On the idea of a phenomenology of running – reply

Thinking and running are interlinked in many sorts of ways. Therefore, I think that David’s idea of digging deeper into what they could be is intriguing. Because it would take the running to a new dimension for me, perhaps not the actual practice of running, but the place running has in my life.

I guess that a common way to acquire new knowledge would be to study the theory and put it into practice in some sort of empirical setting. In this case, it might be the opposite, increasing my understanding of phenomenology through something that I hold dear: running.

So, let’s dig in to a new dimension of such an ordinary thing as running. Or is running something ordinary?


Running, Therapy and the Evolved Body

In a  recent issue of Runner’s World I read about Dynamic Running Therapy (DRT), founded by William Pullen. His website says DRT

… is fundamentally the linking of movement (walking/running) with traditional talk therapy. It replaces the static atmosphere of the therapists’ office with an outside environment rich in life, change, and possibility. Less confrontative than an office where client and therapist “face – off” to one another, with DRT the therapist joins the client side by side, sharing each step.

The benefits of running for mental health have been known for some time. What is interesting and exciting here is the combination of mindfulness and therapy with running to create a context for exploring clients’ issues.

My partner and I have always found we can discuss our deeper personal problems when we are walking, particularly on long walks in the countryside. He too now runs and we have started talking while running; I recognise how DRT will work with those who are able to run or walk. But I think the benefits of this context might be deeper than just movement outside and side-by-side. I suspect that there are close links to our oldest human instincts in running. Our bodies have so many evolved features adapted for long-distance running that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are all runners. And if distance and endurance running is naturally human, combining this with our other great adaptations, cognition and self-awareness, will connect us to who we are in our embodied thinking selves in real time. All this seems to have connections to what it is to be human and my musings about Zen and Heidegger.

I have had a long-term interest in the uses of philosophy as therapy, and there exists a movement that uses philosophy as counselling. Prompted by Pullen’s development of DRT I am beginning to wonder whether there isn’t something to be said for linking running with the philosophical approach to therapy, especially in the context of, perhaps, a phenomenological view of counselling, something which is well-established  already.

Connections, connections, connections … who would have thought the simple activity of running could be so ontological!

Right, I’m off out for 10 miles, or so, to think.

[All of the above led me to a great little piece by a therapist called Manu Buzzano called The Art of Phenomenology. Regularly readers of this blog will appreciate why I liked it so much.]

Phenomenology 1

Phenomenology 1

In this post I intend to sketch out the parameters of the phenomenology project and say something about what I take phenomenology to be.

Although not the first to touch on this approach to philosophy, the founder of contemporary phenomenology was Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). His investigations into the ways we direct our conscious experience towards and give meaning to the objects of our attention opened up a field research that has proved immensely rich and has provided may insights. His ideas were taken up and developed, often into something else entirely, by many others, including Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Sartre.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says of Husserl’s approach and what phenomenology has become:

Basically, phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity. The structure of these forms of experience typically involves what Husserl called “intentionality”, that is, the directedness of experience toward things in the world, the property of consciousness that it is a consciousness of or about something. According to classical Husserlian phenomenology, our experience is directed toward—represents or “intends”—things only through particular concepts, thoughts, ideas, images, etc. These make up the meaning or content of a given experience, and are distinct from the things they present or mean.

The basic intentional structure of consciousness, we find in reflection or analysis, involves further forms of experience. Thus, phenomenology develops a complex account of temporal awareness (within the stream of consciousness), spatial awareness (notably in perception), attention (distinguishing focal and marginal or “horizonal” awareness), awareness of one’s own experience (self-consciousness, in one sense), self-awareness (awareness-of-oneself), the self in different roles (as thinking, acting, etc.), embodied action (including kinesthetic awareness of one’s movement), purpose or intention in action (more or less explicit), awareness of other persons (in empathy, intersubjectivity, collectivity), linguistic activity (involving meaning, communication, understanding others), social interaction (including collective action), and everyday activity in our surrounding life-world (in a particular culture).

Anyone who runs regularly will recognise that all the topics of the second paragraph quoted above could be considered as substantial for a description and analysis of what it is like to run, particularly over longer distances. Both Lars and I have tried to say something about the stream of consciousness aspects of running, what we think and think about when running; and I suspect my concerns for ‘being’ in the running experience are part of this, together with how awareness-of-oneself presents itself (or indeed absents itself at times). Both these areas of investigation will be central to my analysis. But additionally, as I have already indicated, a phenomenology of running will of necessity address kinaesthetic awareness and embodiment, together with the role of intentions and goal-setting (or otherwise). What I have not thought about including, until now, is analysis of awareness of other people, communication and social interaction. At first I thought these might be optional and dependent on whether one runs alone or with others. However, when I run I see others and communicate, and others see and communicate with me, even if this is just at a road crossing, or passing on a country path. So we could ask: to what extent does this seeing and being seen as a runner influence the experience of running? I cannot think of a run when I have encountered no one at all, and, of course, mass-participation events, such as the marathons I take part in, present a whole new set of experiences, with others running and watching. So I think the social and collective experience also has to be part of the account I want to give. Finally, I am hoping that Lars will be able to make valuable contributions on the last point in particular, the place of running in everyday activity, since he and I have discussed this off-line on many occasions; and in any case, there is a dimension of running as culture that shapes what it is and what we experience that simply cannot be ignored.

This gives the following core topics:

  1. Spatial and temporal awareness when running. The focus of attention and how it develops and changes as the distance of the run increases; stages of attention.
  2. Self-consciousness and self-awareness in running; how being is experienced in movement and the skill of running.
  3. The felt experience of a body running; fitness, illness, stress and effort.
  4. The goal and purpose of running; running without goals; running every day.
  5. Running with others, in the presence of others, and for others (in the sense of running for a charitable cause).
  6. The culture of running and how it alters or affects all of the above.

I think this takes me a little bit further forward in what I want to do and say about running. If you think I have missed anything, please feel free to comment.

A Phenomenology of Running: A Proposal

In the posts during the last year I have been touching on the phenomenology of running from a range of perspectives. This is really the topic I want to capture, it occurs to me. It will become a project on this blog going forward.

A complete philosophical account of the phenomenology of running would need to meet a number of criteria.

First, it would need to cover all aspects of running, including the physical sensations of the body moving through a space and the sensations of the body’s own efforts, as well as the alterations to the subjective framing of these within the intentionality of running as it shifts and changes.

Second, it should address running at all speeds and distances, from short sprints to ultra-marathons and beyond. Of course, I am most interested in how longer-distance running affects the nature of our awareness of what it is to be a physical being, but it would be wrong to exclude the impact of sprinting on thought, sensation and perception.

Third, it must address the deeper phenomenology of the alterations to consciousness itself, and what initially might be called ‘higher’ awareness of self, no-self and other.

Finally, it should make reference to and be informed by the many approaches to running that already exist. I could not possibly hope to begin without these guides that range over accounts of barefoot running with indigenous tribal peoples, ancient wisdom from Buddhist masters, new running ideas and mindfulness, tales from champions, and leading-edge running science and philosophy.

Doing this will allow me to draw on all the interests and perspective on running I have mentioned to date. I hope readers will think it worthwhile. I shall continue to post about my running more generally alongside this project, and include information on races as before.

If anyone else would like to jump into the conversation, please do leave a message.


Subjects and Bodies

Recently I have been reading a book by the philosopher Roger Scruton: On Human Nature. While I find much to disagree with in Scruton’s political philosophy, when he writes about aspects of human experience and the centrality of the subject, intentionality and the I-you relationship in our morality, he weaves a compelling theory about the eliminability of the subjective. I think he is mistaken about some of the conclusions he draws from his arguments, which follow his oft repeated conservative narrative, but the core thesis is, I find, sound and deeply insightful. The humanities can never be replaced or find a substitute in objective scientific accounts of human nature.

Running is a real encounter with the raw experience of embodied animal nature mediated through our choice to run, to go beyond what basic physical feedback would tell us is possible or desirable. In doing so we both live within and recognise our fleshy objective nature,  and explore the ways we can transcend that as a subject whose experience of running is more than as just an animal.

This is all particularly true in a marathon. There is a point where you are running beyond what is physically good for you and for longer than your body wants to; for me this around 20 miles / 30km / 3.5 hours. This means that, perhaps counterintuitively, from that point you are in full contact with the subjective nature of running even as your body is exhausted.  I am beginning to wonder how this idea might be further explored and connected to my other thoughts on the Zen nature of running.

Stockholm 2017

I completed marathon No. 2 around 20 minutes faster than the first one, which is good enough for me!

Running a marathon is not like other running, as any marathon runner will tell you. Most people do not train to that full distance of 42.195km, at least very rarely. I am the same. There is a point in the race when you enter a stage of both exhaustion and determination that you know you have not experienced before (or since your last marathon). Stockholm was no exception. Two slightly different laps round such a beautiful city were, in stages, exciting, energised, determined, draining, and, in the end really very emotional. I knew I could keep my pace going until around 30km or so. Cramp in my hamstrings at around 26km set me back quite a bit and stiffened up my legs so that it was difficult to return to full pace. However, here is a picture taken by Lars, who did not run on this occasion, at about the 32km point where I was still just about trucking.Stockholm


Hello! Time for a reboot. It has been quite some time since we posted anything here. Readers might have come to the conclusion that we had stopped running. We have not. It would take too long to complete all the details of what has been happening, so I shall give you a quick summary for now. Thoughts and reflections will follow later. Here are the highlights for me:

  1. I completed the Chester Marathon on a warm, sultry day last October. I was slow and felt unwell towards the end, but I learnt a great deal about myself, running and what I need to do next time.
  2. I extended my race programme for 2017. By the end of this year I shall have (I hope) finished the Great Manchester Run 10km (May), the Stockholm Marathon (June), the Bolton Community Half-Marathon (September), the Chester Marathon (October) and the Great Langdale Marathon (October).
  3. Yesterday was the Great Manchester Run, which I ran with my partner, Lawrence, who was running for the first time.
  4. On Saturday, it’s the Stockholm Marathon!

So, there’s lots to tell! Springathink is back up and running. More updates will follow.