Running Is Moving Meditation

Sunday, January 17, 2016 - 8:02pm

Running Is Moving Meditation

The first few steps of a run never feel good.

Sure, there's the occasional day where I'm dying to run, where I've been waiting all day for the moment when I can prepare with my own ritual: adorn myself in essential garments (shorts, sports bra, socks), check necessary accoutrement (watch, phone), perform a sacred set of stretches as I put my shoes on. I shake my limbs out for a moment, take a breath, then launch myself off the concrete and onto the road. My muscles spring back and the shock absorbers of my quads reverberate as I begin to pound pavement.

Some days, when I do this, my mind immediately sends a thousand lights across my cortex. Ah, yes, I think, I love this! I smile as I bounce down the sidewalk.

Many days, though, I settle myself in for the feeling that inevitably hits sometime in the first mile. My muscles begin to ache and loosen up. My feet start feeling sore, saying, “Hey! You keep hitting us! Stop that!” After nearly six years of running, I now know that this feeling will usually go away after three miles, and the run will begin to feel OK.

Three miles can feel like a long time, though, and like lots of runners, I used to distract myself by listening to music. I had a playlist of anything that I could focus on until I got near the end of the run and could think, Hey, I ran and I barely even remember it!

The author about to embark on the Spartan Race in Hawaii.

(Christina Torres / InstagramAll rights reserved.)

Then I came across this passage in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run:

"Relax enough [into the run], and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving… You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing… and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel. What could be more sensual than paying exquisite attention to your own body?"

Oh, that sounds nice, I thought to myself. And with little fanfare, I decided to see if I could begin to run silently.

At first, it was torture. All I could focus on was how much everything ached. My feet and legs hurt. My shoulders were so tense my biceps would cramp — something I had noticed before, but had never really paid attention to. Hunched over and wearing a sour expression, I hobbled my way through runs like an angry troll on the worst mission ever.

After a few more runs, though, I began to focus my thoughts on something other than my frustration. I considered the quotation that had inspired me to do this in the first place and sought the “cradle-rocking rhythm” McDougall described. I imagined myself soothed and relaxed. Then I began to think about every part of my body. How did my legs feel? How did my back feel?

Eventually, the “sensual” contemplation of the physical became a contemplation of the spiritual. After finding that rhythm, I often found myself thinking through my life problems. I would debate, I would consider, I would vent.

A few months later, an acquaintance learned I was a marathoner and asked, “What do you think about while you run?” Without hesitation, I responded, “I meditate.”

I surprised myself. While I'd always considered myself a mindful person, I often had trouble meditating. I would get distracted by my phone, or bugs, or the wind, or how thirsty I was or how hot I was or a million other things. Running was not the zen, silent space I imagined I could meditate in. With my feet pounding and arms pumping, how was I finding inner calm?

Then, I realized God had been meeting me with moving meditation for years.

The author completing the Kauai Marathon in Kauai, Hawaii.

(Christina Torres / InstagramAll rights reserved.)

It is April of 2013. I am running. It is not going well. I am thinking about Batman. The new guy I am seeing loves Batman, and so I recently re-watched Batman Begins.

After getting hit by a car while running two years ago, I'm still astounded that I can run even a mile. Still, now that I am able to run, I am aghast at my speed — or lack thereof. I would see my pace after a mile and a voice would scream in my head, Seriously? If you’re going to run that slow, why are you running at all?

I hate that voice, but have lived with it for years. Runners live by the watch. We agonize over split times. We scale back or up the pace at which we are trying to fly, based on the speed that a careful calculation has told us we should match.

During this springtime run, though, my left hip began to throb. I knew I needed to stop and stretch, but this angered me. How could I stop now? I'd have to slow down. Maybe I should just stop altogether. Maybe I’m not going to run right ever again. I stopped to stretch out my hip, grumbling at everything.

In this moment, when I was at my lowest, a strange thing happened: Michael Caine’s voice popped into my head. It wasn't exactly the angel Gabriel speaking to Mary, but I suddenly heard the oft-quoted Alfred line:

"Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up."

So, I asked myself, why am I running? Am I being chased by something?

No. I was running because my heart demanded it. I was running because it gave me freedom. I was running because the mere action brought me joy, no matter how fast I did it. I was running because pounding my feet into the pavement was the only way to hammer myself back together. I was running to pick myself back up.

(Christina Torres)

If that was why I was running, any run was still a good run. It didn’t matter how fast I did it. I needed to “hold the mirror up,” as Father Greg Boyle says, and hear the truth:

"You say: you are exactly what God had in mind when God made you."

I decide to delight in myself exactly as God made me. I finish my stretch and begin to run again.

St. Ignatius of Loyola call us to “find God in all things.” God the companion, God the seeker, meets us wherever He can.

I understand now that God does not have to live in the “sacred” spaces I had been confining Him to: churches and shrines, places appearing to be “where God could live.” As I seek Him myself, I understand that God exists in all things and all moments. He has never not been there. God moves outside the dim candlelight I have resigned our relationship to for years, and weaves His way into the moments of physical sensuality when we are most aware of ourselves, or the lowest moments when we desperately seek refuge.

God lives in the pumping of my arms and pounding of my feet. God is the thousand lights shooting in my cortex as I bounce down the sidewalk smiling. Sometimes, God is even the voice of Michael Caine in Batman, meeting me while I run. The question is if I will stop distracting myself from what is there — pains, aches, and all — and hear His voice in return.

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Christina Torres

is a middle and high school English teacher at University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawaii. When she’s not teaching or writing, she’s running and looking for the best cheeseburger. She can be found online at christinatorres.org.

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Thanks, that was beautiful! I too find running deeply meditative and welcome its powerful influence on my being. We differ in that I assign the driver voice in my head to just my better self rather than a god. I may call it call it peace, harmony, or unconditional love of self and others, but I too celebrate the benefits of moving meditation. I will carry your eloquent writing with me today as I run. Thank you for sharing your motivational story of strength. The positivity is infectious. JB

I LOVE this!
I don't run, but I know that feeling.
From the moment I walked into my first Yoga class I understood meditation, moving meditation. That deep engagement that starts with the body and then keeps moving inward until it's all breath and experience, no lists and arguments and anxiety and, well, life.
I have discovered and am beginning to teach Yin Yoga now which allows me to go even deeper into both my body and my self, to feel those hints of the divine.
And now I can sit in meditation, something I thought I'd never do, never had an interest in. And it started with my body, this body I have disparaged for weight and for not being beautiful, for aging against my wishes, for weakness and vulnerability.
"You say: you are exactly what God had in mind when God made you."
Thank you for a lovely essay Christina. I hear you, I get it.

Thank you so much for this lovely piece. I am a relatively new runner (just picked it up in the last decade) and have always preferred to run without music for many of the reasons you articulated. When I can focus and quiet the monkey-mind, I find God in the sounds and sights and smells along the trail. And I marvel at the sheer miracle of the fact that my body will do exactly what I want it to. What a blessing indeed.

I like to run and cycle and I also meditate. I also found that the feeling whilst doing any lengthy exercise is the same as in meditation. At the start of the exercise there is a phase where I get mentally adjusted to the fact that I'm exercising and then I move into the phase when I'm within myself watching my breath and the performance of the body. I also have some music playing, but have found that it ends up totally being ignored whilst I contemplate. I've even changed the music to Krishna Das (chanting) which has added a completely differently dimension when I find myself chanting along with him. MJW

Amen! I have been practicing this same moving meditation for over 20 years, although it wasn't until a few years ago I realized that was what it was.

Beautiful piece, Christina. Thank you for sharing this.

Thank you for sharing your story. I recently started running and feel this way about both my body and my mind. It is wonderful to know that meditation comes in many forms, not just sitting. Have a beautiful run!

Transcendence through running; I’ve been a runner for 30 years and as I prepare for the 2016 Boston Marathon I too find the rhythmic cadence of distance connects the beginning and the end both literally and metaphorically. Thank you for the words of encouragement and affirmation.

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