Training Break #176

28 05 2010

Legend has it that when Shakyamuni Buddha sat for six years, wheat grew through his skin and bones. His six years of intensive sitting did not damage his legs. After attaining complete enlightenment, he was able to walk around India for nearly fifty years, spreading Buddhadharma. Don’t be so concerned with the pain in your legs that you must pamper them with balms and oils. Put your mind on the practice.

– Chan Master Sheng Yen, Song of Mind: Wisdom from the Xin Ming

Running hope through America

25 05 2010

Ultra running superstar Lisa Smith-Batchen is attempting to become the first person to run 50 miles in all 50 states for her “Running Hope Through America” initiative, part of her Dreamchasers Foundation. Lisa is dispersing 100% of the funds she raises to three organizations: Orphan Foundation of America, AIDS Orphans Rising, and the Caring House Project.

Perhaps just as important as the money being raised is what Lisa appears to have realized about herself, as she continues almost daily on her ultra pilgrimage. “The compassion that I have for myself has grown through this process,” she writes. “It seems like the more open I am to accepting my own pain and suffering the easier I can deal with it. I’ve learned to say my feet hurt, but somewhere else in the world someone’s feet hurt more. I’ve learned to say I’m feeling upset, but someone else may be losing a loved one to hunger, AIDS, or another tragedy. The more I accept my pain, the more I can relate to others, and the more I learn from my beautiful life that’s a shared work in progress.”

What an inspiring example of how running can help us serve as mentor and student – helping others while learning more about our boundless capacity to truly understand suffering and compassion. I’ve made a donation for Lisa’s journey into and beyond self, and perhaps you will want to as well.

Go Lisa go!

Training break #175

21 05 2010

Hell isn’t punishment; it’s training.

– Shunryu Suzuki

A Gift

20 05 2010

A friend and dharma sister recently sent a gift, apparently as a thank you for this blog — which I’m not entirely sure is deserving of a gift, but I’ve decided not to look the worst horse in the mouth. And this is very far from the worst horse: it’s a remarkable selection of her own poetry, inspired by the work of Hiroshige. For me, a poetry collection is among the best gifts you can give or receive because it can give itself every day: a single poem, a shared moment of beauty and insight, for days, weeks, and even years to come.

How can I possibly thank her enough times for every single time I know this gift will touch me over the years ahead? So many gifts: this book of poems, the example of my friend Nattu, who has cheerfully reminded me during dark moments in races that “there is a solution for every problem”; the Argentine man who, seeing me suffering from mild hypothermia as I shivered on a curb shortly before the start of the New York Marathon, handed me a blanket and refused to take it back; the clouds racing in delightful chaos outside my office window, the music coming from my computer’s speakers, my family, my breath coming and going, the ability to write this, my life, a chance to say “thank you” …

Thank you Jessie, for reminding me of the simple and profound power of awareness a gift can revive.

The Marathon Monk (NPR story)

19 05 2010

Here’s a link to an NPR story about Endo Mitsunaga,who last year became only the 13th monk since World War II to complete the Sennichi Kaihogyo – 1,000 days of walking meditation and prayer over a seven-year period around Mount Hiei. He walked 26 miles a day for periods of either 100 or 200 consecutive days, or about the same as walking around the Earth.

No bands along the course, apparently.

All in a day’s work

17 05 2010

“Get on it, crank around it, and get it done. It’s all in a day’s work.” That’s Scott Jurek, quoted in the New York Times shortly before “cranking around it” for an American record-breaking performance of 165.7 miles in 24 hours on a 1.4 kilometer course, taking second (second!) in the 24-Hour Run world championship in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France last Thursday-Friday.

Congratulations, Scott, on a very good day at the office.

Steps, breaths, and beyond

15 05 2010

There’s a lot of repetition and routine in running, and in Zen practice. Runners follow set workouts on the same days each week, often for months, to work on certain aspects of their running. Zen practitioners pretzel themselves into lotus or half-lotus at a specific time each day for a specific number of minutes, often facing the same blank wall. For ultramarathoners, even the races can have a high degree of repetition: 24, 48, or even 72 hour races on a half-mile oval; 100-mile races with five identical 20-mile loops. To feel sick at your stomach at the halfway point of the third 20-mile loop of a 100-mile race, or your knees aching intensely on the afternoon of the fourth day of a week-long sesshin, is to look deeply into the abyss and see only your own eyes staring back. And yet it is these repetitions, these seemingly endless repeated intervals of blankness and pain, that make the all-too-fleeting moments of our higher visions possible: a sudden unexplainable peek into the pith of reality as you squint hopelessly at the wall in front of you, the final exhausted turn on a rocky, rootsy trail in the dead of night and seeing the finish line.

We start with imagining those higher visions, freshly minted and exciting: a faster marathon time, a more aware and authentic life. The plan to get there is, on the surface, very simple — put one foot in front of the other, sit and breathe. “Too easy! Too easy!” a Zen master once said to his students. All it takes is all it takes, is all it takes. Sit. Breathe. Sit. Run faster, slower, faster, slower. Day in, day out, the same and always so.

Fun to make simple plans, not always so fun to follow them. We get bored, distracted, lose our way despite, or perhaps because of, the map we’ve made. It gets tempting to cut corners — to mentally re-catalog your music collection as you stare at the wall, to run the last two track repeats slower than the rest, maybe even cut out the last scheduled repeat altogether. Nobody will know; it’s too late, it’s too early, I’m too tired. Always too tired. “This is pointless,” I have said to myself on much more than one occasion when sitting or running, sometimes in laughter, sometimes in disgust. Running in circles, staring at walls. It seems an odd way to spend one’s life, sometimes.

The famed Buddhist teacher and translator Bhikkhu Bodhi understands our dislike of routine and our desire for higher purpose. What he understands and articulates so well, and what we need to understand, is that routine and vision need each other. “The key to development along the Buddhist path is repetitive routine guided by inspirational vision” is a quote of his that struck me the instant I read it, and it’s as true for runners as it is for Buddhists. “It is only when accustomed routines are infused by vision that they become springboards to discovery rather than deadening ruts. And it is only when inspired vision gives birth to a course of repeatable actions that we can bring our ideals down from the ethereal sphere of imagination to the somber realm of fact.” Bhikkhu Bodhi, you’re a wise man indeed. Just keep my eye on the prize, and don’t shirk the work. After all, routine has its own wonderfully shocking moments of insight. And the real prize might be something I hadn’t even imagined.

Training break #174

14 05 2010

The key to development along the Buddhist path is repetitive routine guided by inspirational vision. It is the insight into final freedom — the peace and purity of a liberated mind — that uplifts us and compels us to overcome our limits. But it is by repetition — the methodical cultivation of wholesome practices — that we cover the distance separating us from the goal and draw ever closer to awakening.

– Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Tricycle Summer 2010

Cricket rehearsals

11 05 2010

Yesterday’s run at noon was chaotically breezy, and the air was heavy and damp. I found myself dripping and slick after only 40 minutes. It could have been late June.

Sitting this morning, a strong wind still darting this way and that outside like a fugitive on the run … I felt like the world was breathing with me, inhaling and exhaling through the new leaves. As the sitting progressed, I found it actually hard at times to distinguish between my breathing and the world’s. But why do we always work so hard to distinguish?

Near the end of the sit, a soloing cricket briefly tuned up, practicing for summer. The concert season for the full Cricket Philharmonic is still being planned, but they are no doubt rosining up their bows. Spring has barely greened the grass and a warmer, heavier season is already lurching forward, tossing the tree branches around.

As the air dampens, I’m thinking of those about to run the Keys 100, where the summer I’m feeling creep slowly forward is already very much a part of the world. Good luck to those running, and to my friend and race director/organizer (and fellow Badwater 135 crew member) Bob Becker. Keys 100 runners, you’re in good hands.


9 05 2010

While running 14 miles on Saturday, I noticed that, as I started to fatigue and enjoy the run less, I was tensing up: the fingers on my left hand were scrunching closer and harder together, tightening into a claw-like vise. I immediately relaxed the muscles in my hand, shook out my body, and loosened up, letting my stride rise and fall more freely again. I felt the fatigue lift a bit, and my enjoyment of the run returned.

I point out this tiny blip on the day’s radar because I’m not sure I would have noticed and adjusted so instinctively and effectively before I began my Zen meditation practice. One of the side benefits of that practice has been a greatly increased observance and awareness of my body, learning to recognize the situations in which I tend to tense up … not just during runs, but while driving, giving presentations, or dealing with any situation I’d rather not deal with. There is a focused meditation in the Tibetan tradition where, as you sit, you concentrate on taking a detailed inventory of the body, top to bottom … starting with making yourself fully aware of the crown of your head, systematically working your way down to the tips of your toes.

Focused meditations don’t play a big role in Zen, but as I sit I do find myself becoming more aware of my body … the faintest beginnings of an itch or a cramp, my tongue pressing gently against the backs of my front teeth, my posture slumping slightly to one side, that slight discomfort in my left lower back. This increased awareness has seeped into my daily life and my running to a point where it has become continuous and largely instinctual. It’s as if the lines between the body and mind were confusingly blurred — then realizing there were never any real lines between them anyway.

One of my favorite Zen koans is just two words long: “Who hears?” Realizing the divisions of sound and hearer, body and mind, running and sitting, this and that are our own fragile, artificial distinctions is a continually surprising exploration and discovery, yet another one of the endlessly valuable fruits of the practice.


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