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.
Synesthesia, 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.
The 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…