Running the Spiritual Path
A Runner's Guide to Breathing, Meditating, and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport
By Roger D. Joslin
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Roger D. Joslin
All rights reserved.
intentions and preparations
Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.
1 COR. 9:26
If you walk toward Him, He comes to you running.
It is possible to begin a meditation run simply by stepping onto the pavement and putting one foot in front of the other. In fact, the simplicity of this is one of the great joys of running. No elaborate gear, accessories, or training are required. One can simply step into the run and see what unfolds.
However, a clear declaration of the intention can give the runner a sense of purpose that increases the possibility of fulfilling the objective of sensing the sacred. There are many good reasons for running. Hopes of achieving physical fitness, releasing stress, or enhancing one's appearance motivate most of the runners you see on a city's tracks and trails. These goals, as well as the thrill of competition or just a simple appreciation of the joy of movement, are all worthy. However, running meditation is a practice with a singular purpose and many side benefits.
It is very likely, since you have undertaken the task of reading this book, that you have felt some sense of the sacred when running. The connection may have appeared to happen accidentally, without any desire or action on your part. This kind of experience often emerges at a time of need, whether or not we are aware of the need. We find ourselves reaching out for help in all directions. Our call for assistance, perhaps in the form of a prayer, but perhaps not, is answered as we find within ourselves the presence of the Divine. This realization of God's closeness is always a matter of grace. However, we have to be ready to receive that grace. We can take steps to prepare ourselves to recognize that grace awaits us. In preparing for a run, we can ready our mind and body to be receptive to a power that is always present.
Preparation for a Run
For many people, it may be useful to sit quietly in meditation before beginning a run. Personally, when I am eager to begin running, I find it difficult to sit still. At the end of a workday, having spent many hours behind a desk, I crave movement. I have realized that I can find God in that movement as easily as I can find him in stillness. However, if your schedule and temperament allow it, you might try to first solidify a connection with the Divine through silence and stillness before beginning the run. Generally, when engaged in sitting meditation, I will sit for a minimum of twenty minutes. That length of time is not necessary here. A shorter period, about five to ten minutes of silence, should allow you to move into the run fully prepared.
If you do not choose to sit in silence before a run, do allow a few moments for recollection. Focus your attention on your breathing for a minute or two. You might ask God to make his presence known to you on the run. In some way, make the purpose of the run known to both your mind and body. Simply stating to yourself that the run is intended to bring you in touch with the Transcendent can be helpful. Along the way you will undoubtedly lose touch with your goal, but a firm declaration of your intention before beginning the run will make it easier to find your way back to your objective.
The Sufi al-Sarraj speaks of the preparation and attitude that are essential before entering a state of prayer. When elevating running to a form of prayer, the same kind of preparation should take place. Al-Sarraj advises us to enter into a state of meditation and recollection, free from thoughts of anything but God alone. He advises that those who enter into prayer with this kind of recollection will find that the state remains even after they have ceased to pray and lasts from prayer time to prayer time. This is what the meditative runner strives to achieve as well, a continuation of the state of recollection from one run to the next. The frame of mind stretches from before and after each run, each an intentional conversation with God, until the peace is continuous.
If you stretch before a run, treat each stretching position as a prayer posture. The Islamic practice of prayerful kneeling and bowing toward Mecca is similar to a runner's stretch. Christians often kneel in prayer. In both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, mudras, or elaborate hand and arm positions, play an important role in bringing the body into alliance with the mind and spirit while meditating. Central to the many disciplines of yoga is the harmony and health of the whole person. Within the yoga of postures, or asanas, the focus given during each movement and holding of a pose can almost be described as sacramental. This intent not only allows for the fullest physiological benefits from the asanas, but also makes the practice one of mindfulness. Imagine that, in addition to stretching your muscles, you are stretching your spirit and giving it the flexibility it needs to engage the Transcendent. Each stretching exercise is transformed into a pose of prayer.
A Beginning Exercise
Prepare mindfully for the run. Dress slowly, methodically, as if you were a devout priest and your running clothes were sacred vestments. Pay special attention as you put on your socks and shoes, lacing your shoes carefully. Just as a priest uses his hands to prepare the sacrament, your feet will be the contact point between your body and the sacred earth. Hold on to an awareness of that fact.
If you begin by stretching, focus all your attention on each muscle being stretched. Just before you begin to run, say a silent prayer, asking for God to be present on your run and to aid you in your effort to be present to the Divine.
The first quarter of the run: Start out running slowly, focusing on breathing. When extraneous thoughts arise, acknowledge them, and then simply return to the breath.
The second quarter of the run: Shift your attention to your feet. Be aware of the contact between the soles of your feet and the earth. Listen to the sound of your foot striking the various surfaces you encounter. Hear the differences in the sounds that gravel, sand, concrete, and asphalt make beneath your feet. Step lightly on the earth. Be aware that you are running along the surface of a spherical planet. When thoughts arise, let them go and return to an awareness of the interaction between your feet and the ground.
The third quarter of the run: Practice the Mother Teresa Run. Look kindly in the eyes of every person you meet. Whether or not your gaze is returned, offer them a slight smile and a silent blessing.
The final quarter of the run: Come home to your breath. Let go of thoughts that arise and return your attention to your breathing. If it is helpful, count each breath up to ten and then start over.
Finish the run by stretching mindfully. Zen-walk to your door or your car. When you undress, disrobe as a priest removes his sacred garments. Shower as if you are being baptized. Extend the heightened awareness of God's presence into as much of the day as is possible.
As was noted earlier, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once defined prayer as "the desire to pray." During the period in my life in which I first read these words, I felt an overwhelming desire to pray, but I was not sure how to go about praying in the way I thought I needed to. The prayers I had learned as a child no longer seemed adequate to express the depth of longing that consumed me. I found great comfort in Merton's words — learning that out of those depths of desire to connect with the Divine came the realization of the desire. I understood that I was already praying. From that point I began to study and practice many different forms of prayer and meditation. Undoubtedly, my understanding of the myriad ways to connect to the Transcendent has been enhanced by this study. However, always at prayer's core is the simple desire to pray and it is that desire that transforms the most elaborate ritual or the purest moment of silence into a divine encounter.
The same is true with running meditation. Without the desire to join with the Transcendent, even with the most studied preparation, a run will be no more than a jaunt in the park. With the intention of establishing a connection with God, even a run that is full of outside noise and mental distractions can become a sacred act. If, in running, the desire is to connect with God, to pray, it is already happening. Keeping that desire at the forefront of your thoughts, remaining conscious of the intent, is critical. Merton's description of prayer can also be used to encourage the meditating runner who is concerned that his efforts are not bearing fruit or who asks, "Am I doing it right?" If the desire is to run with God, then the specifics of the techniques used don't matter very much. Hopefully, an exploration of the practice of running meditation will provide new avenues to the Transcendent. However, it is grace alone that has provided us with the desire to run along those holy avenues.
One Saturday morning, as is my custom, I went for a run in the hills. I ran for more than three-quarters of the run before I began praying. Eventually I settled into the Jesus Prayer, a prayer used in Eastern Orthodox churches since the sixth century. I often allow my thoughts to drift aimlessly for a brief period of time before moving into prayer. At times I question the wisdom of allowing my thoughts to wander, even on the first part of the run. It may be that reserving running time, or at least specific runs, for meditation only would be better. The phenomenon may be similar to having particular places for working or studying. When you settle into the place to study, then studying is more likely to occur. If your mind identifies running as the place of communion with God, then there may be less of a tendency to use the run for other mental activities. On the other hand, your mind needs some time to process the events and thoughts that have transpired during the day. But if you can, use other, more idle time to process thoughts. Utilizing this less valuable time (such as when you're commuting, or driving to the running track) may allow you to save your running time for prayer.
Know that from the beginning, this is to be a run dedicated solely to communication with the Divine. When the random thoughts arise, acknowledge them and gently move back into the present.
The various forms of asceticism, such as fasting, abstentions, and self-restraint, can train us for the actual event of prayer. Running can be viewed as a seeking of simplicity, requiring a turning away from comfort and pleasure and moving toward discipline and self-denial. Its importance as an act of asceticism is dependent on the intention behind the self-restraint. Physical fitness alone may be a goal sufficient to justify the self-imposed hardship the runner endures. For the runner who is seeking communion with God, the self-denial involved in maintaining a challenging running routine is more than an aspect of fitness training. The act of self-denial prepares the runner, readies him to receive the Divine Spirit. A degree of asceticism is a necessary preparation for running in the presence of God.
Why is this so? I believe it's because the needs of the body and the spirit are so closely intertwined. If the motives behind fasting are correct, the physical hunger can lead to a spiritual hunger. The self-denial of earthly appetites for comfort, wealth, or control can lead us to an understanding of our need for more sustaining spiritual sustenance, for which the more superficial desires are only substitutes. When we run, we tire, we thirst, we ache, and we seek relief from the immediate physical demands of our bodies. However, when our running is done to intentionally establish a God connection, each self-imposed hardship is inextricably linked with our overarching desire to rest in God's arms, to drink of God's love, and be soothed by the Divine Healer.
Seek God, and you will find God and every good thing as well. Yes, truly, with such an attitude you could tread upon a stone, and that would be a more godly thing for you to do than for you to receive the Body of our Lord.
Christ asked that the sacrament of Communion be performed, "in remembrance of me." It is the act of remembrance, not the tasting of the "Body and Blood," that is of paramount importance. It is a matter of seeking God in all things, including "treading on stones." While it may be true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is also true that the path to God can be more direct if the proper intentions are declared before embarking on the path. If our intention is to find God, then we will — in every head wind, in every rocky trail, in the blazing sun, but also in the smile of a stranger and the relief of shade and a cool breeze.
Acting as if You Have Already Received
Of course, it would be foolish to expect to experience a state of Divine Union on the first attempt at the practice of running meditation. In fact, you might even feel like an imposter — like someone who is only pretending to pray. You can expect for some time to feel as if you are only acting like you are engaged in the practice. You may be attempting to focus on your breath — perhaps on your heart beating — but you find you are so distracted that your intentions to pray are lost in a muddle of random thoughts. Remember that it is the intention that sets you apart from every other runner you meet on the trail. It is your intention and your willingness to persist in the practice that will eventually move you beyond simply acting as if you are praying. It is much like the Islamic practice of zhikr, or repetition of Divine Names. What begins as simple recitation of words for God gently eases the practitioner into an awareness of the Divine Presence. The prayerful runner is quite literally "going through the motions." Yet it is this process of simply going through the motions of running prayer that leads you to the point where you are doing the prayer, and ultimately to the time when you are receiving prayer. This is the stage in the process where control over the exchange has been handed over. You are not acting, not doing, but instead are the recipient of grace.
Imagine that you are running toward God and know that far in the distance God is running toward you. Hold this image in your heart, pick up your pace, and move with the expectation that you will encounter a God that is racing to meet you. As Bayazid al Bistami said, "For thirty years I sought God. But when I looked carefully I found that in reality God was the seeker and I the sought."
November 7, 1998 — Intentions and Choice of Chant Cool weather has arrived. I was able to run a fast hill run — fast enough that I'm contemplating adding another run up Mountain Climb to the routine. Donna asked me about the question of intentions before my run this morning. She wanted to know if I planned the run beforehand — if I knew what kind of run I was going to do. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. This morning I began the run chanting, "Holy God," and later in the run, as my pace and breathing accelerated, I chanted, "Onward, to the One." I think that it is not so important to have a specific plan as it is to have a declared intention to connect with God. I might intend to look into the faces of all I meet and offer them God's blessing and find myself drawn more inward to a prayer of the heart. The critical matter is to be resolute in my intention to seek God through the run, not to allow myself to be overwhelmed by wandering thoughts, nor to give up on my intention to focus on God's breath moving through me.
Before beginning a morning run I sometimes read the headlines or a lead story from the day's newspaper. I remember in 1998, the President of the United States was embroiled in controversy over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr had just issued his report and most of the newspapers had published extensive accounts of the investigation. Probably like most readers, my eye was first drawn to the sections of the report titled "Sexual Encounters." I felt that it was none of my business, but still I was attracted to the sordid details of the President's sexual relations with a White House intern. I read the article, laced up my running shoes, and headed out the door. I realized ten minutes later what poor preparation for running reading about this tawdry affair could be. My mind was engaged in ruminations about the presidency, politics, illicit sex, the press, special prosecutors, hypocrisy ... all topics that disconnected me from the place I wished to be while running. It took some time, and a lot of breathing, to reorient myself to my surroundings and to regain my proper sense of self. Once again the importance of appropriate preparation for running meditation was clear to me. If I am going to read, then it is better to read Rumi, the Psalms, or Thoreau, not explicit accounts of a troubled President's sexual adventures. (Continues...)
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