A tiny commitment

To suddenly “go mindful” and try to be present all the time is about as easy as running a marathon when you’ve never even run around the block. Since most of us are not present the vast majority of the time, occasional stabs at “being in the moment” are quickly overrun by the colossal momentum of a lifetime of being lost in thought.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2010/03/how-to-make-mindfulness-a-habit- with-only-a-tiny-commitment/

There’s much worth reading on David Cain’s Raptitude website. For example, his How to walk across a parking lot, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. But the piece I’ve quoted from above stands out as a terrific “how to…” for working on mindfulness.

I’ve been actively working on first self-awareness, then self-assesment and finally mindfulness, for many years. (And writing about my journey as I’ve done so.) But mindfulness is still something that comes and goes for me.

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How you play

If life is a game, how do you play it? The answer will have a huge impact on your choices, your satisfaction, and how you achieve success.

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2020/02/finite-and-infinite-games/

There are of course some games simply not worth playing. (For example, Global Thermonucler War, which is, “[a] strange game. The only winning move is not to play.“) For most of my life I’ve thought of games as something I first decided to do—”let’s play a game!”—and then sorted out what sort of game—board games, tag, charades, etc.. Even sports games worked this way; “I feel like playing baseball…” and then round up my friends, or “I feel like getting good at baseball and playing a lot…” and then join a league. In all the cases, the game itself was the point.

Then, back around 40 when I was busy rediscovering movement, I realized that one could start by having a goal, or an idea one wanted to explore, and then one could deploy games as the vehicle for accomplishing that. On the one hand, it’s still fun to simply play for play’s sake, but it’s empowering to have fun playing while intentionally accomplishing something of your own choosing.

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It’s the journey

Tippet resurfaces questions many have explored before us. “What does it mean to be human? What matters in life? What matters in death? How to be of service to each other and the world?”

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2017/01/krista-tippett-becoming-wise/

Confirmation bias never ceases to amaze me. One minute, I’ve never noticed Tippett wrote a book. The suddenly I’m tripping over references and suggestions for it; Here’s a blog post from 2017 which I’m just reading 4 years later. And over here is a mention from another blogger. And then this podcaster. And so on.

Finding people, their work, their books, etc. feels like wandering through an ancient stand of Redwoods, (which is something I’ve actually done, just to be clear.) This stuff was here long before me, and will be here long after me. Sure, I’ve “hiked”—it’s just walking on a trail—far beyond the usual little loop which most tourists opt to explore. But way farther along, behold! Here is a bench, with a dedication. And even here people have been walking for, I dunno… 100 years now? I don’t even know exactly where this trail goes, but I can see up to the next bend, and the part I’ve already traveled has been purty durn neato. This other person exploring conversation and the human condition has, probably, already done more than I ever will. But that doesn’t take away from what I get from strolling the trail.

Because—as I hope you too have already discovered—it’s the journey that counts.

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Side quests

I [generally] hate the Internet. I wanted to start this post with a reference to a little children’s TV skit I saw many (many) moons ago, on Sesame Street or maybe it was the Muppets… about a guy named Henry with a bucket with a hole who tried to fix it based on another character’s—named Liza—ministrations, but which eventually lead him to need the hole-y, original bucket to haul water to complete the bucket-repair process. If you’re not yet grabbing your head, try reading: “There a hole in my bucket. Dear Liza. Dear Liza.” Fortunately, Wikipedia, and a pile of YouTube clips I managed to not watch, have me covered. Long live the Internet!

“Holey-bucket-fixing” is a long chain of tasks which turn out to be circularly dependent. Obviously, I don’t realize it’s holey-bucket-fixing at the start of the side quest. I start off on some simple problem. To do A, I need B. To do B, I need C. To do C, I need… A? Where’s the Tylenol?!

But sometimes, I start off on some simple problem and it goes very well. As in . . .

Your merry band enters the dimly lit inn, glad to find shelter from the stormy night. The rogue among you sticks to the shadows to the left, the dwarf angles right, (in both senses of the word,) towards the bar, and the elf-archer, with the balance of the band in tow, strides for a long table against the doorless, far wall. The dwarf orders the first round of whatever-it-is-they-serve-around-these-parts, and the bartender strikes up a conversation. “Haven’t seen you folks around before. You look like you might be up for an adventure.” If you want to go on an adventure, turn to page 42. If you just want this idiot to shut up so you can drink your whatever-it-is-they-serve-around-these-parts in peace, continue reading.

And so, with a hole in my bucket, or a simple question in mind, or—challenge-loving dwarf-at-the-bar that I play so well—just too curious for my own good… I almost always turn to page 42.

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Quadrupedal Movement

(Part 72 of 72 in series, My Journey)

Quadrupedal Movement (QM) is a diverse collection of movements using both hands and feet on the ground to support one’s weight.

QM is almost always done using just the feet, and not the knees, since our knees are not capable of taking prolonged usage or impact. That said, there are some small-size, low-impact, movements using various surfaces of the knees, lower legs, buttocks, and thighs which integrate well with the usual hands-and-feet-only QM.

There are countless variations of QM. Many variations are physically demanding, but many are drastically easier than the more usual bipedal movements: Using a railing with your hands for balance and support as you ascend stairs, using walking sticks and canes, and “scrambling” on hands and feet up steep slopes, are all common variations of QM.

Start here https://gmb.io/locomotion/

…and then take a look at some advanced options, Two Hours and a Slab of Concrete.

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Meta: I’m retiring this series, “My Journey.” Over the years, my blog has changed a lot. In the beginning I had a lot of more random things here and I used this series as a way to highlight this aspect of my blog writing. Today, the blog itself is basically a record of my journey.

Parkour floor

We forget that what we have is more than what we need. Obscenely more. I know it may sound perverse, but here in the future people often feel like they need more than they have.

~ David Cain from, http://www.raptitude.com/2011/01/a-day-in-the-future/

There’s a sense of accomplishment in being prepared to sleep on the floor when traveling. There’s a sense of freedom in being able to carry a small backpack and live comfortably. I always knew this was at least partly due to knowing that I was prepared enough for important contingencies and free enough to roll with whatever comes up during the day.

But now I see that there’s a second dimension to why I enjoy it: The self-imposed hardship. Sometimes the floor is cold and drafty, sometimes there’s a cat (I’m allergic to cats), sometimes everyone stays up very late (I usually turn in around 9:30), sometimes I miss a meal, sometimes I don’t sleep much if there’s too much light, sometimes it’s noisy, … and so on. Still, I am invariably in a better mood than usual the morning after each of these choose-your-own-adventures-gone-bad. Cold, stiff, sneezy, tired … sure. But in a good mood. Well, that’s very interesting, now isn’t it?

I’m not making a call for you to take up Parkour-flooring. I’m only pointing out that when I occassionally reset my callibration by intentionally taking on some suffering, I’m invariably happier after.

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Ever-present mental stress

Most people have been in some version of this mental stress state so consistently, for so long, that they don’t even know they’re in it. Like gravity, it’s ever present — so much so that those who experience it usually aren’t even aware of the pressure. The only time most of them will realize how much tension they’ve been under is when they get rid of it and notice how different they feel. It’s like the constant buzzing noise in a room you didn’t know was there until it stops.

~ David Allen from, https://www.librarything.com/work/1844807

The key insight for me was once I realized there are two “directions” to thinking: I was always good at vertical thinking, going down thru a project (big or small), planning, organizing and doing. This was simply “thinking”, and how could there be more than one “direction” in which to think?

Unfortunately, I often got stuck when my brain started doing this other direction of thinking for which I had no name; no concept to attach: The horizontal thinking. The hopping from project to project — and I use “project” in the most broad sense of ANY thing involving a goal (“remodel house”, “send holiday cards”), any size (“seven years of projet management and contractors”, “buy stamps, buy cards, stuff, mail” ), and any number of steps. My mind hopped uncontrollably from thing to thing, around and around, across all the open loops, as the same things came up over and over and over.

These days, having a solid capture and review system enables me to close those mental loops. I can often read for a half an hour without my mind once interrupting me with some random, “I need to do this,” or “I need to remember that,” thought. (And if it does interupt me, I simple capture that thought once. Done. Freedom.) In the beginning I used paper notecards, then notebooks, software, and on and on. The exact system does not matter. It only matters that you trust your system. Only when you truly trust your system will your subconscious close all those open loops.

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A lifetime of successful training

(Part 65 of 72 in series, My Journey)

I had to change my expectations of how much I trained because I was in that mindset, the more training, the better. You can’t do more intense training, so now I probably train, if you look at it, still, I train maybe four or five hours per day, but three of those hours or four of those hours are watching video, or reading books, and researching because I can do that without damaging my body or going too far. For me, it’s not saying, “Well, I guess I’ll never be this good. Well, I’m just not going to have the expectation that I can get on the mat and grind it out with the 20-year-olds for five hours a day.” That’s not going to happen.

~ Burton Richardson from, https://gmb.io/episode-92/

If you don’t know who Burton Richardson is… uh, think: Direct student of Bruce Lee, and 30 years of training with many of the greatest martial artists in history. Also, zero ego.

This interview with the legendary Burton Richardson is life-changing. My pull-quote does not do this interview justice. This 45-minute interview contains an insane amount of insight into training and practice for the long-haul.

…yeah, how many hours a day do I train?

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Back pain

(Part 64 of 72 in series, My Journey)

Somewhere in my 30’s, slowly, year by year, the frequency of my back problems increased. I’m not talking about, I helped a friend move over the weekend, or, I did climb-ups for an hour at Parkour class, and now my back is “out.” I’m talking about,

I sat down to put socks on — because I cannot hold my foot up to reach it standing — and my lower back “just” gave out.

or,

I was just standing at the sink washing dishes.

For me, these incidents where I was clearly not doing anything amazing and was still somehow injured, became a clear sign that I needed to change something. In hindsight, this is the article I wish I had found first and so I hope it helps someone.

Elsewhere, in my Changes and Results series, I’m laying out all the big things I’ve changed, project by project. But there was never any one thing that I worked on specifically to fix my back. It simply turned out that many of the things I did contributed to — knock on wood — resolving my back problems. Of course my back still gives me trouble when I deserve it. But these days, I know when it’s going to be a problem. I can feel when my back is getting tired, and if I listen to that quiet signal I can avoid the worst of the problems.

My spine and me

Although I had been doing some intentional, general improvement efforts, such as losing weight and getting better sleep, my back-focused improvement journey really began when I heard Ido Portal say something to the effect of:

Your legs are for moving you through your environment. Your arms are for manipulating your environment. Your spine is for orienting yourself within the environment. So your spine should be this incredibly mobile and powerful system with a huge range of dynamic movement.

(That’s not an exact quote because I don’t feel like going through the entire “Rewild Yourself Podcast” episode where Daniel Vitalis interviewed Ido Portal. It’s episode number 8: Ido Portal on the Movement Diet which you should probably go listen to.)

When I heard that, I realized that my spine was nothing at all like Ido’s vision of a human spine. Mine barely moved at all, and when it did, I often felt nervous about impending disaster. After hearing Ido’s way of describing the spine, I had this new perspective where each time I’d do some movement, I could see how much my spine was right at its limit of ability. I realized that my spine should be an incredibly varied mover, and that my spine’s flexibility (the total movement possible) and range of motion (the smaller space of movement where my back is usable, comfortable and strong) are critical, foundational elements to all of my health and movement.

I realized that for years I had tried to “stabilize” and strengthen my spine as a defense against movement causing injury to my back. But I now see that this is an erroneous reaction to weakness. If instead of being immobilized as a defense, my spine is strong, then it can be mobile, able to make all the movements I need, and not be injured.

Awareness and honesty

The first step was to learn to avoid injury. This sounds trivial, but it was not at all obvious to me at the time. When I was so fat and inflexible that putting my socks on regularly endangered my back, it was a terrible, humbling experience to admit that I had to change how I put my on socks.

I had to identify all the landmines, and own up to them. I had to learn that stretching — really just moving around — was mandatory each morning. I had to stop automatically rushing to help everyone move heavy objects. I had to stop trying to be “the strong guy,” and generally dial down all my activities to a level my back could handle. I had to acknowledge those random days when my back felt “off”, and learn to take a rest day for recovery.

All of which forced me to face that I was no longer indestructible and to own up to the deteriorated state of my body. Awareness and honesty were the only way that I could stop taking frequent steps backwards. They were the only way that I could begin to make glacial forward progress.

(I’ve written more about the Philosophy of the changes I’ve made in my Changes and Results series.)

Weight loss

Losing weight is obviously not easy. But every pound that I peeled off paid dividends to my back. It turns out that weight around your middle drastically increases the load on your lower back. “Lost weight” is a woefully inadequate summary for this element of fixing my back, but hopefully I’ll get around to writing out everything I did to lose weight.

Recovery work

What began as endless massage work by my spouse, slowly morphed into self-massage and then into mobility work; Basically, I learned to lay on the floor moving in all the ways my spine was meant to move. I mastered the use of a foam roller and Lacrosse ball for myofascial release and self-massage. As my back got stronger, I was able expand this recovery practice to a more general, whole-body movement, stretching and — much later — general strengthening.

(I’m writing a separate post on my “20 minutes of morning stretching” which is one of the cornerstones upon which I have built the whole new me. It’s not yet published, but will eventually be part of my Changes and Results.)

Finally, chiropractic has saved me countless times. I know many people who believe chiropractic is quackery. But for me, it doesn’t matter how or why, it simply yields results.

Posture

Years of sitting, and progressive weakening of my back, took their toll. Worse, the hunched back, rolled shoulders posture was so common in my environment, that it seemed normal. So I didn’t even realize what was happening to me.

The first baby step to improving my posture was when I learned how to understand, and control, the orientation of my pelvis through learning to sit as part of martial arts training. The traditional Japanese seated posture, seiza where you sit with folded-under knees and pointed toes is great for learning posture. Of course, this type of sitting initially rewards you with agony from the knees and ankles. But once your legs adapt, there is a delightful feeling of peace and centralized weight when you learn to center your pelvis and to balance and align your entire spine. But maintaining this alignment, even in a statically balanced seated position, required a certain muscle tone. A tone which I had lost through endless sitting in a poor posture.

I soon realized that the orientation of the hands as they hang at your sides is indicative of your upper back posture. Palms turned to the back, (the shoulders being in interior rotation,) with that “knuckle-dragger” appearance is a sign of a week upper back and poor scapular position. I began incorporating various exercises, (the ‘Sphinx’ pose from yoga, ‘shoulder dislocations’, and thoracic extension in supine position, etc.) into my daily recovery work. (For a great introduction, read De-Quasimodo Yourself.)

As I’d gained weight, I hadn’t realized that I had also, slowly transitioned to a “dumped” lower abdomen: guts hanging out the front, pelvis tipped forward, and lumbar spine pulled forward into a maximum arch. This led me to lower back agony whenever I spent time on my feet, especially if I over-worked my lower back by strolling and slowly shift my weight from one leg to the other. But as I’ve lost fat from my typical abdominal male pattern, and as running and jumping in the context of parkour have strengthened my glutes, it has become easier to maintain a neutral pelvic position and a neutral curve of my lumbar spine.

Walking

Solvitur Ambulando ~ It is solved by walking

Today, I have a ton of stuff here on my site about walking.

But it all started, long ago, when I read a blog post by Steve Kamb, about Walking to Mordor. “One does not simply walk into Mordor!” Except, that is exactly what Sam and Frodo did. Elsewhere I’m writing an entire post about my efforts and progress related solely to walking; But all of my walking was kick-started by Steve’s Nerd Fitness blog post.

Shoes

This was the least obvious thing which improved my back: The closer I get to living barefoot, the better my back feels.

Long ago, I was wearing “normal” shoes, and then I started taking some parkour classes. Turns out that I want to wear the lightest weight, and thinnest soled, shoes I can; because I want to use my feet and toes. Anyway, roll with me here when I say: I wanted to wear minimal footwear for parkour. So, I started wearing Feiyue shoes to class — not the fancy French brand of shoes, but the el’cheapo, crépe sole, martial arts shoe. They have no structure, no arch, and just some padding and protection from most (not all) things you might step on.

I started to run in Feiyue. I ran 10 feet and my calves cramped up. I kept at it. For years. I relearned how to run. Then I relearned how to walk. Then I relearned how to use my knees. Then I realized that to get things working again, I needed to stop wearing “normal” shoes entirely. So I started wearing Feiyue everywhere.

I went on reading about feet. …and about minimal shoes. …and about barefoot training. Then I learned about the amount of nerves in our feet, (the same as in your hands,) and I had some discussions about sensory input through your feet. …and balance. …and acupressure points.

It is not an exaggeration to say that learning about my feet has changed my life.

Today, I exclusively wear an old-school track running shoe called Bullets, made by Saucony. I remove the insoles, so that from the midsole to the toes there is ZERO padding; just a few millimeters of hard rubber sole between my foot and the world. I wear these same shoes for everything. All surfaces, all activities — everything.

The ah-ha moment

It was at this point — after all of the above changes, and after I had spent about two years full-time in minimalist shoes — that I realized my back was fundamentally different.

Then I set out to write this, over the course of 18 months. :)

Recommended reading

Despite all that I’ve written here, this is still only scratching the surface of information about the back and spine. Take a look at the Human Back and Spine topic over on Hilbert’s Library.

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