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.