A slow, pounding rhythm built in my earphones (a Prodigy remix I think) as I labored down the hot street toward the sprinting track. It had been roughly 16 hours since I had eaten anything, and I would be going to work in 4. That morning I made a tactical maneuver out of a lay-down position from my bed as to avoid the major agony in my legs – now, I was about to sprint as fast as I could. For several minutes.
I turned the corner to the cemetery path and flexed my instep, a dull ache crawled into my ankle. The result of being on my feet for 10 hours yesterday. I had about an 80% range of motion in my right foot, but that was ok, I didn’t need to bend it side to side, only foreword and back. My left knee was also tender, my running form had to be on-point today or my long term training would have to stop. I kept my breath even – although I was on a 0 carb, ketogenic diet, I could feel the heaviness in my limbs from working yesterday on so little food. I didn’t want to pass out at such high speeds.
I marched down the grassy path, this had to be the spot – I didn’t have any energy to look for another track of grass and push for maximum sprint. I padded down the 70 meter stretch, feeling with my feet any dangerous bumps or holes I should avoid. Near the finish line, my leg suddenly plummeted down to the knee and I nearly fell over a deep tube housing a sprinkler system. I could snap my shin in half running full tilt into one of those doozys. I turned up the grass around it and made it as prominent as I could. I’ll have to avoid that. I returned to start position, cranked up the volume (Pendulum now), took a deep breath, and began the Grind.
At the end of the first set, I couldn’t go on.
At the end of the third set, I actually couldn’t go on.
At the end of the fourth set, I couldn’t go on, but I just had one more set.
As I walked home, supremely proud of myself and totally prepared to tackle another shift downtown, I thought: I would have still been in bed, most likely lamenting how sore I was and rationalizing my inability to work out if I had not kept this short mantra in mind.
‘I have to, so how?’
The mind changes fundamentally when we are confronted with a must. It is miraculous how much people are exposed to their potential when they have a family member in the hospital, or have to save themselves from being fired, or have an overdue project for school. Whatever the context, dire or vapid, when ‘why’ and ‘if’ are taken out of the picture, shit gets done.
I picture this through a metaphor of road-building. We all have a limited amount of cement. When we cast doubts, or question our capabilities, we use our cement to block the road ahead and create detours. This is the cost of unskillful self-questioning. We end up with a road that bends and droops uselessly, this way and that. Avoiding any uphill or difficult terrain – as if someone just poured cement down a landscape and it collected at the most comfortable divet.
When something ‘must’ happen, when there is no ‘if’ or (unskillful) ‘why’, the road is knife-edge straight, smashing through rocks, careening uphill and sometimes even grinding down obstacles for further tracts of gravel. When there is no other direction to go, all the cement is devoted to making a road that gets there.
I remember another time when I came to this threshold in myself – it was the first time I ever taught full time in a classroom. What started out as a single-day contract became a full week after the principal spoke with me about the extended absence of the home teacher. It was evening, I was alone, working as smartly and furiously as I could after directly coming home from a full day of teaching – part of me was actually fascinated at how expertly I was managing my time. There were no elastic intermissions of time spent in front of a computer, just a deep realization of literally no-time-to-spare between getting adequate nutrition and sleep, and completing what needed to be completed so I could survive the next day.
At 10pm, I looked up into my reflection in the window above my office desk. I started hard into my own eyes – there was no fear in them, no energy wasted questioning my capabilities. No part of my mind was relegated to rationalizing quitting. I had to. ‘How?’ was the only question.
A friend of mine once asked me why I thought she had so much trouble dealing with certain inner difficulties while for others, success came so easily. I suggested that perhaps, in that instance, ‘why’ was a useless question. What was more important was what was to be done and how. Apart from searching your Heart, and computing the time and labor a given endeavor will cost, asking ‘Why?’ over and over should be left to the 4-year-olds. Consider where your energies would be directed if something ‘must’ happen. If there is no ‘if’ or ‘why’, when there is only ‘what’ and ‘how’.