"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."
- Bruce Lee
Sometimes, in the course of life, we arrive at a comfortable plane. It happens without fanfare, without a trumpeting of celebration. It happens once we’ve climbed a difficult set of circumstances and then stand in both awe and admiration of what we have accomplished. For some, this plateau moment is so rewarding, so unexpected, it serves as some sort of deliverance.
Plateaus, in this sense, are deceptive. There is so much relief in reaching a goal, and so much self-congratulatory joy, that one often lingers longer than one should in this moment. Stay too long, and you risk staying forever. Get too comfortable, and you risk slipping into self-limitation.
But it won’t feel like limitation. It will feel like arriving, competence, it will even feel like skill. Therein lies the deception, the trickery. I’ve been thinking about this concept of plateaus mostly because mine were so unexpected, they felt like relief. So I grew comfortable in my own competence, thus limiting future opportunities for growth, challenge, and a higher resting place with a better view.
Since the Lucky Bucket Run in May, I mastered my 5k monkey mind. I learned the first kilometer is really a negotiation with myself as I ask helpful things like, “Why am I doing this?” and “Why did I eat that pizza yesterday?” The first kilometer is an exercise in mental mastery of the body because the body, by its own intuitive, cellular life force, resists that which is difficult, arduous.
(Photo: A disturbing find on the trail - a skeleton and tail)
The second kilometer is about surrender, when the body begins to understand that the mind is resolute. Body breathes. Body moves. Muscles once lamenting their plight begin to hum with opportunity. Feet adjust to the confines of their shoes, to the pounding against the ground beneath. And the heart finds the beat, the rhythm that anchors the orchestration of physical harmony.
It’s in the third and fourth kilometers that I find beauty. Mind clears, and I begin to look at the world around me with generous eyes. Sceneries seem to embolden their colors. The sound of my breathing, however labored, encourages me to continue. I find great peace in this place upon this plateau of will. That fifth length, the last of my run, is when all comes full circle and my beginning questions return. It feels like closure. It feels normal and complete.
So when my feet come to a stop, and my chest expands with a great breath of satisfaction, I celebrate. I marvel my body as a miracle, as a machine. Then I shamble to my car and drive home, self-satisfied and sure that I have done a good thing.
(Photo: Not everyone gets to compete with bicycles and horses for running and walking space)
But that’s it. The 5k is the same each time – only the weather changes. Sure, I become more efficient in my timing. I even feel a sense that, yes, I really am a runner. And this is where I’ve been stuck for four months, on a plateau of accomplishment and confidence. I’ve been comfortable, so much so, I felt as if I could skip a day or even week without suffering a setback.
(Photo: Light is a lively thing, with personality and motive)
Then one day I woke up and realized that it had been two months since I had set my feet to the path. This revelation startled me, mostly because time passes so quickly and I had not counted the sunsets and sunrises. I had not noticed the rewarding soreness in my muscles – that feeling I was going beyond myself – had faded within a brownie’s bite of flaccidity.
So Saturday, I met up with a Bucketeer and we decided to walk the MoPac trail. We wanted one last long walk before winter, before we’re forced to treadmills and tracks indoors by the unrelenting Nebraska chills and winds slice through our clothes and bite at our faces. It was a beautiful day. We started out in the late afternoon, and I took my camera with me because the light of ending day is my favorite. Everything is beautiful in the golden cast of the sun’s breath.
(Photo: Lone glove of a serial killer? Who was Dana? Who took the tail? What evil lurks in the hearts of man on the gravel path?)
Writers both, we look at the world in similar ways. So we noticed things along the trail and commented on them. A fox’s tail without it’s fox, a pair of sunglasses, graffiti painted on the tree in iconic anguish, a glove without its partner – these all pointed to a dark, central theme. Then the sun painted its best hues, and the bare trees became beautiful all over again.
We kept to the trail for an hour until reaching another town. Taking a short break, we contemplated how much daylight we had left.
(Photo: The elevator was humming with industry in Walton)
“What is it,” Aimee asked, “a fist for every hour or half-hour?” as she pointed her fists to the horizon, noting the gap between the land and the sun.
“I dunno,” I said. “I really need a watch. I’m thinking we’ve got about an hour, hour and a half.”
(Photo: Sometimes light is just a joy, a peeking)
We jogged for a bit, racing against time, before returning to our purposeful stride. The light was turning amber, and it was beautiful. The wind had a kiss of chill, a foreshadowing of the evening’s overnight low. As the breeze tossed my hair about my shoulders, I realized I have been growing out my hair for exactly that feeling when I can feel nature rushing through me and stirring about my head.
Other path people, runners who had left for parts further, were returning. They breathed past us, fluid. It was then Aimee and I noted that some people are just built for running, their hips seem to gracefully swing back and forth like pendulums, keeping their time and grace. I am not built for running. There is nothing graceful about my jackhammer hips. I am built for challenge – we all are. But sometimes I think we forget that the goal in life isn’t to be suspended in some matrix of comfort and competence, but to move, reject static, pre-fab existences, and to make the most of our days.
(Photo: The bare, emboldened by the light, fingers for the sky)
There’s an African proverb I read somewhere (but can’t remember where):
When death finds you, may it find you really living.
And as maudlin as that may seem at first read, it’s an encouragement. It’s a way of wishing someone well; of reminding one to push past the comfortable plateaus and toward the lively angles of challenge. I think this is why I admire Bruce Lee’s mind so much (and his abs – oh my word). He admonished us, “Be happy, but never satisfied.” There’s a call in that to maintain your hunger, to always know there’s something beyond the plane of satisfaction.
(Photo: Aimee on her path, notes the last golden tree)
There are no limits spare the ones we accept as deliverance. So I’ll be on the path again tomorrow, working my way toward a 10k frame of mind, hammering away with graceless determination. Yet, in the last hour of the day when light bursts to red, even that will be beautiful. I can live with that.