Finding the Joy of Running

A woman posted a message on the Runner’s World online forums, lamenting that she’d spent months training for her first half-marathon, and then hadn’t experienced any of the elation and satisfaction that others predicted she’d feel after she finished the race.

I hope she’ll persevere with her training and discover the joys of the sport, because they are considerable and enduring. But newcomers, like the forum poster, need to learn where to find them.

Where is joy always experienced? In our hearts and heads. The emotional joys we feel in response to outside events are a reaction that takes place inside us. Conditions, my spiritual teacher said, are always neutral – they seem to be happy or sad depending on how we react to them.

Over the years, runners have many positive and negative experiences. Wonderful days of perfect running are followed by injuries, DNF’s, and races when we stagger to the finish in limp-home mode. Over time, we realize that running is a roller-coaster, and that each “positive” is followed by an equal and opposite “negative.”

When we’re young, we instinctively crave the good days, and we resent the “bad” ones. We live for the good times, and we do everything we can to amplify them and increase their frequency. We take supplements, change our diet, get more sleep, train smarter, wear compression shorts, and switch shoes – all in hopes of making the joys come more often, and last longer.

Don’t get me started about the current bestseller, Born to Run. It’s a fine book. But I visualize millions of runners reading Born to Run, and then, inspired by the simpler life of the Tarahumara tribe, adopting barefoot running and guzzling pinole and iskiate in an attempt to find joy by outward means. (Pinole is toasted corn meal that the Tarahumara use for carbs during their runs; iskiate is an endurance drink made with chia seeds, water, lime juice, and sugar.)

The problem is that outward changes never bring ecstasy. When we pursue joy outwardly, it eludes our grasp, receding forever beyond our reach. “If I change my running fuels – do more speedwork – run at a more reasonable aerobic pace – I’ll get there – tomorrow…”

What newcomers come to understand, in time, is that the joys of running only become truly stable, frequent, and reliable when we adopt a particular style of running.

We can observe that style more often in folks who’ve been running a long time. Watch the crowd after a race, and you’ll see that it’s the young people who’re emotionally excited, while most of the older, experienced runners are deliberately cultivating a quieter mood. It’s as if they’d found an enjoyable inner groove, and don’t want to spritz it away with emotional gushing.

In fact, the best satisfactions of running are found inside. Emotional joys are canceled by their emotional opposites. Each wave of bubbly emotion is followed by a trough. The greatest happiness comes when, like a violin string that’s plucked and vibrates more and more quietly as the note fades, we quiet our feelings until we find contentment in stillness within.

How can we learn the lesson? There’s much to be learned from the times when we blow it. And, as the following example shows, we’re never too old to keep learning.

I ran 2 hours today on the Stanford campus. After the warmup, I settled into an enjoyable aerobic pace, around 78% to 80% of max HR.

I carefully nursed a mental focus and calm, positive feelings. And soon I was cruising with calm attention and a happy heart. It was a lovely run.

But then I tried to grab for “more.”

In choir this morning, we sang a song by my spiritual teacher, “If You’re Seeking Freedom.” The melody cheerfully reflected the mood of my run, and so I began singing the tenor part silently.

If you’re seeking freedom in a revolution,
Oh, if you’re seeking freedom, you won’t find it there.
For once the guns stop blazing, you’ll find it amazing,
How the world can drag on just as before.

And if you’re seeking freedom in a marble mansion,
Oh, if you’re seeking freedom, you won’t find it there.
For even when it’s sunny, you’ll be counting money,
Keeping up that showcase, your face lined with care.

And if you’re seeking freedom on a throne of power,
Oh, if you’ve seeking freedom, you won’t find it there.
For though men all obey you, what if they betray you?
Tense you’ll be and waiting, for foes everywhere.

But if you’re seeking freedom, cast away desires,
Why barter like a beggar, you’ve wealth everywhere.
For never can you buy it – grasp, and you deny it.
Freedom can’t be hoarded – it’s free as the air.

And if you’re seeking freedom, seek it on the mountains,
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’d been feeling quite wonderful – easy in my heart and mentally focused. But then I tried to reach outward to get more of that feeling, and that’s when I jumped off the tracks.

I began singing snatches of the song aloud between breaths. But singing aloud split my attention – a terrible thing to do while running. And my desire for “more” made the feeling emotional, which was different from the calm, expansive, impersonal feeling of singing the song for others, during the Sunday service.

Realizing that I’d blown it, I tried to pull back inside, but it was difficult. I had opened channels for my energy and attention to flow outward, and it wasn’t easy to seal-up the channel and re-create that lovely mood.

In fact, the run deteriorated from that point. I made a decision, based on emotion, to run a longer than I planned and the route led me on an unpleasant, heavily trafficked road on the periphery of the campus. My legs felt tired, and my heart felt flat. I had drained too much physical and emotional energy out of the tank. (Funny, how confused feelings and bad decisions so often go together.

I remembered the woman who expressed disappointment because she wasn’t able to feel more satisfaction after her first half-marathon. I hope she’ll stay the course and find the joys she’s looking for.

Is there a way to shorten the learning process? I suspect so. The ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali give the keys. “Yoga,” Patanjali writes, “is the neutralization of the vortices of emotional feeling.”

We can begin by learning to feel the difference between restless emotion and calm, intuitive feeling. And we can observe how emotional excitement swings over into its opposite.

How can we get beyond reactive emotion and find calm, interiorized feeling? The Yoga Sutras come to our aid: by practices that calm the restless heart and mind, including breathing exercises, yoga postures, meditation techniques, silently repeating an uplifting thought or prayer, and singing positive, uplifting music.

During the run, we can calm our hearts and thoughts by not allowing our attention to wander too far, but letting our hearts and minds become absorbed in the rhythms of running and the beauties of nature. We can silently repeat a short affirmation or prayer, a line of an uplifting song, or a phrase that inspires and harmonizes our hearts. We can focus our attention, with relaxation, at the point between the eyebrows, where yogis and modern neurophysiologists say that calm concentration is localized in the brain. And we can cultivate positive feelings. We can restrain our reactive emotions and offer ourselves to a higher Self within.

Or, and it just takes a little bit longer, we can wait until we grow old.

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