Ode to Two Lakes

It has been a while since I blogged about running. Even longer since I’ve blogged running trails.

But, alas, something happened on Saturday, as I was heading home to Tyler from San Antonio, through Austin. What happened is this: while doing a pretty short, 6 mile run at Lady Bird Lake (formerly known as “Town Lake”), I had a mystical experience. What I mean is that my heart and mind were soaring as I ran past multitudes of beautiful people made in the image of God, ran through slanted beams of light and oxygen-rich breeze which entered my body, ran over packed granite gravel onto which my feet rhythmically pounded and trod. As I my friend Richard likes to say, “I felt alive.”

Without waxing too Annie Dillard, I noticed birds and turtles and bugs and leaves and ripples. And bridges, rail road tracks, and running shoes.

I focused on my breathing, in and out, in and out. I prayed the Jesus Prayer “automatically.” I gently struggled to let go of distractions and concerns. I gave myself a mental vacation.

Town Lake is the perfect blend of nature and culture. I’ve longed believed that the best possible physical space for a human being is a cultivated garden, a blending of nature and culture. And the best kinds of gardens, in turn, are urban ones, which are open to the public and provide opportunities for “real, social space.” (Not private gardens, or country clubs, or gated communities.) Beautiful, urban spaces, where you belong just because you are human.

For me, this is what Town Lake is. This is what, for about two decades, has made it conducive to mystical experiences for me.

And this brings me to White Rock Lake in East Dallas, where I ran this morning, and where I’ve been running about once a week for about four and a half years now.

Now, White Rock Lake is no Town Lake. Still, it’s pretty great. And yet sometimes I do feel as if it has saved my life. There are so many things I truly love about Tyler (especially the rich community we have, and the church we belong to–both the people and the buildings!), and yet, there simply is not the same kind of urban running culture that exists in Austin. (Running on a sidewalk or in a neighborhood is simply not as conducive to mystical experiences as is a good urban trail, such as the Wissahickon Trail in Phillie.) And so it has been a true blessing to have White Rock Lake about 75 miles away, en route to the University where I am a PhD student.

I am thankful!

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Running (with a “light touch”)

A couple of nights ago I had a wonderful conversation with my 73 year old dad (who had a stroke a week ago). We talked about a devotional book that he (and my whole family) read called _Jesus Calling_.

What a blessing this book has been for us. The entry for Nov. 15 reads thus:

Approach problems with a light touch. When your mind moves toward a problem area, you tend to focus on that situation so intensely that you lose sight of Me. You pit yourself against the difficulty as if you had to conquer it immediately. Your mind gears up for battle, and your body becomes tense and anxious. Unless you achieve total victory, you feel defeated.

There is a better way. When a problem starts to overshadow your thoughts, bring this matter to Me. Talk with Me about it and look at it in the Light of My Presence. This puts some much-needed space between you and your concern, enabling you to see from My perspective. You will be surprised at the results. Sometimes you may even laugh at yourself for being so serious about something so insignificant.

You will always face trouble in this life. But more importantly, you will always have Me with you, helping you to handle whatever you encounter. Approach problems with a light touch by viewing them in My revealing Light.

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.
—Psalm 89:15

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
—John 16:33

My godly father went on to speak about how he has _never_ approached life, or life’s problem’s this way. Instead he has always attacked any problem “directly and head on,” trying to fix things immediately and to exercise full control. But now, on the other side of a stroke, he was able to appreciate this wisdom at a deeper level.

What an opportunity, we went on to contemplate together, to let God show us new ways, new paths, new approaches to life, new ways of being. Whether you are 73 or (like me) 43.

Today on my 10-mile morning run, after a rainy morning during which I worked, studied, and wrote at a coffee shop for about four hours (waiting for the rain to end), I was thinking about this “light touch.” I was mindful that this is how it is with running, too. At various points along this morning’s ten mile run, with the sky now dazzling blue with the sunlight dissolving the last vestiges of cloud, I thought about and meditated on the fact that distance running requires a “light touch.” Neither bulldozing forward with brute force, nor procrastinating on your ass waiting for the perfect conditions to run.

Instead, “running with a light touch” is a lot like what the ancients meant by practical wisdom (phonesis; prudentia). As I plan to articulate in a future blog post, the ability or “know how” to live–or to run–with a “light touch” is analogous to driving with a good set of shock absorbers. Shock absorbers which can respond to the bumps and potholes of life. Phronesis is the wisdom to know that sometimes the truths of theory (epistemescientia) don’t link up, don’t precisely “map onto” the rough-and-tumble of life completely smoothly and  without remainder.

Hence, we must run and travel and live “with a light touch,” trusting in God and holding our theory / plans / knowledge very loosely as we travel down the road of life, as wayfarers in transit to our final destination which is God.

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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.

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Running the Race (Letting Go)

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge “fan” of the saying “Let go and let God.”

I vividly remember the summer of 1995, when I lived with a dear couple for the summer in Austin, a couple who were missionaries from Cuba doing a Hispanic, Spanish speaking church plant in Austin.

Now, I dearly loved this couple … so much that when Jaime died suddenly a few years later, I flew back to Austin from Philadelphia (where I was in seminary) to attend his funeral. Their faith was so real, so vibrant, so child like in its simplicity. And, of course, the life of an older couple depending on donors for their financial support provides many “faith challenges,” many opportunities to trust God.

And so, when Jaime y Luisa would talk that summer about “letting go and letting God,” I got it, and I appreciated what they were trying to say. And yet, the whole time I kept thinking to myself, “Yes, but there’s so much more to following Christ than just letting go. What about hard work? What about discipline? What about obedience?”

Fast forward the tape (or the mp3 file) to February 2014. I am exactly twice as old as I was that summer with the Echevarrias. I have been around the block a few times, and I have the bumps, scrapes, and scars to prove it. In particular, through some dear friends involved with the practice of the Twelve Steps formulated by Mr. Bill Wilson in the mid 20th century (with, by the way, the help of an Episcopal Priest in New York, the Rev. Sam Shoemaker), I have come deeply to appreciate the wisdom of the third step:

We made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Not only have I grown to appreciate this maxim and the profound truth behind it, but God in his mercy is putting me in situations where I have no option but to put it into practice.

For example, running a 26.2 mile marathon a few days ago. Trust me, my will power alone was radically impotent to carry my body (what St. Francis affectionately called “Brother Ass”) across that finish line. As I smashed three times into “runner’s walls” which I could not imagine getting through, trying harder was the absolute wrong strategy. “Digging deeper” was a death knell. Every time the well-intentioned bystanders would cheer us runners on with words like “you can do it!” I had to screen out such advice with something like mental earplugs.

No, I emphatically could not do it. Left to my own resources there was absolutely no way I could “fight the good fight, finish the race” (2 Tim 4:7). My own will power was impotent, pathetically insufficient.

My only choice was – and is – to “turn my will over to … God.” Thy will be done … on earth, in heaven, in my life.

For me, this is what running is all about. Running, and the rest of life as well.

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Best Running Trails in Austin

If I weren’t such a crappy blogger I would have photos of these trails. (Don’t hold your breath.) Also I should add that trails 1-3 are in close proximity to excellent pubs.

5. Bull Creek Greenbelt. After the six continuous months of rain last year, some of the trails have been a bit washed a way; still worth it though, in part b/c of the nice, flat limestone formation along the creek which stretches for several hundred yards.

4. Walnut Creek Park. Pretty easy to get lost running in these trails. Most are “single file” width (very bike-friendly), and often quite curvy. Nice variety of trails however. Lots of shade.

3. Shoal Creek Greenbelt. Renovations over the last few years have turned this into a pleasant, interesting urban trail which brings you through some of the coolest parts of downtown, including under two of the most recent high-rises. One can start at 35th St. and run all the way to 360 and Scottish Woods Drive, a trek of perhaps 15 miles, using this trail. My favorite spot is the St. Francis mini-grotto embedded into the water fall / rock wall just south of 35th St.

2. Town Lake. What can I say? A runner’s paradise for the views, the shade, the people. Easy access to Barton Springs pool for an after run dip.

1. Barton Creek Greenbelt. I love the variety of terrain in these trails. Hills, rocks, well-trodden flatness. The greenbelt has it all. Lots of shade, usually flowing rapids along the creek, not too crowded. Feels off the beaten track, but it’s really not.

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