God & the Distance Runner

I want to share a blog post by elite distance runner Josh Cox, titled “Miracles…A Runner’s Case for Theism.” After some preliminary rambling, Josh gets down to it and tells a wonderful story.

Josh graduated from Liberty University, a school that I normally think of as a hotbed of fundamentalism. But Josh seems anything but rigid – as his story shows, he’s less concerned with theories than practice. Like a true distance runner, he tests his ideas — about running and religion — where the rubber meets the road.

I’m not a fundamentalist Christian, but I share Josh’s experiential approach to the spiritual path, and I couldn’t resist leaving a comment:

Josh, this was wonderful. It was hugely inspiring to hear about a Christian runner (Liberty, no less) who doesn’t simply spout words.

The future of religion belongs to direct, personal experience. Dawkins, Harris, et al. have issued a useful challenge: “Make religion scientific, or get out of my hair.”

Well, the lab of religion is the human body, the tools of experimentation are prayer and meditation, and the proof is direct, personal experience – subjective proof, but no less real for that.

As an old putz who’s walked (and run) the path for 41 years, I add my testimony to yours. God has “showed up” every day of all that time. He is real.

A wonderful aspect of your post is how you speak to Him in the simple language of your heart – no “thous” and “thines.” In my experience, God never answers when I pray formally, only when I really get it off my chest with Him, and talk to him with complete sincerity, as a friend. Joy to you, Josh!

Later, reflecting on the post, it struck me how rare it is for fundamentalist Christians to talk to God as a friend. Mostly, they beg forgiveness of their “sins,” or they beg for His gifts. God loves me! He gave me a new BMW!

Some time ago, I read an article online in which the author, a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, excoriated “new-age religions” whose members seek to commune inwardly with God. He angrily denounced the notion that we should turn to God daily in prayer and meditation in hope of establishing a living relationship with Him. He called that approach “satanic.”

Josh follows Christ’s counsel to “test the spirits.” His spirituality has guts. The spiritual path that he practices is practical. Josh’s religion strikes me as very American. The people who settled this country were practical people — they had to be. They didn’t have time for putting on airs. That’s why there’s a strong tradition here in America of mocking believers who talk loudly but don’t back up their words up with Christian behavior and Christian charity. Conversely, there’s lots of respect for spiritually inclined people who walk their talk: people who don’t talk much about religion, who keep their beliefs to themselves but prove them in the cold light of day.

Josh’s way is bound to get him in trouble with the Christian phonies, the loudmouths who insist on blind belief and heartless, rule-bound religion.

What happens to a Christian, sincere in his faith, who prays with a full heart and begins to receive answers from Christ? Years ago, I ran a tiny marathon in Grass Valley, California. It had just 13 entrants. It was sponsored by a Christian church, and before the race the pastor asked us to join hands and pray. He asked Christ to protect us and see us safely through the race. And as he prayed I felt a tangible sense of Christ’s presence and blessings. It was a peace and inner joy. I could feel it coming through the preacher’s heart. And throughout the race I felt a subtle sense of Christ’s protection.

Now, if I were a rigid, Bible-thumping fundie, what should I have done? Back away fearfully? “No! No! This is not Christ! This is Satan! We can’t expect to know Christ until after we die! Get away! Get away!”

Well, hardly. I wonder if millions of Americans aren’t tired of being exhorted to believe blindly. I wonder if they wouldn’t prefer to make Christ a practical, living reality in their lives — to have His wise inner guidance, his love, his bliss.

The experience of Christ is persuasive to the core of our souls. As I said in my response to Josh’s story, I believe that prayer and meditation will be the scientific religion of the future. The practical, American religion.

It obviously won’t come from churches that are stuck in the past. It will have to come from churches built upon a new understanding of Christ’s teachings. I believe, again, that that “new wine” is already present on our shores. In my own spiritual search, I’ve found it most clearly and powerfully explained in the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda (1893-1952), a great modern master of yoga who came to America, he claimed, to restore “the original teachings of Christ.”

Yogananda said he didn’t come to this country to convert people to a new religion, but to convert them to their own inner, personal experience. He was completely nonsectarian — he offered the practical teachings of meditation to believers of all faiths, without demanding that they follow him. Yogananda explains “original Christianity” in his famous book, Autobiography of a Yogi. (The referenced page includes a link to a free online version of the book.)

In my book, I mention another Christian who, like Josh, searched for truth with his eyes wide open and discovered truths that weren’t terribly compatible with his fundamentalist roots.

Meditation and other spiritual practices that bring energy to the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate in the brain may offer a shortcut for developing mental focus, positive attitudes, and will power.1

(1Harvard Medical School researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify and characterize the brain regions that are active during a simple form of meditation. Significant signal increases were observed in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and cingulate cortex. This indicates that “meditation activates neural structures involved in attention and control of the autonomic nervous system.” [Neuroreport 2000 May 15;11(7):1581-5])

Religious fundamentalists who learn of the research on the prefrontal cortex are likely to find cause for disgruntlement. Yet some of the most interesting clinical studies of the prefrontal cortex have been conducted by Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist who uses brain scans to diagnose and treat his patients’ emotional problems. Dr. Amen, who has thriving practices in Fairfield and Newport Beach, California, is a deeply religious man, and a Christian fundamentalist. His book, Healing the Hardware of the Soul: How Making the Brain-Soul Connection Can Optimize Your Life, Love, and Spiritual Growth, describes his clinical studies of neural activity in healthy and damaged brains and in states of prayer and meditation – studies that leave little doubt as to the role of the prefrontal cortex in a healthy spiritual life.

Years ago, we were in Sacramento for a weekend of rest and relaxation, and on Saturday morning I jogged from the hotel to the beautiful American River Parkway for a 14-mile run. After just four miles, I was hurting, and as I approached the turnaround, I prayed, “I feel awful — I don’t even want to think about these next seven miles. But surely there must be something that we can do together to turn this into a positive experience.”

Instantly, an intuitive message flashed in my mind, clear and strong: “Give yourself to Me, and I will carry you!” My attention was drawn powerfully to the point between the eyebrows, where the neurophysiologists say that mental focus and will power are localized, and as I continued to run, I felt utterly detached from the body and its suffering. The pain was still there; I was very aware of it, but I was above it, riding in a place of intense, quiet focus. That state lasted nearly to the end of the run, when I allowed myself to feel a bit emotional, and it faded.

Dr. Amen’s discoveries are, interestingly, fully in line with Yogananda’s teachings. Yogananda described the “spiritual eye” center in the forehead, slightly above and between the eyebrows, as the “loudspeaker” where believers can most effectively focus their attention while “broadcasting” their prayers to God. Yogananda spoke of the heart as the “receiving station” for listening to God’s answers. Researchers at Heartmath Institute have found that deliberately cultivating harmonious feelings in the heart (for example, love, compassion, kindness) increases the frequency of feelings of “being close to God.”

When I first came onto the spiritual path, in the late 1960s, I was offered the option to follow either of two possible paths. I was living at home temporarily, recovering from 2 1/2 years of being paralyzed from the chest down. My parents’ insurance agent was a born-again Christian, and he tried to convert me. He never once mentioned the importance of a strong prayer practice; instead, he brought Bible tracts and question-and-answer workbooks from Campus Crusade for Christ. He would say, “Christ has a plan for your life.” And then he give me his version of the options: “You’ve got good language skills. Why don’t you think about going to Peru and translating the Bible for the indigenous tribes.”

At the same time, I was taking my first steps on a separate path that urged its followers to spend time meditating and praying.

Which way would I choose? The mind-born, pie-when-we-die path of fundamentalism? Or would I demand God’s presence right now.

I was frankly desperate. I urgently needed the wisdom, love, and joy that the scriptures of all the world’s great religions promise. I didn’t want to waste my time talking about God; wanted to know Him. But I decided to let God choose. I would follow both paths will full sincerity until a “winner” emerged.

It didn’t take long. The Bible tracts barely fed my mind, let alone my heart and soul, while my meditation practices and prayers brought direct results daily. I’ve followed the “practical path” for 41 years, without a moment’s regret.

As a runner, I’m not interested in theories; I’m interested in direct, personal experience. I’ve learned more about running from my own training than from books. And I’ve learned more about religion from my spiritual practice than from spouters of words.

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