Running Zen (Self-forgetfulness)

Please. I’m not one of those mealy-mouthed new agey types.

However, I do think that long distance running is (or can be) zen. It can be “done zen” or “performed zen.” Notice that here, as in the title of this blog post, “zen” is an adverb (though it can also be a noun or an adjective).

How so? I’ve been pondering this, actually, for about a year. When I ran my first (and most recent) marathon, I realized during about the 20-mile mark, when I was tempted to “give up” and stop running on that unusually warm & humid Texas February day, that I was free to continue running.

You see, early in my adult running career, I realized that I was free to stop running. As one whose distance running is a form of meditation or contemplation, I realized, in the spirit of Fr. Thomas Keating who describes contemplation as a “mental vacation,” that the worst thing I could do was to put pressure on myself to continue to meditate / run. (Yes, for me running and meditation are the same.) There is no shame, I realized, in setting out for a 10 mile run and then “quitting” at the 3-, 5-, 7-, or whatever-mile mark.

I wanted my running to be a kind of rest, a kind of exploration, a kind of play. To stifle that by a kind of exertion of my will power did not seem to promote the kind of contemplativeness I was seeking to cultivate. Hence, I exulted in my “freedom to quit.” If I felt like walking home for the second half of my run, I did it, and I sought to make that walking time, too, a time of prayer.

But then (before my first marathon) my inner world took another turn: I discovered the joy of working the Twelve Steps. One of the key emphases of this spiritual tradition of lived, practical wisdom is that one’s own will-power is not the answer. It is not the answer to overcoming addiction. It is not the answer to finding deep freedom. It is not the answer to becoming happy or satisfied.

Now, this breakthrough served to confirm my previous embrace of the “freedom to quit.” But (in the context of the rest of steps and the culture of the Twelve Step community)  it also served to drive deep into my being an additional “lesson” which I had assented to intellectually but perhaps not embraced holistically: the humility of self-forgetfulness.

Not only is reliance on my own will power a death knell, but so also is one’s obsession with (or even consciousness of) self.

“How do I look?”

“How am I doing?”

“Do people like me?”

“Am I succeeding?”

So much of personal happiness is learning to wean oneself off of such habits.

And so it is that, when I was running my first (and most recent) marathon, and I desperately wanted to quit, I was cognizant of my “freedom to quit.” But then I immediately had another, instinctual realization. If I was free to quit, then I was also free to keep going.

Put it another way. One might assume that if a runner has true humility then she will not allow herself to quit. That would be soft; that would be self indulgent.

My “first breakthrough” was that this assumption is false, and that, actually, that kind of self-reliance is arrogant and self-centered, relying as it does on the strength of one’s own will power. Thus, the truly self-actualized, spiritual person / runner will paradoxically embrace her freedom to quit.

I still believe this, but what I realized in my “second breakthrough” was that sometimes when one quits, this, too is a form of self-obsession 0r self-consciousness. If I totally forget myself, then continuing to run (mile 10, mile 12, mile 22, etc.) is just as “available” an option, just as live-giving an option, as is quitting the run.

True, there is no shame in quitting. But, just as truly, there is no bondage in continuing to run. Once my self is transcended (this takes place moment by moment, nanosecond by nanosecond), at one level it does not matter if I quit or continue.

Hence I might as well continue.

This is a little window into my psychological experience of running. And this is why I say that running is, or can be, zen.


“Meritocracy:” Hypocrisy.

This past semester (Fall of 2014) in my Christian Formation Class at Christ Church, we participated in a class called “‘Dearly I Love Thee:’ Poetry & the Anglican Way” in which we considered the lives and work of several Anglican poets from Mary Sidney Herbert down through W.H. Auden.

I’ve always wondered about poets, in particular how they are “formed:” is their creative output more about nature than nurture? A popular view of poetry might assume so (and so did I for years) but over the years I have begun to sense that actually most Western poets are also steeped in history, literature, language (e.g. Greek and Latin), philosophy, and ancient intellectual “practices” such as the trivium and the quadrivium. Doing a christian formation class on such poets served (as all my classes do) as an opportunity to educate myself more.

One issue that kept coming up as we progressed historically from the 16th century to the 2oth was the historical development of popular democritization of literature, related to what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) discusses in terms of the “flattening out” of social space into “one speed.”

It’s a  familar story, one that gets worked into our psyches even from pop media and social media: hierarchy good, mass culture bad. Familiar, yes, but with noteworthy divergences including Marx, Nietzsche on the “left” and Leo Strauss on the “right.” Oh, and of course Plato, who in The Republic argues for the rule of wisdom (and the Philosopher King), over and against the likes of democracy, aristocracy, and timocracy.

Timocracy? Less familiar to us (as evidenced by the nonrecognition of my computer “spell checker”), but one of main political options for Plato. Timocracy means “rule by honor,” and is that system of politics by which the honorable rule. (We will “bracket” the issue of who gets to decide who the honorable are.)

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously reference timocracy outside of academic discussions of ancient texts. But most of us are, however, familiar with a similar concept: meritocracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. once quipped: “Let us judge a person not on the basis of his skin color, but on the content of his character.”

In last semester’s poetry class, discussing Eliot and Auden, one member of the group casually mentioned (as if it were a matter of obvious fact) that, in the 20th (and 21st) centuries, we no longer live in a hierarchy, but in a meritocracy.

Really? The latin verb mereo means “to deserve, to be entitled to” and meritocracy is a political arrangement in which those who “rule,” those who succeed, those to find themselves at the top of the political and social pecking order, have arrived at that pinnacle not by family pedigree (hierarchical aristocracy), not by “might makes right,” not by wisdom (philosophical rule), not by virtue of citizenship alone (democracy), but by virtue of their own merit. Their own meritoriousness. The powerful are at the top because they have earned it, because they deserve it.

Is contemporary America a meritocracy?

No way. My problem is not simply that this view is inaccurate. It is that, which is not to deny the qualified, relative virtue of our time over and against previous (pre-Enlightened) regimes and civilizations. It is, of course, better that voting rights not be distributed according to gender or race than that they are so distributed. Thank God for such progress. And one should freely admit that a poor person lacking social advantage can “make it” in today’s America much more easily than, say, in feudal Europe.

But to claim that those at the top today are there because they deserve it smacks of hypocracy. It is to ignore not only that the playing field is still not level, and to assign a moral inferiority to those who have not made it. I’d be willing to bet that most of the people who think we live in a meritocracy already find themselves at the top.

Perhaps worst of all, it smacks of rugged invidualism, in arrogant denial that any good gifts in my life (including honor and “merit”) are just that: gifts.

At the end of the day, I hope not to be judged by the content of my character. If that happens, I’m screwed. Instead, I will repent and strive to grow in faithfulness to Christ. And be thankful and humble for the gifts I’ve been given.




Foucault’s Quest for Pure Nature

The following quotation, from James Miller’s 1993 biography The Passion of Michel Foucault, confirms my suspicion that, after all is said and done, Foucault is still a kind of essentialist with respect to human nature.

Foucault suggests that behind the ‘deceptive surfaces’ of modern society lurks a human ‘nature metamorphosized in depth by the powers of a counter-nature.’ Containing, as it does, ‘the passage from life to death,’ the ‘great interior labyrinth,’ like Sade’s Castle of Murders, organizes a space proper to ‘modern perversity.’ ‘A cage,’ the labyrinth ‘makes of man a beast of desire’; a tomb,’ it ‘weaves beneath states a counter-city’; a diabolically clever invention, it is designed to unleash ‘all the volcanos of madness,’—threatening to destroy ‘the oldest laws and pacts.’

– James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 146-47 (The quotations within the quotation are mainly from Foucault’s [1962] article “Un si cruel savoir.)

Foucault is committed to the task, that is, of “peeling back” all cultural (humanly produced, whether intentional or not) influences, definitions, “historical aprioris,” etc. so as to arrive at the authentically human, at the authentic self. The procedure for such self transformation is connected to his talk of transgressing all limits and hence the necessity of cultivating for oneself various kinds of “limit experiences” (alcohol, fainting, exhaustion, heady literary effects of certain kinds of fiction, torture a la the Marquis de Sade, and–Foucault’s personal favorite–sado-massochism).

Once these limits are transgressed–and this is especially true for the absolute self-imposed limit experience of suicide–then one is finally free of all cultural constraints and is in touch with one’s “true self.”

Now, granted, this is not an example of traditional essentialism, where one identifies an object as a fixed instance of some genus or type of thing, hence having a fixed definition and classification. Nevertheless, there is a distinctively modern drive in Foucault to arrive at a final destination, a purely natural Ur reality, untrammeled by human culture, where one is free to be what one “truly is” (even if one is dead). (Note: it is clear to me in this context that the overall project of Derrida, who would never jump on Foucault’s metaphysical bandwagon here, is superior to Foucault’s.)

Contrast this zeal for pure nature with orthodox Christian theology, for which there is not brute nature and no brute human nature. For Scripture and tradition man is always-already conditioned and constrained by logos / language / culture / habit / politics,  by relationship with a logos-uttering God who is himself a community of persons.

For Christian theology there is no need to “peel back” all linguistic shaping, for there is no possibility of doing so.