Goosebumps From the Running Fringe

It seems that each generation of runners has its favorite running book. Today, it’s Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall’s search for a simpler, more personally fulfilling approach to running. Along the way, he looks at the deficiencies of modern running shoes, spends time with northern Mexico’s Tarahumara tribe, and witnesses a dramatic 100-mile race in the Rockies.

Born to Run isn’t the first book to explore the sports fringe. That was probably Michael Murphy’s The Psychic Side of Sports, published in 1979.

A prominent figure in the West Coast new-age scene (he co-founded the Esalen Institute), Murphy co-authored Psychic Side with Rhea White, a librarian who’d cataloged thousands of stories about athletes’ unusual experiences – for example, a touchdown pass thrown by San Francisco 49er quarterback John Brody, who absolutely knew, before the ball left his hand, exactly where the receiver would arrive, and the trajectory that the pass would take.

Peter Nabokov’s Indian Running followed in 1987. It told of weird experiences of Indian runners in the American Southwest. For example, an Indian runner set out across the desert to carry a message to a settlement dozens of miles away. When white trackers followed in the runner’s path, they found his stride lengthening to over 30 feet.

Similar stories were recounted in Psychic Side of Sports about Tibetan lung-gomp-pa runners who covered vast distance in a trance state, flying over the ground with huge strides.

When Psychic Side appeared, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I had come to running at the recommendation of a respected spiritual counselor, and had been deeply interested in the spiritual side of the sport.

But I was disappointed to find that the book gave me no new insights. In fact, it read like a dry catalog of boring facts. There was no juice, no inspiration, no master theme: “here’s the spiritual side of sports – it’s very fulfilling – definitely worth pursing – and it’s part of the great scheme of life – and here’s how you can have these experiences for yourself.”

Born to Run is a somewhat different animal. McDougall’s message is more earthy: a trimmed-down approach to running, free of materialistic hooplah, can deliver rich personal rewards.

No argument there. What runner hasn’t known the distinct pleasure of padding through a long run on a hot day, wearing only shoes and shorts?

When I ran ultras, I loved how it felt, at the end of a 50-miler, to be purged and pared down to a much simpler mode of being. My body became that of a very old person. My mind could no longer chatter or complain, and my heart was reduced to a bemused and receptive stillness. When my normal coping systems shut down, I existed fully in the moment, and space opened to commune with the blissful stillness of the soul.

In these articles I usually try to tone down the “spiritual” side, so that runners of diverse backgrounds can find something of value. I try to highlight how universal spiritual principles are extremely practical. and give us answers to questions about our training.

But I wonder – by not talking about the spiritual specifics, am I insulting the reader’s intelligence?

I’ve found running to be a wonderful laboratory for exploring spiritual principles. If religion is real, surely it must be able to stand up to experimental testing. There appear to be two classes of religious seekers. The first are fundamentalists who are more apt to tiptoe around the edges of religion, spouting dogma and analyzing drily. And then there are the mystics and devotees of all ages who have pursued God passionately. In my mind’s eye, I visualize a heaven populated by big-hearted men and women who’ve gone after God with full zest and gusto.

Centuries ago, a young monk in a Greek Orthodox monastery approached his superior with a question. “Father,” he said, “in my meditations, is it acceptable to seek the actual experience of God’s presence?”

“Why, yes, of course!” the teacher replied. “Is God nothing?”

The media today are loaded with stories in which self-styled “experts” address the question of God’s existence with dry logic. But the scientific method is not about reasoning and logic. It’s about conducting experiments using appropriate means, toward the goal of gaining actual experience.

If we want to know God, we must follow the saints, not the fundamentalists – conducting rigorous scientific experiments using the tools of prayer and meditation in the lab of our bodies, hearts, and minds, and accept no “proof” other than direct experience. The scriptures tell us that God watches the heart. No wonder the dry mutterings of dogmatists and atheists are so unpersuasive.

So, okay, I’ll go out on a limb.

The story begins at a Sunday service on the morning of a long run. The minister talked about how our true reality isn’t the little ego, but the larger Self of which we are a part.

On the path that I follow, a primary spiritual practice involves listening to the inner sounds that one hears in meditation. As one’s practice deepens, he ultimately hears the ocean’s roar of OM, the vibration of God’s blissful consciousness that creates and sustains this universe. As the meditator merges his attention with that blissful sound, the ego begins to lose its hold, and awareness of God’s presence grows stronger.

I took monastic vows recently. As the evening of the ceremony approached, I was dismayed to become aware of an endless parade of ego-driven impulses in my heart and mind. I knew that the vows would include declaring an intention to renounce ego-motives and identifications. The fact that the vows are considered “directional” gave me little comfort. Could I take them honestly?

I was encouraged when I remembered something a friend had told me. Haridas said he loved to watch the antics of his little ego “with bemused detachment.” He said, “I love that practice – I never tire of it.”

I decided that, because I seemed to be able to watch my ego strutting its stuff, I would relax and enjoy the show. The part of me that can stand back and watch with amusement is the part where I want to be. The more I watch, presumably, the less I’ll be identified with the little ego.

These thoughts were on my mind as I left Sunday service and drove to the Stanford campus to begin my run.

As an elderly runner, I find that it’s still dismayingly easy to slip into the cage of ego. “Look at me! I’m fitter than most people my age!” But I find these thoughts give no satisfaction, and only make me feel smaller. And so I resolved to discipline my mind as I ran, and not let it wallow in the ego, but keep it in a bemused and watchful state.

Months ago, I had a run where the right spiritual attitude was revealed to me powerfully. I found myself running with deep discipline, aware on an inner level of the wonderful sweetness of God, and in a more outward way, of the need to exercise strong discipline, to withdraw energy from the wandering mind and emotions, and offer myself inwardly to that sweet, loving Presence. As I did so, that sweetness became stronger. It was one of my best runs ever.

So, as I started my run on Sunday, I began my practice. I was praying urgently to be able to love God, to love God’s work, and to be one with His love for all. And, pretty soon, I began to hear the “inner sounds,” and one sound stood out in particular.

Years ago, I described that sound to a spiritual counselor, who told me that it was “the beginning of Om.” Very often, when I pray sincerely, the answer comes in the form of the inner sounds becoming stronger. And so I resolved to absorb my attention that sound and let the little strutting ego do whatever it might.

I kept up the practice for the final hour and three quarters of the run. I can’t say that I felt weirdly “spiritual,” in the sense of Psychic Side of Sports. Yet the effect was marvelous. I was hustling along at just under 80% of max HR, yet I fell into a state of running that was permeated with a relaxed detachment and happiness.

The practice seemed to make me more intuitive; I seemed to have an unusually clear sense of what to do. “I’m feeling good. Should I go a bit longer?” The answer came as a positive energy in the thought of running the extra miles.

It was also mirrored in my “body language.” At the start of a run, these old legs feel tight and awkward, and it takes a while to find a smooth rhythm.

Listening to the “Little Om” seemed to make it easier. And although I ran a half-hour longer than planned, my legs felt fine to the end, never stiff or trashed.

I wondered if, by communing with the inner sounds, I had tapped into a non-physical source of energy. My spiritual teacher taught a series of exercises for doing just that, drawing energy with will through the “gateway” of the medulla oblongata in the brain stem, which he said is the point where life first enters the body, and through which God’s energy sustains us. I’ve done those exercises every day for 35 years and find them very energizing.

It was a “strange” run, yet it seemed completely natural. It struck me that the inner sound never weakened at those moments when my thoughts strayed into ego-territory. In her talk on Sunday morning, the minister quoted something that our teacher often said: that God doesn’t mind our mistakes; He only minds our indifference. I knew, as I ran, that God didn’t mind those momentary lapses – that He was always ready to love and encourage me, as long as I kept turning resolutely back toward Him.

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