The epidemic of running

Running where? And from what?

Running has become an epidemic. For city dwellers, it is now fast becoming impossible to enjoy a weekend walk. The internet is awash with articles extolling the benefits of running. There is precious little material that works with physical danger, much less the psychological risks.  It is deeply ironic that the constant injunction to perform day to day tasks ‘mindfully’ is often rendered impossible by noise and stress. This piece examines the psychology behind running and suggests that there are better ways to be.

Not long ago I took a Sunday afternoon walk on the Thames towpath. It used to be a pleasure. The first ominous sign was an ‘event warden’ standing guard, in high visibility jacket, over hundreds of plastic water bottles. Not long after, the leaders of the marathon started to appear. Before long the towpath was heaving with runners – numbered, deadly serious and panting. To my distress, I had forgotten that the towpath is now off-limits to walkers at the weekend.

Even without these competitive runners, the walk has become overtaken by joggers. Participants wear identical figure-hugging Lycra. Some wore their phones strapped to one bicep like a medical gadget. Others proffered the phone in front of them as if making a votive offering. I was assailed with runners from both directions, the shouts of rowing coaches from the river and the roar of aircraft overhead. How can we stay sane in the midst of this madness? It appears to have become law that all adults should run regularly.

Running as a coping strategy

Artificial and Human hearts
By treating our heart as a pump, a sentimental symbol of love, or even as courage, we have lost its true meaning

So what does it mean? As a coping strategy, running produces increased energy and concentration, improves cardiovascular health, combats ageing and reduces the risk of cancer. There is a concomitant increase in energy and concentration. This helps at work (or most probably helps someone else make a profit). In the runner’s mindset ageing has to be ‘fought’ against. The ‘risk’ of living needs to be managed. The epidemic nature of running suggests that people are finding their lives bearable only through the chemical advantages of exercise.

For the runner, motivational music is often important. The theme to ‘Rocky’ (between bouts of cramp and intense nausea) is popular, suggesting a strong element of triumphalism. We can see the same thing at work in other outdoor pursuits, most obviously cycling and hiking. An outdoor retailers will not sell you a book on foraging, or a collection of poetry by Mary Oliver. Instead there is a confusing selection of quasi-military kit racked against images of bleak treeless terrain that needs to be ‘conquered’ and ‘overcome’. I cannot speak against this attitude strongly enough. This is the modern disease of individualism. It is an indoctrinated requirement to get to the top of the mountain at all costs. Yet workers are told to be ‘team players, expected to engage with the vile neologism ‘coopetition’. This is a double bind.

What is the heart?

Most significantly, we are told that running defends against depression. Perhaps, by not running, we might discover the possibility of engaging with what is being defended against. The late psychologist James Hillman, delivering an Eranos lecture in 1979, described our view of the heart in three ways:

  1. Courage to live, humanity. The heart of the lion: Coeur de Lion.
  2. An organ of the body, secret holder of one’s death, a muscle or pump. The heart of Harvey.
  3. Love, feelings, sense of soul and person. The heart of Augustine.

What did he mean by these ‘disguises’ and what are they disguising?

Hillman quotes the American poet Wallace Stephens: ‘The lion roars at the enraging desert’ ( from ‘It must be abstract’) and says:

What is passive, immobile, asleep in the heart creates a desert which can only be cured by its own parenting principle that shows its awakening care by roaring.”

Hillman, James. ‘The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World’. New York, 1993. Spring Publications

With typical fire, Hillman goes on to say:

The heart of Harvey, already dead, “fitness” replacing vitality, creates the desolation it jogs through, mufflers over the ears, blinded in the sweat of extending its life-expectancy, zombies creating the desert by running and running with nowhere to go. If beauty arrests motion, motion eradicates beauty.”


Secret fear

The reference to zombies is prescient (and the subject of another post), but in case we miss the meaning:

We fear that rage. We dare not roar. With Auschwitz behind us and the bomb over the horizon, we let the little lions sleep in front of the television, the heart, stuffed full of its own coagulated sulphur, now become a beast in a lair, readying its attack, the infarct.”


And again:

To keep my ticker running, I jog it. The heart must be lean, trim, erect, so I watch for extremes of intensity, like idle leisure, and abuse, like passionate excitement. Now the heart is no longer the animal of love and heat, the place of himma, throbbing out its imaginative forms. Now its signals are decoded into little messages about life expectancy. For my heart can insult me, attack me. I must propitiate it: I take this for my heart, do that for my heart, watch out for my heart, I turn it in regularly for a checkup.”


Where is our roar?

The Harvey referenced in the second definition of heart is William Harvey. He was physician to James 1 and Charles 1, and in 1616 was the first observer to scientifically describe the workings of the heart as a pump. The consequence of his work was far-reaching. It led to a mechanisation of the heart that has gone further than even Hillman saw just over thirty years ago. Who roars now? Perhaps only the likes of Russell Brand (now stifled it seems) and the anarcho-capitalist Max Keiser. The rest of us sleep, allowing Brand and Keiser to do our roaring for us.

Ashamed of our passivity we rush quickly to criticise and belittle. It is like wishing for the collapse of the Shard but at the same time admiring its priapic mastery. What then is the heart that is the animal of love and heat, the place of himma? Hillman references the philosopher and scholar of Islam, Henry Corbin, who writes that the himma is the ‘vital force, soul, heart, intention, thought [and] desire’. Hillman clarifies:

Our hearts cannot comprehend that they are imaginatively thinking hearts, because we have so long been told that the mind thinks and the heart feels and that imagination leads us astray from both.”


The imagining heart

This concept of the imagining heart represents the essence of what I wish to communicate. Hillman’s essay is a stepping off point for imaginal thinking. It is a call for a recovery of soul.

Runners, stop! Allow the depression, experience what you are defending yourself against, and then act accordingly. When you run, do so for the feel of the wind in your hair. Run for the feel of tall grasses brushing against your skin. Run for a rush of youthful delight in your body and its power. Please do not imprison and silence the roar of your heart.

Angel wing: how to kill wild birds with kindness

A short piece about the dangers of feeding wild birds. Angel wing and rats are just two of them.

Why do we feed birds if they have sufficient natural food available? Perhaps it is not entirely far-fetched to wonder if feeding birds might sometimes be connected to a dislike and fear of the wild. If we want to feed our leftovers, food we don’t want to eat ourselves or food that is, in any case, unsuitable, what does this say? What thoughtlessness (at best) or contempt (at worst) does it betray?

Or perhaps feeding represents some propitiation of the wild, a throwback to a forgotten ritual in which future bounty is secured by offering part of the harvest to the spirits, the daimones that take the form of birds, lest they strip the crops in retaliation. Later comes the Victorian sentimentality that depicts the starving robin pecking at the frosty window, our hearts finally moved by need.

Since one of the intentions of these pages is to celebrate the natural world, a piece about the dangers of feeding wild birds would seem contrary. It is not. The entreaty is simple: please do not feed white bread or other processed food to birds. White bread is highly denatured food. It is full of additives and optical enhancers. It is not good for us, much less for birds. In any case, birds have different digestive systems to humans. I’ll be honest, I do like toasted white bread from time to time.

Leg o'Mutton reservoir April 2008
Leg o’Mutton reservoir April 2008

Waste disposal

Here’s an example of the lack of reflection that I am addressing. I was walking around Leg o’Mutton reservoir, now a nature reserve in Barnes, London. There was a woman walking her two dogs, both of which were off the leash. Already we have a threat to wildlife. She was throwing white bread left and right on to the ground (you would have to throw a long way to hit the water).

The woman guessed my disapproval I think because she had a sour and pugnacious look on her face already prepared for me. I suggested her bread would be food for rats not birds. She very reasonably pointed out that rats were wildlife too. I explained that throwing bread would help the rats breed and the consequence would be a reduction in birds since the rats would eat the eggs (among the aquatic species to be found here you will regularly see Swans, Tufted duck, Mallard, Pochard, Shoveler, Moorhen and Coot). Her reply was, “Everyone does it.”

I was too angry at this blanket defence to engage further, and I stalked off seething. It was a mistake: good humour and openness might have won her over. As I walked away I heard her shout after me, “It’s for the robins and the owls… ” but there was something about the angry way she threw the bread that suggested she was throwing away the unacceptable part of herself, and that by having the birds eat it she would feel better. We can see associated behaviour in young children who pitch whole bread rolls into the water like depth charges.

Crippled angels

Birds, like all the animals and plants on the planet, are at risk. Unsustainable agriculture, deforestation, fisheries bycatch, the spread of ‘alien’ species, pollution, exploitation and climate breakdown (all consequences of human action/inaction) are reducing biodiversity alarmingly. According to this link, up to one in four bird species will be functionally extinct by 2100: so surely it falls to us change our habitual ways. I know that some people might call me self-righteous. I agree – it’s easy to project our failings on to others. But I try to take what responsibility I can. “Everyone does it…” is not an excuse.

Muscovy ducks with angel wing
Muscovy ducks with angel wing

Let’s look at the likely consequence of feeding white bread to birds – even assuming they eat it. First, the bread is dry: it will swell upon contact with water leaving birds vulnerable to attack by predators. Remember the woman’s dogs were off the leash? Dogs frequently attack birds, just a few years ago the goslings of a pair of Egyptian geese were allegedly killed by a dog in this very place. Second, although not entirely proven, it seems likely that a high protein and carbohydrate diet is the cause of ‘angel wing’ in (mostly) aquatic birds. It is a condition in which the last joint of the wing becomes twisted and the wing feathers stick out. Spend any amount of time at your local pond or reservoir and you’ll see it.

So feeding white bread to ducks and geese may be physiologically harmful and will, in any case, increase the rat population – but there’s no need to stop feeding birds, just take some care about what you feed them with.

If you found this piece interesting, you might want to read my article about pheasant breeding.