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  • Writer's pictureChris Toepker

Breaking Impossible: Method Me Up!

“You’re on the same road, I’m just a little further ahead” my kung fu brother Ben Hunter once said. He was referring to how he’d met Lam, Chun Fai years earlier and offered it as encouragement to just keep practicing and working with our master.

Since then, I’ve come to recognize that simple quote as a deep inspiration. It crystalized many ideas and practices I’d been pursuing. It became a simple “here’s how you do it” mantra.

The Method

Michael and I have been talking about “The Breaking Impossible Method.”

So, what’s my part? How is it done? Simple.

  1. Take what you think are your boundaries, your impossibilities.

  2. Challenge them by doing something, anything, you find difficult.

  3. Examine the results and changes. Importantly, your perceptions, but also any measurements you can make.

  4. Rinse. Repeat. Every second, every minute, every step, every mile, every challenge.

Is that too trite? Too facile? I say: no! The simple is not so easy. Plus, it turns out science and world-leading coaches offer similar advice. I'm in good company!

To get started, just ask: What do you think are your boundaries?

Surely, the routines of conventional day-to-day life provide a useful framework to start with. They also hem us in and lead us down dead-end paths. Don’t take my word for it, just ask Al: “why am I so soft in the middle now, the rest of my life is so hard.” (And thank Paul Simon.) Or perhaps, look around your shotgun shack and wonder, “Well! How did I get here?!” (with thanks to Talking Heads).

All too often, for better and worse, the conventions around us both support and constrain. Take obvious well wishes and stereotypes: “You can grow up to be President.” “You can do anything you set your mind to.” “Girls can’t do math.” “Boys don’t cry.”

So, how can you find out what you’re truly capable of? Really made of? What is really possible?

You can only start from where you find yourself. Take a moment to imagine what seems impossible. How much of it is a conventional, or routine constraint? A construction that you take for granted? Made a part of yourself. Even your whole self, maybe?

Now, imagine that it is wrong. All wrong. Disconcerting, isn’t it? Yet pregnant with possibilities, no?

“If we can have a sense of not-feeling-at-home in this ordinary world, that might just open us up to the possibility of embracing what might be unique, extraordinary opportunities given to us in our particular moment,” says Prof. Stephen A. Erickson discussing Heidegger’s views.

Still, there are constraints aren’t there? Immutable ones? It isn’t all possibilities, is it? True enough.

Going further, Prof. Erickson explains,

“We live ordinary lives so that we don't have to realize two things:

  1. the authentic possibilities we genuinely have and

  2. that we must face death, which might happen at any time.

(Therefore) what we must do is find a way to understand…not the conventions of the day, not the way things are ordinarily done…but look to something that is unique, special and perhaps different about us that meets and can speak to, and be spoken to, by our particular circumstances.”

So, “the ultimate in disenchantment is a failure to even recognize that this (ordinariness, routine) is the pervasive circumstance. The air has been polluted for so long, we never even recognize that its polluted. We just take it to be the way life is."

To live, to be authentic, we must “care in a way that knows we can never reach completion in securing what we care for, and particularly we can never fully secure our care for ourselves." After all, we will die. Maybe even soon.

Why bring up Heidegger? Is he the only one to bring up these sorts of things? To some of us who’ve studied Chinese and Asian perspectives, it looks like he plagiarized. Take several Zhuang Zi stories, for example “When Zhuang Zi’s Wife Died”, pointing out the futility of convention in the face of real experience and raw emotion. Or explanations by Siddhartha on the impermanence of thought, and even Self. “Life is but a breath.” (Images from Chih Chung Tsai, translated by Brian Bruya). Or Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote, "People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child--our own two eyes. All is a miracle."

Let’s just say, these foundations are sturdy, and cross-culturally relevant. They’re well considered approaches you can count on.

What has this got to do with running? And taking on challenges? And health?!

Just ask Gil Scot-Heron in “Running”: “Not running for my life, because I have to be running for something of more value to be running, and not in fear; Because the thing I fear cannot be escaped, eluded, avoided, hidden from, protected from, gotten away from”

Or consider the use of perceptions or even moods as advised by coaches like Jason Koop and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), who encourage us to pay attention to Runner (or Rate of) Perceived Exertion (RPE).

Koop explains: “Prescribing intensity based on either heart rate or pace is notoriously difficult in ultrarunning, and after trying all manner of methods, I found the greatest success in a remarkably simple, nontechnical, yet scientifically accurate method: rating of perceived exertion (RPE).

Unlike cycling, where athletes can utilize power meters to directly measure workload, or road running, where runners can generally use pace, trail runners can at best observe the body’s response to workload in the form of rating of perceived exertion (RPE)…that RPE is a great early-warning device for recognizing fatigue: Your body is telling you it can still do the job but that the effort to complete it is greater.

Although many of my athletes have access to the best training technologies and gadgets on the market, I base the vast majority of their training on perceived exertion."

“Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working. It is based on the physical sensations a person experiences during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased respiration or breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue. Although this is a subjective measure, your exertion rating based on a 6 to 20 rating scale, may provide a fairly good estimate of your actual heart rate during physical activity. Through experience of monitoring how your body feels, it will become easier to know when to adjust your intensity.”

Among the most interesting, and fun, parts of Our Method is to notice how taking number 1, your perceived, conventional, routine impossibilities and then number 3, examining those boundaries after a challenge. You can’t fail to notice how they change. Undeniable, proof positive of the malleability of “impossible.” A realization of at least some pregnant possibilities, right here and right now. Number 4, rinsing and repeating is natural and obvious and full of successful feelings!

For example, as Koop points out:

"At the beginning of the season, a 10-mile run at 9:00 min/mi pace may feel strenuous enough to rate a 7 or even an 8 RPE. Later in the season, when your fitness has improved, running that same course at that same pace may take less out of you and feel more like a 6.

To reach an RPE of 7 to 8, you may now need to hasten your pace to 8:30 min/mi. "

Immediate gratification that you're running farther and faster - by focusing on your perceptions!

Personally, I use this method on the trail quite a bit. Going up the many stairs and hills of the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge (#hk4tuc), I often find myself thinking “I can’t take another step.” But take one I do. And one more. And another. “I’ll just get up to that bush.” When I get to the bush, I find I can keep going to the next one. It’s not just stairs and bushes, either. It’s today’s trail, and tomorrow’s and all the way to Michael and my Big Brass Ring, HK4TUC.

So, in this rinse-repeat way, I put The Method in play in both small and large cycles or breaking my own impossibilities.

Coincidentally, this is also where technology can play a role. “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself,” confessed Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tracking your efforts can provide valuable, objective measures of your work. I used to enjoy running on the treadmill so that I could see my distance, pulse, incline and so on. An entire new world opened up to me when I got a watch that would track me out in the world. Suddenly, the world was my treadmill. I could judge if I had done better or worse on a particular track, or a specific practice (say, Hung Kuen kung fu for example). Had I done it faster? Longer? With a lower heart rate? And so on. By putting the data into play, The Method was reinforced, allowing me to separate the actual situation from my own routine perspectives.

You keep saying “play” - how can this be play?!

One of the most serious things we can do in life is play. When we play, we open ourselves up to possibilities and imagination. Rules are applied, surely – but using them to the fullest requires deep creativity and honed skill, whether in games or sports.

If we are on the same road, and I am just a little further down it, what are some practical tips to applying the method? And maybe even fun?

I can only offer a few basic principles: start small, probe your own interests plus inhibitions, and enjoy yourself!

Don’t take my word for it, evidence abounds.

“If you ask, most people will say they want to exercise for their health, and that’s a great goal,” said Katie Heinrich, an exercise scientist at Kansas State University. “But what gets people actually moving is doing something they enjoy.” There’s no perfect activity for everyone. “How do you like to move?”

“If you think of exercise as optional, you give yourself permission to skip it. Instead, try thinking of it as an essential part of your job, said Brad Stulberg. It’s tempting to think you’re too stressed or tired to exercise, but oftentimes exercise is exactly what you need to feel better. “You don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to feel good,” he says.

Likewise, Gretchen Reynolds tells us:

“a study, published today in Nature, involved 61,293 American gym members, 30 prominent scientists working at 15 universities, and more than 50 different motivational programs. In addition to reward points, incentives ranged from a free audiobook for gym use to cheery instructions from researchers to reframe exercise as fun. While some of the programs galvanized additional gym visits, others, including some the scientists had absolutely expected to inspire more exercise, did not.

The science of human behavior, including whether and why we exercise, can be squishy and rife with research hurdles. Many past studies have looked at how to build habits, for instance, or instill confidence or stick to an exercise routine. The results surprised almost everyone. Dr. Angela Duckworth, for one, said she had thought encouraging people to view workouts as fun would get them to the gym more often, but that group showed only a minuscule increase in gym visits. (Almost everyone in the intervention groups worked out a bit more often than the people in the control group.)

The most successful intervention, though, turned out to be giving people the equivalent of 9 cents’ worth of reward points if they returned to the gym after missing a planned workout.

…(past) studies have also used a wide range of methods to track behavior change, making it difficult to compare data from one study to another. In addition, many have relied on subjective measures, such as asking people how they feel during and after a study, a topic on which we can be, intentionally or not, untrustworthy.”

These studies confirm the philosophy mentioned at the start. The one constant is: impermanence. It’s practically impossible to tell you, specifically, what you’ll find motivating each time. And that’s OK! More than OK. It’s actually the crux of it all – the place where the possibilities can be made real.

As Prof. Erickson puts it, again referring to Heidegger, “understanding and the meaning of it, must come from ourselves,” our experience. “If we can find categories (of thought, of association) that have to do with, and arise out of, a certain encounter with ourselves, we'll be on the right track,” he says.

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