Deep Space of Running

I just discovered a wonderful acronym for runners.

SFNAR. Sucks for no apparent reason.

It will surely strike a chord in the heart of runners who’ve practiced their art for more than 10 minutes.

Let’s face it, things happen when we run that defy rational explanation.

Faceplants, for example, happen when we aren’t actually thinking egotistical thoughts.

Sometimes, we find that bagels and cream cheese work better than more traditional running fuels.

There’s a dimension to the experience of running that actually transcends the strictures of logical connection – the thought that if I put in a dime and pull the lever, I’ll get a jelly bean, every time.

It’s the X-Files of running; think Twilight Zone, Golf in the Kingdom, the Psychic Side of Sports.

My spiritual teacher never talks about his inner experiences except in a very general way. Several years ago, he peered deeply into the eyes of a friend of mine and said, “Dave … Dave … I am always in bliss.” I don’t know what Dave’s lesson was. Mostly, the teacher teaches by example.

At one point, many years ago, my teacher kind of let it slip in conversation with his secretary, also a friend of mine, that he’d experienced all creation as happening in a single moment. My secretary-friend remarked, years later, that it’s out of this timeless moment that those things come to us from beyond the boundaries of the logical, mechanical world.

I recently described a good example from my running. For years, I’ve kept track of my faceplants – the times when I was running cheerfully along, when suddenly…

Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.

(John Milton must have been a runner.)

Usually, a faceplant happened when I was thinking egotistical thoughts. It’s sooo logical – what could be more appropriately humbling than to make me fall crashing to the ground?

But then, a couple of years ago, I had a faceplant that seemed to occur for no reason at all. I was running down a rocky trail, and Bam! It was a soul-shaking fall – and I hadn’t even been thinking “bad” thoughts. It made me wonder – was it simply burning off some obscure bad karma? It seemed so meaningless.

Several months later, I was running by the Bay, when I again fell very hard – quite a bit harder than the last. It was not one of those tumbles from which you pick yourself up, affirming positive attitudes, and reflecting with a smile, “This is what happens to runners.”

What was the meaning? I had no idea. Perhaps more karma.

Several months passed, and I had the worst faceplant of my life, in exactly the same spot as the last one. I’ll repeat what I wrote about it afterward:

A woman walking ahead turned and asked, “Are you all right?”

Not wanting to make a fuss, I picked myself up and said, “These things happen from time to time.”

She turned, reassured, and continued her walk. But I felt that something was wrong with my right hand. I looked down and saw that the middle finger was dislocated. Suffice it to say that it was numb and bent sideways 45 degrees at the knuckle.

I thought, “I make my living with these fingers – I really have to do something! But there’s NO WAY I’m going to the hospital, where I’ll have to wait for hours in the ER and spend hundreds of dollars to fix this damn finger!” I asked, “What should I do?” And I felt intuitively guided to pull the finger gently until it popped in place.

Suddenly I felt the humor of the situation. I thought, “Oh, Divine Mother, how funny You are! Honestly, You are hilarious! You’re always playing such wonderful tricks on Your devotee!” And, by grace, I suddenly felt that I was living in the “other” world, where spiritual seekers must sooner or later learn to live – in their soul. I felt the presence of my teacher, very strongly, and I saw him in intuitive vision in golden light, smiling happily. He was surrounded by his highly advanced disciples, and I knew that he was very pleased. I knew that humor and detachment was the RIGHT attitude to the sufferings of this world.

My spiritual teacher lives continually in that other, real world. Many times, I’ve seen his spiritually advanced disciples demonstrate perfect inner detachment and humor, even amid very difficult physical and emotional tests. It’s an attitude that I’ve been trying to cultivate. I feel this experience was given to encourage my efforts.

I washed off my aching limbs and proceeded to the car. I was feeling so happy that I drove to the Stanford campus and finished my run (on flat streets!). By grace, I felt an unbroken sense of humor and joy and freedom. And, by grace, I didn’t fall again.

Surely it was my karma to fall. But I kept falling until I learned the lesson, and I don’t think that it happened as an expression of the natural logic of the world’s hidden machinery. It happened by my Guru’s grace.

Over the 40 years that I’ve been a runner, I’ve seen that the same grace which transcends reason is the shepherd that guides my running. Whenever I’ve called for guidance consciously, I have never been disappointed, whether I asked it if I should run a first ultramarathon, or see the podiatrist about a pain in my heel, or if I should run long, or break off and go home.

It has guided the longer rhythms of my career, telling me when it was time to focus on racing, or speedwork, or be a humble jogger and concentrate on serving my teacher’s work.

Wisdom and reason are sometimes two very separate things. Often, if not usually, God makes His guidance look like the worst possible choice, in order to strengthen our faith and see if we’ll follow our desires and reasonings, or if we’ll test the guidance and discover that He gives us the strength we need to “get up and do what needs to be done.”

So, in that sense, SFNAR is wrong. Things may suck sometimes, or they may seem to, but there’s always a reason – though it might not always be a logical one.

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