The Dalai Lama’s Simple Wisdom for Runners

Why do we run?

The answer is blindingly simple.

On the western side of the world, many seek happiness in things. The eastern outlook is different. It was described amusingly in a Slate article, “The Dalai Lama’s Ski Trip – What I learned in the slush with His Holiness,” by Douglas Preston.

Tibetan Buddhist monk in Nepal
In the East, there is no such thing as “philosophy” — that is, “the love of wisdom.” Instead, the seekers of the East cut straight to the chase — practicing principles of kindness and compassion that yield happiness and freedom from suffering. Tibetan Buddhist monk in Nepal. (Click to enlarge. Image source: Wonderlane, Wikimedia Commons)

The events described took place in 1989, before the Dalai Lama became a media superstar. His Holiness accepted a young friend’s invitation to spend a week in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

After a day of fun and laughter on the ski slopes, the Dalai Lama and his entourage went to a coffee shop. The waitress screwed up her courage to address the Dalai Lama.

“Can I, um, ask a question?”


She spoke with complete seriousness. “What is the meaning of life?”

Preston describes how the table felt silent – in the entire week, nobody had dared ask the “big question.”

The Dalai Lama answered immediately. “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?” He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.

“Thank you,” she said, “thank you.” She got up and finished stacking the dirty dishes and cups, and took them away.

The Dalai Lama’s answer brought a smile to my lips, because I’d heard it so often from my own spiritual teacher. In fact, I’d heard the same words, spoken with the same naturalness and feeling, from saints of the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Hindu traditions.

People want happiness. It’s not even up for a vote. The murderer imagines he’ll remove an obstacle to his happiness by killing. He may even feel a temporary uplift. The longer-term consequences, of course, are bitter. The result of contracting his awareness will be suffering. The murderer experiences a painful inner disharmony. Not to mention the fear that he may be caught and punished, and the tension of being certain that other people are like him and may attack him.

Why do we run? For happiness.

The challenge is to know what makes true happiness.

The latest running shoes? A PR? A better stopwatch? A nice outfit? Minimalism? A Mexico trip to run with the Tarahumara? Looking good in front of others? Finishing a marathon? An ultra?

Or a good heart?

By a process of elimination, we gradually come to understand that it doesn’t matter how our runs go, outwardly. Or how many gadgets we acquire. We find that the best joys are expansive – the fitness that enables us to give our energy to others. The marathon we run to raise funds for a worthy cause. The effort to encourage. The good moods, good thoughts, and good feelings we share.

How we define “good” runs evolves, as we discover “what makes happiness.”

When our hearts are right, our runs go well.

Very simple.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

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