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.