My intention for this text was to write about books and specifically “Let Your Mind Run” by Deena Kastor and Michelle Hamilton, which I found utterly inspiring. The book retraces the story of long-distance runner Deena Kastor, an Olympic medalist and the American female record holder in the marathon (from 2014 to 2022). In this fascinating read, Deena explains how mind and body can work together and combine their forces to reach full potential. Over her extensive career, she developed mental techniques through optimism, gratitude and ‘mindfulness running’, to not only improve her results, but to find balance as an athlete and as a human being. Her book, and the many interviews and videos I watched with her, made a very strong impression on me. So much, that I told myself I’d need to read this book again and again like a good album that I would play over and over.
Because in music, when an album ends, it is easy and quite normal to press ‘play’ again. Arriving at the epilogue of “Let Your Mind Run”, I felt a deep sense of emptiness growing in me, with no “play” button to press. Distraught, I decided to reread my previous book, and to try my hand at a new idea: to read a book several times. That book was “Bravey” by Alexi Pappas, another Olympian long distance runner, a writer and a film director. Immersing myself again in her poignant, sensitive, and at times funny story, felt surprisingly pleasant. Although I remember quite well what happened in the book, having read it not so long ago, it did not disturb my pleasure. On the contrary, it made me concentrate on details rather than outlines. I wouldn’t say that I read a new book, but rather that I immersed myself even more in Pappas’ story. My experience felt richer and fuller.
Obviously, re-reading is not an exact repetition of reading. I’m not the same person I was a few weeks ago when I first grabbed this book. I can’t replicate the state I was in, had I never read this book before, because I can’t pretend I don’t know what I know. And that’s exactly what happens in music, where segments (verses, chorus, motifs, etc.) are repeated and anticipated, but not perceived as the same. Actually, a note played twice will not be the same identical note: the second note will have been altered by the expectation that the first note has created. I learned while researching on this topic, that Schubert was considered the master of repetition, and very often repeated entire musical sections while making them feel different and mean something else completely.
Music embraces repetition like no other art. Modern songs are structured in relatively similar verses which set the stage for a catchy chorus that will stick in our heads for hours. It is clear that we like to listen to the same songs over and over, to go see an opera or a concert and listen to the music we just heard live, in the comfort of our living room. And instead of feeling bored at the idea of knowing the rest of a song or a movement in a symphony, listening to them again increases our involvement in these powerful musical experiences. Actually, it is interesting to notice that any sound can become music when it’s played repeatedly, at some point our brain will recognize a rhythm, even a pitch, and read it as music. It feels to me that it is through the mental images that we associate with known and familiar patterns, that we appreciate music in a rich way. Re-reading books or watching a movie twice can have the same effect.
Repetition is comfortable for us humans, who are creatures of habit and pattern. We look for structures in chaos and like to dance to well-known rhythms. There is something reassuring in observing the regular patterns of a flower or contemplating the symmetry of our architectural buildings. Myself, I am someone who has strong habits and can create rituals fairly easily. For instance, I run three times a week come what may, on the same segment by the sea and listen to the same album. For months, I said “Hi 5” to myself first thing in the morning in order to start the day on a positive note (see my text) and I didn’t miss a day! And generally being an artist has a lot to do with creating habits. Indeed in an art studio, any step or gesture has an importance and can become a ritual: having a coffee upon arrival while scrolling through social media, listening to our favorite podcast while preparing the canvas, cleaning the brushes and ventilating the studio after a day of painting. And the same goes with the moves we do in our practice on the artworks themselves: the materials we decide to continue using in the future, the gestures we will repeat versus the ones we will give up on… By the end of the day, all those repeated actions will become our own technique.
Every human craves for habits as they often mean stability. But what I understood and really appreciated from Deena Kastor’s memoir, is her freshness and her flexibility. She is a perpetual learner, in the sense that in any given situation she may apply changes in order to push her limitation. Following her book, I saw a slight change in my way of running, though not in the setting, but in my experience of the run: I try to notice my thoughts, to be closer to my feelings and sensations and to listen to my body.
Deena Kastor explains that “mindfulness running” is very simple: it starts with paying attention and understanding how an idea, a thought, an experience can make us feel and how it could benefit us the most. Thanks to her coach Vigil, Deena began to toy with the idea of shaping her mind and thoughts in order to achieve higher potential. Being aware of her thoughts gave her the possibility to push away the ones that were judgemental and held her back, and to favor the ones that encouraged her and pushed her forward. In her book, Deena also refers to the connection between mind and body, and how the cells in our body are connected to our thoughts. For example, when we think that we are weak, our body behaves accordingly. Among the mental techniques she crafted, surrounding herself with positivity by being grateful and becoming her best friend has dramatically diminished and replaced the harmful chatter of her judgemental thoughts. She talks about joy being a practice, not something innate, or in her words: “Find a thought that serves you better”.
In the meantime, I do my “painting reps” in the studio, where I find joy in covering old paintings with new layers. My relationship to painting has always been ambivalent, with full-on periods followed by long breaks. Deena`s book inspires me to rethink my painting practice and imagine what “mindfulness painting” would look like. I imagine it as a safe space, where showing up and coming with the right attitude will be more crucial than the painting results.
I leave you with a story I heard lately about a martial artist who was asked why he continues to practice his martial arts routine every day, although times have changed and today there are much more effective means of attacking or defending oneself. He simply answered that it was the best use of his time.
PS: I strongly encourage you to read the books by Deena Kastor and Alexi Pappas, and I wish you a rich end of summer.
– Deena Kastor, Michelle Hamilton, Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory
– Alexi Pappas, Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas