Running to nowhere, coming from nowhere. The legs are moving rhythmically, the arms are swinging, there are soothing sounds of the air going in and out of the lungs and tender heartbeats of a heart in working mode but without urgency. The grasses, trees and world around are constantly appearing and disappearing. Both body and world are in motion as one. Happiness in movement.
This is an experience of mindful running, a far cry from the usual pressure of competition and achievement. Running can be a transformative practice that brings joy, mindfulness, and a sense of freedom. There can be profound benefits of running as a meditative experience and indeed as an entrance gate to spirituality. I would like to explore here the benefits of mindfulness in running and indicate how to go about it.
Rediscovering the Joy of Running:
I was a bit of a solitary kid, and I never got on with team sports. But I remember the thrill of a non-competitive sports festival many years ago, in which I met like-minded young people who enjoyed sports for the thrill and not as a pressure for achievement. But then I dropped running for much of my life and only rediscovered it in my mid-sixties during a period of stagnation. I was looking for something to shuffle the cards of my mind, body, and spirit, and suddenly remembered my love of running from years back.
We can run both as an expression of joy and an invitation to it. For this to happen it is helpful to dissolve and soften the mind states and influences that would stop the joy. The main one is pressure. There are habitual voices within us and in our surrounding culture that are constantly measuring outcomes and seeking targets and validation. We are enticed into competitiveness. Similarly with judgement which appears as a whole theatre of debilitating inner dialogues such as the sense that it is too much for us, that we can postpone the run for another time, that we should have done better, that it might not be good for us, and so on. As soon as we can catch these voices, and just watch them as they pass by, without believing them, we naturally open up an appreciation of what is. We can allow ourselves to be just as we are in the moment and from that place head off for a joyful jog in the park.
We are not robots. So we don’t need to fill our mind with technical data in order to run. There is a tendency today to get swept away with functional information: muscles we need to use, heart rate, speed, lactic acid, trainers, aerobic fitness, and so on. Can we replace the ‘doing’ list with a ‘being’ list. I suggest that all these material considerations need not be totally ignored. We can pay a minimum attention to them in order to start us off in the right way, to act as a kind of compass to find our track, then let them all go, and just fly free.
Mindfulness in Running:
The key is caring mindfulness, which is being present and fully aware of what is arising in the moment. It is a kind and authentic meeting with our direct experience, moving us out of automatic mode. In the Buddhist context this is frequently practiced by slow walking, in which we are encouraged to zoom in on the simple act of putting one foot in front of another, like a child learning to walk for the first time. We know the touch of the foot, the movements, the shift in weight, the texture of the ground and all the changing sensory experiences as we walk, along with appreciation that it is possible to walk mindfully on this earth. Walking opens to our inner gaze and shows us a whole world hidden within one step. Mindfulness can be extended to movement that is faster, like dancing, running, swimming or gardening, or any other activity. But in this case it is less of a high resolution gaze. More of a telescope than a microscope. Instead of perceiving oneself as moving in a fixed world, we can shift awareness to perceive the world as moving past us. Running becomes an opportunity to observe the constant flux of the external environment and the fluidity of one's own body. By maintaining a global sense of awareness, one can break free from fixation and experience a panoramic, meditative state. If we are consistent, and keep going, the sense of presence gradually grows, we start to love it, and there is less and less mind distraction.
This kind of open awareness allows us to embrace the childlike quality of running for the sake of it, infusing the act of running with a sense of ease and freedom. This meditative mindset facilitates a more enjoyable and effortless running experience, enabling us to extend our runs without striving for specific goals. The fusion of meditation and running allows the a sense of freedom, lightness, and wellbeing.
Mutual Support between Meditation and Running:
While mindfulness can enrich running, running can be an avenue for profound meditative experiences. This is similar to "the Zone," an altered state of consciousness beyond pain and effort, that athletes know and refer to. But reaching The Zone is quite an undertaking and only kicks in after some time and considerable effort. Meditative states can be actually cultivated from the very first step. By remaining consistently present and cultivating a sense of global awareness, we can slip out of our subjective perspective and experience merging and connecting with the totality of the inner and outer worlds.
Running is transformative. When approached with a non-competitive and mindful mindset, it becomes an avenue for experiencing joy, freedom, and a deep connection to the present moment. When practicing both together we can tap into our innate potential for a great sense of aliveness.
Dr. Stephen Fulder is a senior and longtime Buddhist practitioner and teacher, as well as a runner. He has had 16 books published including: ‘’What’s Beyond Mindfulness: Waking Up to This Precious Life” (Watkins Publishers).