A Runner’s Search for Meaning

(Warning: spiritual content.)

Four months before I arrived at Stanford, in August 1959, my old man shot himself through the head. For his remaining 32 years, he was blind.

That summer, we moved to California so that he could attend the Braille Institute. Our protected middle-class life had ended. Living in a crowded apartment building, a 20-minute bus ride from downtown LA, I got my first experience of an inner-city community, up close and personal. Most of the residents belonged to an extended Jewish family originally from Montreal. On the weekend, their numbers swelled as sons and daughters and nieces and nephews came from Culver City with their kids for a barbecue and a swim in our pool.

I liked our new way life. It was endlessly diverting. The beach was a 50-cent bus ride away, and often of an evening I would take the bus down Vermont Avenue to the Coliseum to watch the Dodgers, who had immigrated from Brooklyn the year before.

It was heady, big-city stuff for an Arizona boy.

I entered Stanford in the fall after an all-night bus ride. My old man’s suicide attempt had left me with a hunger for meaning. I didn’t actually know that I was searching for meaning, it was a tummy kind of thing. A nervous trill. I didn’t know what I was looking for.

On one level, I thought we were in this world to enjoy ourselves. But on another, my visions of life after graduation haunted me. I couldn’t bear the thought of a patient life, a hum-drum, year-after-year life amid green lawns, white picket fences, and the kind of conversations my father had enjoyed with his friends.

I was scared of the future, scared of Stanford, and profoundly disappointed with the courses. Especially Western Civ. Whatever I was seeking, I certainly didn’t find it the 120 pages of nightly assigned reading. All the King’s Men? Seriously, what were they thinking. The only book that struck a chord and earned me an A was Othello. I took it seriously, because it bore a simple moral, what a relief. Even though it was about the perils of obsession, offering no prescription for a happy life, nevertheless it was quite real – the disintegration of a man through the primal flaw of jealousy. It was taken from life’s raw script. It was based on a principle, and principles were what I was seeking.

In my last years at Stanford, I fell in with friends who were reincarnated members of various tribes: former Romans, East Indians, Mafiosi, and English.

The quest for joy in running and life leads through the heart. (Click to enlrage. Art by Hugh MacLeod, www.gapingvoid.com)
The quest for joy in running and life leads through the heart. (Click to enlrage. Art by Hugh MacLeod, www.gapingvoid.com)

There was literally a mafioso. A digression. This classmate was one of the Bay Area’s most productive drug dealers. At one point, a business partner of his traveled to Panama, where he purchased a brick of Panama Red and mailed it to my friend’s home, attaching a customs label that declared: “One Statue of the Blessed Virigin.”

Anthony’s Sicilian mother almost opened it, causing my pal’s hair to stand on end. “If she’d found out I was dealing,” he moaned, “she’d have died – literally on the spot her heart would have stopped.”

Those Sicilians.

That I was a reborn yogi from India wasn’t in doubt. The portents were in the books that my friend Jack Burns and I eagerly shared. Soon after graduation Jack became a monk, long before I did and in a separate order.

What united our little group was a desperate fear that life would turn out to be as meaningless as our professors professed. We were searching for life’s underlying patterns, through psychology, literature, and Autobiography of a Yogi.

After grad school, Jack visited me with his girlfriend in Long Beach. Riding in Jack’s spacious Buick hardtop, they asked what I was doing.

“I’m washing dishes at a seafood restaurant on Belmont Pier and taking endless walks on the beach and praying my ass off to God,” I said.

Jack and his girlfriend whooped in unison, “That’s great!!!!!”

It was the Sixties.

Like Jack, I had made the big move, from seeking meaning with my head to trying to find my heart; from a quest for ideas, to a search for inner experience.

Fast-forward forty-five years.

Maggie Teets is a freshman gymnast at Stanford. I’m not interested in gymnastics, but something she said in a profile on the Stanford athletics website struck me.

“I absolutely love my classes! I’m taking Chemistry 31B, Stats 60, and Ultimate Meanings. The Ultimate Meanings class is my favorite. It’s an introduction into philosophy and religious studies, which I am considering majoring in. The professor is an amazing speaker and I’m pretty mind-blown after each lecture. It’s such a cool class, I am so grateful.”

Like Maggie the freshman gymnast, I’m still searching for meaning. Well, actually, I’ve found it. But what I’ve discovered, too, is that the path is very long, though each step is wonderful.

When a professor from Columbia asked Paramhansa Yogananda, “Is there an end to spiritual evolution?” he replied, “No end. You go on until you achieve endlessness.”

Catch me in a dozen lives.

At any rate, while I was at Stanford there wasn’t anything remotely like a course labeled Ultimate Meanings. Worse, we were force-fed anti-meaning via the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and his fellow poisonous nihilists.

You can get just so much meaning from books, and then you must let yourself fall into the heart’s caldera. As a song from those distant years put it, Stanford took me half the way there.

Maggie is nineteen, a year past when the search for meaning usually begins, at least on an intellectual level. The true spiritual search comes later, if it comes at all, often at twenty-three. If Maggie is pleased by Ultimate Meanings, I suspect it’s because she’s finding the joy of ultimate ideas.

Note to Maggie: please read Out of the Labyrinth – For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t, by J. Donald Walters. It’s a fine corrective to a Stanford education, and a wonderful antidote to the nihilist venom.

Understanding doesn’t come by the mind. The real search begins with pain and ends with bliss. It’s too important, and too deeply engrained with consciousness, to be unraveled with mere idea-twiddling. We must lose everything, be without hope, driven to crawl on bloodied knees to the feet of the God who made meaning, throw ourselves on His mercy and become truth-seekers in our hearts.

Well, of course, we all know what those kinds of people are: burnouts, moshing imaginary meaning from the chaos, inventing gods to assuage their intolerable despair.

And that’s why, in this blog, I don’t generally say much about the spiritual side of life and running. I don’t want to offend those who can’t possibly understand, because they haven’t been broken.

In the monasteries of Eastern Orthodoxy, the elders pray to have their hearts “crushed” by God – to become as simple as children before Him, so that they can receive His light.

Really, I don’t talk much about spiritual matters here. It may seem like I prattle about God, but it’s a trickle compared to the dimensions that spirituality occupies in my life.

In his recent book, Fourteen Minutes, Alberto Salazar talks about the Mother of God, and miracles, and his deep love for the Catholic Church. It warms my heart. But I bet not many readers feel the same way.

I reckon most would say: “I respect Alberto, but I don’t share his beliefs.” From the reviews I’ve read, readers are eager to distance themselves from his “irrationality” – the worst label we can be pinned with, in our hyper-rational culture.

In the movie Goon, hockey coach Ronnie Hortense declares: “Ya gotta be shitty to get better.” I made the switch from mind to heart when I was 23. I had hit rock bottom. Somewhere in that time, I had a dream – I lay at the bottom of a deep well. High above me, I saw the night sky, and far above the well’s mouth, a tiny bright star that twinkled brightly. I knew that if I would follow the spiritual path, day by day, I would rise toward the light until it would fully enfold me.

That’s been pretty much my life – breathe deeply, pray, run, and search for meaning. And, of course, I found that meaning comes by direct experience. Running has been a blessing, because it’s a laboratory where I can play with heart, mind, and will and discover those feelings, attitudes, and acts that bring more light. Always, I find that it’s a good thing to let my heart be “crushed.” To try to be perfectly open to what God tells me, speaking through the inner voice of my heart. When I do that, I have marvelous experiences while I run, and I return home with a heart warmed by inner rays of inner gladness.

I’m fighting a bug. Yesterday’s run was slow and very enjoyable. I did The Right Thing – didn’t fight my body’s need to trot slowly. Offered it to the infinite intelligence. The upshot is that I felt wonderful. I kept thinking, “Lord, I just want to stay in the Harmony Zone. I don’t care how slow it is.” And my body-and-soul rewarded me with a deep, sweet joy.

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