25 03 2014

Six quarter-mile repeats at the high school track near my house this morning. Jog to the track in the dark, run the six repeats with a brisk quarter-mile jog between each one as the sky begins to brighten, and home again. Still a bit cold out there early; winter is a stubborn old cuss this year.

One of my favorite parts of an early morning track workout is seeing moonset and the new day coming at the same time. I scribbled a sort-of haiku about it once:

fingers of golden light
gently crush the halo moon
high school track at dawn

Running outdoors allows me to see the world in ways I probably wouldn’t experience otherwise – or at least not very often. Daily miracles dwell in the midst of the traffic noise, construction sites and billboards, and I’m grateful when I allow myself to bear witness.

So many miracles, so little time!


24 03 2014

This marks a new direction for Run With Mu: I’m going to begin writing this as a private/public journal, still dealing with the same themes as I’ve explored using this blog in the past. It is simply getting more difficult for me to find new specific subjects exclusively about Zen and running to write about – after all, how many times can you say “When you run, just run” – and I feel the blog’s tone has sounded a bit more preachy as of late. There’s also the realization that the mindfulness industry has horned its way into every corner of life these days, with dozens of authors telling us how to walk/run/eat/work/date/etc. more mindfully. I’m not unhappy to see more and more people realizing how positively transformative living in the present moment can be, but, my goodness. What a lot of books.

I didn’t run today. I have decided that to run only every other day, for no longer than four to five and a half miles, is enough. A former ultramarathoner, I haven’t run so much as six miles at a time in nearly 18 months. It was a decision that I always wanted to be just that: my decision, not a necessity or something sadly inevitable. As I said in this blog once before, I always wanted to walk away from racing, not limp away. I have waited since to see if I would regret it. I haven’t.

It’s a decision that comes at a different time, in a different way, to every runner. I remember running ultra marathons with 70 year-old men – not many, to be sure, but a few who kept cheerfully shuffling along and tripping over rocks and roots long after midnight. At one time I thought I might be one of those men. But when I found myself tired, sore and slouching in a chair at an aid station in a meadow near Lawrence, Kansas, not physically unable to start running again but just really enjoying sitting still in the shade, I realized with mild surprise that my decision day had come at that moment, unannounced and unplanned. Then and there, I quit the race, and ended 35 years of racing.

No, I didn’t run today. I sat on the cushion for 30 minutes this morning, as always trying to, as my Zen teacher puts it, “sit without waiting”. I drank a couple of cups of hot black coffee with the back screen door open and listened to some organ music by Bach. I cleared out a flower bed in the back yard, the dirt on my hands still cool from the receding winter, and I installed a new bird bath and feeder and watched a blue jay try to land on the feeder’s perch. Tomorrow morning in the still-cold darkness of daylight savings time I will jog to the high school track, run five quarter-mile repeats, and jog back home. It’s about 5 miles total, and the sun will be creeping into my eyes by the time I cross the main road back to our house. And I’ll sit on the front porch swing for a few minutes like I always do, feeling the sweet burn in my body from the run and tuning myself into the morning.

It’s a good life always, when I take the time to really live it. The sweet sharp smell of the cold upturned soil in the flower bed today felt like yet another small step closer to the real spring, those warmer, thicker mornings and storm-confused afternoons. It’s a real joy to feel the new season just behind me, like footsteps coming up steadily and the finish line in glorious sight somewhere just ahead. May we all reach it at our own chosen speed. And may we see each finish line for what it really is: a starting line in disguise.


7 02 2014

It is snowing as I write this, periods of smaller, hurried clouds of flakes rushing to earth followed by larger white clumps spaced so artfully apart they look arranged, drifting elegantly to the ground. Ten degrees outside. I want to run today, but I’m not sure running in ten degree weather is the greatest of ideas, and so I watch the snow fall and notice how everything has gotten quieter, and I rush to fill the widening vacancies in my mind with running/not running.

Why do we do this, always hurrying, like the clouds of snow I am watching from my window, to fill any and all empty places? I heard recently that a local developer is floating the idea of a restaurant on the shores of the nearby lake where I like to run, a place that has so far been uneasily free from urban planning. But the murmuring to change that is beginning, something I have anticipated and dreaded for a long time. I drove past the lake on my way to work yesterday and looked at the field where the restaurant would be built.

When writing the previous sentence, I first typed the words “empty field” without thinking and then deleted “empty”, because that is part of the reason the spaces and silences in our lives get filled: we instinctively think of open ground as vacant, time spent without a specific purpose as wasted. We are a continually restless species, driven to make lists, plans and goals when none exist. Many of us seem to always need a roadmap or a blueprint of some sort — even for places and moments that are doing just fine on their own, without any interference from us. The field where the restaurant is proposed to be built is anything but empty; it is home to grasses, plants, trees, countless families of insects, small animals, and birds. Filling that already quite full field will disrupt or in some cases end their lives, clutter views of the lake and the sunset, pour light into the surrounding fields and woods at night. All in our rush to fill what we see as a void.

When sitting, of course, my mind wants to do the same things: fill the empty space with grocery lists, plans for the house, new strategies for our impending retirement. But it’s only through actually stopping to sit that I realize how uncomfortable we are with silence and space, and yet how important those two things are to helping us see ourselves and others more clearly. Maybe we don’t really want that. But more often than not, it’s just not possible to truly change our lives by filling them with something new; to paraphrase an old Zen saying, it’s often like putting another head on top of the one you already have. Is there really something wrong with the head you have now? Or do you, like Bob Dylan once sang, just need a dump truck to unload it?

Instead of filling, try to empty more. Even just being quiet for five minutes a day before leaving for work, watching the snow fall or the sun shine on the patio or the rain drip on the trees, or running through your neighborhood with no agenda other than to enjoy a brief bit of time outside, letting space open up around you – can reveal the perfection of things just as they are. We don’t always need to build restaurants, plan the perfect mile splits, wait for that lightning strike of enlightenment. On the cushion or on the run, clear a little time and mental acreage for yourself and everything around you to just be. And let your steps and the snow fall where they may.

Free Wisdom

6 02 2014

A short essay of mine titled “The Mirror” (see post below) was recently published as part of a series on the Wisdom Publications blog. You can read it here.

Thanks to the nice folks at Wisdom for including me.

The Mirror

19 01 2014

My lower back pulsed with pain, and my legs were going numb. My head throbbed. I tried to focus on my breathing as tiny face appeared and disappeared in the plaster folds on the wall in front of me. The monitor sounded the bell to begin yet another 25 minutes of stillness and silence.

Two more days to go, and already I wanted to go home.

I run for exercise and participated in many races for over 35 years, from 5 kilometer urban “fun runs” to 100-mile ultra marathons on forest trails that took me over 24 hours to complete. One of the reasons I identified so closely to Zen practice initially was because, like running, it was a very physical practice, focused on breathing and proper body posture. But during sesshins – extended silent meditation practice periods lasting two to three days or longer – I found the physical aspect, and the mental discipline required to transcend its inevitable limits, could be tested to the breaking point.

A sesshin has much in common with an ultra marathon. I always feel an adrenaline rush when the bell sounds for the first sitting period on the first morning, a feeling this will be the sesshin where my awareness remains unbroken, my attitude unfailingly positive, and my body strong. But as the bell signaling the start and end of the sitting periods drones again and again, and the blank wall in front of me warps and wavers, and pain and stiffness steal over me like the shadows lengthening on my mat as the day inches forward, I realize no choirs of angels are going to descend from heaven. It is long, it is often boring to the point of despair, and it hurts.

As with an ultra marathon, it takes more than my body to finish a sesshin. I had always been able to eventually just watch my personal demons materialize and fade without following them –usually because I no longer had the energy to care where they were going – and hang on for the blessed sound of the bell ending the last sitting period on the final day.

But for the first time during a sesshin, I was seriously thinking about leaving and going home. I’m guessing most sesshin participants have similar thoughts at one point or another – elite ultra marathoner Dean Karnazes described his own occasional moments of self doubt during a race as “having a dark moment” – but this time, the dark moment had enveloped me and would not dissolve.

The throbbing numbness in my legs and back, coupled with the intense feeling of what I can only describe as the oppressiveness of nothing, had reached a point of no return. It was growing darker, literally and figuratively, and I felt as if I had drifted into a vacant place, a no-man’s land of suffering without relief or distraction. At the end of the next sitting period, I resolved – adding guilt to the dark emotions already swirling inside me – to quietly slip out of the zendo, get in my car and go home, back to the familiar comforts of my wife, music, books and bed.

There will be other sesshins, I thought as I rose, stiff and hurting, from my mat as the bell sounded for us to stand for kinhin, or walking meditation. I’m just too tired and sore this time. It’s not like I’ve never finished a sesshin before, or that my practice isn’t good. Right? I’m good at this, right? My ego sought reassurance, reinforcement, but all it found was exhaustion and a nagging sense of shame. Yet I had made my decision, and I was too tired to change it. In less than sixty seconds, I would reach the exit to the meditation hall, slip out the door, and head for home.

The day had turned into evening, and I stepped slowly with the others in a big, dimly lit circle as we began kinhin. The heavy dark grain in the wood floor, worn uneven from years of shuffling feet, seemed to faintly vibrate in shifting psychedelic patterns. As I turned the corner nearest the door and began to prepare for the bow that would precede my exit, a face looked up at me from the floor.

I barely had time to do a double-take as we continued our shuffle: someone else was in enough discomfort or pain that he couldn’t walk in kinhin, or even sit upright. And yet there he was, lying on the floor on a makeshift pallet of meditation cushions as we continued shuffling past. Later I learned he had been suffering from severe back spasms. But I continued in kinhin because I had to see him again: looking up at some point past all of us, body still as a stone, face relaxed and focused.

In that brief moment I was reminded of a moment in my first ultra marathon, a 50-mile trail race held in the cold, rain, and mud. Using all of the strength I had, I trudged up a slippery embankment and finally stood on its narrow crest, wavering. On the edge of a flat, featureless plain, I stared up into a vast and indifferent gray heaven, like an insect pinned feebly squirming against a giant blank specimen board. There was no me, there was nothing but my pain. And because there was nothing but my pain, I saw it clearly for the first time.

Making it to the next race aid station, I looked into the faces of some of the other runners huddled and shivering under a dripping tarp, and for the first time that day, I realized they shared the same pain I felt. It was mirrored in our eyes, reflected from one to the next under the enormous sky. Strengthened by this realization, I felt oddly at peace, and was able to finish the race.

I felt the same when I saw the face staring up at me from the meditation room floor, and realized it wasn’t just his face. It was my own face, all of our faces. When I circled past the door again at the end of kinhin, I did not leave. The bell rang for us to return to our mats and I sat down on my cushion yet again, knees and back aching intensely, to continue the sesshin with all of the others, all of us breathing, sighing, hurting together.

What child is this?

19 12 2013

“What Child Is This” is, as many doubtless know, the title of a traditional Christian carol of the Christmas season. It’s also, viewed from my own Zen practice, a potent koan for this or any time of year. What was that tiny child, born naked and helpless into the crushing totalitarian terror state that was the ancient Roman Empire, who caused kings to fear, wise men to kneel in wonder, and shepherds to see astonishing visions? Why did people react the way they did as he forged his own brave path through a deeply cruel and unpredictably dangerous world over the next three decades? How would you or I have reacted?

And what of the everyday events in our own lives we are helpless to stop or explain that constantly spin us in new directions, large and small? Marathons cancelled due to ice storms, wiping out months of hard training and planning? The snap of a hamstring during a tempo workout? The feeling of leaning, exhausted, across the finish line of a marathon, 90 seconds short of a long hoped-for Boston qualifier? Turning the key in the ignition after a hard day at work and hearing nothing but a grinding noise? Learning a close friend has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer? What countless children are these that appear in our lives every day, squalling at us to do something? And what should we do?

What child is this, right here, right now?

That’s our koan for this season, and every season, every day.

Escaping into life

7 11 2013

This morning, between my meditation and my run, I took a few additional minutes to escape deeper into my life. I sat in our den looking into our backyard — the early light still thick, sluggish and monochrome gray, shape and shadow still as one. As I sat quietly and watched, the light gradually sweetened, until everything glimmered in a dull silver, and then the moment I had waited for: the silver warmed into a brilliant orange glow, bathing the big red clay planter on the patio and all around it in soft fire. This lasted one or two precious minutes, and then full sunlight exploded in white across the trees and grass, and the real day was finally, gloriously here.

I called this moment “escaping into life,” and yet I have often been guilty of saying the opposite. Over the years, when people have asked why I run, I don’t know how many times over the years I have responded: “It’s my escape from life,” or words very much to that effect. I’ve heard other people explain their running the same way.

And yet, when I think about it, I already live my life as one long, desperate prison break — always either trying to get away from something I don’t want, or get something I do want. There are many mornings, especially in the first five minutes of sitting zazen, that I realize how twitchy I am — how much I don’t want to be here, doing this. And how often when I’m running, I’m trying to think of anything, anything at all, that will allow me to disassociate from my physical discomfort and pain. “The best part of running is being done” is another quote I’ve heard a lot over the years, including from my own mouth, and frankly it seems more than a little sad to do things with the attitude of simply wanting them to be over.

Which is way I sit zazen – to isolate and recognize that constant vague sensation of dissatisfaction, that restless feeling of continually wanting to escape from life, and try to reconnect with life as it is, what Eihei Dogen called (among other things) “actualizing the fundamental point.” And on my run this morning, I managed to, at least at times, make that escape from the prison of dissatisfaction back into my life. There were times I could fully feel the crisp brilliance of the November sunlight, so different from the heavy-lidded light of August, the simple but profound miracle of my breath coming and going, my legs churning beneath me, my muscles straining, my arms swinging forward and back, the slight, pleasant chill of the air moving over my skin. There are so many of these gifts within reach, and so often we want to escape elsewhere in search of more exotic treasure. But I’ve always found the real gold and silver, if I sit and run with awareness, is right here, right now … even at our high school track, even in my own backyard.


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