Zen and running: reply

 

David, I like this blog post. And it got me interested in Zen meditation. I meditate as well. But I’m just a beginner and currently in search of what suits me. I tried some guided meditations, where different techniques are involved. For example, one technique is focus on one’s breathing, and if thoughts do arrive one notes them and returns to focusing on the breath. That technique is the one that I favour. Perhaps it is related to what you write in your post Endurance and ordinary life. There is another technique, visualisation; this technique is more difficult, I think. Focus on the breath is pre-definition and an endless activity (in the sense that there is no goal of the breath besides to take another one, and if that happens to be the last one, well … ) Visualisation is however more goal-orientated, I believe. And I think that breathing is more my cup of tea as you say. Anyhow, David please write more about Zen meditation, that seems really interesting.

 

But, in your blog post about Zen you made the comparison between meditating with others and running with others. That really got to me. It is now more than twenty odd years or so since I took part in a race. It was fun, but due to some problems with an injury the fun was blurred, and it all became a mixed experience for me. Therefore, I’m very uneducated about races and what they are about. In media and general talk about running there is also a tendency to aim at times and performances. And I’m not a fast runner, not a long runner, but I like to run. To me the focus on times has a somewhat intimidating effect on me. I’m also not that interested in competing with others. I’m more interested in doing things as well as possible; and just because a person is a winner is not necessarily the same as that they accomplished a great race. I know that there are a lot of different opinions and views on this, and I’m probably way off in my thoughts and to be honest not clear what I think regarding these questions. However, the way you describe a race, David, like meditation with others, is not primarily focused on running fast and breaking records. This way is more appealing to me. So, perhaps it is time to look for a race this summer. Thank you David!

Stoppable

Having claimed I am occasionally unstoppable in my last post, I am conceding here that I am very stoppable at the moment. It is ten days since I last went for a run. The cold (or flu – it has been quite nasty) that held me back initially has settled temporarily on my chest with a full cough, tightness, and some mild breathing difficulties. I understand it is ill-advised to run with such symptoms because it only adds pressure to lungs and heart. I still feel fairly rotten too. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be overly concerned because it doesn’t take too long to get up to speed after a lay-off, but I am supposed to be approaching the peak of my training for a half-marathon, scheduled for 2nd July. The only positive thing I can say at this stage is that I am not running for any particular charity for this race, so I would not be letting anyone down if pulled out. But I really would rather run.

I’ll keep you posted.

Endurance and ordinary life

Yesterday I wrote about Zen and running and said that I thought there is a kind of endurance common to both that is not goal-oriented. This is the opposite of what most sports psychologists would say we should be doing: “Imagine the achievement and clearly visualise yourself finishing and collecting the medal; comprehensively explore in your mind what it would be like to have that sense of completing such a distance in a record time.” So what did I mean?

In life and in running we have goals. I plan my routes for each run, although I always reserve the possibility that it could be longer or shorter; I plan aspects of my life, so far as I can. And, yes, I do imagine what the run will be like before starting, and getting a mental ‘feel’ for the distance. When I have entered organised races I have visualised the finish and the high at the end when I cross the line. However, life and running are not in the plan, the fantasy, and the imagination, but in the execution, the real-time ordinary moments, and the in-the-midst of it all. That is why I noted that when I set out on a run, once I am out of the door, the end is put to one side, precisely so that I can just run: one step after another, in the moment of the action and the effort. This is the point where Lars and I are in complete agreement, I think. The endurance of running is a habit of everydayness, of the ordinariness of keeping going, of returning to the pace when you falter, walk or pause for breath. At those times the realisation that there are five, ten, fifteen more miles to go can be very draining, and the run seems impossible to accomplish; the fantasised end makes little difference. But being in the moment instead, just doing it, one step, another, another, is entirely possible. That is how running is done, and that is how life is lived.

Running teaches us many things. It teaches us about ourselves and our limits. It teaches us about ordinary endurance as a life habit. We learn that those limits are, often, like the imagined goals, merely passing mental boundaries to be put to one side once we are in the hurly-burly of the actual running. I’m no great athlete. I’m tall, heavy, middle-aged, and prone to injury. But sometimes, just sometimes, when running in the moment I am unstoppable.

Zen and running

“The state of ambiguity – that messy, greasy, mixed-up, confused, and awful situation you’re living through right now – is enlightenment itself.”   Brad Warner

This last week I have not run since Sunday. A rather nasty cough and cold have sapped both my breath and my strength to run. However, I don’t think a few days off will do me much harm. Casting my mind back to Sunday and the week before …

Sunday’s long run was a low-paced 10 miles (16km) in beautiful late spring sunshine. I was thinking about races and reflecting on the previous week’s efforts in Manchester and whether the apparent competitive aspects of joining such mass events really fit my stated running aims; and I realised it’s not the competition at all, but the being with others. I’m far too heavy and tall to be concerned with beating … well, anyone, really, except perhaps the comedy banana. But running with others is sometimes a good thing it seems to me. This is another point where I find similarities with meditation. As a Zen Buddhist I sit in zazen daily, on my own, without distractions (when I remember to silence my phone) and with everything just as I want it: the mat, the meditation bench, the incense. Yet, I do also find benefits from occasionally sitting with others, with the discipline of a retreat and the timing of others, sitting together with other people working with their own minds and bodies. There is no competition there, just a shared sense of ceremony and purpose. And, I have come to see, a shared in-the-moment endurance.

I should, at last, explain a little about Zen Buddhism and my relationship with it. I am no Zen master, but I have been practising for many years. At the core of Zen is zazen meditation, simply sitting without a meditation object, “thinking not-thinking” as Dogen says; that means allowing your mind to be itself, but without giving the energy of attention to any thoughts that arise. It is something that has to be tried to be really understood. I use a low stool in the seiza position, mainly because I long ago found I trap a nerve in my butt, and my legs are too long when attempting anything close to the lotus position.

As I say, there is, like in running, a kind of in-the-moment endurance required for zazen. If you sit down to meditate thinking that for half an hour, or an hour, or more you will just sit staring at a wall (in Zen you keep your eyes half-open), you wouldn’t really begin; the idea of enduring such boredom would be too unappealing. Similarly, when starting a long run, while you may have a distance goal in mind, it is kind of displaced slightly, put to one side after being planned, because why would you set out to run that far? I find it much harder to begin if there is only some distant goal involved. The endurance of zazen and distance running is not in the imagined end point, it is in each moment, and especially in the struggle three-quarters of the way through when you just keep sitting, when you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And when you sit or run with others, they too are engaged in that presence of now, their moment-by-moment being with endurance is also yours. That, above all, I think, is why I like to run with others from time to time.

I shall write more about Zen in the future because even as I am writing this I am becoming aware of similarities that need to be explored, and differences that need to be teased out and examined between running and Zen. However, I promise, Lars, that this won’t be the only thing I write about here!