Tai Chi and the Art of Berry Picking


Copyright 2002 by Jon Bondy, All Rights Reserved.

You may send copies of this to individual friends, but you may not publish this work without permission

Jon Bondy, jon@jonbondy.com

 I have never been a particularly good athlete.  I have poor reflexes and never received the positive feedback from others that can help one apply oneself.  Neither of my parents were athletic, at least while I was alive, so there were no role models to be followed.  In fact, my father's typical reaction to my saying that I was going to go for a run was "Don't have a heart attack".  Perhaps he was being humorous, but I think that bodies were seen as fragile in my family.  Unlike many kids, it took me decades to get to the point where I enjoyed exercise and exercised regularly.

When I was in college, my experience in Phys Ed was depressing.  I played tennis better on the first day than a week later.  Maybe I was thinking too much.  Maybe I was self conscious.  In any event, I hated it.

The athletic instructor, who sure seemed to be a large neanderthal, turned out to be more creative than I had hoped.  When I asked him if I could run, on my own, to satisfy the athletic requirements, he agreed. So, there I was, running.  After a while, my body began to give me the positive feedback that neither my family nor my peers had been able to provide.  Even after college, I ran 3 or 4 times a week, every week, for almost two decades. I enjoyed it the most on warm and humid days in Philadelphia, where one could run minimally while still sweating as if one had run a marathon. The heat never seemed to bother me.

My favorite route was around what was pretentiously called The Nature Trail around my college campus.  The path around the 200 acre campus was about 2.5 miles long, so I ran around it twice, three or four times each week.  The trail wound around through the woods, up and through a small apple orchard, past a small duck pond, along some busy roads, and then back into the trees. This allowed me to watch nature doing its thing.  I watched each plant as it came out of the ground in the spring, flowered, fruited, and eventually turned brown and died. I anticipated that one day in the spring when the apple trees would blossom, and I would run through drifts of dropped white petals that were gone a day later.  I watched snow appear suddenly and disappear over days or weeks.  I enjoyed the leaf canopy in the summer and the warmth of the winter sun when it was cold.  I was in touch with life in a way that I had never experienced before.

I also discovered that when my body focused on exercise, my mind focused on ... well ... nothing.  As I watched the foliage fly past me as I ran, my mind stopped concentrating on the myriad of tasks that were at hand, and just observed.   Kind of like watching TV, only with much less focus.  Being "in the moment"when there really was no "moment".

To my surprise, this kind of unintentional meditation resulted in more specific "results" than I would have imagined.  Technical problems that had eluded me for days or weeks solved themselves after a few runs.  Personal problems began to gain perspective.  It seemed as if my mind, when allowed to just muse without specific focus, managed to solve problems that I was unable to solve when I attacked them head on. They never taught that in school!

So, the running helped my health, put me in touch with nature, and solved my problems.  And it was free!

Running in the winter was pretty annoying.  There was no way to avoid the fact that I would be cold for the first ten minutes of the run.  I learned, eventually, that by the end of the run, I was very comfortable, almost no matter how cold it was.  After a while, I would go out running in only shorts and a shirt in temperatures down to perhaps 30 degrees (F), ignoring the numbing cold, knowing it was only temporary.  This understanding, that temporary discomfort was not something to be concerned about, has stayed with me.  I rarely wear a coat these days, even though I live in Vermont, and temperatures often get down to 10 or even zero during the day.  I'm not stupid: there is a coat in the car.  But I rarely wear it.  I can be uncomfortable for a while without worrying about it.

I similarly learned about the discomfort of running.  I would push myself until I was uncomfortable, and then maintain that level of discomfort throughout the run, speeding up and slowing down to titrate the pain.  I learned that this discomfort was not dangerous, but, rather, was a part of life. I learned how to listen to my body.

I've often wondered about how many of the most important life lessons were not taught in school, or even mentioned by my family.  Where do you learn about the problem solving powers of meditation, of running?  Where do we learn about how our bodies function, not sexually, not digestively, but at a more fundamental level?  Where do we learn how to be a caring person, a good parent, a good friend?  In my life, either you picked that up as you went along, or you went without. Such lessons are too important to leave to chance, aren't they?  How ironic, how puzzling.

Some people do extensive warm-up exercises before they run, and then stretches afterwards. I could never tolerate that for some reason. Instead, I would walk a mile or so from my house to The Nature Trail, and then start running slowly, speeding up as my body told me it was ready.  Afterwards, I would walk that same mile back home, arriving with my breath back and most of my sweat dried.  It was a simple system that worked for me.  No locker rooms, no fancy machines, just me and some running shoes. I enjoyed the elegant simplicity.

After the runs in the summer, I had a special treat.  There were berry bushes where I entered The Nature Trail, and I would pick and eat berries as I cooled down.

Berry picking is a strange process.  You notice a few berries.  You pick them.  You munch them. You look back up at the bush, and there are no more berries.  You move your head six inches, and berries pop out from behind the foliage. Pick.  Munch.  Move.  Pick.  Munch.  Move. On and on.

I found myself moving slowly, standing still, working my way inside the berry bushes, head high at first, then head low, arm twisting around branches to reach berries deep inside the bush, like an Oriental person performing Tai Chi (about which I have just explained all that I know).  Thorns presented themselves.  Slowly, I would move around them. Reaching.  Picking. Bending.  Stretching.

What an interesting contrast between the heart-pounding foot-thudding pace of the run and the silent, slow, contortions of the berry picking.

Recently, a decade later, I encountered a similar experience.

My bout with lower back problems eliminated my ability to run or play volleyball, so my exercise is limited to walking and kayaking these days.  When the sun shines, I walk the mile to the nearest paved road, and then back.  I can go either direction, and have more or less the same amount of exercise.

These days, my "berries"are the empty beer cans that my good neighbors heave along the side of the road.  I have encountered so many cans on a single walk that I was unable to carry them all home.  With a string bag.  That is, at times I have found more than 100 cans along a single mile of road.  I try not to think of my neighbors as drunk driving litterers, but how else do the cans get there?  The Beer Can Fairy?

Finding beer cans buried in the brush is like picking berries.  Every time you move, another can jumps out from behind some leaf. One gets the sense that one could walk the same mile over and over again, until eternity, finding beer cans each time.  This impression is enhanced, no doubt, by my neighbors, who probably hurl beer cans on their way to work and on their way home.

Reality.  Move your head just a little bit, and there's another berry, or beer can, waiting for you to pick.  If you don't take the time to look for them, that's your loss.