More Elements of Quality

If you read this and experience a weird sense of deja vu, that’s because I posted a shamefully long article recently and realized, red-faced, that it was actually four articles in one. So I’m breaking it up to spare future readers the pain.

I had a run of wonderful quality today, and it came as a complete surprise.

The first hour was a washout – dull and uninspiring. I prayed to be able to salvage the best from the run and do the right thing.

I realized that two things would be necessary: First, I would have to be kind to my body. I would have to be patient. I would have to avoid forcing my body. Hard-nosed discipline wouldn’t generate the kind of quality running I was after.

I realized also that it would be important to explore the heart and try to expand my feelings. At the start, I looked for the most honest center of my heart, where I could be completely honest and hear my body tell me what it needed.

Yet I realized that a certain amount of discipline would be required. Without emotional self-discipline, raw feelings can easily lead us astray.

There are so many emotional currents that we can follow, and some of them just lead us into a ditch – for example, the sudden “inspiration” to run all-out in the middle of a planned recovery run.

Feeling is crucial for “listening to the body.” But the kind of feeling that gives accurate feedback about the body’s needs isn’t emotional. It’s controlled, impersonal, and unprejudiced by emotional desires and attachments. It’s disciplined.

I realized it would also be important to keep my attention firmly on what I was doing – but in a relaxed way.

About an hour into the run, I asked inwardly where I should run. I had two options – 90 minutes on a short loop, or climb into the Stanford hills and run for over 2 hours.

I thought my inner guidance might tell me to run short, since I wasn’t feeling great. And I was surprised when I visualized the longer route and it evoked a clear, positive feeling. Was I kidding myself? Was I following personal emotion? I prayed dispassionately, declaring mysefl ready to go either way.

I decided to trust my intuition, and it proved to be correct. Ascending the hills kept my heart rate reasonably high, so I was doing good aerobic training. Yet my legs didn’t have to work too hard, so I could relax and enjoy the ride.

Many people were out enjoying the hills on a beautiful 65-degree day. In order to keep my attention one-pointed, it helped to hold my awareness, in a relaxed and enjoyable way, at the point between the eyebrows.

Neurophysiologists have discovered that the forebrain is where concentration and positive attitudes are localized, and that an area called the anterior cingulate gyrus, slightly above and between the eyebrows, mediates between the left and right prefrontal cortices.

When we concentrate, or behave with mature self-control, our attention and energy are naturally drawn to this area – it’s why we “wrinkle our eyebrows” when we focus attention, or when we expand our awareness to include the realities of others.

We instinctively draw energy and attention to this area, where mental focus, self-control, and will power are localized. Many spiritual teachings make this a key part of their meditation practices. The great yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda, said that this area of the body is the “loudspeaker” where we can “broadcast” our prayers to God. (He also said that the heart is the “receiver” where we can listen for and receive God’s answers.)

On today’s run, I found that I could keep my awareness alternately on this area and in the heart. The two seemed to balance nicely – the heart contributing fine-grained feeling, and the anterior cingulate playing the role of self-control and focus.

Soon I was feeling a lovely synchronization of those areas – the heart’s inner sweetness, and the mental control to weed out immature emotion and emotional grasping. The more I was able to release desire for future rewards and just run in the moment, the sweeter it was.

It took an unrelenting kind of discipline, but it wasn’t arduous, tiresome, or dry. Like running itself, it was a voluntary, enjoyable practice.

In all spiritual traditions, focusing attention in the moment is taught as a path to mental stillness and contact with Spirit. Various practices help achieve that focus, such as Native American dancing and chanting, Sufi dancing, Russian Orthodox repetition of the “Jesus Prayer,” and the breathing exercises and other meditative practices of the East.

First and foremost, I give credit to God for the quality of the run, because there was definitely a spiritual dimension.

As I approach my seventies, I am more than ever persuaded that it doesn’t work to lean too heavily on the strictly mechanical tools we’ve been given: body, heart will, and mind. Although those tools are extremely useful, I find it’s necessary to ask for God’s guidance to use them well. Without that guiding wisdom, I find that the mechanical tools can lead us astray.

I wrote my book, in part, out of a desire to share how spiritual principles are practical and relevant for running well and enjoying inner quality.

Without trying to dogmatize anybody (I don’t reveal my personal path in the book), I hoped that people who weren’t even interested in spiritual matters would be able to use spiritual tools to take their running in positive new directions.

The scriptures of all cultures prescribe spiritual methods for accomplishing everyday goals – how to get a good wife or husband, how to make money, etc. The idea is that if people will use spiritual means to fulfill their worldly desires, they’ll be thinking of God, who can gradually lead them into more expansive and fulfilling ways of thinking.