Checking in on My(your)self
Creating the weather in your mind
I sat there in my Kia Optima, paralyzed after we hung up the phone.
When I started training for my first half marathon, I called my grandma. She exposed me with 6 words: “Do you have good running shoes?”
Lesson one learned: becoming a runner requires having adequate running shoes.
She shared a powerful non-running related lesson that Sunday morning I’ll never forget - her heavy Austrian accent still replays in my mind as she deviated from her typical “Bleib Gesund”, meaning “Be Well” in German.
“I hope it’s sunny by you…”, she exclaimed, before trailing off, then correcting herself.
“Actually… you get to create the weather in your own mind, don’t you ever forget it.”
As a Holocaust survivor and “Hidden Child”, she was quite familiar with overcoming mental turmoil.
More important than shoes
Sure, it’s important to get reliable shoes. Sure, moving consistently and taking care of your body is important. But at the end of the day, it's your mind that we need to take care of the most (lesson two that running taught me).
Spending so much time alone while running, I’ve formed a self-connection and empathy towards myself that I didn’t realize I’d benefit from.
It seems that nobody in the running community has explored the tender discipline that people who want to run long distances as a long term activity must develop.
The Inevitable Lows
Hardly 10 minutes into a 15 mile training run leading up to my first full marathon, I panicked. Sirens flashing in my brain. This was different than the past. As self doubt crept in, I felt weak and powerless. Thoughts swirled, starting with, “What’s wrong with me?”
There’s a subtle, but discernible difference between my body begging me to quit, and my mind playing games with me. This was just one of dozens of runs where my body felt great but my mind played games with me and almost defeated me. Dancing at the edge of this comforting agony is fun, but it’s taken years to develop.
The vibes were off.
My WHOOP confirmed I’d gotten almost 8 hours of sleep. I’d properly fueled. Why’d I feel terrible?
Could it be because David Goggins is telepathically consuming me through my Airpods? Could it be because my mental psyche is temporarily in a dark place?
Huh… that’s weird. His message and energy powered me through my first half marathon months prior.
I was 10 weeks into a training block, and I’d built a solid aerobic base. Running 15 miles should be no problem - my body was just getting started.
I intuitively knew I needed an audio switch up. I traded the Goggins pain cave podcast for an up-tempo, Tropical House running playlist. I told myself that if my body still felt terrible in 5 minutes, I’d honor it and cut the run short.
This too shall pass.
Sure enough, the “good vibes'' were back 5 minutes later… I ran 15 miles that Saturday, and it remains one of my most favorite runs to date. I trodded along for over 2 hours, but my largest learning was compressed into the 5 minutes of panic that felt much longer.
Lesson 3: our minds are the most powerful instruments we have.
I’ve known that questions are powerful devices, but I didn’t realize how powerful asking myself 3 simple questions could be for my mental health.
Each mile of any endurance race or any long run, I’ll ask myself three simple questions. I propose to you these same 3 questions as the basics of Mental Gardening 101:
How’s my breath?
How’s my mind?
How’s my body?
These questions became a regular part of my running routine after each mile, and now they’re integrated into my daily life. They’ve balanced me out during the sometimes frenetic pace of modern life. There’s something so grounding about checking in with myself, my vessel for a few fleeting moments.
My gym’s slow water fountain trickle that drove me crazy… even induced a pinch of anxiety? I now ground myself with a 4x4x4x4 box breath, and voilà, I feel a bit better.
Lesson 4: The same somatic check-ins with my breath, body, and mind can be applied to mundane life moments, sharpening my appreciation for how our physical bodies dictate our life experience.
Running long distances has given me an appreciation for the most minute details and subtleties of the human body. I know when to go hard, how to push through tough emotions, but in a gentler way than the David Goggins approach that got me hooked on running.
Don’t get me wrong… his message is incredibly powerful. The human body is meant to be tested. But frankly, for 99% of people, the message in a silo makes its listeners feel like s*** about themselves.
So I invite you into a new practice that I’ve been cultivating for over a decade, without even realizing it: mental gardening. I’ll elaborate more in a future essay, but for now, think of it as checking in with yourself and your body more frequently.
Lesson 5: We get to be the gardeners of our mind. We decide which seeds to plant, springing to life later on. We can intentionally enrich our garden’s soil with nutrients.
Experienced mental gardeners know they must constantly protect its soil by plucking the weeds.
You have the power to plant the thoughts you let grow in your mind. It’s one that you get to choose. What seeds are you sowing?
Mastering Tender Discipline
I offer this metaphor of mental gardening from the trenches alongside you, appreciating what negative thought patterns and all-consuming thoughts feel like when they’re not working with you.
While I’m not a professional runner, I have mastered one thing that’s made conquering longer distances a joyous experience: checking in on myself.
Through raw conversations with friends, it hit me that I’ve meticulously mentally gardened the past decade. And I plan on gardenin’ for the rest of my life.
This simple metaphor and set of questions helps me intentionally live and play defense against modern life’s tech-infused, disconnected world.
The questions we pose shape our reality, so I’ll ask again: What seeds are you sowing in your mind? One step further…
What weeds are you plucking?
What weeds must be ripped out?
What weeds must be uprooted to provide the fertile foundation for a prosperous mental garden that will serve you for the rest of your life?
When I push myself to the limits when running, I find myself transcending the body and mind’s limitations. Through this loving process, I unlocked lesson 6: any limitation I impose on myself is artificial.
If nothing else, I hope this serves as a reminder to be kind to your mind. It’s the only one you’ve got.
If you always go hard, and whip yourself like a horse, the process won’t be fun.
You know what is fun though? Knowing when to go hard, pushing through tough emotions, and building a beautiful country within your mind, so that when life throws its inevitable ambiguity at you, you’re ready.