Finding Zen Feet: Running as Meditation
By Dan Chabert
I’ve gone through all the stages of a relationship with running: the initial crush and lust, the honeymoon phase, the seven-year itch, the near-divorce, and the final, healthy relationship.” It took me a long time to get there, though, and for the longest time running just felt like a chore. It was boring and lonely, and I’d hit a wall.
In “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” long distance runner and novelist Haruki Murakami celebrates solitude in running. He says, “All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.” If I’d read this a year ago, I would have thought he was crazy. That void was what I hated most about running (running can be a love-hate relationship for sure). Most articles I write about running provide casual and helpful instructions on how to get through a run, despite the boredom and pain. You know: listen to podcasts, watch TV on the treadmill, set solid goals.
Things change, though. Life got busier than ever for me and I found myself drowning in stress. It was so bad that I broke out in hives and felt paralyzed when it came to sitting down to work. I dreaded running more than ever, and I lost my drive in general. And then something funny happened. I stumbled upon Zen Buddhism. I wasn’t religious and wouldn’t become religious, but there was always something cool and strange about the wild inner calm monks seemed to have. I wanted to know how they got it, how the brain scan of a monk actually showed his brain completely silenced when he meditated. I started listening to Alan Watts’ lectures, and he really hit me with this: This is “the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now.”
And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” It was so simple, but so much of my life had become avoiding the present and wishing it would turn into the future faster. I was, essentially, wishing my life away.
A major tenet of Zen is mindfulness, which is as simple as paying attention and living in the here and now, the present. You remember to really taste food when you eat it instead of vacuuming it down, you feel the way the wind flows over your face, you savor little things like coffee, showers, and collapsing in bed at the end of a long day. There are whole books on mindful listening, mindful walking, and even mindful eating. I knew that meditating in the classic lotus position wasn’t for me, so I tried to apply mindfulness to my running.
Running mindfully was the opposite of what I had been doing for a long time. There were no distractions. I took off my Fitbit, unplugged from my headphones, and ditched the treadmill for a trail run. I paid attention to every breath I took, to my body beginning to work harder to get the air in and out, to my breathing quickening, to the expansion of my lungs. I felt my feet pushing off of the ground, propelling me forward. My arms moving lightly in the air, the light breeze pushing against me to cool my sweat.
Instead of dreading the pain as lactic acid began to build up in my muscles, I accepted it and told myself that this was my body challenging itself, that this was a good thing. Pain meant improvement. It was a sort of reward in itself, a sign I was moving forward. The “runner’s high” was an understatement for the experience of truly running mindfully. An escape was an understatement. After running, I felt more energized before, and much calmer.
I’m not going to pretend that Zen Buddhism saved my life, but it did change my life in a pretty drastic way. Paying attention and living in the present is so important to me, and I’m fighting to remind myself of that every day. Running can still definitely be a chore, and stress is a reality of life that’s not going to go away, but I feel better. Running is something I enjoy again.
Mindfulness is a way of life that combats the modern world of distractions, immediate satisfaction, stress, and frustration. My run is the best hour or so of my day because it’s when I’m the most mindful. I love feeling my body do what it’s born to do and rejoicing in just how healthy I am. Running mindfully is as simple as it sounds: all you have to do is pay attention and listen to your body. That simplicity, though, is just what I need in this chaotic, loud, and stressful life.
Writing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Dan is an entrepreneur, husband and ultramarathon distance runner. He spends most of his time on runnerclick.com and he has been featured on runnerblogs all over the world.