What are your goals as a runner? Countless people — and I bow to their superior wisdom — never care about running’s “inside story.” And, well, okay, that’s their choice.
But then there’s us — the small, tiny actually, minority of runners who put inner quality first. Who dream, in fact, of running’s peak experiences.
Invisible in the great mass of runners who are outies, I’m an unabashed innie. From Day One of my running career, I’ve desperately wanted to experience joys of a inward kind, and I’ve used running as a tool to get there.
I knew those peak running experiences existed — I’d experienced them. Trouble is, I couldn’t predict when they would happen. They seemed to come when the Moon was in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligned with Mars. When all the right conditions fell magically in place: body — check — physical systems optimized. Will power — check — will is smooth, strong, positive, enthusiastic. Mind — niner… — calm, and focused like a laser. Feelings — relaxed, harmonious and positive.
And so on. It seemed I ought to be able to get them rolling in sync, purring contentedly and doing their job.
Believe me, I tried. I tested all manner of theories for finding bliss on the run. Some were from a long way around the bend. But none worked to my complete satisfaction. I craved those special runs, and it sometimes seemed as if wanting them too much actually got in the way of having them.
Think the outies have a hard time pulling together their training? I spent 20 years messing with the runner’s tools of heart and mind and soul before I began to catch the first faint glimpses of the keys to blissful running.
Midway through a particularly strugglesome run on trails in the Coastal Range of the San Francisco Peninsula, I was ragging away, trying to bully my mind and heart to be receptive, uplifted, harmonious, open, and focused and compassionate and kind — when I suddenly heard the inner voice of my spiritual teacher. Speaking with compassionate humor, he said, “You’re making it harder than it has to be!”
I believed entering the running zone meant you had to calm and focus the mind. But my efforts were a bust. I ran a gazillion runs of 2 to 7 hours, pounding away at my mind and trying to get it to focus. And always it managed to squirt out from under my fist, spawning horrible new strings of random thoughts.
Occasionally, those runs were successful — but always, it was when I got so tired and desperate and hopeless that I simply gave up. In time, I realized that I could never defeat my mind. And so I let it ramble and went into my feelings and turned to my spiritual teacher and God with up-thrown hands and a hearty guffaw. “I cannot do this. I can’t control my thoughts.” And because I finally felt deeply, I found my heart opening and a subtle in-pouring of grace — God’s calmness, kindness, friendship and joy. And, of course, in those radiations of love, my mind snapped-to and was instantly calm and riveted.
In time, I stopped pounding my poor mind and simply let it ramble. In my spiritual life, I’ve always had a terrible relationship with my thoughts. Many, many times when I felt I was “supposed” to be calm and focused, I couldn’t do it. When I ran, my mind spun round like the fool on the hill. “There is a girl in New York City,” Paul Simon sang, “who calls herself the human tambourine. And sometimes when I’m falling, flying or tumbling in turmoil I say, ‘Oh, so this is what she means.’” (Paul Simon, Graceland.)
My spiritual teacher says that people make a big mistake when they imagine that meditation is about calming the mind. On the contrary, he says, it’s about calming the heart.
Twenty years into my quest for blissful running, I started over. I began to ignore the mind’s droolings, just let it drift and stumble, while I looked for ways to get into the innermost harmonious, radiant core of my heart. My teacher said, “There is no end to how far you can go into the heart.”
Whenever I succeeded in finding that simplest place in the heart — not passively, but with an active yearning and prayer to commune with God from that point of trueness — everything in my running and my awareness turned around. I knew, from that sincere place, how fast and far I should run. I knew what to turn my attention to. I knew which efforts of will would bear fruit — I knew how much effort was too much or too little.
Honestly? I’m still learning. My spiritual teacher remarked that every day on the spiritual path is like starting over. You have to get in that sincere place in the middle of the heart, every day. I find that it’s the absolute secret of meditation — whenever I’m able to rise into that place, I find the inner temple where God extends His sweetness to all. And the more I get the little self out of the way, the more I can receive. Praying for others, asking for God’s help for them, is a wonderful way to blur the edges of the ego and become more expansive.
Another thing I found that was incredibly helpful was breathing. Whether I was running or meditating, I realized that the breath is deeply connected with states of mind.
Sometimes in meditation, when I’m unable to feel much of anything, I’ll just breathe deeply for a long time. Breathe in, hold the breath, and let it out to an equal count — 12, 12, 12, or 10, 10, 10. If I keep at it for a long while, an interesting thing often happens. I begin to feel a gathering of energy at the level of the heart. And if I’m rising inwardly toward God with first, faint, tentative feelings of devotion, I’m able to find sincere feelings of love for God and self-offering. Sometimes, after breathing deeply for a long while, I’ll feel that I’m touching the edges of a great silence in a deeply receptive place in my heart where my thoughts wither and I feel a joy that is ever-present and waiting.
Screenwriters know that the hardest part of writing a movie script is the second act. The first act is easy — you let the audience know what your main character is like, and you put him/her in an interesting situation. And that’s where the going gets tough. It’s very easy to bore the audience in Act 2 — because there’s so much “business” that needs to be taken care of, and you have to do it in a high-energy way that entertains. Have you watched the movie “Men In Black”? The script is amazing — not a moment is wasted; everything is high-energy and spot-on.
It’s the same in the spiritual life. The second-act problems are what my teacher calls “the long, slogging middle ground” of the spiritual life. You’ve had an awakening and perhaps a few encouraging experiences at the start, and then the hard work begins, where you have to work to change yourself. You have to train your mind, devote your will, and above all, open your heart. And it all takes time.
It’s like running. For innie runners, the middle ground is where you try to hang on to the initial inspiration, and go deeper. You’ve achieved basic fitness, and now you must train yourself, body, heart, will, mind, and soul, to become a refined instrument, a receiving station for higher guidance, a channel for help to others, a disciplined runner-warrior whose will is to do only what is right. The reward is blissful running. And it can happen on any day — when we’re tired, or when we’re fit and fully recovered. The results depend on attunement to what’s right.
The runner’s quest, and the spiritual journey are lonely pursuits. “Each devotee’s romance with the Infinite Beloved is unique,” my spiritual teacher said. The spiritual life, orthodox dogma notwithstanding, is entirely about the individual.
Similarly, every runner must learn to individualize his or her training. And that’s where the hard work is done, the hard spiritual work of running.
The first act was fun — we introduced the characters, learned the basics, and solved simple problems on the material plane. Running was enjoyable as we acquired energy. The changes were dramatic, impressive, thrilling and fun.
The second act is different. The joys of Act 1 fade and progress doesn’t come as quickly anymore. The goal may seem vaguer, foggier, harder to see in clear outlines.
We face new questions, which boil down to this: Where can we find joy now? Deeper joys, richer joys, worthy of hard struggle?
Act 2 is a struggle for meaning. We’ve realized that running isn’t only about the body, but that it’s a battle on five fronts. To win the rewards of Act 3, we must learn in Act 2 how to fight the battle to harmonize body, heart, will, mind, and soul.
We know intuitively that there’s a Grand, Unified Theory of Running. A simple, clear way to have fitness and health, love and strength and wisdom and joy.
And there is.
Running is simple, even during the difficult rites of passage in Act 2. The hero slashes his way through a swamp, fighting dragons until at last, weary from the struggle, he emerges to a vision of the Castle on the Hill.
Playwright David Mamet describes Act 2:
The true drama, and especially the tragedy, calls for the hero to exercise will, to create, in front of us, on the stage, his or her own character, the strength to continue. It is her striving to understand, to correctly assess, to face her own character (in her choice of battles) that inspires us — and gives the drama power to cleanse and enrich our own character.
In real life, the battle takes place inside us. It’s a battle, in truth, to change ourselves — to become simple, strong, serene, kind, and mature. Winning the battle is its own reward, because it holds great joy.
How can we learn to train well? By becoming simple, strong, wise and kindly, mature runners. Quite literally, by finding a place within us where our hearts are no longer ruled by heaving, unreliable emotions. Where our minds are clear and piercingly focused and calm. Where our will is strong and vowed to fight in the cause of wisdom. Where our souls are receptive to the wise guidance of a higher intelligence and energy, which has our best interests always at heart.
Go for a run. How to make the best of it? What will we do?
Simple is different from easy. Like the hero, fending off dragons, crafting a good run takes slaying the dragons of doubt, despondency, distraction, confusion, delusional emotions, and negative thoughts.
It takes fighting with the magic sword of fierce, calm concentration. Unrelenting will to do only what’s right. Constant listening for the body’s subtle, quiet messages: “Today is not a good day for hard running; go easy, back off, run in harmony with your body’s needs.”
It takes abandoning self-will, laughing at childish emotions, and fighting past mental uncertainty and doubt. Above all, it takes humility — letting go of ego-driven ideas and feelings and asking for and attuning ourselves to something more expansive, enlightened, and fulfilling.
Act 3 is the fulfillment. It’s where we approach the Castle that holds the best rewards of the running life. Having fought the battle to do what’s right, we run in an aura of inner fulfillment, with a smile in our hearts.
For the victorious runner-warrior, there are no “bad” runs. There are only opportunities. On days when the weary body pants and stutters, the true warrior follows wisdom, holds sternly to his warrior’s vow to do what’s right. He is strong enough to run with self-restraint, in harmony, giving up self-will. He is patient and wise enough to know that, by doing right today, he will emerge tomorrow and fight bigger battles for greater rewards.