Lightly I Fly

At 25 miles in the 1996 What, Mi-Wok? Trail 100K, I linked up with a young runner who was attempting his first ultra.

He was experiencing what ultrarunners euphemistically call a “bad patch.” My new friend was what the Indian healing art of Ayurveda calls a “Kapha” – a “heart type.” His body and conversation told me as much – he was stocky, strong, cheerful, enduring. If I had doubts, they were resolved when we arrived at the 31-mile turnaround. I grabbed a potato and was ready to set out on the trail. But, with a sigh of satisfaction, my friend pulled out a bench at the aid table and sat down, prepared for a three-course meal.

Back on the trail, he regaled me for an hour and a half with his plans for a post-race dinner. “I think I’ll cook a pilaf with vegetables and a great cashew gravy. Maybe I’ll include steamed spinach with onions and toasted almonds,” he said. “No, wait, I’ll go to Chef Chu’s for…have you tried their glazed duck? It’s excellent!”

Later, he grew quiet and was staggering in limp-home mode. I attempted to cheer him up by running backwards and singing children’s songs at him. “Move o ye mountains that stand in my waaaay!!” I bellowed, “Nothing can stop my progress! Tall trees fall aside, every bramble I SLASH with the sword of freedom!”

He gazed at me mutely, the message in his big Kapha eyes: “Am I in personal danger?” I fed him some extra GU, and he recovered and finished in good spirits

Last week I had a lovely run on the 3-mile trail around Foothill College. What made it special was three things. First, I kept strict pace discipline, holding my heart mainly under 67%. And in the last mile, I remembered the Mi-Wok race, and the words to another children’s song entered my mind:

Lightly I fly when I live in laughter,
Lightly I fly when my heart sings!
Fling to the ground every heavy burden,
Now I can soar up above the clouds!
Lightly I fly when I live in laughter,
Lightly I fly when my heart sings!

I’ve been renewing an old practice of mine, of running with an open and expansive heart. As I ran around Foothill I joined my hands behind my back and stretched my chest to “make room for the heart.” I bent backward and straightened my upper spine while inhaling deeply and offering my heart to a higher power, to send blessings to a friend. All of which put me in a good mood. But what the children’s song did was amazing. My heart and spirit soared and I ran happy, light, and free.

Again and again in my 32 years as a runner, I’ve been surprised to discover how powerfully an open heart can lend us wings. And how, by contrast, the rational mind wants to ruin everything – forever standing aside and evaluating, tearing beautiful things apart and analyzing them, siphoning energy away from the heart.

While I ran around Foothill, I felt my mind wanting to separate itself, say “Wait a minute…” and analyze my happy feelings, stand aside, professor-like and – hmmm, is this experience valid? – distance itself from foolish feelings, fill out a stack of 3×5 cards and write a little research paper. But each time, I resisted and gently came back to the heart, happy to escape the mind’s gloom.

That’s what I hate about atheism – it’s so mental, so sterile and boring and dull. Last year, in my work as a writer, a man called and invited me to come talk about editing his company’s website. Toward the end of the meeting, he said that he also had a personal website, about “a rational approach to life.” He said he was an atheist, and that he planned to raise his newborn child by logical, carefully reasoned principles alone, without ever making decisions based on feeling.

I thought: “This man is absolutely insane.” He was, in fact, dry as dust, hesitant, uncertain. When he didn’t call back, I thought gratefully, “There is a God.”

When I was at Stanford, I was one of a group of friends who had grown dissatisfied with what was offered in the classroom. We were, in effect, self-educating ourselves. While our professors tried to pickle our brains with Sartre, Camus, and (jesusgodallmighty!) Jean Genet, we were engaged in a search for meaning. There were three factions among us: the psychologists were searching for understanding in Maslow, Rogers, and Jung. The reincarnated Hindus were studying Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Ananda Coomaraswami’s Indian Art and Culture, and so on. And the third vector was my roommate Dave, an English major.

I don’t know if Dave found meaning at Stanford, but I admired his approach. Here’s Dave: he signs up for a course on Milton, Keats, and Shelley and decides that he likes Milton best, Keats second, so he spends the quarter memorizing vast tracts of Paradise Lost and hastily scribbles a paper the morning of the day it’s due, so that he can get a D-minus and not flunk out right away.

Dave spent a year in New York City, reading at the Public Library and living rent-free with a series of girlfriends. When I read Jung’s Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious in the Bollingen edition, I asked Dave if he’d read it. He replied quietly, “Oh, yeah, I’ve read Jung.” I said, “What did you read?” “All twenty-three volumes, when I was in New York.” In any rational university, Dave would have been handed his degree with a clap on the back and an appreciative smile.

I have a personal beef with Stanford, because when I arrived at 17, desperate for meaning, I was given 100 pages a night of fact-crammed readings in Western Civ. In six years at Stanford, I did well in courses that seemed to advance my personal quest, but got indifferent grades otherwise. Between the A’s and B-minuses, I managed to squeak into grad school.

In freshman English I got an A for a paper I wrote on Othello, and as a junior I got an A on a paper I wrote (at the last minute) on Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset. I was attracted to books that dealt with serious issues. Life had shown me a brutal face, when my dad attempted suicide the summer after I graduated from high school, shooting himself in the head and blinding himself. From grass lawns and droning contentment in suburban Arizona we were whisked to downtown Los Angeles where Dad attended Braille Institute. Don’t get me wrong, I consider my father a hero – he quickly recognized his mistake and plunged into his radically changed life without complaint or self-pity. He graduated faster from Braille than anyone ever had, and served on the governing board.

In high school, I had loved to sing. As a freshman at Stanford, I could still stand under the shower and belt out Frankie Laine songs, because I loved the feeling. They were corny as hell, but they sent a live current through my heart.

“Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’…”

“It’s a quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place, ‘cept you and me…”

“Like a demon, love possessed me,
You obsessed me constantly.
What evil star is mine,
That my fate’s design,
Should be Jezebel?

After my first year, I sang at beer busts only. Heartless songs: “They call it that good old mountain deeeewwww, And them that refuse it are few…”

Okay, I wanted to write about music and running. A long digression follows – I’ll attempt to tie it up far below.

My education began when I left school – and no time was wasted. I quickly discovered books that not only had meaning but challenged me to act: Autobiography of a Yogi, Thomas a Kempis’s Of the Imitation of Christ, the anonymously authored Way of a Pilgrim, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, and so on.

Later, I would discover four books that I’d been looking desperately for at Stanford. They were all by J. Donald Walters: Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t, Hope for a Better World: The Small Communities Solution, Art as a Hidden Message, and Education for Life.

At Stanford, I was drawn to the German authors Hermann Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke, and an obscure sculptor and playwright, Ernst Barlach, whose work expressed mystical longings. But their books could only hint at the fulfillments that lie beneath life’s external membrane. They took me halfway there.

No book could ultimately give me what I was seeking. A year or two out of school, I was desperate, and decided I had no choice – I had to test God. It was no irrational declaration of “faith.” I didn’t want a goofy, playtime, plastic religiosity; I needed truth – the real thing, wisdom and guidance and joy, not in some faraway heaven in the sky, but here and now.

At one point, I had several appointments with a counselor at UCLA who was working toward her degree in psychiatry. I asked her, “Don’t you think it’s possible to have joy all the time?” She said, “No, thats unrealistic. Why don’t you go to the bars in Long Beach – there are lots of sailors’ wives who hang out while their husbands are at sea. You could pick them up and have a good time” Life according to academic psychology: “Get George interested in something – anything – that will get his energy moving.”

I resolved that I would test religion scientifically, and if it panned out, fine, but if not, I would know. I prayed at first for five minutes at a time, demanding answers to my questions with ferocious longing, focus, and energy. And I began to receive answers.

Every day, without fail, I received some clear instance of God’s love. One day, I prayed to know the connection between western psychology and the spiritual teachings of the East. That afternoon I drove to a used bookstore in downtown Long Beach that I seldom visited. I walked in, turned left, walked down three aisles, turned right, walked halfway down, looked at the top shelf, and immediately spied Geraldine Coster’s 1933 book Yoga and Western Psychology. I took it to the beach where I lay on a blanket and absorbed the answers I was seeking.

Soon I was praying every waking minute. I’m what Ayurveda calls a “Pitta,” a will power type – my motto is “Everything to excess, nothing in moderation.” I had gone overboard. A respected spiritual counselor wrote me several letters in which he warned that my approach was wrong. “You need to learn to relax and enjoy the spiritual path,” he urged.

I went to a lecture attended by 300 people, by a woman renunciate of deep spiritual insight. At one point, she paused in her talk, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “My Divine Mother is not for those who are hard on themselves and hard on others! She is kind, sweet, loving and forgiving. You don’t have to chisel your prayers to Her in stone – you can talk to Her in the language of your heart.” She then turned away and continued her talk.

I simply couldn’t let go of my hardnosed, mental approach, which had long since become inappropriate. I thought that if I stopped my wordy-gerdy praying and thinking, I would fall forever. And, as a result, my life became dry. God receded, waiting patiently for me to “get the point.”

And, guess what? It came by singing. I don’t reveal my path here or in Fitness Intuition, because the inner truths of all experiential paths are the same. It’s only the “believers” who are in continual disagreement; the saints of all religions are not. The root experiences of all earnest believers are the same.

An Asian woman called me for help editing a book that she wanted to write. She sent me the first chapter, in which she described how she had prayed intensely to Christ, then woke up in the morning hearing an indescribably blissful “sound of mighty rushing waters” that permeated her consciousness. She called it “the Holy Ghost,” but it sounded suspiciously like what Yogananda described in a chapter of his autobiography titled “An Experience in Cosmic Consciousness“:

I cognized the center of the empyrean as a point of intuitive perception in my heart. Irradiating splendor issued from my nucleus to every part of the universal structure. Blissful amrita, the nectar of immortality, pulsed through me with a quicksilverlike fluidity. The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum, the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.

The Korean woman expressed dissatisfaction with my sample edits, in which I stressed the need for personal experience. “I want someone to help me who knows the dogma,” she said.

I can’t count the number of Christians I’ve known who’ve had a single experience of Christ’s love and joy, then turned to the “religion of rules” for fear of losing what they’ve been given – effectively closing the door on further experiences, which come by love.

I got my groove back by singing. I won’t say which songs I sang. Suffice it to say that, for five years, I sang at least an hour and a half every day. It was probably too much, but it changed my life.

The longer I live and run, the more I’m persuaded that the heart holds tremendous healing power. My best runs have been with an expansive heart; my worst, with a pessimistic, sad, worried and contracted heart. Songs that come from deep inside, not secondhand from an iPod, free tremendous energy and allow me to run fast. It depends on how thoroughly I can harmonize and purify the feeling of my heart. It isn’t easy. It’s a dimension of running that I’ve only begun to explore. But I suspect that music (self-generated) will be a core tool of training in future.

Last Saturday I ran for two hours by the Bay in San Francisco, and at one point a middle-aged man passed me going the other way, singing aloud, though dozens of runners were continually passing. He had a short, stocky Kapha (heart-type) body. The words he sang were strange and disjointed, as if he were trying to tune his heart and not quite finding the right current, like a sitar player warming up and tuning his instrument. Yet he looked quite happy.

Years ago, on the Stanford campus, after running and singing silently for an hour, I felt so joyful that I couldn’t resist singing aloud:

If you’re seeking freedom,
Seek it on the mountain,
God’s sunlight on your shoulder,
The wind in your hair –
Where there’s no one can hold you,
Boss about or mold you.
Once your heart is free
You’ll be king everywhere.

I turned and realized that a young woman had been running behind me – she was athletic-looking, deeply tanned, a broad smile spread across her beautiful face.

Returning to Stanford, 42 years after I left, I now have the good sense to avoid the main quad and the academic buildings with their aura of academic sweat and odor of blue books. When I run at Stanford now, I run through the athletic complex, under the eucalyptus trees, and into the hills.

Back at Stanford, I’m beginning to find my heart again. I’m learning to sing.

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