4.21.14

21 04 2014

One of the nice perks about working for a running store is that we periodically get free pairs of new running shoes from the manufacturers (even part-timers like me). I ran for the first time yesterday morning in a bright yellow and red pair of Newton Gravitys. They’re super light and the fabled Newton design is a wonderful marriage with my forefoot-focused running style. In the highest compliment I can pay a shoe, I forgot I had it on, and I can hardly wait for my next run in them. The revised Newton design for 2014 (more open in the toe box) was very comfy. Wonderful! Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Finding a good pair of running shoes is simpler than you might think. In fact, once you start thinking is when the trouble starts. Stop reading online reviews, stop listening to friends, and go with what really matters: how they feel on your feet. Go to a reputable running store in your area and start trying them on. And don’t get your mind too involved in the decision. I’ve watched customers put on a pair of shoes and stand up with an utterly lost “what next?” look on their faces, walking gingerly around in their prospective new shoes like someone tiptoeing through broken glass, eyes darting back and forth in a labored attempt at concentration. “What am I supposed to be feeling?” a customer will say. Whatever you feel is what you’re feeling! Whatever you feel is right. If it doesn’t feel good to you, if it doesn’t feel comfortable and gets out of your way so you can just run, then it’s probably not the shoe for you.

And don’t give up on a shoe in the first 10-20 steps. If your store has a treadmill or a space to run, take advantage of it. Really run in the shoe for a minute or two and wear it around for 10-15 minutes minimum. Your foot and the shoe may need a little time to get acquainted, which is fine. If some of those odd things you felt in the first 10 steps persist, then try other shoes to see if you have the same problem.

And if you can find two or more different pairs that work for you, buy them and switch them out during the week. Alternating shoes and running surfaces means you’re going to hit different stress points and pressure points, and I am certain that has helped keep me very healthy over the past 20 years or so of running.

Besides finding a favorite new shoe, the past few days have been filled with larger matters of life, death, and loss. A friend died too young, and we said goodbye to one of my favorite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As often happens, thoughts of death brought me back to the Han Recitation, a Zen gatha that I posted on my Facebook page:

Resolving the matter of life and death is of prime importance
Everything bears the mark of impermanence
Everything passes quickly by like a fleeting arrow
Let everyone be mindful each moment
Do not let a moment pass by unaware!

A friend jokingly commented: “It doesn’t rhyme.” So I wrote my own rhyming version and posted it:

This whole life and death thing is pretty severe
So I humbly say to those who will hear:
Everything’s temporary, no, nothing will last
The future is fiction and what’s past is past
So when mowing the yard or washing your hair,
Enjoy every sandwich, be fully aware!

My friend commented again: “Now I’m just hungry.” But Carol wrote, “I’m thankful for every day I spend with you.” Which was unexpected and very sweet. There is always, always something to be thankful for, like new running shoes and life partners who are just that: partners for life.





4.14.14

14 04 2014

Spring has taken one step forward, two steps back. It’s cloudy, windy and cold today, with temps predicted to dive into the upper 30’s tonight. I’ve been watching the sparrows and chickadees desperately cling to our backyard bird feeder as it sways, and the chimes on the front porch are ringing like it’s a royal wedding. I’ll probably run to the high school track for a speed workout later, but it’s going to be a windy cool one … maybe the last really cool one for a number of months. Or not. The weather these days is explosively volatile.

We got a lot of rain yesterday as a prelude to the cold front moving in. I dashed out of the house for a run during what I thought was going to be a lull, but half a mile from the house the heavens opened and the water poured down. I hadn’t run in the rain for a while and it was actually very exhilarating to splash through the sudden streams and mini ponds that sprang into being. How quickly and heavily the rain fell! I was soaked through by the time I reached our front porch again.

Today was a day off and I spent the morning in silence, meditating, cooking breakfast (oatmeal), and reading quietly. I decided no errands today, just enjoy the stillness. I did just finish watching an 30-minute online documentary featuring Michael Gira of The Swans, available through Pitchfork.com and with footage from the band’s current tour. Watching documentaries about musicians at work and listening to them explain their ideas has always been very stimulating to me. A third of the way through the documentary I received the gift of an inspiration for a poem, which I’m going to work on in a few minutes. This is not the first time this has happened while I was watching a musician documentary – I don’t know if it’s stimulation from watching them being creative or guilt that I’m watching someone else at work. But hey, I’ll take a poem idea when I can get it.

I recently wrote a short essay about an experience I had with the Heart Sutra relating to the day my father died several years ago. It was intended for a sort-of essay contest, but after re-reading the rules regarding the contest it seems they are looking for personal experiences with sutras from the Pali Canon, which the Heart Sutra is not considered part of. So I can’t send this one. Or maybe I will and tell the sponsors to consider it for another occasion. Once again, I’ll take inspiration for a piece of writing when and where I find it. I might post the essay here when it seems appropriate.

It’s weird how the sutras can work — much of the sutra literature is written in a highly repetitive style that was intended to aid in memorization before the days of widely printed books, and they often don’t make the most compelling reading, in my opinion. Much of Buddhist philosophy has a pedantic, almost scientific bent to it, so rather than the pithy, heart-on-sleeve aphorisms of someone like Jesus, the Buddha comes across to me as more like the best college professor you ever had — very smart, cool, but very heady. Yet, the sutras have the power to resonate with you at the most unexpected times. And that’s pretty much what my little essay is about.

The sun is starting to break through for the first time today, and I’m guessing after a little more quiet time and playing a bit with the poem idea, I’ll feel like a run. Running always goes well after a lot of stillness and some head work. I’m happy I enjoy all of it, and to constantly discover new connections between them.





4.10.14

10 04 2014

It’s still precariously Spring here, but in this part of the world it definitely lives on borrowed time, waiting for the hair trigger that will submerge these breezy, cloud-speckled days into something thick, deep, and still. Spring is always counted here in days, not months. The leaves on the trees have already unfurled but are still that fragile newborn green, and as of yet do not rustle in the breeze.

I spent a good chunk of the morning and early afternoon enjoying some yard work — planting some lantana and marigolds in the back yard, mowing and wrenching up crab grass. Most of the neighborhood lawns are still constellations of green and brown, but ours has already greened up nicely and quicker than most. I felt a bit spent after two and a half hours in the yard, so decided against running today. It would have been my third day of running in a row, and that is a lot of running these days. Now I’m typing this with sore hands and arms that I’m quite sure will be even more sore tomorrow. No matter how much yoga and running I do, gardening muscles seem to be in and of a class by themselves and defy all attempts to get them used to exercise.

The writer, Zen Buddhist and teacher Peter Matthiessen died Sunday and I was reflecting on the fullness of his life – a disillusioned CIA operative during the Cold War, novelist, journalist, editor, Zen master, environmental activist, world traveller and adventurer – and the relative tameness of my own. I am simply not a risk taker (running ultra marathons on trail was pretty far out of my comfort zone), and my life has been, for the most part, quiet and no more eventful than most. If I had attempted to live any other way, however, it would have been living a fiction. The authentic me is quiet, solitary, and given to more introspective activity (listening to music, reading, sitting, running/hiking, writing). It is all the more amazing to me that Matthiessen found the time and energy to write, his exterior life was so busy.

And I think of Emily Dickinson, sitting year after year in her parent’s house suffering from something akin to agoraphobia and writing nearly two thousand poems, many of them among the most unique to have ever been penned. The freedom of the human imagination allows swift travel to worlds even the most ardent traveller never dreamed of. While I may still do some globetrotting in my life, I have always found the journey inward a more honest expression of myself. I admire both Matthiessen and Dickinson for their very different examples, but am more relieved every time I think of Dickinson’s — not because I think I could be her equal, but because she was every bit Matthiessen’s. Onward and inward.





4.4.14

4 04 2014

One of the little ironies of trying to keep a journal seems to be that when you have a lot to write about, you don’t have time to write, and when nothing is happening, you can finally find time to write – but there is, er, nothing to write about. Trying to remember your exact thoughts, emotions, etc. from events 2-3 days prior is like trying to remember the bubbles in a stream; they constantly appear from nothing and disappear back into nothing – too many to remember at all, much less clearly.

The weather has had that uncertain, nervous quality typical of a change of season in North Texas. I ran 4.2 miles yesterday into a shifting wind that changed, like someone flicking a giant switch somewhere, from gusting to sighing to suddenly silent over and over, while clouds and blue sky competed fiercely overhead for attention. Weak shadows formed briefly on walls and sidewalks, but the sun was a shy stranger and the air unusually thick and wet. As the day turned to night we sat on the front porch and watched banks of thunderheads marching to the distant north, lightning seething deep within. We later heard that not far north of us a tornado touched down for awhile, and the ground was pelted with hail the size of a toddler’s fist. I called my mother to catch up on the latest and she recalled times when I was a child, when a great thunderstorm would come and I would open the curtains to the big window in our living room and lay on our couch to watch. “I was always scared to death,” she said, “but I never let you know I was.” To sit in the boiling middle of a thunderstorm and experience its fury is still one of my greatest joys. I really can’t explain why, but the natural drama of a big storm touches something deep within.

I nearly decided not to sit in zazen today – I got up rather later than planned, and today was a work day – but I finally did sit before leaving the house. I remember someone saying that if we only sit when we want to, we only become familiar with that part of us that wants to sit, and it is probably the part of us that doesn’t want to sit that may bear the most observing. So I sat, and after a few minutes the resistance I had initially felt ebbed away.

We really are the most temporal of creatures, our emotions and desires as extreme, sudden, and shifting as the early spring weather – and potentially as destructive to our inner nature. As with running, so with sitting. Just sit. Just run. Be with that part of me that doesn’t want to sit or run, and experience it fully. If I don’t shut myself off from the positive or negative within, if I don’t judge it as “good” or “bad” but simply be with it, I can eventually arrive at a fuller understanding of my self … and realize I am as subject to change as the clouds racing overhead. “Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form,” goes the most famous line from the Heart Sutra. It sounds sort of like something Neo would have said in The Matrix, but each of us lives the truth of it every second we are alive, and coming utterly to terms with it – realizing it completely in our hearts – can set us free. Sitting, running, I continue to feel my way toward that realization, like the child I was who watched the storms swirling without fully knowing why. I try hard to remember it’s the work of a lifetime.





4.1.14

1 04 2014

Spring gave me little to no warning. I opened the screen door a couple of days ago and bam! Tender green shoots dotting the ends of the tree branches, a warm and thick breeze with a exclamation point of moisture at the end of it. Things turn so quickly and we can’t fall asleep for an instant or we miss the start of another season. I’m beginning to feel acutely aware of how few springs I realistically have left – probably thirty or so if I’m lucky. They are born and die so fast here. And it is rarely a real spring, but only a sort of hurried prelude to summer, no longer than a typical Scriabin piano prelude and just as full of stormy twists and turns. Much rain is forecast for the next two weeks, and the skies are boiling with darting grays, whites and blues.

My speed workout at the track this morning was under a shifting, nervous heaven with a small, anxious wind insistently tapping at my face and back. I ran alone, as I do most of my runs, and thought back to my run on Saturday. That day I ran a different route on a whim and passed a number of what I guessed were runner training groups – clumps of 10-15 people spaced 2-3 minutes apart, running toward me on the opposite side of the road. I don’t know what organization or running program they were affiliated with (probably not with the store where I work, because I didn’t recognize any of the group leaders), but they were very active and chatty, calling out words of warning when cars approached and carrying on lively conversations with each other.

I have never been someone to run with a group. I do understand that some people get a great deal of support and motivation from running with others, and that for some people running is a highly social activity. For me it was always a journey inward. When I began running in high school it was, in retrospect, a way for me to sort out all of the chaos in my fevered young brain and come to grips with my world and myself. I loved running alone down deserted country roads, with only the cows in adjacent fields for company (always eyeing me a bit nervously – I’m sure I was one of the first, if not the first, running human many of them had ever seen). My parents loved me and watched me very closely, and I suppose running was a way to be entirely on my own for awhile, with no one asking about my plans or my well-being, or judging what I was doing and offering helpful suggestions. It was a run to freedom, and a run to my self. Running is still very much that way for me, and even more so now that I am no longer racing.

Yesterday members of our sangha sat together at a new temporary location. Our old zendo, our sangha home for many years, has been sold and we are looking for a new, more centrally located property to call home. The possibilities for growth and bringing the dharma to more people in our area are tremendous, but the challenges of finding a suitable new place won’t be easy. I was soothed by the floor of the temporary zendo, which had a pattern in its wood reminiscent of the old zendo floor that we had walked over together in kinhin so many years. Sitting together, breathing together, was reassuring and healing in this somewhat unsettled time in our Zen community.

When sitting zazen I enjoy sitting alone and in a group equally – both have a different energy but both are very nourishing. I don’t know why I have never felt the same about running. While I feel connected to the larger worldwide “sangha” of runners, share their personal triumphs and setbacks, and even understand them from a new perspective as I help fit them in running shoes, I still prefer running alone. Running is still my personal journey inward, something I cannot bring myself to share directly. In some ways, it is even more private to me than zazen. I suspect that, for as long as I can do it, it will always be so – perhaps even more so as years go by. And, more than ever, I am aware of their going.

Nothing reveals the fragility of life more than a run in this weather – the trees bursting with new life even as the last dead leaves are ripped from them and blown into the path of my onrushing feet. The sky, flashing with appearings and disappearings over and over, the wind chasing its own tail like a crazed animal. Hardly a time of gentle flowering, but instead a jerky, confused series of brutally rapid disruptions across the heavens and earth, thunderstorms and tornadoes. It is a very alive time, a chance to stand in the seething cauldron of creation and experience it fully. We’re lucky to be able to meet it head on if we choose. And we should.





3.27.14

27 03 2014

A day of (re)discovery. One of the nice things about not having to follow a race training plan is you are free to run when and where the spirit moves you. This morning I took off in a different direction than originally intended, through a hillier section of the neighborhood down to a road that parallels White Rock Creek. There are horse stables clustered around a small hill opposite the creek, and as I ran past the quietly munching horses I was startled to hear the sound of a woman in distress. Then I realized it was the call of one of the albino peacocks that live with the owners of the horse stables, a sound I hadn’t heard since last summer. The other peacocks nearby answered with their own despairing voices, and the air was suddenly filled with their wailing, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy warning me of disaster. It was a little eerie in the semi-darkness, but thrilling.

Later I meditated with the window open to the sound of a gentle rain, the water plashing on the patio, gurgling through the drains, soaking into the slowly greening grass. Sitting in zazen to the sound of rain falling is deeply enriching, worlds within worlds. The rain has since stopped but the sky is still a shifting kaleidoscope of grays, whites, and blue patches, the air thick and wet with a quick coolness cutting through it every so often. It’s that tug of war between spring and winter, one growing weaker but not quite giving up, the other pulling with a little more force every day. Or as I read today in May Sarton’s luminous journal The House By The Sea, “The cosmos and marigolds go on and on.”

Another (re)discovery today was a new recording of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, performed on organ by Frederic Desenclos. It was only recently released and, since Bach’s WTC has been weekly if not quite daily listening for me since high school, I was eager to hear it. Having heard versions for harpsichord, piano, clavichord, and even wind ensemble, I wasn’t expecting it to translate so well to organ, but this is a revelation. Desenclos plays tastefully and his voicings fit well into his characterization of each prelude and fugue. Through hearing the WTC afresh on this recording, I’ve also rediscovered Bach’s organ music and did my morning yoga routine to an inpromptu Bach organ recital via Beats, my music streaming service of choice. Bach’s organ music and yoga make a surprisingly terrific pairing.

So far, a wonderful day of rediscoveries and unexpected connections between old enthusiasms. Another rediscovery I’ll work on later today is a poem I’m trying to finish. I recently began writing poetry again after a lull of several years and have learned that, of all forms of writing, poetry gives me the most personal fulfillment. I don’t know if these poems are really any good, but “good” doesn’t matter. Like running, like meditation, the joy of writing poetry for me is in the doing and the new things I learn about myself every time I do it. Our tax preparer recently asked me, “What are you going to do now that you’re semi-retired? You’re not that old, you know.” I’m fortunate to have the extra time, and I’ve found there still aren’t enough hours in my day (although I’ve been jokingly reminded I have the same number of hours in my day that Beyonce has) to follow all the trails I want to go down. As I like to say, it’s my blessing and my curse to be interested in everything.





3.24.14

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.





Landfill

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.








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