What I Can’t Count in Words

I’ve been trying to work out every day. For me, working out looks like jogging on a treadmill for 45 minutes. I also target shoot with my bow and arrow once or twice a day, 100 shots at a time. I normally listen to music while I’m working out. I’ve experimented with a lot of different listening options: silence, audiobooks, Gregorian chant, dance music, electronica. So far, synth metal is my best bet both for jogging and for target practice. Nothing with lyrics, which distract me.

I can’t afford to be distracted, because when I’m doing something physical, I’m counting.

I tend to count out loud so that anyone around me can hear my progress. When I’m target shooting, I count upward. I’m counting the number of bullseyes I’ve hit out of the number of shots I’ve taken, so I will say out loud “Zero zero” before my first shot. This morning was forty-one one hundred.

When I’m jogging, I’m counting down. I jog for 45 minutes, and I will say right now, I hate it. Jogging doesn’t feel good or natural or like an accomplishment. It feels like a torture and the only way I can get through it is by distracting myself. I break each minute up into both 10-second and 15-second increments. There are 270 10-second increments in 45 minutes, and 180 15-second increments. Every minute, I will subtract 6 from the 10-second increments, but I only subtract from the 15-second increments every two and a half minutes (meaning it’s always a multiple of ten). This happens smoothly in my head without missing a beat of the music. When I get down to 30/20 (5 minutes), I start counting each increment down singly, so the pairings of numbers change more often and I have to be more mentally present. By the time I get to 0/0, I’m normally just as happy not to have messed up my counting as to have finished my workout.

When I’m counting, there is no room for anything else. I can’t think about that cramp in my left calf, or what I’m going to write later or whom I’ve got to call when I’m off the treadmill. There is a conversation in my mind every second of every day. Even when I’m sleeping I have dreams of such vividness that many of them get made into fiction that I inflict on other people. The conversations in my head are most insistent when I’m talking to someone else. And those conversations in my head are so distracting that if I don’t find a way to deflect them, they’ll deflect what I’m trying to do. I’ve walked off in the middle of target shooting or of jogging because I decided something else was more important. The only way I can stay present with a physically demanding task is to crowd out all those words with numbers.

I guess that’s why I love numbers. Because there is a limit to the number of words in the English language, but there is no limit to how high I can count. If I hit the aleph, there’s always another aleph beyond it. Both of those thoughts are comforting to me. That there are only so many words that I will ever have to learn to describe my experiences, real or imagined. That there is no limit at all to the number of experiences I could possibly have.

Radio Free Silence

There are three of you out there who remember my podcast “Satellite of Grace.” In it, I talked to people from all over about their religious beliefs. I talked to people from just about every major religion, I talked to people whose religion was a central factor in their lives and people who were largely indifferent to faith. What I really loved about doing the podcast was the freedom it gave me to listen. Really listen.

When interviewing someone, I normally had a loose agenda of things I wanted to know about the person’s religion or their own personal experience of it, but I never knew in advance what people were going to say. Sometimes, people expressed surprising views about their beliefs or their doubts. More than once, people tried to convert me. Listening carefully, with my entire heart and mind, meant that I was able to experience the unexpected with excitement rather than consternation. Someone coming up with something new was an opportunity to take the discussion in an exciting direction, not a failure to follow format. Listening to people with my whole heart and mind meant that, as I heard them speak, I felt humbled and privileged that they chose to share something so personal with me.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been seeing a therapist, and last week, we had what struck me as sort of a summing up. He said that I’d been seeing him for about five months, and when I first started seeing him my complaints were basically stress and anxiety and an inability to sleep and elevated blood pressure (are you sensing a theme, here?). He wanted to know if I still felt that way. While the specific incident that made me seek help in the first place has long since played out, the fact that I’m constantly stressed hasn’t changed. When he asked me “What exactly do you want help with?” I realized that all I want is to be able to relax and enjoy life a little more.

I realized that when I was interviewing people for the podcast, I was so completely outside myself and into their stories, that I felt utterly happy. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys things like skydiving or white water rafting (although I do miss my motorcycle), but there was something very in the moment about talking to folks about themselves. I’m considering taking an extended break from talking (read: Facebook, Twitter, email) and concentrating more on listening. It might be a way to get out of my own head and into some other people’s.