Running, Therapy and the Evolved Body

In a  recent issue of Runner’s World I read about Dynamic Running Therapy (DRT), founded by William Pullen. His website says DRT

… is fundamentally the linking of movement (walking/running) with traditional talk therapy. It replaces the static atmosphere of the therapists’ office with an outside environment rich in life, change, and possibility. Less confrontative than an office where client and therapist “face – off” to one another, with DRT the therapist joins the client side by side, sharing each step.

The benefits of running for mental health have been known for some time. What is interesting and exciting here is the combination of mindfulness and therapy with running to create a context for exploring clients’ issues.

My partner and I have always found we can discuss our deeper personal problems when we are walking, particularly on long walks in the countryside. He too now runs and we have started talking while running; I recognise how DRT will work with those who are able to run or walk. But I think the benefits of this context might be deeper than just movement outside and side-by-side. I suspect that there are close links to our oldest human instincts in running. Our bodies have so many evolved features adapted for long-distance running that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are all runners. And if distance and endurance running is naturally human, combining this with our other great adaptations, cognition and self-awareness, will connect us to who we are in our embodied thinking selves in real time. All this seems to have connections to what it is to be human and my musings about Zen and Heidegger.

I have had a long-term interest in the uses of philosophy as therapy, and there exists a movement that uses philosophy as counselling. Prompted by Pullen’s development of DRT I am beginning to wonder whether there isn’t something to be said for linking running with the philosophical approach to therapy, especially in the context of, perhaps, a phenomenological view of counselling, something which is well-established  already.

Connections, connections, connections … who would have thought the simple activity of running could be so ontological!

Right, I’m off out for 10 miles, or so, to think.

[All of the above led me to a great little piece by a therapist called Manu Buzzano called The Art of Phenomenology. Regularly readers of this blog will appreciate why I liked it so much.]

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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!

Not every run is a good run, but every run is good

On Sunday I completed the long run I planned. All 17km of it, up and down tracks and trails, roads and highways; very little of it was flat. The weather was wet and windy. And cold. I was wearing shorts and had no gloves, and my legs and hands quickly became numb and red. I felt like I had no energy at all. I was so slow that several faster runners overtook me on the road with very little effort, before I had really even got going. The rain soaked through all my gear making me feel even more heavy and sluggish. Towards the end my phone decided to shut down so I couldn’t even accurately log the full run in mapmyrun. And throughout I felt niggling pains in my ankles and knees. In other words, it was, at the level of details, an awful run.

However, even as I was slogging though the woods on a lonely track at around the 14km point, with the chilling rain running down inside my waterproof, I was struck how ‘in the moment’ of things I can become when running. The trees were hung with the emerald green of mosses dripping with life from the water in the air; the firs smelt fresh and sharp with rising sap; the greens and browns and greys of the woods were rich and intense; the uneven path under my feet was full of ancient stones connecting me to billions of years of Earth’s history. At the moment, cold and drained though I was, I was there, completely in that environment and moving though it. I thought back to earlier points in the run and though they were now just memory and the past, they had contained similar richness and were replete with lessons had I chosen to pay attention … That moment in the woods is now memory too, of course, although I made a special note to myself to write about it later.

This got me wondering about consciousness itself. It’s an enormous topic and very much at the forefront of research in cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy. However, I approach the subject from a slightly different direction. In her great little book Zen and the Art Consciousness, Susan Blackmore notes that we pay less attention to the real phenomenology of consciousness than we should. During meditation she explored various aspects of conscious experience, including her sense of self, now, time, continuity of awareness and wholeness. She found all of these to be other than we think they are in our ‘common sense’ view of the world (one that is largely the product of our cultural, religious and intellectual history, I suspect). I have found similar things myself in meditation (although that is not the point of meditation). But I think running provides similar insights. Consciousness seems to flicker into slices of time. I find I am much more aware of the non-continuity of consciousness when running. I find myself suddenly snapping back into it from breaks in the stream of complete consciousness; in the breaks my body has just been running. And in that moment of ‘snapping back’ everything that I have not noticed somehow gets filled in, in a sketchy kind of way. Similarly for my sense of time. (I will write more about this soon, because I think there is something worth pursuing here.)

And so I think even a bad run provides a means for exploring who we are. I guess that is one answer I would give to Lars’s question about why we run: it is self-understanding: from the limits and possibilities of physical being, right down to the level of conscious experience. All running is good!