It’s just so hardcore.
My legs ache. My legs ache and there’s a kink that seems like it’s the size of a grapefruit in the middle of my back and I’ve completely lost track of time. I doze in and out, my head lolling around and eyes slowly closing. It feels like I’m losing this battle and the demons are coming in for the kill — ‘what are you doing?’ they taunt, ‘why are you here? what are you trying to prove?’ My thoughts lurch to the side and I remember the Stone Cat 50 miler, maybe half way and in the middle of nowhere on an undulating and dangerously rooty single track; a guy that has just past is pulling away and I wearily read the back of his shirt — “ultra mid life crisis”. The demons are at it again, ‘what about the family? what are they doing? HOW is this HELPING?’
I breathe in deeply, take stock. I’m not really that bad off. I shake the demons aside and straighten up, relax my shoulders and jaw, refocus my vision. I note that I’m hungry and let that pass, I can eat later; a million things seem to cram into my thoughts, everything I should be doing; I let them pass, there’s nothing I can do about them right now. A little compassion, I remind myself, goes a long way, and I settle back in. I breathe in and out, let the demons go, let time and thoughts go. Eventually, almost inconsequentially, the bell rings three times, I bow forward, stretching my back, and stand up. Today’s zazenkai, an extending period of sitting meditation, is done. I recall that I’m hungry — good thing these zennies are good cooks.
It’s always a nice surprise to find out that all you have to do is stand up and look around after you’ve been sitting for a while to feel better; exactly like all you have to do is sit down and close your eyes after you’ve been running all day to feel better. The uncomfortable flip side to that, nine times out of ten, is that just as soon as you do, you realize that you weren’t that bad off after all. That maybe you had some reserves left. You convince yourself you’ll remember next time.
While I am entirely unsure about whether or not long distance running is, or even can be, a form of meditation, experience certainly tells me that they spill over into each other. My time spent on the cushion — staring at the wall and listening to the breath, trying to let the demons be and not allowing the thoughts and doubts and anger, planning and regrets and foolishness get the better of me — is the reserve that I draw from when everything comes apart on the run. When all hell is breaking loose at mile 30 of a 50 miler, I don’t give up, I breathe in. I settle my thoughts, I let myself know that it’s ok, that I’m going to live, that, as the saying goes, ‘this too shall pass’ or, as Shunryi Suzuki says, I can “forget this moment and grow into the next”.
It’s more than just learning how to breathe though; it’s also about learning how to be a better person which, like distance running, is pretty hard to do. All three take technique, years of practice, and a single minded dedication to an almost intangible goal. Standing in the way is a collection of road blocks called ‘the five hindrances’ — these bad boys threaten your practice and, perhaps unsurprisingly, relate remarkably well to running
and living in general. The five — craving, aversion, sleepiness, restlessness and, the real killer, skeptical doubt — rear their ugly heads every single time our focus wavers and they have all the world’s power to completely undo us. Our desire to have things other than they are (either by craving something we don’t have or trying to push away something we do) is the source of all of our suffering, while the mind’s compulsion to run away (either by going to sleep or by fidgeting around with meaningless tasks) more or less guarantees that suffering will continue. If we manage to shake these things, the slugger steps up — the voice that tells you that what you are doing is pointless, that you’ll never be the best so why bother, that there are a million other things you should be doing instead. Sound familiar?
But really, doubt isn’t the juggernaut it pretends to be; in fact, it can be a remarkably helpful tool. Asking these questions inspires creativity and authenticity in our practices — whether that be running or sitting. Certainty, feeling that we have the answers or we’ve found some kind of perfect approach, gets us into far more trouble than it gets us out of — as William Blake said, “expect poison from the standing water.” Doubt, while fearsome in itself, can also push us to discovery; as social psychologist Erich Fromm put it, “uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” In running, as in meditation, the quiet focus on our limits and questioning the inherent value of what we are doing is the impetus behind our success and happiness.
From cushion to trail, from hours of seated silent breathing to whole days spent moving over rugged terrain, we learn the most about ourselves when confronting demons. As all great stories of heroism tell, it is in the contest and trial that we find what we are made of and either deal or bail. And the best way to deal, much as I know a lot of runners don’t want to hear, is like this: “the only way to deal with suffering is to be with it, just allow it to be as it is, with a lot of softness… Be with your sadness and be with your joy.” It’s probably the most hardcore, and most meaningful, thing you’ll ever do.