Endurance Sports, Shamanism & The Writing Exercise


Twenty-seven minutes into a 60-minute run through Balboa Park, and I’m dying. Running is not new to me, but today I feel like a dead whale carved into puppet parts and badly strung. My hips lurch instead of swing, my feet drone instead of drum.

I lob through bars of slanted yellow light, past eucalyptus trees, my eyes darting over mulch patterns on the trail below, when suddenly I am floored by fists of Bubblicious-fuchsia exploding toward me from a low branch leaning into the trail. These foaming, tissue-thin, satin rosettes stun me, and seem to enter me. Strangest of all, they somehow conjure within me the fierce and distinct taste of that ultra-artificial, pink cherry-flavored frosting from the plastic Pillsbury tub—the kind slabbed inches-thick over cupcakes at Midwestern birthday parties of the nineties. This cherry sensation so thoroughly consumes my body I can smell it, and I swivel to jog a few paces backward as I continue to stare. I feel absurd, bombastic, sublime.

Kwanzan_Cherry_Blossoms_by_meljoy68Synesthesia, a term from the Greek “syn” (together) and “aisthesis” (sensation) refers to the neurological experience of certain sensory perceptions as triggered by another, unrelated sensory perception. People might smell a sound or taste a color. My synesthetic experience haunted me for the rest of the run, fusing itself to an idea already loitering in my mind about the converging effect of endurance sports on creative output.

Distance running itself creates a hinge between physical exhaustion and the elevated mental capacity that exertion enables. It’s a lot like the effect of psychedelic drugs on perception. The mind attains a higher sense of awareness through specific, controlled altercations to the physical body. Many meditative, repetitive, or constant motion activities can elicit this effect (think of knitting, yoga, doodling, listening to music, chewing your nails…not to mention sleep-deprivation, starvation, or sensory overload, say, walking through IKEA).

Activities that border physical disruption can induce a kind of hyper-awareness, a madness of sorts, a state that can transcend normal physical boundaries. By occupying the body and taxing it sufficiently, the chaotic mind can focus its faculties and expand its capabilities. This is runner’s high. This also sounds a lot like the battle with Lorca’s Duende: the creative process.

Even if not an endurance athlete, most of us have experienced at one time or another the lucid or lurid effect of pulling an all-nighter, over-imbibing, sweating out a fever, or becoming delirious with hunger, each of which alters consciousness. Altered states of consciousness open mental capacities that are inaccessible under normal circumstances to the satiated body.

220px-Hamatsa_shaman2The shaman, or witch-doctor, of many indigenous cultures intentionally enters a compromised physical state—often through ingestion of substances or prolonged physical exertion—in order to overcome the limitations of the physical realm and achieve extra-human powers. The shaman disregards, or perhaps leans into, these taxing restrictions in order to transcend the physical body and its limitations on the mind. Certain boundaries are crossed. A hinge forms between what is known and trusted by the senses and what is possible when bending them. The shaman returns with visions, medicines, protection, or prophecy.

As enthusiasts of the converging arts, consider what happens when we make and follow strict rules in a creative exercise. What are we able to access when we restrict what we come to rely on or normally indulge? Whether the rules of the creative exercise are a time limit, a challenge to craft in conversation with another art’s form or methodology, or a restriction of the use of certain words/colors/forms/media, exercises set up an endurance task. Just like on a long-distance run, the mind is challenged to endure a specific indulgence or deprivation of sensory experience, which forces it to adapt.

See what hinges you can explore in your own creative work by setting up a list of rules and forcing yourself to adhere to them. Pick up a copy of CA Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics (Wave Books), or an issue of Manor House Quarterly for fodder and ideas. See if you return to the physical realm with remedies and visions…


3 thoughts on “Endurance Sports, Shamanism & The Writing Exercise

  1. I often use sleep deprivation and fasting to reach a state of extreme clarity, but I’ve learned that I have to balance it out with meditation, nutrition, exercise and eventual high quality sleep in order to keep the body’s stress levels in check over time. 🙂

    • Absolutely, and thank you for your reply. It’s amazing to explore our physical limitations to allow the mind to transcend barriers, but it is best to do so with control and intention. It’s incredible to see what kind of creativity can emerge when certain restrictions or rules are chosen and adhered to, not to hinder the body or mind, but to stimulate it.

      I recently had to give up all sugars (besides those in fresh fruit) for two weeks on a digestive cleanse, and being a shameless chocoholic I had to get quite creative to satiate my sweet tooth and transcend the challenge toward better health. I invented strawberry-banana sorbet with unsweetened coconut whipped cream and coconut-almond-cinnamon macaroons. I imagine that long periods of silence (limiting verbal communication) or perhaps exposure to a particular color for a period of time, too, might have interesting effects on creative output.

      Have you found a way to use your yoga practice to inform your writing? Have you tried a way to “sleep deprive” or create a “fast” in your writing? It would be cool to choose certain rules in a writing exercise that mimic the restriction of abstaining from food or rest. What do you think?

      • Sugar restriction is a killer! At least mentally lol..Health wise I’ve always felt better, but my mind has always rebelled against the restriction. Eventually the clarity breaks through, and that’s when being sugar free really makes it worth all the initial pain. Good for you!

        I’ve experimented with long periods of isolation and silence, and it does change the way my mind works and reacts. Especially if I haven’t had access to mental stimuli in the form of internet, phones, camera and just a few books and paper and pen. Vipassana meditation deserves a separate mention since it’s very focused and goal oriented isolation and silence. Actually I think that Vipassana has had the deepest and longest effect on my mental state out of all the things I’ve tried. It especially woke up musical creativity).

        I once painted a room bright sunny yellow and lived in it for 4 months. I developed headaches, depression, sadness and occasional nausea. I also came down with the worst flu of my life while living there. So I wouldn’t recommend yellow as a dominant color in a bedroom 😉

        I’ve used yoga to get myself unstuck from writer’s block, and it has worked so far. I’ve tried to sleep deprive in my writing, but usually I write better when I’m well rested, about 4 hours before the time when my body is used to go to sleep. (Usually night time). I think that sleep deprivation can be great for creative writing, much like any drug, but that a rewrite is needed afterward.. I love your idea of writing exercises that mimic the restriction of abstaining from food or rest. It would be interesting to see what kind of directions would be possible with that.

        Sorry for the long comment btw 😉

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