Running (And Not Running) with the Mind of Meditation

Running in Forest by Dedulo Photos morguefileWhy do you run? Why do you stop? What is feeling? These were some of the questions in the air during the recent Running with the Mind of Meditation course at Hawkwood College, near Stroud. Inspired by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s book of the same name, the weekend was an invitation to explore the moment-by-moment experience of running, and to bring an attitude of gentleness and appreciation to the process. Over the weekend this beginner jogger surprised herself by developing more endurance, a sense of freedom and a very large blister.

The actual running was not the main activity of the weekend. (A relief, I admit). The rich programme, led by John Seex,(leader of Shambhala Stroud, keen runner and practising psychotherapist), and Henry Astor, (ultra-marathon runner and Shambhalian), featured a mixture of talks, sitting practice and group discussions as well as a daily run. John’s opening talk explored what it might mean to run with more mindfulness and awareness. He suggested synchronising mind and body using the present moment as a gauge, rather than either rigidly sticking to a decision such as ‘I must complete this session no matter what’, (which can be self-punishing), or disconnecting from felt experience to avoid pain, (which can be numbing and preclude feeling joy). Henry was the expert on the running form, having been trained in the technique at the Shambhala Mountain Centre in Colorado. His demonstrations included the memorable instruction to ‘get used to feeling like a prancing horse!’

By the time we were setting out for the first run, into the idyllic woodland surrounding Stroud, our group of nine participants had started to get to know each other. The range of running experience was wide, including highly seasoned ultra-marathon runners, but we were assured this did not matter: the idea was to practise the technique, (form and attitude), on a short gentle run, and then apply it to our own runs once back home.

Running Book CoverThe ‘short gentle’ run started with a very steep hill and turned out to be three times as long as I had ever run before: plenty of opportunity to explore the fine line between strength and self-aggression! Would walking up this hill be giving up or being gentle? (I eventually walked up the hill, admittedly swayed by Henry’s comment that strategic ultra-runners conserve energy by walking up hills.) After a while, getting into a rhythm, there were moments of pure bird song! Wide sky! So many shades of green! Then… blister pain! It seemed to grow with every stride. If I focus on the surroundings, does the experience of pain change?

By the end of the circuit, I was surprised to find that we had been running for over an hour. I felt I could have carried on, having got into a state of flow, (no doubt enhanced by endorphins), with the blister pain part of the background. At the lunchtime debrief over irresistible second helpings of homemade dessert, (surely we needed the calories?), the general consensus was that the morning’s run had felt less tiring and more enjoyable than usual. We debated the relative contributions of the new technique, the inspiring surroundings and the group spirit: several people said they usually ran solo on city streets.

On Sunday, one of the themes of John’s pre-run talk was why we run: are we coming from a place of fear, or a place of openness? With the blister now flourishing, I realised I had an immediate decision to make: should I even set off? When does choosing to undergo pain become self-aggression? In the end – despite John’s story of the Sakyong running an entire marathon with a bleeding blister that turned his sock red – I decided not to join the second day’s run. Another participant and I explored part of the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way, a trail through the Slad Valley landscape that inspired his writing. We came to a wooden post with an engraving of his poem April Rise, which ends with this line: If ever world were blessed, now it is. It seemed to capture the presence and freedom that John had been talking about. The rest of the group came back after two hours! They seemed exhilarated and several said they had no idea they were capable of running for so long.

On Wednesday 12 August 2015 (19:30 -21:30) John Seex will be hosting an experiential evening exploring running and meditation. This class is for new, casual or very experienced runners. There will be an introduction, guided mindfulness/ awareness meditation and instruction on how this approach can be incorporated into running, no matter what running style you adopt. You will be able to take what you have learnt and apply it while running on Clifton Down which will be followed by a debrief.

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