I'm inherently the problem, the one stopping myself through whatever rigid frame I've allowed myself to be come stuck in.
The fortunate part is that, as with improving the way the body feels and moves, and as with building a new, engaging relationship with language in the creation of poetry, it shifts the focus from a kind of effort and "trying" that feels hopeless or impossible to one that begins with a feeling of possibility.
How it ends? I have to go figure that out now.
The photo is by Elizabeth Albert and is used in accordance with Creative Commons Licensing Laws.