I pulled into the parking lot at Valley Forge and noticed the only person out and about was walking not on the asphalt path but the road. Hmmm. As soon as I stepped out of the car I knew why – my left foot skidded as soon as it hit the asphalt. Ah, the dreaded black ice. You can’t see it, but it’s there. Several weeks ago black ice caused a massive pile up on a Sunday morning on the Schuylkill Expressway (known locally as the Sure-kill Expressway) heading into Philadelphia. If you know it’s there, you can see the black ice – barely. It’s but a very thin transparent glaze covering black asphalt. I looked closely at the Valley Forge jogging path and could see where the path was dry, and where it glazed over. It was mostly glazed.
Once bitten, twice shy
I was wearing four layers of sportswear, pull-overs and a heavy hooded sweatshirt, my Cleveland Browns wool knit cap, and gloves. I wasn’t about to head indoors at the Y. But I’ll say this: if I hadn’t taken a bad fall a couple of years ago in the Badlands in South Dakota, a near miss that could’ve paralyzed or killed me, I probably wouldn’t have feared – or respected – the black ice like I did. So I skipped the path altogether, jogged in the road, and practiced mindfulness, serious concentration.
Several times at safety conference I’ve heard interesting sessions on the topic of mindfulness. It’s a mainstay of Buddhism, but let’s leave religion out of it. Mindfulness training is currently in vogue in the corporate world. Employees are trained to concentrate all their senses on the task at hand. Everything else you mentally block out. Executed properly, mindfulness sharpens alertness, focus, attention to detail, and at the same time has a calming effect, because outside distractions fade as you simply concentrate on your breathing, and the job at hand.
You can see the safety benefits. Mindfulness makes you more aware, creates that sought-after situational awareness, sharpens your senses, and again, if exercised properly, makes it less likely that you’ll rush into some kind of accident.
A narrow focus
So as I plodded along the roads in Valley Forge, and remembering that bad fall in the Badlands, I concentrated hard on one thing only – the condition of the surface immediately in front of me. With my Browns cap pulled down low and my head covered by the sweatshirt hoodie, I could only see maybe 15 feet ahead of me. And all I looked for was black ice. When I couldn’t avoid it, I ran on the grass. Turns out most of the time I ran on the grass, which also prompted mindfulness because you don’t want to trip over branches, slip on wet leaves, twist an ankle in some hidden hole, or stumble over a clump of mud or patches of ice. Not as hard on your legs as running in the sand at the beach in the summer, but you have to be more alert. More mindful.
I passed only one other runner, a woman all bundled up, in the 40 minutes or so I was in the park. We waved at each other and all I said was, “Careful.” She smiled, shook her head a bit, and said, “Yeah.” She probably had the same thought I did: what kind of crazy fools are we out here early in a morning like this? Well, again I make the analogy to work. Sometimes human nature being what it is, you find yourself doing something dangerous, even reckless. But if you concentrate, block out distractions, and do it mindfully, you lessen the odds of getting hurt.
Does being mindful slow you down?
I completed my run, or jog or plod or whatever, in record slow time. That’s what happens when you proceed with caution, with mindfulness — you slow down. Which takes us right back to the age-old clash between the rush to produce versus slowing down to be safe. Buddhists, most of them not being dyed-in-the-wool capitalists to my knowledge, are all for slowing down in life in general. But I believe those mindfulness instructors I heard at safety workshops would argue that you can have it both ways – being mindful and being “in the flow,” which Michael Jordan was playing basketball. Obviously there was nothing slow about Jordan. And his concentration was total. Then again, Jordan never played ball on black ice.