THE MIND AS MUSCLE
September 7th, 2012 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

The power of the mind has always fascinated me. I first became aware of it when I ran Cross Country in high school. It is a frequent theme in sports that your body may be capable of something but your brain is holding you back. My coach believed it. I'm sure most people believe it at least on a theoretical level, though we have great difficulty putting it into practice.

My own modest achievements as a runner, in hindsight, seem more psychological than physical. I ran Cross Country for three seasons and what I did in training, outside of race day, changed relatively little from one season to the next. There was little growth: the long distance runs were always 7-10 miles and at a pace of 6 or 7 minutes per mile. In speed work, running sets of 200s or 800s, my times didn't change a lot. Yet there was a pattern: early in my first season, I "broke" 19 minutes for a 5K and from then on, I clocked in between 18 and 19 minutes on every race for the rest of the season. In my second season, I "broke" 18 and consistently ran somewhere around 17:30. And in my final season, I got under 17 minutes and stayed there for the remainder. I suspect there was a mental thing going on: each season I felt that I was graduating to the next level as I paid my dues, trained, and physically matured; and I made suspiciously predictable PRs as if they arrived on a schedule. I'm sure in my first season I could have been running 5Ks under 17 minutes, if my mind had known I could do it. Once I knew my body was up to it, it was easy to stay under 17 minutes. No surprise either that whenever one guy on my team started hitting certain 5K times, others soon achieved PRs close behind him. "Hey, if he can do it..."

My very first race was freshman year of high school: an 800m as part of a relay team. I felt confident beforehand, ready to take on the world, eager to prove myself. When I got the baton and started running, I went too fast. I didn't pace myself. After only 200 meters, my legs and lungs crashed and I slowed to a crawl. It was a nightmare. I was deeply humiliated (my time, for the curious, was 2:48 — a hilariously bad time for a high school 800m). For almost every subsequent race in my high school career, the fear of repeating that first disaster hung over me. Sometimes it was crushing, sometimes barely there. My last race was a very different story. I knew it was the final 5K of my career, so there was no reason to hold back. No more pressure or expectations, just go out in a blaze of glory. I went out hard, and when I felt myself losing steam mid-race, I pushed through it, because this was my last run, and I'd be damned if I went out on a bad note. I tried to override my body's protests, and mostly succeeded. I broke my previous PR by 30 seconds that day. My body hadn't changed in the one or two weeks since the previous race, but the complicated web of psychological factors bouncing around in my head had changed dramatically.

When I read the autobiography of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he put this all into words. Making progress in athletic training is not just a matter of the body getting stronger. It's the mind. The reason I have trouble hitting a lift is likely because my brain, deep down, hasn't accepted that I'm ready for it. Arnold spoke of spending a great deal of time preparing mentally. He recommended that before a difficult lift, one should take as much time as he needs to concentrate on what he's about to do until all doubt is cleared away and the mind is confident enough to guarantee success. He said it was like meditation... you have to take time to get in tune. After reading this, I started trying it at the gym, and it works. But it isn't easy. Mastering the mind, it turns out, is really hard.

On a related note, during the past year I've taken an interest in reading about "out of body experiences" or "OBE." Richard Matheson's* novel, What Dreams May Come, is based on research into near-death experiences ("NDE") described by people who have been resuscitated from a state of death or very-near death. People who have NDEs report experiencing a higher dimension — a dimension of mind. This may be the afterlife, or an afterlife. Richard Matheson's book begins with the death of the protagonist and follows him through a plane of existence shaped by thought. At the same time, some cultures and groups of people (Buddhists being perhaps the best known) attest to the ability to project beyond the physical body during meditation. Some even say that everyone, especially children, has OBEs from time to time that are mistaken for dreams.

For example, many individuals the world over have been through something called "sleep paralysis" or "Old Hag Syndrome." Sufferers seem to wake up and open their eyes, but are unable to move and find their bedroom unfamiliar or occupied by ominous figures. The scientific explanation is that you wake up, but your body "accidentally" keeps pumping out the hormone that immobilizes you during sleep — thus "sleep paralysis." Yet nobody I've spoken to who went through it believed that, or thought it was a mere trick of the imagination. They felt fully conscious and that the visions and sensations were real. Could this actually be a kind of trance or out-of-body experience? When I was a kid, I had many similar troubles in the night: I would see alien figures in my room, hear footsteps and whispers, even feel fingers tapping me through my covers. Were they mere dreams, or another kind of consciousness Western society doesn't acknowledge?

And if so, is this state of consciousness something that any sufficiently trained individual should be able to enter at will? Is it like a muscle that has atrophied in the modern mind? I recently came across a column by Charles Murray in which he mused on an interesting hypothesis: that the afterlife is not a matter of faith but of training. Rather than the usual religious notions that we achieve eternal life through grace or good deeds or worshipping the right higher power, is it instead no different from running a 5K under 17 minutes or benching 300 pounds? After all, athletic achievements occur in the mind first, and as I've described, training your brain to bench 300 is trickier than training your body to do it.

I don't believe the afterlife can only be reached by training, or else the vast majority of people in history are toast. Most ordinary human beings lack the interest or energy to prepare for the next world, which we know next to nothing about. It's exhausting enough negotiating the one we live in. According to What Dreams May Come — which, remember, was based on extensive research — the soul endures, though its individual journey after death is influenced by many variables.

Or at the other extreme, you could subscribe to the Christian doctrine that we're all powerless to escape death without the extraordinary intervention of Jesus Christ. That can be a beautiful or horrifying thought, depending on your perspective. Whether you're Christian or not, everyone has loved ones who are not — the possibility they might perish or go to Hell upon death while you go on to paradise is one of the ultimate frustrations of the faith. When I was going to church regularly, I learned that some Christians have a convenient answer to that problem: don't become personally close with non-Christians. As depressing as that sounds, Richard Matheson made a similar point about the afterlife: that in a universe whose currency is thought, people don't associate by blood relation and other worldly links, but by shared ways of thinking; by being "on the same wavelength," so to speak.

In any case, it's astounding to consider the creative power of the mind. For every moment we're conscious, the brain is interpreting and thus re-creating the world. In a psychology course, you learn that reality comes to us via our sensory inputs as a nonsensical jumble, and it is up to the brain to re-construct it into something we can understand. This is where all the Matrix stuff comes from. When we daydream about the past or future, when we read a book or dream, our minds do the same thing: they generate whole worlds that we experience almost as reality. When you think about how powerful that is, it doesn't seem farfetched that the mind could project itself beyond the body by creating environments for itself, or entering habitats only accessible to an unconstrained consciousness — even when the body (and brain) are dead. Some say the physical brain is not the source of the mind, but a transceiver through which a non-physical "self" interacts with the material world. I still have a web page documenting Wim Hof, the student of Eastern religion who learned how to raise his body temperature through meditation. He can stand in nothing but shorts in a frozen tundra for hours with no ill effects. Something is going on. There is a whole frontier of consciousness that we're not accessing because we're too distracted by modern life or because we don't believe it's possible.

I have struggled with these questions my whole life. I've gone through several alternating periods between being a somewhat serious Christian and being more of a "spiritual," philosophical pseudo-hippy. That pattern does not lend itself to getting along well with people on either end of the spectrum. But what can I say? I'm doing my best and always looking for answers. No matter what, I cannot abide a pure atheistic belief that I'm just a slab of meat competing for resources in an accidental, pointless universe. When I look around me, it's impossible to believe such a thing. The world is a mysterious place; that's a feature, not a bug.

*Themes of consciousness and the afterlife made regular appearances in Matheson's fiction, notably in Somewhere in Time, a story of an out-of-body experience in which a man travels through time using meditation and force of will. It was an important subject to him and something he read about at least as much as he wrote about it.




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All work © 2012 Eric Ford-Holevinski