Two Kinds of Minimalism: External and Internal

One kind of minimalism is easy and costs a lot.

The other kind of minimalism is cheap, but more difficult.

There’s external minimalism – stripping down gear, in search of a simpler, more primitive kind of running.

And there’s inner minimalism – stripping away restless thoughts and feelings.

Which delivers the best rewards?

The problem with external minimalism is that stripped-down gear doesn’t change us inside.

But to truly experience minimalism at its shining core, that’s what a runner has to do – take the focus inside, away from shoes and other externals. It’s a demanding challenge, but it pays off richly.

My first brush with minimalism came in 1968. That was the year I started running. I ran on the beach, barefoot and shirtless, feeling connected in spirit with people of earlier times who ran in primal simplicity, for the joy of it.

As my endurance grew, I did longer runs, keeping them as simple as possible. In the early seventies, I lived in Mill Valley, a handful of miles across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. On weekends, I drove my ’72 VW bug to the City and began my long runs in Golden Gate Park.

I was fanatical about simplicity – I wore no socks or jock, and I hid the car keys under a tire, loathe to carry even those small reminders of modern life. I lugged no food or water and didn’t wear a watch – I ran in shorts and shoes, that was it. I loved those Nature Boy runs of 14-18 miles.

My shoes were “Lydiard EB Trainers.” Yup, they were designed by Arthur Lydiard himself. Lydiard had worked in a shoe factory and held strong opinions about running-shoe design. Made in Germany, they were sold by Runner’s World. They were roomy and very comfortable. Amazingly, you can still buy them from the original manufacturer (the link is to an English-language ordering page; or you can visit the manufacturer’s own German-language site). In 1973, as RW staffers, we bought them at discount for $25, but be forewarned – today they’re horribly expensive, at 139 euros, or about $198 US.

In time, I graduated to running ultramarathons. I loved the feeling, late in a 50-mile race, of being reduced to a simple, frail old person, tottering along in a temple of inner silence – my mind no longer capable of chattering, my emotional reactions muted, my spirit humbled to a childlike sincerity.

At one point, I ran five 50Ks in six weeks, yet none of those shorter runs could equal the simplifying power of 50 miles.

I never ran a 100-mile race. My sole attempt, at Western States, ended halfway. At 52 miles, I felt awful. I was peeing brown gunk, a sign of potentially life-threatening cell damage. I prayed, “What should I do?” And I heard my spiritual teacher’s voice: “This is not healthy for your body.” I dropped, not without regrets.

Soon after the DNF, a very experienced, talented ultrarunner sent me a sympathetic note:

I have never studied Yoga, Zen, or other eastern thought and understanding. Yet whenever I do read or listen about it from others, I am surprised by how similar it is to my own understanding of existence. I have learned tremendous amounts through daily runs by myself where I have time to drift and think. Over the last five years while ultrarunning, that rate of learning has escalated.

I have not done multiday runs, but the 100-mile trail runs are really a different animal than the shorter runs. The 100-mile run is an incredible experience that I have never been able to compare to anything else. Each time I do a 100-miler I am greatly tested and I learn a tremendous amount from it. I continue to be amazed at how much the body will put out after it begins to whine. I seem to test that further and further with each run and never cease to be amazed….

There is nothing like the experience of the last 30 or 40 miles. The first half of the run is a lot of fun, you feel good, the sun is out, etc. In the second half it becomes dark, you get tired from no sleep, fatigued from many miles, depleted and achy. It seems that during that time when your body, feeling, will, and mind are down, it is time for your spirit to soar if you let it. For me that happens at about mile 70. With each 100-miler, I am able to let my spirit soar higher and higher. The result is that my performance keeps improving and the quality of the experience becomes even more incredible. None of this happens in the shorter runs because they are too short and too intense. A 9- or 10-hour 50-miler just isn’t enough. Even better than the traditional 100-milers is Hardrock. After the first day, you have the night which is similar to other 100s, then you have another full day and another night. The second day and night are incredible. It is like you are living in a dream yet everything is crystal clear.

My last ultra was a solo 50-miler as a school fundraiser. At 5 a.m. on a spring morning in 2003, I dipped a finger in San Francisco Bay, and 12½ hours later I stretched my tired legs in the ocean at Pescadero Beach and let the waves wash over them.

By then, minimalism was a comfortable habit. Aside from fuel and water in a small backpack, my only aid was water stashed on the ridge, and a bottle of juice purchased from a roadside stand.

I’ve always enjoyed simplicity. Stripped-down gear helps. But stripping away restless thoughts takes me deeper.

Becoming simple inside is seldom easy. I spent 20 years testing various ways to still my mind, with little success. It became much easier when I realized how important it was to expand the feelings of my heart.

My spiritual teacher said:

“In teaching meditation, people speak of the need to calm the mind. In fact, it is the heart that needs to be calmed. That is why devotion is fundamental to success in meditation. When the heart is calm and one-pointed in its focus on God, the mind is also still, because there are no restless feelings to disturb it.”

My teacher knew I had serious issues with mental restlessness. Yet he never urged me to do more meditation techniques to focus my mind. Instead, he encouraged me to open my heart.

Soon after I came to him, I was meditating as much as 5½ hours a day, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was grinding it out with little inspiration. I asked him how I could develop more heart quality.

He said, “That is your single greatest need.” He said, “You should chant.”

Wanting to be absolutely honest, I said, “But, Sir, I don’t think I’m a chanter by nature.” He said, matter-of-factly, “Well, you should.” It was the closest he’s ever come to giving me a direct order, and it was really just a suggestion that I was free to accept or ignore.

He said, “It’s dry when you slog along with techniques.”

In time, I discovered that opening my heart helped my spiritual practice tremendously, and that it helped my running as well.

I relished the experience of running in a “zone” state, where the mind becomes still and running becomes an effortless flow.

For years, I invested tremendous energy trying to access that state by quieting my thoughts. But it never worked. In fact, I noticed that I only truly succeeded in entering that blissful stillness when my mind gave up, exhausted, and I ran from the heart.

Several years ago, I was running beautiful mountain trails and trying to beat my restless thoughts into submission. I reached a point where I was feeling discouraged over my lack of success. Suddenly I heard my spiritual teacher’s voice. In tones of bemused compassion, he said, “You’re making it a lot harder than it has to be!”

As I began to find ways to harmonize my heart, I discovered that the inner silence came more easily.

It required a change of approach. First, it was necessary to become simple and childlike, without guile or selfish striving. I craved the zone, but I couldn’t get there if I sought it in a spirit of “wanting it for me.”

It required a one-pointed immersion in the moment – not looking forward, not looking back. It demanded that I stop dividing my mind, sending my attention into the future, saying “I want it! Oh, please, when will I have it?”

I was more successful when I was able to harmonize my heart, filling it with enjoyable feelings of love, kindness, compassion, etc. When my heart was fulfilled, it was happy and content to rest in the moment. The more I practiced, the more I realized that getting into the zone isn’t a question of reaching out, but of falling into a timeless place in my heart.

The simple act of running helped. Rhythmic movement is used by many spiritual traditions as a way to harmonize the heart and draw energy away from restless thoughts – the dancing of American Indians, Sufis, Shakers, etc.

As the body warms up, and energy starts to flow, positive feelings arise naturally. At that point, I’ll do something musical – repeat an inspiring song or a short prayer – to bring the positive feelings to a focus. Enjoyable feelings of love, kindness, and compassion, etc., in turn draw the mind naturally to a focus. Where there’s enjoyment, the mind naturally follows.

If I’m successful in generating good feelings, I’ll stay with those feelings until they start to fade. That’s a dangerous part of the run, because when feelings weaken, the mind tends to wander. If I don’t retrieve my focus, I may end up running in a diffused, spacey state.

To keep focus, I’ll use my will. While relaxing in the heart, I’ll use volition to hold my attention firmly to one thing at a time.

I’ve learned not to try too hard, because tension only gets in the way. I try to make it a relaxed, interested effort.

The feeling is disciplined and self-restrained yet very relaxed, as I open my awareness to a source of kindness and compassion that wants to give itself to others. It’s a warrior-like feeling, sacrificing the little ego to serve the source of love and joy.

2 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Minimalism: External and Internal”

  1. Ah. Good point! I guess what’s lies behind my striving and appreciation of external minimalism is the desire for the internal counterpart. Never really thought about that explicitly, although I intuitively know that internal minimalism or state of mind ultimately is beyond external circumstances.
    However, don’t they often go hand in hand? I’m thinking a minimalistic internal mindset (or heartset 🙂 will shine through to the physical plane as a minimalistic external style. And conversely, adopting an external minimalism might help reinforce the internal one.
    Ultimately, I actually lean towards viewing the distinction between internal and external as mere illusion.

  2. Hi David – As I’ve told others, very sorry to miss your comment when it arrived. Something seems to be broken in the WordPress automatic comment notification function. Good to hear from you. By the way, did you see the article on minimalist running in today’s New York Times? I think you might enjoy it.

    I agree – there’s really not much difference between internal and external simplicity – a simple brain breeds simple methods.

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