Running on a forest trail,
I’m shaded and sheltered
By trees all around.
May my brief run through the woods
Connect me to the larger world.
I’m trying to run more on woodland trails as I get older — partly because I prefer the solitude of a secluded forest when I can find it, partly because the softer impact of the dirt trails is easier on my body. Running on woodland trails has also helped me reawaken our primal connection with the earth and its inhabitants, two-legged and otherwise. It doesn’t have to be deep old-growth forests with towering redwoods; even your standard city park might be home to a few acres of trail that, while hardly unspoiled wilderness, can offer you brief but rewarding glimpses of the rest of our world.
In some ways, it’s even more educational to see urban and outdoor life intermingled, to witness the daily struggle for survival going on right around our shopping malls and highways. Even if scrub Texas wildlife is hardly nature documentary eye candy – buzzards, jackrabbits, squirrels, raccoons, a few opossums armadillos, and the occasional coyote – it’s heightened my awareness to catch poignant moments of them trying to make ends meet as their own neighborhoods continue to shrink. Many of them are now strangers in their own lands, bewildered refugees driven into our back yards and streets by housing and road developments – and to add insult to injury, they’re often the ones seen as the intruders. Unfortunately, even though we often trespass on their families and homes, we’re not always their best friends.
There is no doubt actually experiencing the outdoors first-hand is capable of broadening and enriching your world perspective, and there are many simple ways to do it besides running. Wilderness retreat leader and author Mark Coleman once wrote an article in the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle titled “A Breath of Fresh Air: Seven Meditations for Communing with Nature.” One of his suggested meditations was to sit down next to a tree and really take time to see it for what it is – a living being – and observe how it sustains the lives of other beings (squirrels, birds, people, etc.). No, you don’t actually have to hug the tree.
Other suggestions included sitting in the woods in silence for a period of time, really getting to know your own backyard by learning the names and “biographies” for the various plants and animals that inhabit it and how you might be helping or hurting their efforts to survive, or just taking a day to be alone in nature. But I’d definitely add running on a woodland trail to that list. It’s one of the best opportunities to practice kinhin (walking, or in this case running, meditation) that I know of.
When we experience things first-hand that we might take for granted or have preconceived ideas about – our environment, certain people we dislike – we often find out we all have more in common than we think. We’re all breathing the same air. The same sun and rainstorms nurturing that twisty old oak shading your favorite running trail, or warming the squirrel feeding on its acorns, are also taking care of us. We’re all here together. And we don’t have to look too closely to see some of us fighting a losing battle just trying to get by, and realize perhaps the rest of us are part of the reason why that’s so.
Get beyond our cynical notions of Waldenesque or Woodstokian sentimentalism and it’s true: by practicing to be more aware as you run in the outdoors, you come to realize everything is interconnected on some level. And in the course of discovering those interrelationships, we can uncover many shirked responsibilities. As a species, human beings have a very mixed record at best when it comes to sorting out the challenges of coexistence: the biologist Michael Soule has said 30 million different species depend on the five or six percent of the earth’s land we have “graciously” set aside as protected wilderness.
But the impact of reading that sentence, yet another recitation of unfathomably vast statistics, can’t begin to compare with the night I ran through an urban park and saw, in the shadows, a coyote briefly caught in the glare of a nearby tennis court. Displaced and perhaps disoriented by all of the building development going on in a suburb a few miles away, it had wandered up a creek path through residential neighborhoods and into the park where I was running. We briefly shared a glance, and it hurried back into the sparse stands of woods at the park’s center, cars whooshing by in the near distance. I didn’t see it again. But I knew it had reached, literally, the end of the trail.
We can get lost on our own trails as well, and running can bring us back. Recently there was an election day in my town, a day of major budget decisions with a dozen bond proposals on the ballot: big-dollar plans to pump money into our local libraries, streets, parks, and recreation centers. I had heard a lot of pros and cons for the proposals on TV and radio, seen a lot of advertising, heard a lot of sound bites. But it took actually getting out and running through the streets where I live to connect with the issues in any sort of real way.
Some of the streets I ran through were pockmarked with dangerous pot holes. I passed a recreation center at a nearby park, one of its broken windows boarded up with a graffitied piece of plywood. Experiencing all of this in a much more intimate way than if only seen on television or glanced at from a speeding car, I realized: we need to vote yes. Forget the endless discussions, the TV ad campaigns, the slick flyers stuffed in our mailbox. I ran through my neighborhood, witnessing my own neglect and inattention, and I realized we needed to do something. When we take our communities for granted, treating them as convenient places to park our cars, dump our garbage and hook up our high-def cable, we are helping them die.
Witnessing the decay and neglect first-hand while running brought me to that realization. The Buddha deeply valued this kind of flesh-and-blood experience, saying we should believe nothing, no matter where we read it, or who said it – even if it was him speaking — unless it agrees with our own experience. “Taste and see,” the psalmist wrote. Seeing isn’t believing: seeing is knowing.
I wouldn’t say I immediately became more environmentally aware or civic-minded when I started encountering my larger community through running, but it has without question seeped into my consciousness more than before. It’s one thing to read about the impact of our inattention on our environment, and quite another to actually see first-hand the plastic bags caught in the limbs of a beautiful oak tree, or cans and bottles floating in the fluorescent chemical slicks on a creek’s surface. Or a badly eroded street just two blocks from your own. Or a crumpled energy gel packet, tossed into a bush by a passing runner.
But awareness is not just about seeing how we often use the earth as our private landfill. After recently seeing a dozen different kinds of migratory birds in raucous action at a local lake during one of my long training runs, I had an strong desire last Sunday to get out my old Sibley guide, dust off the binoculars, and go birding for a couple of hours near sunset. There is something mysteriously intimate in making brief eye contact with a white heron, watching you from the shallows where it stoops to feed. Something shared, yet ultimately unknowable – a vital part of us, and also, in some ways, forever apart. All of us so different, yet all of us living here, together. At least for now.
Would I have awakened these timeless, fragile connections with my larger community before I started running and experiencing it for myself? I think it’s doubtful. Remembering the classic prayer labyrinths in many of the cathedrals of Europe, envision the path of your next run as a labyrinth of continual awakening — a pilgrimage not into the wilderness, but into yourself. Turning that new awareness into some positive action for all of our neighbors, two-legged and otherwise, would be putting our mindfulness to work for the common good, and could pay real karmic dividends for us all.