The Zen of Running

There are many activities that people perform to be healthy and have a sense of well being. Many think the two require different activities to achieve them. For instance, people exercise for health and meditate for well being. I think the two can be obtained at the same time while running. Activities like cycling, swimming or doing yoga can also be combined with meditation. Running is my sport so I do it well enough to meditate while running. I think by running and meditating together you can become better at running. It will also let you achieve a sense of well being in the process.

To see how this works we should first look into the act of meditating itself. In “The Relaxation Response”, Herbert Benson identified key components of meditation. The first component involves a simple object to focus your thoughts on. In Transcendental Meditation this object is a word or mantra. The mantra can be something relevant or irrelevant like om, or inga. According to Herbert Benson it can also be a phrase like “Be Calm” or “Praise be to God”.
While sitting comfortably you let your thoughts think about this mantra by repeating it over and over, not necessary out loud, but to yourself. You repeat this word or phrase in your mind saying it slowly and calmly. While the mantra is important for Transcendental Meditation, I’ll show you that it isn’t needed to calm the mind and enter a meditative state.

The most important aspect of meditation is how you bring your thoughts back to a quiet state, or mantra, when your thoughts wander. Everyone’s thoughts wander while meditating. With practice it may not wonder as much, but it doesn’t matter when it does. What matters is being aware that your thoughts have wandered and that it is time to bring them gently back to the mantra; without judgment, emotion or criticism.

After reading books like “Stroke of Insight” by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, I discovered that meditation happens anytime you have a quiet mind and a heightened level of awareness. According to Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, it happens when we quiet the left hemisphere of the brain and awaken to the right side of the brain.
Dr Taylor, a brain scientist, had a stroke that shut down the left hemisphere of her brain. She discovered something very wonderful about the brain. She discovered a new level of awareness and perspective that we are all capable of attaining. Although she was severely incapacitated, she was aware. She was conscious of certain things without the negative and critical chatter that comes from the left side of the brain. For Dr Taylor, the right side of the brain was free to take in her senses with a child like sense of awe and wonder. The right hemisphere of her brain was free to sense the emotions in facial expressions, detect the tone of voice people used when speaking to her, and was free to experience her surroundings as an integral part of her own body; she was one with the universe. In short, she experienced nirvana.

The left side of the brain works in a very linear way. It is responsible for speech; it knows “A” comes before “B” and “B” comes before “C”; it establishes the boundaries between objects we see; and it knows the past from the present and future. Since the left side of Dr. Jill’s brain stopped functioning, she no longer heard the “chatter” in her brain that we know and take for granted. The chatter is the voice we hear in our heads, singing a familiar melody, or repeating the mantra we may use while meditating. So by meditating we quiet the left side of our brains. It helps us tap into the awareness centers of the right hemisphere.

When we are uptight with our minds racing a hundred miles an hour, we allow the left hemisphere to dominate. The left hemisphere is equally important as the right, but when we allow this chatter to dominate our thinking, we lose a keen and innate sense of awareness; an awareness that can be even mystical in nature.

For avid sports enthusiast like runners, we are at an advantage. We can tap into this awareness center, exercise it and make it even keener. We don’t need a mantra, we only need to run and keep our thoughts in the present and on running. To do this, simply become aware of yourself. For example be aware of your breathing. Is it steady and easy, or labored and hard? Notice the strides you’re making. Are they long and slow, or short and quick? While running take notice of your thoughts. Are you happy or upset at something? Notice how emotions make you run harder, sometimes too fast. Notice them and tell yourself to relax. Notice what you’re doing without judgment, emotion or criticism. If your thoughts wonder, bring it back into awareness of what you’re doing at the present moment.

You’ll find without any effort you can put yourself into a meditative state. A state that is calm and quiet of any emotions, but totally aware of your senses. You’ll find it especially helpful on long runs. For instance if you start thinking, oh damn- I’ve got 5 more miles to run and get anxious, notice that the negative thoughts start to dominate. Notice that you start to feel like you can’t finish. Likewise, notice what happens when you start thinking about how good you feel. You may get tempted to start pushing the pace too soon.

To improve your running, learn to meditate by staying in the present moment. Think about where you are right now, how you feel right now, and then push just as hard as you think you should in the present moment. As Eckert Tolle would say, use the power of now by being present and by being aware of how you feel right now, without projecting how you will feel at the end of the run or whether or not you can finish.

What you are doing is meditating. You’re focused on what you’re doing without judgment or criticism. It doesn’t take a mantra, it just takes awareness and it takes a quiet mind. Those who enjoy listening to music while running are probably wondering what I think about music. On some occasions I’ll listen to music while I run, but I’m sure I don’t achieve a meditative state while doing so. On some longer runs I may listen to it for a while but I am aware that I am not as calm as I can be while meditating. If I get too anxious, I just take them off and get back into the moment. I’ve found that running without music can be more enjoyable than running with music.

There are many things you can focus your thoughts on to meditate while running or whatever your activity may be. For me it may be the way my arms swing by my side. I do this when I need to relax. I focus on my hands and to try to relax them. Then I think of my arms and shoulders and relax them. You can change your focus while running. You may to need to change your stride and leverage different muscles in your legs. You can focus your thoughts on your calf muscles or quads. It’s up to you. Just be sure to stay focus on this area for a while. Think about the rhythm of your stride and how it affects a particular muscle. Again what matters is how you focus these thoughts. Become aware, be calm, and be without judgment. Just be in the present moment and feel what you feel with awareness and acceptance.

Try meditating while you run and let me know what you think.

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