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On Ritual and Practice

On Ritual and Practice

Photo: Peter Snow

By Erik Schulte

I was living in Chicago when it started, these habits. I would sit in the pre dawn dimness of our apartment greedily gulping down the freshly brewed contents of the mocha pot, trying to will myself down the stairs and out onto the lamp lit streets for my morning run. I had signed up for the Chicago Marathon on a whim a few months prior, and at the time, if you’d have asked me “why”, why the marathon, why the early alarms, the coffee, the early morning runs through the dark streets, I probably couldn't have told you a very good answer. But now, as I look back, as I realize the continuation of these same practices, I now can probably tell you a little more of the why.

I was freshly out of college, and the years prior, I had paid a great deal of money to have people challenge and foster my personal growth. I was assigned books I’d otherwise probably not read, imposed deadlines that I struggled to meet, and was bombarded with thoughts and ideas that differed from my own, causing four years of sustained cognitive dissonance. But once out of college these stimuli ceased to be aggressively imposed, and in the stagnant floundering I signed up for the marathon, committing to a different sort of stimulus. My success or failure at this new task was much less closely monitored by outside help. If I was to meet my new goals it was going to be solely up to me, and so, out of an arbitrary necessity,

I began to develop rituals that would more readily place my body into a position that would hopefully lead to the growth and adaptation to run 26.2 miles. I would wake before anyone else in the apartment, carefully brew my pot of coffee, sit in the stillness as I savored the warm presence, and then scoot out the door to knock out whatever planned work out I had for the day. Upon returning, I’d scarf down a large meal, scribble down some notes about the run in my training log, and prepare for the rest of my day.

For millennia human beings have established rituals in their lives. It seems that it is as quintessential to being human as is community and the cultivation of food. We do it to order our otherwise chaotic world; to have some solid barring that helps us, hopefully, move in our desired direction. The more we intentionally do, the more we pay attention to our actions and positions in life, the more we intentionally move forward. Our daily practices, the coffee, the food, the bodily movements, help to enact the lives we hopefully want to live, and the processes of our daily lives can ultimately lead to growth. The real question ultimately becomes: how do we place our bodies in positions each day that can lead to that growth?

For me, after leaving an institution that fostered my development, I found that the physical movement of running was the simplest practice that could fill that void, and stimulate something new. I soon found that the movement and challenge of the body was not all that different from the movement and challenge of the mind. One informed the other. Running, ultimately, was a daily practiced endeavor that helped me to grow into a better version of myself. Each day I got a chance to enact the life I wanted to live, and each day with practice I was able to improve upon the previous day’s effort.

I would move forward, learn,  grow, and ever so slowly, change. This didn’t come without challenges though. Running isn’t always fun, and change is almost always uncomfortable.

Over the years, as I slowly recognized my daily routines as such, I also realized, much like anything else in life, that these too could be refined. If my goal was to consistently place myself in situations with the most potential for growth, all actions would have to point to that singular focus, and for one reason or another, these practices most often revolved around food. I soon developed an almost Hobbitian schedule of eating. Coffee, breakfast, second breakfast, ellevensies, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper and so on. I soon realized that if I was going to be able to continue to push myself forward and not fall subject to the bottomless pit of fatigue, I would have to eat often and eat well.

As of late my day looks like this: 

Drink coffee and eat a few scoops of peanut butter, out the door for the morning run or movement. Once back, second breakfast usually is some GFB oatmeal with coconut milk and oil, peanut butter, and some fruit mixed in (I need a lot of calories). Next comes reading or household chores followed by some tea and some more snacks of Gluten Free Bites or something similar that is easy to grab. As I prepare for work I’ll make a hardy lunch, and then it’s on the bicycle for the commute to work.  Before I have to clock in, I’ll usually scarf down a GF bar. I get a mid afternoon break where I’ll drink coffee with coconut milk, and dinner will be another hefty meal. One more evening break affords time for some more GF bites, and then the late ride home after work where I sit and relax with some beer or wine before heading to bed.

The schedule is packed to the gills, and when something new gets thrown in, the daily train often goes off the rails. This, I now know, is also part of the practice: learning to adapt and accept. Somedays, I just sail past second breakfast, sometimes, my scheduled movement for the day is shortened or interrupted by the other stresses of life. The failed practices, too, are stimulus for growth. “Relentless forward progress”; is a mantra I’ve adopted from my years of ultra running, and each setback I remember that this is the means to growth.

After years of these practices, the “why” is only a little clearer. I think, the process is what enables me to be a better version of myself, and mostly  feel like I am moving forward or that growth is taking place. Or, maybe the answer is that I just love eating food, and my obsessive running enables me to eat more and more often. What ever the real answer, it seems to be working.

Me skiing in shorts (my ritual as of late)

Photo: Peter Cross