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Three Things Every Runner Should Know About Zen

By

C. Alexander Simpkins Ph.D.

&

Annellen M. Simpkins Ph.D.

Faster times! Longer runs! Better endurance! Modern runners strive to develop their full potential. But what about the inner mind that helps make great achievements possible? Zen is a sophisticated method for developing the mind. As inner awareness becomes more acute and disciplined, physical barriers can be broken through to take you to new levels of achievement. Adopt a few key mental skills, you will run along the Zen path to better running and enrich the quality of running and life!

Number One: Breathe with the Flow

Attention to breathing is your inroad to deeper awareness and clearer thinking. Zen pays close attention to breathing, using it as the first step to a more awake, aware mind. In running, proper breathing is also very important. Correct breathing keeps your pace smooth and steady. It links mind with body and helps to direct the flow of energy.

 

Enhanced Concentration through Counting and Listening

            This meditation is a good place to start developing Zen awareness. Begin by sitting quietly and turn your attention to your breathing. People usually find that it is easier to notice their breathing when the close their eyes.  Count each complete breath, where breathing in and then out again is one breath. Count up to ten and then begin again. Let your breathing be natural and relaxed.  Keep your attention on your breathing as you count. Continue counting for several minutes.

            Some people find listening to breathing comes more naturally than counting. As you sit quietly, lightly cover your ears with your hands and close your eyes. Turn your attention to the sound of each breath, in and out.  Keep your attention focused on the sound for several minutes. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the sound of your breathing. With practice, your ability to stay focused will improve.

 

Zen Meditation: Attention to Breathing

            Once you feel comfortable with the previous exercises, try this traditional Zen meditation. Sit in the traditional posture described earlier and relax your breathing. Direct your attention to your breathing. As you inhale, notice how your ribcage expands slightly as you bring air in and down through your breathing passages. Pay attention as the air pushes out again.  Keep your awareness on each new breath, in and then out as you allow the process to happen naturally. If you have any thoughts distracting you, gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Let yourself experience each breath anew, as a new moment. Continue staying with your moment-by-moment breathing.

Breathing with the Flow

With the skills you have developed, you can bring this new awareness to your running. Before you begin, meditate on your breathing for a few minutes. When you feel attuned to your breathing, begin moving. Continue to focus on your breathing as you run. If your mind wanders away from focus on breathing, gently bring it back. Keep your attention on breathing as you run at a relaxed, comfortable pace.  Let yourself feel a unity between movement and breath so that to breathe and to run become One!

Number Two:  Be Mindful Head to Toe

Mindfulness is an approach to life, a way of orienting yourself with alert awareness and complete presence. Life without mindfulness is foggy and vague, driven by blind impulse and external pressures. But a mindful life opens a vast vista of potential for wisdom and freedom. The word “mindfulness” implies its meaning: mind FULL ness. It is a meditation method for filling the mind completely with each moment. So mindfulness is not just a matter of what you do, but rather how you apply your mental attention and involvement. Although mindfulness begins deliberately, it eventually becomes spontaneous.

Each moment in life is our first and last. Zen teaches us to bring ourselves fully into every moment, to perform each activity completely and wholeheartedly as if it were the only one. This kind of practice trains the martial artist to be ready for any situation. If you ever participated in an important race, you know that you cannot afford to be distracted in any way. Mindfulness begins with you in your own experience, here and now.  Approaching each workout mindfully will prepare you well.

Mindfulness Meditation

Pick a pleasant outdoor spot where you can sit quietly for a few minutes without being disturbed.  Sit cross-legged on the ground and close your eyes.  Pay attention to your breathing. Notice how you are sitting. Can you feel the ground under you? Be aware of the air on your skin.  Smell the fragrance of the nature around you. Listen to the sounds.  Do you hear chirping birds, leaves rustling, people talking, or cars passing by? Keep fully aware of everything you notice as you sit quietly and enjoy the experience.  This heightened awareness of the present moment is mindfulness. 

Mindful Running

You can bring your mindful attention to your running. Clear your mind of all distracting thoughts and bring yourself fully into this present moment. Scan through your body with your awareness and notice what you are experiencing in your muscles, your breathing, your body temperature, or anything else.  When you feel calm but alert, begin running. Sense your breathing using some of the earlier meditations. Breathing is a good way to orient for mindfulness. Then extend your awareness to your body in general. Pay close attention to the feeling of your feet as they meet the ground. Notice how your legs and arms move in synchrony.  Enlist all your senses as you keep your attention focused on where you are and what you are doing.  In mindful running you may notice a need to make minor adjustments such as relaxing tension in your shoulders, lengthening your stride, etc.  Make the improvements needed and notice the differences. Continue to run mindfully and enjoy the experience.

Number Three: And then Let Go!

We train ourselves, learning what we can and cannot do. But the ultimate expression of the art of running is to be able to let go to the activity of running and allow yourself to run your best, keeping the mind open. Zen calls this state of mind, no-mind. The state of no-mind is a paradox because it involves two seemingly contradictory aspects: to be mindfully aware and empty of thought, both at the same time!

This traditional Zen story illustrates the point.

 Several hundred years ago, a renown Zen master and accomplished calligrapher was painting an entry sign to hang over the gates his Zen temple. The sign was to read, “The First Principle.” The master dipped his calligraphic brush in the thick black sumi-e ink and began to paint. A student who had helped him gather the supplies looked critically at the work and said,

“That’s not very good.”

The master tried again and said, “How does this look?”

“Worse than the first one!” said the student.

The master kept trying again and again until he had written the sign eighty-four times.  Suddenly, the student was called away to do another chore. The master took this opportunity,  emptied his mind of thought,  and allowed his skilled hand to quickly paint.

            When the student returned, all he could say was, “What a masterpiece!”

In no-mind you are not distracted by thoughts that come and go. You don’t evaluate how you are doing, how tired you feel, or whether your performance measures up to your expectations. These kinds of evaluations hold you back in many subtle ways. Run with no-mind and you will be fully open, mindful of each step as you take it, with nothing standing in your way of your peak performance.

No-mind readiness is open and effortless. Don’t attach yourself to any thought or effort. If you get caught up in thinking something specific or if you make a deliberate effort, you slow yourself down. The state of ready attention is effortless, moving freely, like a windmill turning in the wind.

No-Mind Meditation

You can begin to develop no mind with a one or two minute meditation. It’s better to start with what you can do and increase the time as you are able. Sit down and close your eyes. Bring yourself into the moment of sitting. Don’t have anything in mind to do, no goal. Just stay in the present. When a thought arises, let it go.  If you find yourself lost in a thought, gently bring your attention back to the present and continue on.  With practice over time, thoughts begin to slow down. Meditate regularly, even for a brief time.  Similar to how training improves running, meditation responds well to practice!

No-Mind Running

Now extend this meditation into your run. Trust that you have trained well and that you know what to do. Begin running naturally.  Let go of any thoughts as they come up while being present in the movement. Don’t think about your technique, just run mindfully,  allowing your body to move itself, consciously unconscious.

Ready, Set, Go: Enlightened!

            Each moment is complete and new. We are all beginners each moment, all the time. And therefore, every moment is a fresh opportunity to learn. We don’t need to continue to carry the burden of past failures or difficulties. 

The famous Japanese Zen master Dogen told his students, “Practice is enlightenment.”  This wise teaching applies to running and to life. As you train with absolute commitment in every step, your practice becomes enlightenment.

Each aspect of living can be an artistic creation, an opportunity to lose yourself fully in the moment, to act with the sure-footed movements of an elite runner, to let your body move optimally. So next time you run, don’t hold back your alert, awake mind. Breathe with the flow, be aware head to toe, and then let go!