When I’m about to head out on a long morning run, it is daunting, even slightly intimidating. Running is hard. I do not love it. If I’ve been sleeping, my forty-six year old body is stiff from hours of being horizontal and motionless, and at that hour, the thought of exercise just makes me want to dive back underneath a warm blanket and comforter and maybe a cat.
Last year I wrote that for me, running is actually meditative, but it is different than meditative sitting. Both acts involve an element of discipline. Sitting is uncomfortable for me, because of my body shape. I’m tall, my spine is long, and even at my most physically fit and flexible, sitting in a half-lotus or even cross-legged for any length of time, arms at rest, back straight, leaves me aching. It turns out running also makes me ache, but in other ways.
I didn’t start running for meditative reasons, but it has often served that purpose. I ran because I had to, because that’s what my body wanted to do. I ran when I was unhappy and full of anxiety. I ran when I was excited. I ran when I did not know what else to do. There have been times of my life when running was not part of the regular routine, and those times were the hardest.
The beginning of my typical run does not feel good; I’m stiff, maybe sore, breathing is a little awkward, and my core temperature is adjusting to being out in the elements. Even after I have loosened up mid-run, my muscles can get tired, and my knees get sore, along with other parts of my body, and breathing remains a burden. I’ll be at the halfway point, and the thought of running for another x number of miles before returning home is a bummer. I start to look forward to the time when I am not running anymore, and about food and resting and leisure. Running up hills becomes a special kind of challenge, and sometimes torture.
But other times, something different happens. I get into a rhythm. I listen to my breathing, and it naturally syncs into a sort of polyrhythm with my feet. I become hyper-aware of what feels good and where the aches are (or aren’t), and I listen to things like breezes and birds and automobile engines. I run up and down hills without noticing them. Sometimes constructive thoughts enter my head, like lesson ideas or potential song verses or blog posts, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I figure stuff out, and sometimes I don’t think at all.
The “runner’s high” people speak of, I’ve had something like that from time to time, but really, it’s not like that on most days, even when things go well. It’s more like meditation. It flows. My body is doing what my body wants to do, for lack of a need to hunt animals and forage, and my mind is free. It’s not ecstatic joy or relaxation or anything like that, but it is very alive and intentional feeling.
Running feels right on those days, and it is a burden on other days. I have always aimed to improve my physical condition to a point where it feels right most days and is a burden on more rare occasions.
I don’t think what we call mindful meditation is a natural activity for humans or any other creature. Like running, I think it is something we do as a mechanism to adjust to a modern world where we are mostly separated from our original place in nature. We run and exercise and meditate because we have to, as I see it. It’s every bit as important as hunting and foraging once were, and as working for a living is today.
Sometimes thinking about a difficult work day ahead of me is as daunting and intimidating as anticipating a long run on a Sunday. It’s going to be a challenge, an endurance event. I have to remember to keep hydrated. It’s best if I am ready for it, if I can plan ahead, and get into a pattern of being ready. One has to be in shape for those long days! Sometimes those long days drag, my mind aches, and I find myself desperate for extended time on the couch. Other times it feels like I am doing what I am meant to be doing. In both scenarios, a long day feels great at the end, but in the latter, there is a rhythm, and we become hyper-aware of our every move, and the day swims along without much disturbance.
I aim to make the majority of my days swim like that, because those days feel right. It was once suggested to me when I was younger that I ought to find something I love to do and then find someone to pay me to do it. I think there are very few adults who love every minute of their jobs; sometimes even the best work is really hard and draining and stressful. But actually “loving” what we do is a lot like “loving” ourselves and “loving” our partners and “loving” our family. It ebbs and flows, and sometimes it is downright difficult. But it’s an endurance run, really, so if it doesn’t feel completely right today, that’s normal. Stay hydrated, get a good night’s sleep, and have another go at it tomorrow.