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.

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.

That voice again …

17 10 2013

It’s the racing season and, inevitably among the race reports written by friends, there are a few disappointments among the successes, the days that didn’t quite go as planned. One friend aimed higher than most: achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time, a goal he has pursued, always with meticulous planning and preparation, for more than a few years now. He is an excellent marathoner, a diligent trainer, and an intelligent planner. This year he finished just over 60 seconds away from the time he needed to qualify for Boston – faster than previously, a wonderful finish of 3:26 and a well-executed race with pretty consistent mile splits most of the way, but still agonizingly short of his dream.

In the immediate post-race disappointment, during which he actually apologized to us for not qualifying for Boston, it was easy – for him and for some others – to overlook the outstanding achievement of having finished a marathon in three hours and 26 minutes. That’s something only a small percentage of the world’s marathoning population have achieved. And yet, it wasn’t what he wanted, and it wasn’t what we wanted for him. All of us wanted more.

Now he is trying to decide (how seriously I’m not sure) whether to run another marathon three weeks from now and try to qualify again. I am sure this has been done, but for most people it’s not the greatest idea on several levels – especially the need for both the body and mind to heal from such an intense effort, and the potential psychological damage for potential future attempts should a second quick attempt not work out.

But I raced for many years, and I understand there’s a voice that’s almost impossible to ignore and nearly as impossible to hold at bay: our egos. When we don’t get what we want, especially if we worked hard for it, our pride is wounded. And the ego, that nagging voice inside, starts its whispering: I didn’t get it, and it hurts, and I don’t like hurting, and I need to do something to stop hurting as quick as I can. In this case, rushing to another marathon starting line seems like the only way to get the voice to shut up.

And yet, you can never really shut it up, because that same voice whispers and whines in many languages: our sons and daughters make life decisions that bemuse and dismay us, our favorite store is out of a particular color in a men’s dress shirt, we can’t get the work promotion we wanted, the last of our favorite beers has disappeared from the refrigerator. Every day, our desires are thwarted and frustrated on a hundred levels, and that voice tunes up again and again. Learning how to respond to it, or not respond to it, is the primary work of Buddhism, and of being human.

Those times when our races don’t work out as planned, all of that emptiness and disappointment suddenly looming in front of us, is when we are often at our most vulnerable. That’s when you should listen especially carefully to that whispering within. Whatever you whisper back, make sure it’s your own voice, and not just the pale echo of your ego.

Big shoes, little shoes, and your shoes

11 08 2013

I can’t begin to count the number of times over the past couple of years that someone has come into the running store where I work, an odd light in their eyes, and told me some variation of: “I just finished reading Born To Run … can I try on some of these minimal shoes?”

Of course, many people try minimal shoes, love them, and never look back. But others aren’t so fortunate. Never mind that sometimes their feet don’t stand a chance of fitting properly into most “minimal” shoes – they will twist and turn their feet every which way, determined to squeeze their sizable toes into a Vibram or a New Balance Minimus, only to finally surrender with a look of abject disappointment. It’s as if the door to the Promised Land has been slammed shut in their faces, dooming them to forever plod along in the gray, yesterday land of big shoes.

Then there are people who do manage to fit into a pair of minimal shoes but return to our shoe department a few weeks later – limping, holding their new shoes in front of them accusingly, Exhibit A for problems they didn’t even know their feet could have.

Now, to potentially confuse the issue even more, it looks like the Big Shoe may be making at least a minor comeback. Yep, big ol’ cushioned midsoles will soon be showing up everywhere, made by everyone from committed small-batch minimal manufacturers like Altra to established, more traditional major players like Brooks. Cush is back, baby.

But why? You read Born to Run, took it as gospel, made the switch to flat, uncushioned shoes – and now these shoes with dizzying stack heights and layers of soft foam are coming back? Is everything we think we know wrong? What’s going on here?

What’s going on is a little market correction, made necessary by an inconvenient truth: everyone is different. Having fit a lot of people in runnning shoes over the last two years, I can say not everyone was born to run – at least, not in flat boards with laces on them. I run in minimal shoes and enjoy them. I also run in the Asics Nimbus, one of the kings of the old-school shoe. Some people run solely in Vibrams and those sandal thingies and are fine with that. Others have never run in anything but the Nike Pegasus for 20+ years, and without even a twinge in their ankle or heel. People may be born to run, but they are, based on my personal experience, born to run differently. And as far as form goes, do a little You Tube surfing — you’ll find some of our Olympic-class long distance runners have pretty questionable (and sometimes downright weird) form, if you go with expert advice and textbooks.

Change to forefoot running or keep heel striking? Minimal or Maximal? As with everything else in life, go with what you know to be true for you, based on your own experience. We don’t all need correction, we don’t all need less (or more) shoe. Ask yourself: Do the shoes I’m running in and the way I’m running bring me joy without causing me problems? And if your shoes and form are doing that, regardless of what shoe it is or how much you may heel strike, why embark on yet another exhausting “self-improvement” project? Especially when changes in form can cause as many new issues as correct old ones.

It’s interesting and potentially helpful to gather information from others, including shoe fitters in running stores and books like Born To Run. But, as some old Zen dude once said, “Do not get caught in that place where you think you know.” The best shoe for you is the one you forget you have on. The best running form for you may be, with all of its deviations from perfection, the form you were born with. Don’t create problems, don’t turn your running into another self-help project. Just listen to what your feet say. You’ll find they’re the only ones telling you the real truth.

Running is not special

1 08 2013

It’s been kind of a busy day off work for me, in that unspectacular way some of your days off may go. In between mowing the lawn, disinfecting the cat litter box, taking an embarrassingly large pile of old running and hiking shoes to Goodwill and several other minor chores, I managed to work in a 25-minute sit. It was an afternoon sit, and I was a bit scattered from all of my random activity. I always notice that after settling into an afternoon sit for a few minutes, I can actually feel the busyness of the world outside as a physical presence, a sort of low-grade hum that I could almost reach out and touch — the hurry-scurry of people and animals trying to get things done, even in triple-digit heat.

“Working in a sit” might sound a bit too utilitarian for what is often construed as a spiritual activity. And yet, that’s what sitting usually is for me: something on the To Do List I need to get done every day, whether I have two hours or 10 minutes. I don’t expect the heavens to open and choirs to raise their voices in song while I sit (although if that happened just once it would be pretty cool). My Zen practice is just that: a practice, like taking a multivitamin, moving through the morning yoga routine, or heading out the door for your (and my) morning run. Nothing special. I’ve sort of given up looking for heavenly choirs at this point. Although I leave a welcome mat out, just in case.

And yet, I think we want these things to be special. It’s Zen! It’s an exotic Eastern spiritual practice! We want that enlightenment experience where the world and all this assorted stuff we’re struggling with suddenly become perfectly clear. And when others ask about our religion, we might privately enjoy saying “Zen Buddhist” — we think it’s not the usual thing, that it labels us as serious seekers on a less travelled path, special people (or maybe for some as weirdos, which some of us also enjoy being tagged as). Labeling ourselves as Zen practitioners might make us feel smarter, more interesting, a sort of intellectual fashion statement.

We want our running to be special, too. When we tell people we’re marathoners or ultra-marathoners, we might privately enjoy the respectful comments we get back, the “That’s amazing, I could never do that” responses. It’s another interesting way to tag ourselves, to differentiate our personal brand. And if you can combine running and Zen, well, how cool is that?

Often running and meditation are just work, sweat, and routine, but we don’t want to see them that way. And when we feel unsettled in our meditation, when a run doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, we can feel like frauds, like we’ve failed somehow. We haven’t, no more so than if we accidentally dump the fresh cat litter on the floor or miss a strip of grass while mowing. It’s just life, and we’re just a little tired or making mistakes like we always do. “Mistakes are part of the ritual,” a Zen master replied when someone said they were worried about screwing up during a tea ceremony. So what if you spill the tea, if you don’t hit your goal time on your last interval, if you sneeze during a sit? You’re just what the ancient Zen dudes in Japan called a “skin bag,” and a sweating, fumbling, sneezing skin bag is going to do things less than perfectly.

Or, as the biggest ancient Zen dude of them all, Eihei Dogen, said in the Training Break posted just below: “To practice wholeheartedly is the true endeavor of the way. Practice-realization is not defiled with specialness; it is a matter for every day.” I love that phrase “not defiled with specialness.” Just putting your full self into everything you do is consecration enough. Or, to make one of those irritating little Zen paradoxes: when we don’t treat running or meditation as special, they become more special.


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