I spent a few minutes googling around for online literature — is that an oxymoron? — on the subject of Zen and running. Though it surely exists, I found but little. Mostly I found the word Zen misused, as so frequently happens, as a synonym for bliss. According to what I have learned about Zen (admittedly, not much), the heart of the practice is meditation, and meditation in turn is fundamentally not so much about vegging out, escape, self-improvement, or even stress reduction, but rather the practice of sitting with what is. Yes, there are occasional moments of what I call shocking clarity and calm. Perhaps for the experienced, skilled meditator these moments occur more often and for longer periods — ask me in 20 years and I will tell you. But for the most part, it’s about disciplined repetition. Inhaling and exhaling. The attention wandering off, and coming back, wandering off and coming back again. Again and again, minute after minute, day after day, sitting with what is: that dog yapping, a pain in your back, some car passing by in the distance, thoughts swimming around in your head, the movement of the breath. Stilling the mind and ever so gradually getting acquainted with reality.
So it is for the runner. While training for a marathon I have been struck by the strange and fascinating comparison of running and zazen. At first glance they seem utterly different from each other, located at the opposite extremes of activity and inactivity: running your ass off for miles, versus sitting absolutely still staring at the paint for 30 minutes. But both are disciplined repetition; both involve paying attention and then wandering off. Paying attention: feet and ground. Breathing in and out. The stride. The breath. The surroundings. Monitoring body and mind. Feet and ground. Breathing in and out. Then wandering off: following thoughts. Reviewing and editing the past, scripting the future, having a grand old time. Then coming back to what is: feet and ground. Left right left right…. One foot after another, mile after mile: this is reality not delusion.
Many runners are fond of running with digital audio players and the like. I don’t believe in that. Yes I have enjoyed using a radio or iPod on occasion. But for serious running I suggest we should eschew such distractions. It’s not about entertainment, or trying to make the running something other than what it is, or making it somehow more palatable, or less boring. No. Embrace the boredom, if that’s what it is. It’s about paying attention to feet and ground.
The Sandokai by Master Shitou says:
You could study this text for years and still keep learning more about it. I wouldn’t presume to explain what it means. But! (You saw that but coming.) But for me, running is more than just running. It is, in fact, just running. I am convinced that all those who ever put on a running shoe experience this truth whether they realize it or not.
Distance running and zazen: two activities some might call weird, each a wonderful complement and support to the other.
Fast forward to nearly two years later. I am now 52 instead of 50, still sitting every day, and running considerably faster than when I posted the above. I have no means of proving that the practice of sitting has made me a better runner than I would otherwise be. Life is not a controlled experiment: if you do this, you can only speculate as to what would have happened if you’d done that instead. Still, there is little doubt that the sitting practice enriches one’s life. It teaches you to pay attention to what is happening rather than just being dragged around by it. This in turn serves you well when you need discipline, self-control, and the ability to tolerate a certain amount of pain and/or exhaustion in an equanimous, non-reactive way. Skills such as these are essential to runners who push themselves to achieve their goals.