Mindful running: I run just to run

Rocky Brown Mountain trail

Rocky Brown Mountain trail demands concentration

I haven’t written about running in a while because what is there to write about? Pretty much you just run. Somedays I run fast. More days I run slow. Usually I hike up hills. Running down them is a particular thrill, especially if they are rocky and technical, but not any kind of rocks, just the loose ones.

Some people don’t like running technical stuff. Some don’t yet have the confidence. For others, it’s too technical, I guess. They would rather not have to concentrate on the next footfall, and the one after that, and the one after that. They would rather just run without any thought or concentration.

I love the concentration. I sort of need it, too. Without concentration, my mind tends to wander, and my mind has a habit of wandering into neighborhoods that aren’t very nice. It tends not to gravitate towards the happy-joyous-and-free. It’s the mind of an recovered alcoholic/addict, which means it’s the mind of an alcoholic/addict, period, and alcoholics and addicts tend to spend more time in back alleys than in grassy meadows populated by the Von Trapp family. 18 years since the last time I got high, my mind still hasn’t learned not to go to those places. I suppose a mind that travels to the dark is why I got loaded in the first place.

Running isn’t really a meditation, even if half the people you know like to say it is. Running is a great time to meditate, however, because when you are running you can be fully occupied by running. The body is focused on moving and fully in the present moment, and the mind can easily concentrate on the present moment too, at which point everything is in the present moment, which is pretty much an ideal place to be. This is made even easier on technical trails because the mind is compelled to concentrate on what is directly in front of it. If it doesn’t, the results are often bloody.

Bloody knee

Bloody knee – what happens when you let the mind wander

Sakyong Mipham is the head of the Shambhalah Buddhist lineage, and a high lama in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also a runner and has a 3:05 marathon PR. In the very first chapter of his book Running With The Mind of Meditation he says running is a natural form of exercise, more natural than almost any other sport, because it is simply an extension of walking, which is something fundamental to our being. Running strengthens the heart, removes stagnant air, revitalizes our nervous system. It creates stamina and gives us a way to deal with pain. Similarly, meditation is a natural exercise of the mind that strengthens and cleanses the spirit much in the same way running strengthens and cleanses the body. While meditation and running are not the same thing, they compliment each other very well. I often like to do them both together.

Running, for me, is best not when I’m in an escapist’s semi conscious state but in a state of mindful awareness. I want to be aware of the trail. I want to be aware of how I feel. Meditation is good for this. There is a misconception that meditation is some sort of escape into a state of blissful separation from the world and its harsh, intrusive realities. It isn’t. Instead, it is a headlong rush into those realities, which turn out to be not so harsh when we accept them for what they are, with equanimity instead of the judgment. Meditation is not about avoiding pain but rather about not suffering, and you will always suffer from pain if you are trying to avoid or ignore it.

Meditation, mindfulness meditation at least, is about being present for whatever is there. Running is, too.

I don’t run to stay fit, although it keeps me fit. I don’t run to get faster, although I get faster, which is an accomplishment when you are at the age when you naturally get slower. I don’t run to win races (which is good, because if I did I would be a very unsuccessful runner, 38 years past his prime). I don’t run so that I can hang out with friends and drink lots of beer. I don’t run to conquer my demons, although it seems to help a lot with that. I run just to run, and in order to run just to run, it’s best I stay in the present moment and concentrate on running.

It sounds so simple and glaring obvious that you wonder why it even needs to be said, but being in the moment is not a skill that many of us have.

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