Breathe. Think. Don’t Think.

One of the hardest things to do when you work full time is to stay in shape, and for a number of reasons it gets even harder in winter months. We have fewer hours of daylight to work with, it is cold outside, and for some reason winter is a time of year when we seem to let ourselves become consumed by our work lives.

Running is what I do to stay in shape, until there is enough snow to cross country ski on, and then I do that too. The hardest time I ever had scheduling my daily run was when I was teaching middle school. I needed to be in my classroom shortly after 7AM, and I had a half hour commute, so that meant leaving my house shortly after the sun rose, and setting my alarm before 5:00 if I wanted to get a run in before getting ready for work and eating breakfast. And while I have known people who can pull it off, getting up before 5:00 in the morning is not for me.

My wife and I decided years ago to give it a try. We set our alarms for 4:30AM and headed out on the streets of Bath, Maine, where we lived at the time, for our morning run. We found that we were missing critical minutes of deep sleep, and could not recover from the fatigue that hit far too early in the day. But worse than that (I am sure if we had stuck to the schedule long enough and gone to bed early enough, we could have eventually adjusted our bodily clocks), it just didn’t seem right, running that early in the day. As we ran through the streets of Bath—starting at Green Street, turning down Lincoln, then Centre Street, through town and eventually looping back to our house—we noticed that it was not only early, but it was so early that it felt like the middle of the night. Nobody was awake. The streets were vacant, silent, and all lights in all homes were off. When you run at 5:30 or 6:00AM, at least there are a few bathroom or kitchen lights aglow from the homes you pass, and you imagine people in those homes slowly maneuvering through their morning routines, probably involving coffee, maybe even some morning TV or internet surfing. But at 4:30 in the morning, none of that is happening, and it is as dark as dark gets, no hint of light on the horizon, no indication that night is over. We found ourselves getting angry at the situation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Eventually I was able to get a short run in on some mornings with a simple breakfast and a slightly later wake-up time, and I alternated those days with an afternoon run. The nice thing about teaching middle school is there is flexibility to the workday after 2:30PM. No, the work doesn’t end there, but I found even in the dead of winter there was enough time to get an afternoon run in before dark. Then I could finish my planning and grading at home, usually after supper.

My schedule now allows me a later start time at work, so I run every morning these days, except on Saturdays. And to be completely honest, I don’t love running. Some days it is downright awful, but I find that I have to run, or else I have a harder time dealing with the problem-solving aspects of the life of a guy in his mid-forties.

I run because when I run, I meditate. Some people meditate by sitting, but I do it when I run. I listen to my breathing, which usually rhythmically syncs right up with my footsteps involuntarily, and I just stop trying to think of anything. I don’t try specifically not to think, but I just don’t try to think. Sometimes, thoughts fly through my head—even intense, complicated ones. Other times, not so much. I do some great thinking on my runs, and I also do some great not-thinking. I see wildlife, too. Running through downtown Brunswick early one spring morning, I saw a large bull moose crossing Water Street up near what was the Daniel Stone Inn. I watched it run through the back yards of all those houses that line the Androscoggin River. Just last week I was followed by a Raven. It kept flying past me from behind, mumbling something in one of its deep, gargling voices. It followed me for about a mile as I ran down route 24 from Pork Point Road in Bowdoinham, flying ahead of me, landing in a tree, and waiting until I passed it to fly past me again, gargling away. Ravens are known to be exceptionally smart, so I wondered what it might have been thinking, or saying to me (or someone?).

Running is a great form of meditation, because it is natural. Our bodies are made to do aerobic exercise, like running and dancing and walking fast. Our hearts and lungs and muscles and brains function best when working regularly, just like most machines. For me, a tall, relatively inflexible guy, sitting for long periods of time hurts, makes me antsy, and makes me want to not sit. I know that Buddhist monks train themselves to sit for hours, but I am not Buddhist, and my body and brain do not enjoy sitting that much.

For some, running is much harder than sitting, and for those folks I recommend starting with walking briskly, as if you are in a hurry, but not too much of a hurry. If you live by yourself, or are not at all self-conscious, you could also try dancing! All of these things involve all of your bodily systems functioning in rhythm. Do these things for a half hour or so, or longer if you can manage, most days.

Winter is hard for folks, and we have to take care of ourselves if we want to be able to do our jobs well, problem solve, and take care of others. When you go outside and run, or walk briskly, or cross country ski, or ride a bike, or dance, you inevitably come to the realization that you are part of the environment. You are, in fact, the most important part of the environment.

Running helps me stay in decent shape, but it also helps me stay focused during the day, it helps me sleep at night, and it helps me digest the complex things happening in the world. I’m not especially good at it, and it is hard work, but it is the kind of hard work that feels necessary and natural.

Teaching, like a lot of professions, can be frustrating, deflating, anxiety-producing and draining as the holidays approach. And on top of that, life can double those challenges with little warning. Very few people, I have come to realize, have a lot of free time each day to breathe, think and not think. But when work, or life, or politics, or the cold and dark of winter feel like they are knocking you down, finding or making that time might be the most important thing you can do.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.