A Runner’s Heart

(This is the second article in a two-part series. See Part I: “The Runner’s Brain”)

If you’ve read any of the articles on this site, you’re aware that I’m apt to rattle on about feeling-based training. When I began to suspect that the intuitive feelings of my heart were telling me how my body wanted to train, I was frankly skeptical. But after 15 years of tinkering, I’m convinced–heart-based training works.

Along the way, I found scientific evidence that confirmed the heart’s role as a monitor of health and well-being. I won’t repeat those findings here. You’ll find a full discussion in chapter 5 of my book (“The Science of the Heart”), and there’s a brief overview in the Introduction, which I’ve posted as a free sample chapter.

As I experimented with listening to my heart, one thing that stumped me was how to generate the right kind of feeling. From my experience and the research, I knew that positive, expansive feelings such as love, kindness, etc., are associated with improved physical performance and intuition. But what was the best way to generate those feelings?

I’d had impressive “peak experiences” of the heart while running, and for a long time I assumed that I needed to generate that same level of selfless love each time I ran. Moreover, I thought that the only way to get into the expansive heart was to be really disciplined.

There’s a certain amount of solid truth in that idea. Expansive feeling is only possible when we control the desire to put ourselves first, to get what we want, etc. Civilized behavior begins with self-restraint.

I had an opportunity to observe this years ago, when my ex-wife and I traveled to Arkansas for her father’s funeral. When people greeted my wife’s mother, they were disciplined and formal, and the wonderful thing about it is that it was not cold. Time after time, I saw how the classic southern attitude of dignity and self-restraint created a frame for the expression of genuine feeling. “We are so sorry for your loss. He was a wonderful man. Please call us if there’s anything we can do.” Stock phrases, but the underlying feeling was very real. Far more so than the shallow sounds that to often pass for empathy today: “Hey man, I really feel your pain…”

Intuition that’s reliable is calm and dispassionate. It’s the quality of feeling that enables you to go either way: stop the run and walk home, or go on for another 20 miles. You’re impartial; you aren’t in it to prove something today, to “grab all the gusto you can get,” but to grow your fulfillment in running over the long term.

Intuitive training isn’t easy. It demands restraint. Yet it can’t be done with brutal discipline that kills feeling.

Last summer, I attended a retreat where my spiritual teacher gave three days of classes. Before the program began, I decided that I would practice getting myself out of the way and putting other people first. That would be my spiritual discipline for the weekend.

Up to a point, it “worked.” In fact, it opened doors for connections with people. But, at the same time, I felt that something was missing. I was working so hard to get myself out of the way that it seemed to interfere with finding a level of genuine feeling in my heart. Was I trying too hard?

On the last day of the retreat, perhaps 200 of us lined up to come forward and talk with the teacher. Just before Mary Ellen and I joined the line, a dear friend who edits a magazine that had published an article of mine came up and said, “Has he (the teacher) seen your book? I’m sure he’d love to see it!” I was hesitant, unsure if he’d care, or that I wanted to spend my brief time with him talking about the book. Nevertheless, she pressed a copy in my hands and I dutifully trudged forward, wondering what on earth I would say.

For two days I had been so self-controlled, yet now my mind and heart were spinning out of control. I could not find any rational reason for showing him the book, other than that it might be the “right thing” to do.

Finally, we reached the front of the line and sat before the teacher. I offered him the book and mumbled a few words. He has amazing powers of concentration. He grabbed the book, focused his attention laser-like on it for a moment, said, “How wonderful!” then turned to Mary Ellen and, holding her hand, began speaking with her in a very loving way while ignoring me completely.

On one level I was bumfuzzled, but on another I was delighted. In the eight years we’ve been together, Mary Ellen and I have been through wrenching experiences. The first six years of our relationship were bitterly hard, with agonizing lessons that forced us to open our hearts to embrace each other’s realities. The end result is that the rips in the fabric of our egos opened doors for a deep, sweet friendship.

Still, there were times when I wondered if being in a relationship wasn’t a poor second cousin to some better lifestyle that would allow me to make spiritual progress more rapidly (and easily). I fantasized about living alone in a tiny apartment, reducing my expenses and spending hours meditating, praying, serving, chanting, etc.

At a point when the struggle became so painful that we were both exhausted and on the point of throwing in the towel, a close friend remarked that the spiritual teacher had told her, “Mary Ellen is a wonderful woman. I’m so glad that George is with her.”

What could I do but hold on?

As my heart opened painfully to Mary Ellen’s realities, I came to understand how wonderful she is, and as I sat there, ignored by my teacher, my heart opened completely and I silently began leading a cheer: “Yeah! Pour it on! Bless her from the top of her head to the soles of her little feet! This is one worthy woman! She deserves the best that God can give! So lay it on thick!”

There was no discipline required; it was unforced, as natural as my life’s blood and completely sincere. As I thought of her fine, wonderful qualities–her utter sincerity, her transparent kindness, her readiness to help others, her focus and dedication–I was eager that God use the teacher to bless and guide and protect her, and I was completely happy. From long experience I knew the depth of blessing the teacher was capable of giving, without the slightest suggestion of ego on his part. When we rose to leave, the teacher looked at me quietly without saying a word.

For weeks after, I meditated on the lesson. It was the one moment of the weekend when I experienced real love, not by disciplining it into existence, but by giving it naturally and happily from my heart. I realized that the teacher was silently showing me that all of the growth pains of the relationship had not been in vain, that they had brought spiritual progress.

A 19th-century book called The Holy Science by Sri Yukteswar Giri, a famous sage of Bengal, describes the nature of spiritual growth. After sharing deep wisdom for page after page, he remarks, with almost humorous simplicity, that it is impossible to take a single step forward on the spiritual path without “the natural love of the heart.”

Years before, I had asked the teacher how I could develop more love. I thought that he might suggest something grandiose, that I return to college and earn a medical degree, then serve in some third-world country, etc. But he said simply, “Buy your wife some flowers. Take her out to dinner. She’ll appreciate that.” I was reminded of Gandhi, who observed that the small expansive acts that we do aren’t terribly important in themselves, but that it’s very important that we do them. Why? Because they transform us.

At one point when I was being so earnestly over-disciplined in my efforts to open my heart, I was running up Wildcat Canyon, when I intuitively heard my spiritual teacher say, in a voice rippling with sympathy and good humor, “You’re making it much harder than it has to be!”

As a runner, I had tried so hard, with so much discipline, to cultivate love, that I eventually had to relent from sheer exhaustion, and that’s when I found my heart opening naturally. Running up Wildcat Canyon under a shimmering canopy of green, I found that by simply immersing myself in each separate moment, and enjoying the beauty and happiness that I was experiencing right now , I didn’t have to beat myself up in hopes of some future fulfillment. I could gather a tiny bouquet of expansive feeling and offer it into something increasingly beautiful and fulfilling.

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