I recently discussed following a running practice focused on discovering or regaining the joy of running, through combining running with what I’ll grudgingly call “awareness practice.” I dislike the New Agey-ness of the term “awareness practice,” but at the same time I hesitate to use the term “Zen” in this somewhat looser context — although it certainly borrows heavily from my formal Zen practice. So for now we’ll split the difference and risk incurring the wrath of the Hardcore Dharma movement.
Mind you, Running with Mu isn’t going to cure your Achilles strain, make you faster or happier, or guarantee — as way too many race brochures are fond of advertising — a “flat, fast course.” Running with Mu is just about stepping off the race/train/race/train treadmill and out of the increasingly cumbersome babble of high-tech hardware and data dumping, getting back to really feeling the road and trail under your (shod or unshod) feet. And if you find out a few things about yourself in the process, so much the better.
It’s not strictly Zen, it’s not a self-help seminar with group role playing and Yanni music in the background. It’s just running. Well, okay – running and sitting. You’re going to have to do some meditation, yes. And you’ll do a little yoga. Although no one is going to ask you to eat bean sprouts. Bean sprouts are not required.
But before we really get into Running with Mu, I do need you to take one simple vow. It’s just one sentence:
“I promise not to run a race for six months.”
Okay, so the two or three of you who still might be here, good for you. But understand this is the minimum requirement to Run with Mu. And please: there’s nothing wrong with racing. I’m training for a race right now. But I’m really looking forward to it; can’t wait, in fact. You’re here, supposedly, because racing isn’t bringing you a lot of joy at the moment — yet you feel compelled to keep pressing the “submit” button on those applications at race registration sites. And I’ve been there, too.
Maybe you’ve spent a hundred dollars on a marathon that’s coming up in a couple of months … but if the truth were known, you’re really not that excited about it. You feel like it’s something you have to do. And when a marathon just feels like one more thing on the to do list, it’s time to ditch the marathon. Running 26.2 miles is not a prison sentence — even if it sounds like one. It should be a choice – your choice. If you choose to run a marathon but, deep down, don’t really want to all that much, then it isn’t really your choice at all. That’s more of a curse … a rather curious, self-imposed curse. Or is the word we’re looking for “addiction”?
One big thing that’s already happened since you made that vow two paragraphs ago: a substantial portion of your daily, weekly, and monthly calendars have just been set free. There are no race dates to count back from and plan for, no tempo workout that has to be run on this date at this pace for this amount of time.
You’ve cut the cord. You’re free. Look at all that open space. Are you exhilarated, simply relieved, or filled with a vague sense of foreboding and guilt?
Well, you’re going to get a lot of time to work with how you feel about it, because here is week one of Running with Mu: Don’t Run.
Week One: Don’t run at all.
Most runners will have an even harder time with this one than the No Racing thing. Running is what you do. Some of you do it every day, for a long time, as hard as you can. Now you’re just going to stop. Not taper. Not racewalk. Not go for hikes. Other than whatever you have to do to get to work, school, or take out the trash, your legs are not working this first week.
Why? To even begin to realign your running with your life in a meaningful way, you need some space from it, to begin seeing it with the kind of enhanced perspective and objectivity that a little distance can help provide. Not running for a week is partly symbolic – a small ritual to formally make a clean break with the past – and also a useful way for your mind and body to find the necessary space to begin pressing reset. And if you think one week is a long time, look at what Scott Jurek does(n’t) in his off-season.
Now that you have a lot of extra free time, begin meditating a little every day — following Zen meditation practice and using this suggested beginning schedule or something similar. You’ll notice a lot of thoughts floating through your head during meditation, because that’s one of its practical uses: to closely observe your mind at work. Some Zen masters have compared the brain to a giant gland that secretes thought. You can’t stop yourself from thinking; that’s what brains do. So, don’t try: just observe, in silence and stillness, what’s going on up there, without getting caught up in it.
As you sit over the coming weeks and let the thoughts just come and go (don’t follow them, and if/when you do find yourself going down a mental rabbit trail, return to your breath), you might start discovering a lot about your current motivation for running. You may not find it especially pleasant or inspiring, but it is what it is, and you need to confront it, to really understand why you’re running right now.
What do you find yourself thinking? How you’re probably really packing on the pounds now that you haven’t run for 24 hours? Are there any recurring thoughts that might provide clues about what’s really motivating you to run right now – is it just simple enjoyment, or perhaps something not as fun? Peer approval over how many marathons you’ve run in the past year? Constant concern over your body image? Running from other problems in work or your personal life? Are you running just for yourself, some impossibly idealized future vision of yourself, or for the hoped-for approval and respect of others? Are you directly relating any perceived success or failure in running to your own self worth? (Personally, I found out at one point that a lot of my running was getting increasingly tied up in an obsession with peer approval.)
Try combining your meditation with at least a few minutes of yoga* each day (see the footnote below for my favorite yoga resource). Somewhat simplistically, yoga is to body awareness what meditation is to mind awareness. Our bodies are constantly sending us helpful feedback during our training and races that we routinely ignore; even a little yoga is a useful way to learn to hear and understand the language your body is speaking , then “talk back” to it by doing exercises and poses to relieve any specific complaints it’s voicing. Yoga is simply another helpful way to learn more about what makes you tick. There are many others, and I’ll discuss a few that have worked for me in coming posts. As it says in the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva, “The dharma gates are boundless/I vow to enter them.” If you feel like you’re stuck in a revolving door, why not vow to enter a few new gates?
So, that’s it: a running program where you take a vow not to race for six months, then don’t run for the first week.
Excited? I thought so. More to come soon.
*(And in my opinion, no one does better by runners when it comes to yoga than Sage does. She’s a runner and triathlete, so she’s one of us – she gets it. And no, she’s not paying me to say this!)