Twisted Path of a Distance Runner

I’ve been reading Joe Henderson’s autobiography, which he’s been posting on his website a chapter at a time, and I’m finding it interesting. That’s because Joe isn’t simply recording the historical facts of his life, but revealing the lessons he’s learned. Stories about personal growth are nearly always uplifting.

I’m going to go out on a limb and talk for a while about my life. I’m not remotely interested in telling “my story” in order to be liked or admired – at age 66, it’s far too late for that. But I’ve learned a few lessons that I believe hold universal value, especially in an age where there’s a great deal of confusion about values, and even whether values exist.

At any rate, here’s part one. Unlike Joe, I expect to finish with no more than one more “chapter.”

My journey, from the day I was born, has been about the evolution of the heart. Along the way, I discovered that the heart’s feelings hold keys to many wonderful things. The heart is Grand Central Station for many of the things that give life meaning. As a distance runner, I would discover that many famous runners and coaches have practiced and taught “feeling-based training.” Arthur Lydiard and Bill Bowerman, perhaps the two most successful running coaches of the 20th century, believed that it makes no sense to assign a runner a fixed schedule of workouts. In the first place, the coach can’t always be there to tell the runner what to do. And only the runner himself can know, by checking the calm, internal feedback of inner feeling, what’s right.

Lydiard and Bowerman knew that they could evaluate runners by monitoring certain external, physical signs. If a runner showed up at a University of Oregon track workout looking bleary-eyed, with stumbling gait and unenthusiastic demeanor, Bowerman would check the runner’s pulse and ask him a few questions. If he decided that the runner was too tired to benefit from training, he would send the runner home. Lydiard, too, believed that runners should finish each workout feeling “pleasantly tired,” but never gruelingly strained. He didn’t believed each runner should check his feelings, and if he felt run-down, either skip the day’s workout, or run short and go home.

When I was born, in 1942, it was soon after the Great Depression, and my parents felt that the key to material success and security was education. So they were happy when I was usually near the top of the class, and they gave me lots of encouragement for doing well in school, particularly in math. During the years from age 6 to 12, when children develop their ability to feel, I was more or less on my own. Like all children at that age, I loved stories and music and freely engaged in imaginative play. But this was not overly encouraged.

I remember all too clearly that adults were apt, if not eager, to dismiss the feelings that counted most to me. In fourth grade, Mrs. King had us copy a picture of an animal out of a book. I chose a deer, and I was completely delighted when my pencil drawing came out well. I loved that drawing, and when Mrs. King told me to color it with crayons, I refused. When she insisted, I colored the deer without enthusiasm or feeling, then threw the picture away.

Why do I remember the event so vividly, 60 years later? Because, in my inner life, it stood for a fact that I recognized even in fourth grade: that where feelings were concerned, adults were more interested in solid facts and good behavior – things that reflected well on them as parents, and that they felt they could control.

You have feelings? I don’t have time. Don’t be a baby. Grow up. It was a “scientific” approach to raising kids, but it was very unsubtle, because it made no distinction between the many levels of feeling. It assumed that all feeling is raw emotion and therefore self-indulgent and detrimental to attaining maturity.

But is it so? A level of refined feeling is tremendously important for the development of the individual and for civilization. That’s why the “feeling years” from 6 to 12 are so important, for the individual child and for society.

I am the webmaster for a small private school in Palo Alto, California that does an outstanding job of helping children develop their ability to feel in positive, expansive ways during the elementary years. At Living Wisdom School, the children in grades 1 to 8 spend hundreds of hours engaged in art, music, dance, and theater. Each child in the school plays a role in the annual theater production, which portrays with the life of a great human being. (Past subjects have been Christ, Buddha, Kwan Yin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Paramhansa Yogananda, Teresa of Avila, etc.)

The thought that immediately arises is: “But aren’t the teachers placing the children’s academic careers – even their future livelihood – at risk?” It’s an understandable concern. Yet, the amazing thing is that these children, who learn to love, love learning. The students of Living Wisdom School consistently place above average on national tests of academic achievement, and do extremely well when they go on to high school and college.

Feelings count for a great deal, and they are absolutely crucial in sports training. It’s essential to understand the role of feelings when we train. Most coaches urge us to “listen to the body.” But it is simply not possible, without learning to calm the mind, focus attention, and harmonize the heart’s feelings.

The body “speaks” to us through calm, inner feeling – not through the rational mind.

The mind can only stand outside the body and analyze, but it can never understand what’s happening with the body where it counts, by sensing the body’s condition from within. The mind can only gather superficial, mechanical evidence and deduce and surmise what the body needs or can do. But the heart understands these things directly.

This is by no means airy mysticism or new-age flakyness. It is a solid, reliable, practical way to train.

I mentioned earlier that the heart is “Grand Central Station” for many good things. In all of the world’s mystical spiritual traditions, the heart is prized far above the mind. As the great Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, said, “In ecstasy, one understands in an instant things which it would take years for the mind to grasp with laborious thinking.” When she first achieved the superconscious experience, Teresa saw an angel who thrust a spear into her heart three times. She later said that the pain was excruciating, but that she would willingly endure it again in order to experience the blissful inner communion with Christ’s bliss that followed

If “feeling-based training” were flaky, in the sense of loose and self-indulgent, it would deserve to be rejected, because it would be useless. But it is not – it is an extremely demanding discipline, not in the sense of arduousness or strain, but because it requires calm, unwavering, alert attention. A runner who trains “however I feel” will never experience maximum success, in fitness or inner quality. He or she is by no means practicing the tough, unrelenting discipline of the heart.

It surely is valid to run for enjoyment, for recreation and relaxation. Those goals can be achieved easily enough by running “how one feels.” But other goals are more demanding. Improving one’s time in the marathon, for example. One simply cannot afford to waste a single workout if he wants to get better at running such an enormous distance. And there is no quicker way to set back our training than by abandoning discipline and indulging the fleeting whims of the moment.

Ask six-time winner of the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, Mark Allen. The first six times he competed in the Ironman, Allen fell short of winning, usually placing second or third. Only after he began giving his body enough rest did he succeed. Allen describes a telling workout, a long, mountainous ride with triathlete Mike Pigg where he allowed himself follow his emotions, logging a brutally hard ride because he felt he needed to show that he was as fit as Pigg. The result was yet another disaster at Kona. By indulging his competitive juices at the wrong time, he left the Ironman gold on a mountain road in Colorado.

Even as a little kid, I knew that I was being cheated of something valuable, by having my mind trained at the expense of feeling. At the time, of course, I couldn’t have explained what it was that I wanted. In high school, I grew cynical, knowing that none of my teachers were giving me anything that really mattered. In my junior year, a lovely Mexican-American girl was accidentally shot on the front steps on the school and died in her boyfriend’s arms. The students and faculty were profoundly shocked, yet our teachers said nothing to us about the incident. Theirs was the realm of facts – life was for our parents and church, and none of their business.

In May of my senior year, my father, a mining engineer, attempted suicide, shooting himself through the head and succeeding only in blinding himself. We moved to Los Angeles so that Dad could attend the Braille Institute.

My father was a wonderful man, a strong man. He never complained or became embittered by his mistake. He graduated faster from Braille Institute than anyone ever had, joined the governing board, and was a helpful and supportive companion to my mother until he died.

But the event did little to strengthen my faith in life’s inner purpose. In the fall of that year, I entered Stanford, where I was deeply uninspired to discover that I was expected to read and assimilate about 120 pages of history and English nightly, besides studying calculus and physics. In spring quarter, I turned my back on meaningless facts and ended up being placed on probation.

I spent the year away from Stanford, working the graveyard shift at a bank and attending night school at Los Angeles City College, then summer school at UCLA. I took language courses toward a possible degree in mathematics or engineering. But it was in an advanced German class that I began to catch a glimmer of meaning. It wasn’t that the poems of Rilke, or the quasi-mystical writings of Heine and Hesse told me anything practical about life’s purpose or the path to true joy; but they awakened my feelings, and in that barest warming of the heart I sensed a path to something fuller, deeper, and more wonderful.

But I would discover that it was a far-off view, like peering through a long tunnel at a beautiful valley beyond, or looking through a glass darkly. “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

At Stanford, I did well in classes where there were books that awakened my feelings, but indifferently in the others. In my junior year, I joined a small group of friends who had more or less rejected what the teachers were selling, and were educating themselves. We were interested in psychology, literature, and spiritual teachings. Where our formal courses approached these fields analytically and mechanically, hoping to cram our brains with facts, we looked for ways to give our hearts to learning. But, much more, we were searching for something that we could give our hearts to, and that wouldn’t end up disappointing us.

The problem was, books were an opening only for the mind, and little of what entered through that channel could penetrate to our hearts. It could only set our hearts aglow tangentially, like a meteor striking an asteroid and skipping off into space.

The Summer of Love was in the air, especially in the Bay Area, yet I could never convince myself that I would find meaning by donning beads and adopting mannered speech – “Yeah, man” – and playing Pan pipes, though I flirted with the music and read the bibles of Haight Ashbury – Be Here Now, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, etc.

Throughout the long years of college and after, it seemed the universe would drop hints occasionally, as if to encourage me on my journey. I got a three-year fellowship that included six months of study at the University of Hamburg in Germany, where a wonderful German tutor, Fraulein Shipporeit, introduced us to Hermann Hesse. Back at Stanford, I was inspired by Ernst Barlch, a German sculptor and playwright whose work embraced mystical themes, and by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

In graduate school, I shared a house off campus with three friends. One day, Dave McCord and I were walking up Palm Drive to class. Realizing that we were late for class, we decided to hitchhike. A car stopped, and as we ran across the road, I stumbled. Long story short, within two days I was in Stanford Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down after an unsuccessful four-hour surgery to remove a tumor that was compressing my spinal cord. I suspect that it’s not insignificant that the tumor was in the area of my heart. Again, the universe appeared to be playing with me, as if to say “You’ve lived your life in your mind; now you’ll have to work hard to heal your heart.”

Several years later, when I entered the spiritual path, lingering spasticity and numbness from the surgery would give me trouble focusing my mind and expanding my heart’s feelings. But this, too, would prove a blessing, because it forced me to understand that I could meditate quite satisfactorily if I focused on cultivating devotional feeling, and let my mind spin off on its own bizarre journeys. After years of struggling unsuccessfully with mental focus in meditation, I was delighted when my spiritual teacher remarked that most people’s understanding of meditation is completely wrong, because they believe that it’s all about mechanical techniques that aim at concentrating the mind. But that isn’t true, he said, because meditation is about awakening the love of the heart. In fact, what I discovered is that my mind would effortlessly fall into a focus when I was able to awaken feelings of love for God.

In sports training, also, I realized that paying attention is of paramount importance. Yet, once again, I suspect most runners’ understanding of concentration is flawed. Concentration means deep interest, or absorption. My spiritual teacher also said that concentration is “almost synonymous with will power.”

When I was at Stanford, I noticed that many of my professors, who were among the brightest and most successful in their fields, were intensely interested in whatever they were doing – whether they were lecturing on mathematics, or doing something as trivial as filling out an expense statement, they gave it 100 percent of their energy and attention.

Success in sports or life takes deep feeling – enthusiasm and positive attitudes. My teacher said, “Will power is an increasingly smooth flow of energy and attention, directed toward a desired end.” And, well, how can there be strong attention, or a powerful desire, without deep feeling?

My education truly began after I left Stanford. The important lessons that the universe had seemed to want to teach me were all about the heart. And now it began to teach me in earnest.

I moved to Southern California. I was still paralyzed, and I moved in with friends from Stanford who were in graduate school at UCLA. I took menial jobs and hung out, reading and wondering what to do with my life. At one point, I took LSD and had a bad trip, and a roommate drove me to the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA. It was the mid-1960s, before the dope era became a tidal wave, and the doctors at NPI were interested in devising therapies for people who had hit the psychedelic skids, so I was admitted and stayed there for six weeks.

It was an informative experience, at least in the sense that it showed me the limitations of traditional western psychology. The counselor I was assigned to was a brilliant woman, an MD who had specialized in tropical medicine but had switched to psychiatry. The general objective of the therapy was to get the patients functioning again. In my hour-long daily sessions with the therapist, she would listen calmly while I told her about my desperate longing for truth, then she would suggest actions I might take to get interested in something and “become functional.” The problem was that her suggestions didn’t remotely address the search for meaning. I remember once asking her point blank, “Don’t you think it might be possible to experience joy all the time?” and her dismissing reply: “No – that’s completely unrealistic!”

Yet joy was what was promised in the spiritual books that I’d read. They defined bliss as the goal of life. The therapist urged me, one day, “Why don’t you go stay with your parents in Long Beach? There are lots of bars where you can pick up sailors’ wives and have a good time.” After that, I retained a stolid silence at our meetings. I wasn’t surprised when I was dismissed from NPI with a note in my chart that said I had “not cooperated with treatment.”

By that time I had become interested in eastern teachings, particularly the amazing book, Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda. I had read many spiritual books – at Stanford I had read books that dealt abstractly with spiritual truth: Heinrich Zimmer’s Philosophies of India, Carl Jung’s Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, and so on. I had read few books on Christianity, feeling from my own observation that Christianity was hopelessly mired in institutionalism and dogma, and that only the East offered paths to direct, personal experience. But when I reached a point of desperation and was willing to commit to action, I began to find books that not only explained truth intellectually but urged me to act, and told me what to do. And foremost among these books was Yogananda’s.

In my search for spiritual experience, I hadn’t left my five-year college education entirely behind. I wasn’t interested in a make-believe religion, or a limply sentimental “candles and sighs” kind of piety. I wanted, above all, a path that was practical. Something that impressed me about the Autobiography was that it was absolutely fair and objective, in that it didn’t preach the superiority of any path, but showed how the spiritual truths that underly all religions are one and the same. Yogananda showed how the saints of all religions, East and West, are never at odds about fundamental truths, and how it is only their followers who fall into bickering and arguing.

From NPI, I moved in with my parents and worked at the post office while I took classes toward high school and junior college teaching credentials. One day, my parents’ insurance agent, a fundamentalist Christian, came over to talk to them. Apparently sensing that I was seeking spiritual answers, he decided to convert me by way of Campus Crusade for Christ.

I gladly went along. I was eager to investigate every trail that might lead to truth. He brought Bible tracts, which I dutifully studied, then filled out answers to questions about what I had learned. When we met, he had us pray, which meant that he did all the praying, aloud. In fact, the entire approach was outward. He said nothing at all about cultivating a deepening inner relationship with God, much less about actually trying to experience God’s love and guidance. Instead, he urged me to become a missionary in Peru, and use my language skills to translate the Bible for the indigenous tribes. It all sounded like just another job, and it surely didn’t inspire me.

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda relates two stories of visitors to his guru’s ashram, one a western-trained scientist, the other a Hindu fundamentalist:

A noted chemist once crossed swords with Sri Yukteswar. The visitor would not admit the existence of God, inasmuch as science has devised no means of detecting Him.

“So you have inexplicably failed to isolate the Supreme Power in your test tubes!” Master’s gaze was stern. “I recommend an unheard-of experiment. Examine your thoughts unremittingly for twenty-four hours. Then wonder no longer at God’s absence.”

A celebrated pundit received a similar jolt. With ostentatious zeal, the scholar shook the ashram rafters with scriptural lore. Resounding passages poured from the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, the bhasyas of Shankara.

“I am waiting to hear you.” Sri Yukteswar’s tone was inquiring, as though utter silence had reigned. The pundit was puzzled.

“Quotations there have been, in superabundance.” Master’s words convulsed me with mirth, as I squatted in my corner, at a respectful distance from the visitor. “But what original commentary can you supply, from the uniqueness of your particular life? What holy text have you absorbed and made your own? In what ways have these timeless truths renovated your nature? Are you content to be a hollow victrola, mechanically repeating the words of other men?”

“I give up!” The scholar’s chagrin was comical. “I have no inner realization.”

For the first time, perhaps, he understood that discerning placement of the comma does not atone for a spiritual coma.

“These bloodless pedants smell unduly of the lamp,” my guru remarked after the departure of the chastened one. “They prefer philosophy to be a gentle intellectual setting-up exercise. Their elevated thoughts are carefully unrelated either to the crudity of outward action or to any scourging inner discipline!”

That was for me! I longed for an approach to spirituality that I could test and prove by actual experience. In fact, once I realized that what I wanted was experience, I set out to test the claims of the saints, whom I considered the true authorities on spiritual matters. They were the true “spiritual scientists” whose words range with the authority of their own, direct experience of God.

I thought, “I will make the experiment. I will test the claims of the saints rigorously. I will pray intensely for answers.”

I proceeded to pray about any spiritual question that might arise. And immediately I began to receive answers. One small example: On Sunday mornings, I would drive 20 miles to the nearest church where the ministers were disciples of my spiritual teacher. During the drive, I prayed fiercely for answers to my latest questions. And, invariably, the minister would address precisely those questions in his sermon, and give answers that satisfied my mind and heart.

Another small example: while reading the Autobiography, I rigorously questioned everything that Yogananda said. If I felt that my understanding was incomplete, or if I had doubts, I didn’t brush them aside, but questioned fiercely, asking Yogananda to explain. And, again, in every case I received the understanding I asked for.

It went beyond answers delivered to my mind. At one point, I wanted to know whether the teachings of the East address the same issues that western psychologists claim to resolve. As had become my custom, I prayed insistently to know the answer. I then felt a mild inspiration to drive to a bookstore in downtown Long Beach that I seldom visited.

Upon arriving, I walked in the door, turned left, proceeded to the third row of bookshelves, turned right, walked halfway down, and looked up to the top shelf, where I saw a book titled Yoga and Western Psychology, by Geraldine Coster, published in the early 1930s. I bought the book and drove to Huntington Beach, where I lay on a beach towel and absorbed exactly the answers I had prayed for.

I found books in the Christian tradition that inspired me. One was Thomas á Kempis’s wonderful Of the Imitation of Christ. Again, the book demanded action – fierce action, in prayer and devotion. Another was The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.

At the time, I was working in a temp job at Dean Witter, in downtown Los Angeles, and like many spiritual beginners, I had one foot on the path and one still in the world. Every afternoon, one of us would venture forth to the liquor store for a bag of cheap wine – usually Ripple or some similar pink swill. We hid the bottles in our file drawers, and when no one was looking, we proceeded to get pleasantly swacked. One day, a coworker glimpsed the edge of Imitation of Christ protruding from my coat pocket. He pulled it out and saw that the pages were heavily marked with underlined passages. He exclaimed, “What is this?!” I had no answer – it would have been folly to try to explain. But I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I was drinking a far better “juice” than Ripple.

3 thoughts on “Twisted Path of a Distance Runner”

  1. Hi George,

    I got the idea into my head that I could enjoy running maybe 3 months ago and along the search for information on my new interest I found this site and have been enjoying your writing and perspective, so I also have enjoyed reading your brief story… I’m just wondering, where is the rest of it?

  2. Thanks for writing. I’ve never gotten around to writing the “to be continued” part of the story. Truth is, I realize it would make a book that I’ll probably end up writing – too long for an article. (Also, I’m trying to limit article length.)

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