Running’s Sweet Sanities

“Going to civilization.”

That’s how I think of a run in nature, on single-track trails with birds and sky and rushing mountain streams.

“Leaving civilization” is my term for returning to the city. The more time I spend in the great green, the saner I feel.

Is there a runner alive who doesn’t treasure our sport’s sweet sanities? Doubtful. All of us make mistakes occasionally – looking for love in all the wrong places, as the country song puts it. But, if we’re wise, we value the mistakes, too. They’re learning experiences, intended to help us weed out what doesn’t work and draw ever closer to complete satisfaction.

Cut to a Stanford faculty meeting in 2002. Five of the world’s smartest mechanical engineers are hashing over the credentials of the applicants for a faculty position. Occasionally, they break from the agenda to yak and joke. The subject of faculty salaries at Harvard and Stanford comes up, and a professor of biomechanical engineering observes drily: “Well, Harvard pays less because they expect people will want to go there for the prestige.” He pauses, frowning. “And, as a result, they get the kind of people who’ll go there for the prestige.” The others chuckle.

It was my privilege to manage that faculty search, and to spend time with these men and women once a week. All of them had tremendous energy, focus, and rampantly positive attitude. They were folks who were used to solving hard problems, and didn’t have time for negativity. A sweet sanity pervaded the atmosphere of those meetings.

At another meeting, one division head mused, “One of the most interesting challenges of our field, it seems to me, is understanding how the macro world of large objects connects with the micro world of quantum mechanics.”

I wanted to leap out of my chair. The answer seemed clear. What connects, well, everything, is energy. “Mechanical engineering” has long since outlived its usefulness as a description of what these folks do. Increasingly, their focus is on the study of energy, and how it affects the material world.

From my study of yoga philosophy, specifically the books of Swami Kriyananda, and particularly Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t (published under his English name, J. Donald Walters), I was aware of credible arguments for the claim that the world is at present undergoing a transition to an “energy age.”

In fact, two irreconcilable world views are at war in the world today – an old, materialistic viewpoint that clings to the surfaces and mechanisms of things. And a new, more flowing perspective that sees everything in terms of energy.

We see this conflict everywhere today. In religion, it’s old-school fundamentalists, rigidly interpreting the Bible and Koran in terms of fixed rules and dogmas, and believers who want to move toward a more scientific, expansive faith that’s based on testing scriptural claims against the proof of living experience.

The way to test religion lies through energy. Scientific, non-denominational spiritual disciplines such as yoga tell us how to use energy to change our consciousness and directly experience the reality behind outward appearances. “At the inner end of the human nervous system,” the great master of yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda, declared, “the mind, interiorized, communes with God.”

A Bengali chant exclaims, “Pranayam (literally, control [yama] of energy [prana]) be thy religion! Pranayam will give thee salvation. Pranayam is the wishing tree. Control the little pranayam, become all-pervading pranayam. You won’t have to fear anything anymore.”

I experience this when I run. A rule of thumb of yoga holds that where our energy goes, there our awareness goes also. To a runner, this is obvious and basic. When I let my energy wander among superficial things, it’s all I’m aware of, and it’s limiting. But when I’m able to calm, focus, and interiorize my energy – physical energy, mental energy, feeling-energy – I find a world of joy opening inside, and I find yoga on the run.

It’s really not that hard to do. Running by itself pretty much takes care of harmonizing the body, if we observe the body’s sweet sanities by warming up slowly and never going faster than the most harmonious pace.

Running in the harmony zone, the sweet spot, goes a long way toward harmonizing our hearts as well. Of course, it does take a certain volition, a deliberate decision, backed by energy and determination, to hold the run together, and protect our harmony from drifting off on feathers of distractions. But running teaches us that focus pays big rewards.

In fact, the five paths of yoga correspond to the five “tools” of a runner – body, feeling, will, mind, soul. The “middle” three “runner’s tools” are the ones we can actually get our hands on and work with to find sweet sanity. When a runner learns to use his feelings, will, and mind expansively, he’s bound to experience better results.