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!

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