By Christopher Cudworth
In my early 20s I stumbled into reading The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda. If you have not read the books, which include The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge; A Separate Reality; and Journey to Ixtlan, then here’s a quick primer on what they are about.
1. A man becomes an “apprentice” to a demanding shaman
2. His experiences immediately begin to shift his conception of life and material existence
3. He discovers the notion of multiple realities
4. He almost loses his mind several times out of fear
5. He vacillates between how he is called to live and his capability to conceive it
That’s a dry take on a series of books that seriously mess with your mind. The whole idea that there are multiple realities becomes tempting to believe. In fact you believe it while you are reading it. When you step away from the books, the world feels funny. You wonder if you know what you think you know.
There are people who question the verity of research that led to the writing of Castaneda’s work. He owns a Ph.D. thanks to his research, but some wonder if it all wasn’t the product of an amazing and active imagination.
While reading those books back in the early 1980s, I was also running 80-100 miles a week on a regular basis. My goal was to become the best runner possible. It felt a bit like entering a separate reality.
Looking back now, I realize it all could have been done a bit differently. There was no reason to run full time as I tried to do. My true ability did not really merit that level of commitment for a year. Yet you have to understand the psychology of both the period and of the person to know why people do such things.
Perhaps the one thing I needed to do was get that whole serious running thing out of my system. It was a catharsis of sorts, and it had its successes.
Now when I run it is possible to cover some of the same ground I did back then and review the memory of what it was like to race at top speed across the same ground. In some respects it feels like an entirely different person did those things. In other respects I can still feel the tension of having someone tracking in my footsteps at 5:00 pace. The fear and joy mix freely in those moments, much like they do in the books by Carlos Castaneda.
It is therefore true to some extent that those of us who run and ride do live in a separate reality. We are our own shaman on this trek through pain, suffering and exhilaration. We breathe deeply like a yoga student. We move through sun and fog and rain and heat, cold and snow and wind and darkness. All are paths to transcendence if we allow them to be, and are purposeful, with intent, and willing to learn from the experience.
Now that I’ve added cycling and to some extent swimming to the litany of workouts, there are even more moments where it is possible to flirt with the crack between the worlds, that place where enlightenment suddenly opens up, or we confront our fears.
Just this weekend on a descent on a winding road through the hills west of Madison, Wisconsin, I confronted all my fears in a single second. Flying downhill at 40 miles per hour, the tension between control and freedom was nearly broken. My bike tires shuddered on the rough road, recalling the difficult moment when bike wobble took me down on a similar road 20 miles west in Dodgeville.
Pulling out of that turn with knees clamped to the center bar was like facing mortality in all its forms. That night while sleeping in our tent I awoke to the keen sense that a real risk had been faced down. I’d used good judgment yes. At the same time that shuddering moment was meant to tell me something. I lay there in the tent mining that memory for its significance.
There is no dishonor in accepting your latent mortality. Perhaps it is true that to truly live it pays to understand what it means to come close to death. After all, once you’re dead it lasts a really long time. As the years go by this separate reality takes on more significance. We understand, if we are wise, that there is a tomorrow, but not forever. Or else we understand that there is a forever, but we hope it’s not tomorrow.
Those are tricky philosophical questions. Maybe you don’t spend your time thinking about these things.
But I went to bed last night asking for some insight from the cosmos and this is what popped into my brain at 4:30 in the morning. “Make a happy proclamation about something weak.”
There is great understanding that comes from understanding and embracing our weaknesses. That is what the apprentice learned from The Teachings of Don Juan. You cannot call the proper strength to your aid unless you know where you are the weakest. Some people enlist those strengths from outside their being. Others submerge, delving into their own emotions and the creature they have become in order to imagine a new being. The one you must become. The one calling you from outside your own reality. It can be so hard to discern, even harder to trust. Some of us enlist our friends or other guides to help us on that journey. It is both our own and that we share. The interface. The crack between the worlds.
What an amazing principle for us to embrace in our running, riding and swimming. Sometimes it’s not your strength that holds you in place and opens new realities. Often it is that crack between the worlds where your weaknesses threaten to bring you down that gives you the greatest enlightenment. That moment when you’re just about out of pedal power at the reach of a long climb, yet you persist from within and the habits of thought and all that you think you are seem to dissolve.
Or that moment when you round the corner on the last of a hard set of intervals and you’re not just willing yourself to run, you’re moving through pain and yet it vanishes. Or that swimmer entering a lake where there are no lanes, just buoys and the sun on the back. You move in the crack between two worlds.
It’s where we exist. It is also where we cease to exist, and become something else entirely. It can be hard to come back to reality once you’ve known that world.