Running with Mu: A not-so-simple vow?

31 08 2010

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!)

Really running with Mu: returning to the roots of running

30 08 2010

Last week I mentioned I might have some initial thoughts on how a running practice and Zen practice can be combined into an introductory “mindful running” program for runners of all ability levels/spiritual backgrounds looking for a change, even if it’s only for a few months. And I’m guessing a lot of runners may be looking for a different approach to their running.

I’ve been running races from 5Ks to 100 miles for nearly 30 years now, and I know burnout when I see it – in myself and others. For me, it’s when running becomes a painful drudgery – usually when I’ve been stuck on the race/train/race again/train some more treadmill for too long. When the small nagging injuries begin popping up weekly, when I take longer and longer to get dressed for a run, when I start skipping scheduled training days, making up all kinds of lame excuses and then feeling guilty, it’s a big flashing cartoon neon sign that I need to press reset.

High-tech love affairs/more is more

And it’s not just running too much, or training for too many races too close together. Our current blind love affair with technology has managed to worm its way into something as primal as putting one foot in front of the other. High-tech shoes, workout clothes, and energy replacement supplements; training monitors, GPS devices, heart rate monitors, Twitter and Facebook updates during races from our phones, downloading the data from our monitors onto our computers and creating pacing graphs, tempo charts … I seem to hear as many discussions about how to program or troubleshoot training monitors and PC workout software as I do about running itself. We’ve turned the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other into yet another data point that needs to be collected, collated and analyzed.

But running too many races can of course be a problem, too – and there are a growing number of people who are interested in running as many marathons in a single year as possible, or at least running them as often as possible. Combine this obsession with a reliance on high technology, and what do you have? Basically, from where I’m looking, you’re in danger of reliving that part of your life you may have originally started running to get away from: a fast-paced, high-tech treadmill of chronic goal and achievement setting that’s leaving you permanently tired, hobbled with nagging injuries, and more than a little frustrated. And next to the discussions about how to reprogram an obstinate Garmin, I’m hearing more questions about frustration and exhaustion – dazed and confused, wondering how to get that old love of running back.

Barefootin’: everybody wants to get nekkid

I think at least part of the current barefoot running trend is based around a nagging feeling of chronic dissatisfaction (what Buddhists call dukkha — or, roughly translated, suffering) with the entire high-tech, high-pressure approach to running that’s currently prevalent. Many runners are, whether they realize it or not, hungering for simplicity – even if it means spending yet another $100 on a pair of glorified clown shoes to quickly buy into that simpler feeling, or at least a talisman. And yes, I did it!

I’m no Luddite, and technology is not inherently evil – that’s silly talk. Technology is what we make of it, even when we make too much of it. And it just may be time, from my perspective, to get re-grounded, to look down at our feet again. But not just our feet. Running is much more than just our feet. We need to re-examine our bodies, our minds, our environment – the entire way we’re approaching and using running in our lives, how our running impacts us and those around us.

Time, just maybe, to press reset for a little while. Time to get reacquainted with your running clothes, your shoes, your body, your head, the roads and trails where you run and train. Time to get intimate with the simple joy of running again, and relate it directly to your everyday life in a seamless, happy union. And no, I’m not just talking about barefoot running, or even about barefoot running at all. This is bigger than bare feet, bigger than you, and yet smaller than that unclipped corner of the toenail on your littlest toe … all at the same time.

Even if you’re not interested in starting a Zen practice or even using the word “Zen” (or “Mu” for that matter) in a sentence, it may be time to Run with Mu.

Who might need to Run with Mu?

Running with Mu can easily be scaled to all levels of runners and fitness levels. The program I’m going to take an initial stab at outlining over the next few posts is probably best suited for:

* runners suffering from training burnout and/or declining motivation (you know who you are!)

* runners in their racing “off season” who are looking for some restorative training and refocusing before their training for the next race season begins

* people who are looking to start a running program for exercise, but perhaps aren’t that interested in racing – at least not yet.

It’s by no means a radical program, although it may seem like one. Some of it may seem weird or absurd. But weird and absurd is all a matter of perspective, and perhaps something a little “weird” – something outside that routine of yours that has gotten so stale and unproductive – is exactly what you need. Like Zen practice, it’s all about breaking through those artificial barriers you have unconsciously labored to build over the years and finding home base again, that starting line where you always feel fresh and raring to go. Because you can return to the place where you and running are one and the same — nothing added or subtracted, forever and ever amen.

In the next post. I’ll start with two very basic first steps: (1) making a simple (but probably difficult) vow, and (2) a new way to take off your work clothes and pull on your running clothes.

Training Break #187

27 08 2010

It’s strange to think that an activity that calls for as much exertion as distance running could be so deeply meditative. It’s hard to see how, with all that sweat and exhaustion, there could be anything still or calm about running long distances. But there’s nothing unusual about using repetitive motion as meditation. Sufis spin to bring on a trance-like state, while Japanese Zen Buddhist monks undertake kinhin — walking meditation — to access worlds beyond themselves. The Bushmen of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, like many people who live close to nature, obtain spiritual awakening through extended, ecstatic dance.

There’s something about repeated, rhythmic movement that takes us beyond ourselves: something, perhaps, that allows us to access the pure essence of ourselves; a natural simplicity that takes us away from the humdrum of daily life. It’s this aspect of running — the psychological and even spiritual depth — that takes many athletes to the long-distance run of the 42.2km standard marathon and far, far beyond.

— Gabi Micotta, “The Zen of Running”

Building a meditation base: and on the seventh day …?

23 08 2010

A few days ago I posted my initial thoughts on how you might approach building a practice base in meditation starting from scratch. For a typical week, I assumed practicing strict zazen (simple breath counting, but no guided meditations) for days 1-6, then experimenting a bit on day 7 with some form of guided or visualization meditation.

Mind you, I practice unleaded Zen myself and nothing else. I don’t find anything else really necessary or helpful for me. And no less an authority figure than the 13th century Zen pioneer Dogen said practices other than Zen were unnecessary. But then Dogen has a reputation as being not only a brilliant philosopher and highly original writer, but more than a little hardcore. And those of you new to meditation might not be so ready to commit to Zen — it’s not necessarily for everyone. Which is why I allowed some exploration on the seventh day of the week: to give you a chance to window shop, so to speak.

But feel free to use the seventh day as yet another day for zazen, if just sitting still and doing nothing is your thing. You don’t have to shop around if you’re already satisfied. And if you shop around and find guided meditation is more your thing, ditch the Zen and go with that.

Most of all, enjoy your sitting. It’s not some sort of mystic ritual, or ascetic sweat-lodge practice, or self-help seminar. It’s just sitting.

I’m playing around with how one might establish a formal “running Zen” practice, combining running and Zen into a practical, scalable regular training schedule. Perhaps in a week or so I’ll post a little more about that.

Training Break #186

20 08 2010

A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light.

— Franz Kafka, The Zurau Aphorisms

Kapleau’s “Three Pillars of Zen”

18 08 2010

As sort of a note to my post yesterday, I’d like to briefly share my thoughts about a book that is often recommended for beginning Zen students … but I wouldn’t suggest new practitioners get within ten feet of it.

It’s easy to see why Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen is still revered as a classic of Western Zen literature. Kapleau was a pioneer of Zen in the West, and his book was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, readily available “manuals” for people encountering Zen practice and philosophy for the first time in the mid 1960s.

It’s not a bad, evil book, and Kapleau was not a bad, evil person. Quite the opposite, in fact. But there are lengthy sections in the book that deal with what are described as actual enlightenment experiences of western and Japanese Zen practitioners. In fact, much of the focus of the book is on the enlightenment experience and personal accounts of the struggles to realize kensho (enlightenment).

I’m not going to get into the whole enlightenment discussion, because that’s not my point. My point is that for a beginner to read a Zen practice book focused on the enlightenment experience carries a lot of potential for high-octane delusion. You read a bunch of narratives about becoming enlightened, and pretty soon your budding Zen practice could be oscillating violently between (1) disappointment because you can’t realize kensho and (2) thinking every falling leaf and loud noise is some kind of epiphany. You’ll become frustrated, confused, and exhausted. Which, if you’re anything like me, is what you were before you decided to give Zen a shot, and you’ll give up your practice for all the wrong reasons before you’ve even really started.

If I had to make a running-related analogy, it would be like giving a beginning runner a book that focuses directly on how to win a marathon and the experiences of those who have actually won a marathon. Beginners aren’t equipped to deal with practice at that level. Most people who walk the earth aren’t equipped to deal with practice at that level.

By all means, read Kapleau at some point if you feel you must. His book is not a tool of Satan; very far from it. But in my opinion it’s not something a beginning Zen student should be reading, and I continue to be puzzled about its regular appearance on so many beginning Zen lit reading lists.

Beginner’s Zen: thoughts on building a base

17 08 2010

Still running through a string of 100+ degree days. The air last Wednesday night was almost a solid, living object, suffocating to breathe in and move through. It’s good for my practice! At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. Now I’m heading into two consecutive hard weeks of running and with the temps showing little signs of abating, although there is hope of a cold front taking the thermometer a notch below 100 by the weekend. Break out those sweaters; fall is on the way.

I’ve given a little more thought to how a beginner’s Zen meditation practice might look, and I looked to my running for inspiration. Like race training, you could start meditating by building a “base” (a standard level of meditation fitness) for six months or so and go from there.

Of course, as with running, you want to make sure you start out with the right technique and proper equipment. Here’s one site that can help with the basics, and here’s another. Surf around and you’re liable to find a few more. If there is a zendo near you that offers sitting for beginners, don’t be shy about attending and learning first-hand from experienced teachers/lay meditators, which is really the best way to learn – from others, face–to-face. And just because you go to the zendo doesn’t mean you have to shave your head and take the Buddhist Precepts or anything. At least, it shouldn’t — if they tell you otherwise, run away fast!

If you’re just starting, I wouldn’t recommend reading any Zen books of any sort beyond the simple basics of sitting. Reading too much about Zen early on will only make you think it’s more complicated than it is, and it’s not. Well, it’s not supposed to be, anyway. And any book, however well written (and there are some very good ones), pales next to the real experience. If you want to sit, then don’t read about it. Sit. After about 5-6 months of regular sitting, look for some very basic classics of Zen literature, like this one. Especially that one. And it will resonate much more deeply with you once you have sat for awhile.

If you’ve never sat before, here’s what a suggested first-week program for a Zen practitioner might look like:

Day 1-5: 10 minute sit (breath counting)
Day 6: 15-minute sit (breath counting)
Day 7: 10-15 minute cross train (an alternate form of meditation, such as visualization or other guided meditation)

Days 6-7 are intended as longer sessions for whatever you consider your “weekend,” when you should have more time to sit and can focus more readily. Days 1-6 are strict zazen, with the focus on counting the breath and coming back to the breath when attention wanders. Day 7 is something I’ve always thought would be interesting: try another form of meditation other than plain vanilla zazen, just to explore a little once a week and satisfy your curiosity. There are many different types to explore and I’d suggest just follow your curiosity and see where it leads you.

With each successive week, increase the time you spend meditating by 10%. For week 2 that would mean adding a minute to your 10-minute sit for days 1-5 and adding 1-2 minutes for days 6-7. I wouldn’t sit for more than 25-30 minutes without doing 2-5 minutes of kinhin (walking meditation) between one sit and the next. Of course, it all depends on how much time you have – maybe 25-30 minutes a day is all you can handle. Maybe you never get beyond the schedule outlined in week 1. That’s okay; no problem.

For those who continue building their meditation base, keep sitting for about six months, then (if you have a zendo near you) consider trying a zazenkai (all-day sit) or a weekend sesshin (intensive meditation retreat). Or, if there’s not a zendo near you, try to block out at least a weekend morning, afternoon or evening for a more intensive sitting/kinhin session on your own.

These are rudimentary thoughts on how a beginner’s “training schedule” for Zen meditation might look and are certainly not hammered into stone. If you want to learn more, look around … plenty of resources out there. Most of all, enjoy your meditation. It’s not intended to be another thing on the To Do list. It’s just sitting!


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