Running Times: article on running and meditation

29 03 2009

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.”

Training Break #145

27 03 2009

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle — behold, the Running Man.

Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Alfred A. Knopf, May 2009)

Older; no wiser

23 03 2009

The LBJ Grasslands 50 Mile was held this past weekend. Many familiar names on the Results page, including Matt Crownover who came in second. Nice job Matt.

Almost exactly four years ago, I ran my first ultra at Grasslands in a pouring cold rain, ankle-deep sludge, and the onset of an increasingly poisonous flu bug I started feeling just hours before the race began. My feet encased in shells of cold mud, I finished sixth-to-last in near darkness — squishing and slogging across the finish line as a few tiny snowflakes whirled in the air.

And I’m still running ultras four years later. Go figure.

Training to run, training to sit

22 03 2009

A slow n’ easy four miles today at Norbuck Park, with C. tagging along for part of it. Fun, and the butterflies were out in bright squadrons. But my body is jonesing for more work — I can actually feel its impatience and skittishness with my reduced mileage over the past month. I think it’s time to get back on some sort of intensified off-season training plan, and I started scouring the training books on my bookshelves tonight looking for ideas.

As a runner, I find one of the most attractive things about Zen Buddhism as a spiritual practice is being able to call it a “practice,” and trying to live it as one. I like that word “practice” because it means something active and alive, something you need to work at. And like running, Zen requires training, persistence, and discipline. It’s a progression, something you’re constantly in training for.

When I first started meditating, I could barely sit still for five minutes, and that five minutes seemed like an eternity. I’ve graduated to longer meditation periods, up to 30-40 minutes at a time, and while some days it doesn’t seem any easier than that first time I fidgeted and stared at a wall, it is something I had to get “in shape” to do. I slowly progressed from five minutes to 15 to 20, then to an all-day “Zazenkai,” then to weekend sesshins (the 50K ultra of Zen) and week-long sesshins (the Badwater 135 of Zen).

Probably the two hardest physical and mental things I’ve ever done, and I don’t know which would rank higher, were my first week-long sesshin and my first 100-mile finish. And that’s the other part of Zen that holds my interest as a runner: it’s intensely physical. The body, especially your posture and breathing, play key roles in the quality of your Zen practice.

Tricycle Magazine recently began their “Big Sit,” a 90-day meditation training program that, like many running programs, starts small and works toward longer and more involved sessions. It’s sort of the equivalent of a first marathon training guide. This companion book serves as a great meditation “training manual,” if you’re at all interested. Being a born list maker, I enjoy reading books with pages and pages of training schedules, and I was delighted to learn one had been produced for meditation. It’s on my shelf, next to several well-thumbed books of running training plans.

Now to cobble together an off-season running program that’s more intense, yet stops short of a full-blown race training plan. What to do?

“As others have served us”

21 03 2009

My first run above single digits since the Rocky Raccoon 100, today at White Rock Lake – 10.4 miles. The weather was terrific.

Our younger daughter was home for spring break recently, and at mealtime I said this blessing: “We’re grateful to those who helped bring this food to our table. May it nourish our bodies and give us energy to serve others, as others have served us.”

“Are you praying to God, or to Buddha, or to what?” she said when I was done, a mischievous smile on her face. She enjoys teasing about my ”weirdo Zen stuff.”

But it’s a challenging question – after all, no deity in particular is mentioned in that blessing. And Buddhists don’t pray to Buddha – nothing is worshipped in Zen Buddhism. (Which opens the door for an increasing number of practitioners of what’s called “Christian Zen” – in fact, my Zen teacher is a former Jesuit priest. Although I wouldn’t paint myself in the Christian Zen corner, either.) So is it “God,” or “Buddha”? What a great little koan from my daughter!

The more I practice Zen, the harder I find it is to draw the boundaries. After all, many things came together to make that mealtime happen: the sun, the rain, the farmers, the farmers’ hired help, the companies and their workers who boxed it all up, the truck drivers who shipped it, my wife who helped chop the onion and garlic … a lot of work from a lot of sources, and that short blessing is a way of thanking them all and renewing a vow to return the favor each day, in some small way.

And who successfully completes a 100-mile ultra, really? Is it the runner? The good weather? The person who wrote the perfect training plan the runner found on a website? The Internet, who made finding that training plan quick and easy? (Thanks Al Gore!) The aid station worker who cheerfully grilled the runner a cheese quesadilla at mile 74, just when the runner was fading a bit? The race director and his helpers who took extra time to mark the course so carefully that no one could possibly get lost? When I consider my life like this, most traditional human conceptions of “God” or “Buddha” start to seem pretty small and limiting.

Just four miles cross-country and on trails through the park tomorrow. Looking forward to it. And thanks to everyone and everything making that little Sunday afternoon run possible.

Practice: what to do?

20 03 2009

Following my first 100 mile race, I decided to take an extended break from racing and training. I won’t participate in a race again until sometime in fall 2009.

I really don’t know what the plan for the fall will be, but it could involve a return trip here and possibly another go at 24 hours here, if they decide to hold Ultracentric again and a few fundamental changes are made. Since my summer plans focus on traveling to Death Valley and helping my friend Nattu notch his third Badwater finish, I’ll have fewer options for travel this fall — which is fine with me. I’m excited about helping Nattu and experiencing my first Badwater.

So far as Zen practice goes, the tentatively planned full-week sesshin in San Francisco during August is no longer a possibility. I’ll have to settle for a weekend retreat in nearby Chico, Texas in May.

On many levels, 2009 increasingly seems to be about reverting to the tried and true. But Badwater will be a whole new experience, and an interesting one at that. And I’ve had very helpful experiences at a weekend sesshin held no more than a 20-minute drive from my house.

In Zen and running, it’s not so much about how many races, how exotic the location or how long the sesshin, but more about my openness toward the experience that I can actually have. I’m looking forward to the rest of the year.

Hi there

20 03 2009

This is what used to be “Bad Buddha.” Welcome.

The title came from something my Zen teacher once told me. I was struggling with the Zen koan Mu while trying to reconcile my Zen practice with my running. I asked him, “Can I practice with Mu while I run?”

“Yes, by all means,” he said. “Run with Mu.”

I’m trying.


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