The May 2009 edition of Running Times has a brief article by Michael Sandrock: “Calming The Mind: How Marathoners Can Benefit From Meditation.” There isn’t enough space allotted for the article to do much more than mention people and places, but it does mention Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a 3-hour marathoner and meditation teacher based at Shambhala Mountain Center. It also mentions the “Running With The Mind of Meditation” retreats held annually at the Center.
I found it interesting to read what other runners had to say about meditation. One makes the helpful observation that meditation is very much a grounded, body-oriented discipline, not a vehicle for experiencing altered states. But others are quoted as describing the value of meditation as “having a calm state of mind” or something similar. While it’s probably mostly due to the brevity of the article, that seems a bit vaguer than intended.
Meditation is not a chill pill
Personally I’ve found my Zen practice is not so much about calming the mind as simply observing how it works, then applying that knowledge to the difficult ongoing practice of not letting your mind be your master. When you meditate, you’ll notice that your mind tends to churn through a half dozen or so thoughts typically divided into ego (“I’m really getting better/I really suck at this meditation stuff”), worrying about a non-existent future (“How am I ever going to find time to sit tomorrow?”), or regret over a past that is gone forever (“Man, I wish I could have sat longer yesterday”).
As you sit and observe your mind at work, you’ll find it turns the same few thoughts over and over – restlessly playing with one and then another like a hyperactive toddler. The trick is to not let yourself get wrapped up in any of these passing thoughts, but simply watch them come and go — until your mind finally starts to get tired of playing with them. Which I suppose is, in a roundabout way, “calming the mind.” But it starts with simply sitting still and observing.
Meditation is not another training tool
I have found what I’ve learned during meditation to be helpful during ultra marathons. Just like your mind, your body goes through good and bad phases during an ultra. As during meditation, you try not to give in to any single thought or feeling – realizing that, just as I’ve observed while sitting, it’s all temporary. And I’m slowly learning not to give in to those transitory moments of despair or “endorphinal exuberance,” adjusting pace or diet as necessary and just waiting things out. My Zen practice has helped me become more intimate with this process of continual change.
But I didn’t take up Zen as something else to add to my training regimen, and I don’t suggest approaching it that way. Looking at meditation the same way we take up speed work or hill workouts – as just another potential tool in the toolbox — will only lead to frustration. Instead, we should take into account what Burmese monk Sayadaw U Tejaniya says about meditation (recently quoted on the Tricycle Editor’s blog): “You are not trying to make things turn out the way you want them to happen. You are trying to know what is happening as it is.”
I’m hoping a mainstream running magazine will someday explore this subject more in depth, including an exploration of running as meditation. And the Running Times article does end with this quote, which I couldn’t agree with more: “Running and meditation are perhaps the most energizing and ultimately, joyful activities in my life. Bringing them together is about as good as it gets.”