Running Scared – A Spiritual Experience

My breath huffs in and out as my feet plop on the cold pavement. The darkness envelops me like a lonely secret, and the cold reverberates through my muscle fibers, much more strongly than the earbuds in my ears. All this, however, is par for the course — the course that is distance running in the evening in the depths of fall. None of it occupies my mind or senses. Not really. They float in the periphery. Fear grasps all of my attention. My mind focuses on my left knee, which stiffly resists my attempts to run. The left leg clomps along, like an awkward log attached to my hip, rather than the supple motion of the other leg.

In recent months, I’ve returned to a running regimen for the first time in a while. It’s been a journey in and of itself, despite the relatively short time. As I’m much older than my young running enthusiast self of the past, I’m much more prone to injury, and I’ve fended off a few on the path towards a marathon. However, now, with about a month till the race, I’ve been hit with an injury that may force me to put up the shoes for a while. It started with tightness in my calf, which was handled by a new pair of shoes, but then that pain moved to my knee. Minor at first, it flared up near the end of a long training run recently, and since, I’ve had to move to ice, rest, a knee brace, and much care.

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Last night, I laced back on the shoes and tried to face the pain and the fear of this knee. I’m afraid that it will force me to stop running and miss the race — the goal that has pulled me along through the last few months. I’m also afraid that if I keep running that I’ll hurt the knee even worse and may never recover enough to have a really functional knee for these kinds of activities anymore. The plodding in the cold with many layers and the knee brace is a test. It’s a walk along a tightrope between these two fears. It’s also an existential journey where I look at my attachments to both body and ambition straight in the face — a spiritual delve into my internal darkness, alongside the darkness enveloping my body’s steps.

Thankfully, after years of working on mindfulness, I see my heartmind jump from concern to concern, being pulled along by attachments and stories. As I let them go and relax into the present moment of movement, of breath, my knee relaxes as well. I stop and stretch and readjust, but I also let go of all my plans and concerns. There is only this next step forward; come what may. The delusions of the rest merely pull away from that, and being with it is truly taking care. Sometimes, this care is recognizing the needs of the body and stopping before hurting it. Sometimes, its pushing to get up and move, feeling that the stiffness is superficial. Gratitude, vulnerability, and insight are the only things to grasp onto in the process.

Autopilot

I’ve been milling this one over for some time. It’s kind of hard to nail down.

Mindfulness practice reveals an odd, even potentially unsettling truth about our lives. We don’t live much of it. What do I mean by that? We’re checked out, running on autopilot – far away from many things that we live through every day. Driving to work, all of a sudden we’re there – not remembering sections of the drive. Having conversations, we’re elsewhere, distracted from time to time.

Don’t take this as chiding, however. Mindfulness practice also reveals how difficult it is to attend to the moment. The mind flits about from one thing to the next. Monkey mind jumps from one thought and experience to the next, chittering away. We’re so used to it, that we don’t even notice it — not until one sits and really watches it happen, mindfully attending to thoughts as they arise and subside. Really attending is one of the most difficult things to do, but it’s where the lively quality of seemingly serene practices like Zen reside: really being present is being fully alive in this moment in all of its experience.

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The trick? It’s not to wage war on the monkey mind. It’s to gently befriend it, slowly training it to be more present and relaxed. The training in itself is almost a non-training. You don’t whip the monkey into submission; rather, you reach out your hand and invite it to be here, not jumping from tree to tree. Over time, with repetition and dedication, not being daunted by the endless task, the monkey slows a bit, listens a bit more, sits with you with whatever is happening right now. It may only last a moment, but as the Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

Better than one hundred years lived
With an unsettled [mind],
Devoid of insight,
Is one day lived
With insight and absorbed in meditation.
The Dhammapada – line 111 (Trans. Fronsdal)

With that in mind, even a few moments of such attentive absorption and insight are most valuable indeed.


May this inspire you to try spending less time on autopilot.

Gassho!