Mary Ellen and I were enjoying the beautiful trails of Rancho San Antonio, a 3800-acre preserve in the foothills of the Coastal Range. It was a lovely spring day, temperature in the low seventies, a glorious lull before the approaching storms of the weekend.
We were pleasantly tired, walking slowly, hand in hand, letting the sun’s warmth soak into our skin, just enjoying the green.
Mary Ellen said, “It’s lovely…you don’t have to know anything to be in nature. Anyone can enjoy it.”
I laugh. “Yes. No facts required.” (Photo: Rancho San Antonio)
I was good at school, but hated nearly all of it. Three months before I entered Stanford in 1959, my Dad was blinded in an attempted suicide. It wasn’t clear to me at the time, but I was desperate to find meaning. And what Stanford offered me was facts. The reading assignments were horrific – over 100 pages per day of Western Civ, English, etc. – a mountain of dry facts which we were expected to absorb and regurgitate. Forty-three years later, when the tech slump and 9/11 killed off my freelance business, I returned to Stanford as a part-time administrative assistant. At almost 60, I saw wonderful aspects of Stanford that I could never have recognized as a 20-year-old: professors who were spiritually dynamic, a boss who was the soul of warrior-like devotion to service, people of extraordinary energy, enthusiasm, and heart.
But I remarked to a friend and fellow Stanford grad, “I love the athletic complex, but the Quad smells too much of blue books and pale academic sweat.” In the engineering library, I saw the flip side of Stanford that I had experienced: young people absorbed in absorbing facts, their brows furrowed.
Fortunately, I did find markers along the way: two professors who encouraged my interest in the spiritual currents of German literature; and friends who were explicitly engaged in a search for meaning, self-educating themselves with independent studies in psychology, literature, and eastern religion.
By the time I became a runner, five years after I left school, I had discovered that the farthest reaches of meaning were to be found and experienced – not merely read-about – in my own self. I had severely tested the claims of religion, and had found them true. Not content with pious sentiments, I challenged the scriptures. I made the desperate experiment: prayed with utmost intensity and sincerity, in the full expectation of receiving answers. And in every instance, I did. My prayers were answered unfailingly; the only exception being rare occasions when I prayed half-heartedly or with distracted attention.
Two surgeries on my spine had left me with a brain and heart that seemed to be short-circuited. I had difficulty concentrating my mind and opening my heart. In the rhythm and energy-flow of running, I found a way to harmonize my body, soothe my heart, and free my mind.
I had thought that the search for meaning led through the mind, through twiddling words. My small bag of experiences with the spiritual path so far, and my fledgling career as a runner, told me that words were like birds fluttering about the temple of true experience, but barred from entering within. Meditation, my spiritual teacher said, isn’t at all about getting the mind to be calm and focused, as most people believe; it’s entirely about the heart. “Fathomless depths of love for God lie hidden in the human heart,” a senior monk and spiritual counselor told me, “waiting to be uncovered by the Master’s liberating discipline.”
I found the love I was looking for, in part through running. Running was a proving ground. Play is practice for life; and running mirrored the spiritual life. Running was, above all, experiential. Words were irrelevant to training, except as they encapsulated actual experiences. The spiritual path, my teacher said, is about what works; it’s isn’t about careful definitions. Similarly, the science of running seemed like black crows, fluttering and squawking around the material body. I wanted to know and awaken the living runner who resided in the body. I wasn’t interested in V02Max, biodynamics, and heart rates, except to the extent that they helped me find the inner experiences that mattered most to me: health and high energy, love and devotion, will and wisdom-guided volition, calm focus and insight, and joy and bliss.
I considered no running a success unless it brought that joy, harmony, expanding love and insight, and bliss. Over the years, I learned to run far and fast, but no part of running gave me satisfaction except as it opened my heart and extended my awareness. I could run slowly, on a sunny day in the Stanford hills, and feel such inner satisfaction that I wouldn’t dream of swapping it for a sub-three-hour marathon, achieved at the expense of that inner fulfillment. What motivated me as a runner was the unending search for balance, harmony, expansive goodwill, kindness and joy.
Anyone can do it. Facts aren’t required.