A short essay on how long distance running taught me how to meditate, be present, and live mindfully

Last month I had the pleasure of taking part in a Yoga, Dance, Sound and Meditation retreat in Bali, run by Jayna and The River Tree. It was a great experience that I will write about soon, but for now I want to focus on a thought that occurred to me during the retreat.

As the name suggests it was a very meditative week, with the yoga, dance and sound elements all designed to compliment and encourage the practice of cultivating the sense of mindful awareness that meditation can help us reach. As I spelled out in my recent post on Happiness I think this self awareness is pretty important, and whether it’s reached through meditation or some other means is probably irrelevant.

One morning after breakfast I was staring down toward the sea from our hilltop restaurant. Palms and jack fruit trees framed the view of the lush green valley below, and my gaze was carried naturally toward the horizon, where the subtle blue hues of the sea and the sky blended. Swiftlets danced in the foreground and the morning light lent the whole scene a touch of magic, a glowing warmth. I sipped coffee as I drank in the view.

BACKGROUND NOISE

When I was younger my mind would have been nowhere else but right there, in that moment of beauty and wonder, aware of being happy and inspired and grateful. Between then and now, slowly, imperceptibly, through my twenties, my mind was invaded by the mostly pointless noise of internal chatter that fills so many of our heads for so much of the time. Plans, ideas, worries, concerns, fears, remembered conversations, imagined conversations, all going on, constantly, seemingly of their own volition, somewhere between the conscious and the unconscious. Like a fine mist that you can’t see but that manages to spoil the view, or hide it completely, all the same.

“Slowly, imperceptibly… my mind was invaded by the mostly pointless noise of internal chatter…”

Before this social disease took root I would have been a part of the view for as long as I cared to enjoy it, but up until quite recently I would probably have become lost inside my head within moments, after a brief period of appreciation. In a real sense I can say that I had lost my mind. I neither had control of where my thoughts went when I wasn’t actively thinking, and at times like this I wasn’t even aware of that lack of control, or of where my thoughts had wandered off to.

This is pretty important to recognise, not just because of the wasted time, the wasted life, that those lost moments represent (consider a year of mindless commutes  to and from work – probably over 300 hours for most people – caught up in whatever the mind wants to busy itself with while you sit in traffic or on the train), but because the mind can go to some pretty bad places when left to it’s own devices. Anxiety inducing fantasies about confrontations, cringe-inducing memories of humiliating experiences, fears about money, about our own inadequacies, about failure.

When we catch these thoughts floating across our consciousness they can make us feel terrible, both because of the emotions that these memories or fantasies create, but also because of the hard time we give ourselves for having these kinds of thoughts in the first place. Why can’t I be positive, why am I thinking about this stuff, why can’t I be as self-confident as so and so.

Now imagine how much of this stuff stays in the background, under the radar of awareness. If the mind is an ocean then these thoughts are the micro-plastics, mercury, and other invisible pollutants that build up and poison the whole ecosystem. The unconscious mind affects the conscious mind, and the body, and the body affects both.

Just to be clear, I think there is a difference between being lost in thought and being lost in your own mind. One is a conscious, active state of thinking or planning or remembering, the other is barely conscious, unaware, undirected. It’s a yacht under full sail vs a raft drifting at the whim of unseen currents.

At some point a year or two ago I became aware of how busy my mind was. I think this happened because I started to see and recognise visual symptoms. It would take me ages, sometimes hours, to fall asleep because I couldn’t switch the internal chatter off. I had to fall asleep listening to other people talking on podcasts in order to drown out the noise. I came to see the furrows on my brow that are now a permanent feature as a cause for concern rather than the distinguishing feature of a thoughtful and serious person.I had become a serious person! I realised that my enjoyment of many of the things that I used to love – nature, outdoor sports, reading – was now mired by this ceaseless activity in my brain. I’d think about accounts and financial forecasts while bobbing about on my surfboard waiting for a wave, instead of being totally immersed in the sunset scene that I was floating in.

BECOMING A RUNNER

At first I blamed everything external. Too much work, not enough creativity, living in the wrong place, being away from friends, financial insecurity, poor diet, not enough exercise, you name it. I made changes in all of those areas of my life, and they had a really positive effect. I felt happier and more content, but the chatter and noise that I was now aware of didn’t really change all that much.

“…I was looking to find my edge, my limit, and to exist there for as long as I could, as often as I could, and I felt that running could take me there.”

I played about with meditation, trying once every few weeks but struggling to make it a habit and not feeling like I was getting much from it. Then I started running again, and something started to change.

Previously my approach to running was to set crazy goals and to go hell for leather without much of a plan or hope in hell of achieving them. Almost every time I did this I injured myself, attempted to run through the injury until I really hurt myself, and then either had to stop running altogether and abandon whatever goal I had set, or just stop training and then gulp down pain killers during the race (a similar approach to work or other life goals that many people will sympathise with). But this time something helped me take a more mature approach.

This time I wasn’t out to impress or prove myself to anyone. This time the running wasn’t the focus: rather, I was looking for what running would bring me. I probably couldn’t have articulated the reason for this at the time, but I was looking to find my edge, my limit, and to exist there for as long as I could, as often as I could, and I felt that running could take me there.

“When I was younger my mind would have been nowhere else but right there, in that moment of beauty and wonder”

I was serious about this, for the first time, and so I set myself some serious, but not crazy goals. The big one was to try to run a sub 3 hour marathon but I didn’t set a stupid time frame and considered that it might take me 2 years or more to achieve. If at that time my edge was a 4 hour marathon, then that’s where I’d try to run. I did more research, followed a training plan, watched my diet, and included strength training into my routine. I began training my mind to think of myself as an athlete in order to frame my thoughts and beahviours as powerfully as possible.

All this meant that I started to run, regularly, close to my edge. At least a few times a week during my training I was pushing myself just inside that zone of discomfort, experiencing pain and just existing with it, listening to calls from my brain to stop or slow down and heeding them when my body was truly close to distress, but for the most part smiling at these voices and noticing with genuine interest when they faded away.

I loved these moments. Lived for them actually, and I found so much more self-discipline in my day to day life in order to make sure I would be fit enough to experience them. In these moments I was there. I was right there  in that moment, however long it lasted, sometimes just seconds but others full minutes of total awareness of myself moving through whatever place I happened to be running.

Any readers who have practiced mindfulness will already have recognised the thread of my point here. It’s not a new idea but it was a new realisation for me. These moments playing near my limit, existing close to my edge, were meditations. My body and mind was being pushed just hard enough to make my most burning sensations and thoughts loud enough to shout through the mindless background chatter, but not so hard that I lost myself to the noise. I was running with intention, fully aware that my body and mind would play these tricks and committed to dealing with them, and so I was able to observe, to focus on pain when it came and enjoy the sensation of it fading. I was able to listen to these guys in my head clamouring for me to stop, persuading me, bribing me, using every dirty trick in the book to make me stop, and taking pleasure in simply carrying on.

A GATEWAY DRUG TO HARDCORE MEDITATION

They say meditation is a practice. Well, though I didn’t know it, I was practicing while I was running hard and observing all of these loud shouty thoughts and sensations, and the result was that, when I wasn’t running so hard and my brain and body went back to a comfortable place, I was still listening, and I would notice all the other thoughts, the ones that are normally there, in the background, chattering and jabbering away. Ideas, memories, fantasies, and plans from the most mundane to the completely incredible. All going on, all the time, just under the surface.

“…those moments, sometimes lasting an hour or more, were the most thrilling and gratifying of my whole week…”

Around this time I began to take meditation a bit more seriously. I had read a few books and I started listening to guided meditations, using apps or podcasts. What I learned through this was that mindful meditation is not about trying to empty the mind, as I had always tried to do when meditating (a very frustrating experience!), but simply to practice being an observer of your own thoughts, sensations, and feelings from one moment to the next. The other important thing I learned was that at the heart of this practice is the development of compassion for oneself, learning not to judge oneself for whatever the brain pulls up for examination.

This kind of meditation – compassionate, non-judgmental observation – was exactly what I was doing, totally by instinct or just necessity I guess, during my most intense periods of training when I was existing close to my edge. What’s more, those moments, sometimes lasting an hour or more, were the most thrilling and gratifying of my whole week, and the good feeling they gave me stayed with me, helping me to be more present in my everyday activities.

Realising this I began to see the power of regularly practising mindfulness meditations, for while I want to keep visiting my edge and experiencing the highs that come with that, the day to day and lifelong benefits of compassionate self-awareness are actually much easier to come by simply by sitting still a couple of times a day and gently observing your thoughts.

MEDITATIONS ON THE ‘EDGE’

That said, I’m addicted to running now and this pursuit of the edge (and I’m keen to find it through other activities like climbing, for example, to see how it compares), and so I’m left with the intriguing question: is the love for endurance sports that certain people have driven by a thirst for that place of extremely heightened awareness that exists at the edges of our physical abilities? There are many, many of us who chase that edge, and once we’ve been there it’s a drug we never get clean from – what is it that we seek there, beyond pride and ego and (for a tiny few at least) glory? I think, perhaps, that it is life that we’re seeking, some exhilarating purity of moment, experienced in raw and unfiltered states of being that we don’t know how else to create.

“It’s probably quite rare for someone to meditate themselves to death…”

These edges of our existence, then, become sacred places of transcendence, and seen in this light we might feel connected to the monks and pilgrims and ascetics who put themselves through all manner of hardships in order to reach some higher spiritual plane, to commune with God or the universe, or to find enlightenment.

I’m not sure that running ultra-marathons or cycling non stop across America is the smartest way to gain enlightenment, but I do think that, just as in meditation, it is the practice that matters. For endurance sports the training, self-discipline, diet, frame of mind and the races themselves are the practice, and while it’s true that without these the reward of finding that edge is totally unattainable, the training and preparation and the day to day benefits of this to happiness and well being are their own reward. Getting too obsessed with this idea of the edge, on the other hand, can certainly lead to over training, stress, injury, and even death in the more extreme sports.

It’s probably quite rare for someone to meditate themselves to death, so perhaps I’ve lost the main thread of my point here, but please remember that this blog is an exploration so you must allow me to wander off track from time to time. My aim in writing this was to share my experiences of something quite common, perhaps universally common, in our modern societies: the slow, imperceptible act of losing oneself to the undercurrent of our thoughts. I’m thankful that I recognised that loss as early as I did, and I wanted to share the things that helped me move beyond that recognition and begin to find peace and stillness in my life, not by slowing down, but by increasing my awareness, and my presence.

There was a meme on Facebook that said that if every child was taught meditation, we’d have peace on earth in a generation. I think that’s perhaps a little optimistic, but I certainly feel that mindfulness is a life skill, like personal finance or being able to wash your own pants. Once you have the technique you never forget it, and that’s why I’m so keen to write about it.

If you read this far, bravo! Say hello in the comments and I’ll congratulate you personally!