Meditation In Motion: Learning The Art Of Running Zen

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This year, the Brooklyn Half Marathon sold out faster than ever. In just 52 minutes some 27,000 bibs were purchased for the country’s largest 13.1-mile race. In 2015, it took just shy of 7 hours.

Running has been at peak popularity for a while now. The number of Americans who finished a race increased 300% from 1990 to 2013, and the speed with which runners snapped up $85 bibs for the BK Half is further indication that our obsession with running is still alive and well in 2016. With numbers like these, it begs the question: Why have so many of us taken to strapping on sneakers and going out for a run? Zen Dharma Holder Vanessa Zuisei Goddard is out to help us figure it out, in the deepest sense of the question.

Goddard has been running for 30 years, ever since she was a teenager. But in the last 20 years the practice has taken on a new meaning for her as she has devoted her life to being a student of Zen Buddhism at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskills. “I decided that running would be my moving meditation,” she says. She chose running as her activity for the monastery’s required “body practice,” which uses physical activity to practice meditation. “Ever since then, that’s how I’ve practiced it. I basically think of it as moving zazen (Zen meditation).”

The notion at first seems counter-intuitive. For many of us, running is associated with pain, fatigue, sweat and competition. How is it possible to empty out our minds and find clarity and calm amidst the toilsome pounding of pavement?

The issue might first be with our understanding of what it means to meditate. Mindfulness meditation, interestingly, has seen an increase in Western popularity that seems to exist in tandem with the rise of running. In the past few years, corporate meditation retreats and trainings have swept the white collar workforce (and have been met with due criticism for being appropriated only to serve an end goal of increased productivity), and dozens of guided meditation apps exist so that we can sneak in bite-sized moments of calm into our otherwise hectic days.

In other words, our interest in meditation is largely compartmentalized, in which sitting for meditation is a daily task that can help us serve our own personal goals of productivity, reduced stress, or increased happiness. But Goddard calls those motivations into question. From the Zen Buddhist perspective, if we cannot put our meditation into action, then it becomes little more than an isolated exercise in discipline.

“Meditation is actually the easy part,” she says. “What is much much more challenging is to bring it into all of your life. And that’s really what i’m interested in—helping people to find ways to make that transition a little more seamless, a little more effective. Because if meditation is not working in your daily life, it’s not really working.”

That’s where running comes in. Unlike most of us who are wired into our playlists and focusing on the pain as we run, Goddard lets her mind quiet down as she moves, and focuses on finding stillness while in motion.

“I have always loved it,” Goddard says of the experience of running. “Just that feeling, first of all that i have a body, which i find wondrous, and the fact that it all works perfectly. That the pieces are there and that I can run.”

There is something incredibly celebratory about running events. At every race, you can find a herd of humans, traveling a predetermined distance on foot, simply because they can. In fact, they probably even paid to do so.

Through Goddard’s moving meditation practices, she’s been able to learn even more about how her body moves, and she’s avoided injury from running (something that plagues most runners in some form or another) for years. “The more you meditate, the more aware you are,” she explains. “Meditation is an incredibly physical practice—you can’t divorce your mind from your body. So I notice when something is off and can correct it before it develops into an injury. I’m able to notice when attention or my form is starting to slip.”

Beyond the celebration of and careful attention to our bodies’ abilities, Goddard pushes the students of her moving meditation workshops to answer the question, “why are you running?” For many of us, our competitive drive pushes us to race against others and ourselves for self improvement. For others, health and longevity might be the primary goal. Goddard believes that the answer to that question will inform our intentions as we practice.

“As long as your intent for doing anything is unclear, you’re not very likely to do it for very long or in the way that you hoped you would. With any discipline, what keeps you going when it doesn’t feel good, when it’s boring, when it hurts, when it doesn’t feel like it used to?”

And when it comes to our competitive urges, Goddard asks us to examine why those desires to win are there. “There is nothing wrong with competitiveness, but at a certain point you may find that if you’re really running as meditation, it may begin to throw into question what your idea of yourself is. And why you’re wanting to compete to begin with. What does it mean—to compete? Over who, and why?”

Have each of the 27,000 entrants to this week’s Brooklyn Half thought about it that way? Probably not. If each runner were to truly examine their motivations for running, perhaps we’d see some of the numbers drop off. Maybe some of us would realize we’re on autopilot, and we don’t actually want to run the race, while maybe others would realize they’re running from their unhappiness at their job and they need to put their energy towards a career change. Goddard puts it aptly: “It’s very easy to live life from the neck up and just use your thumbs to text or surf the web. It’s easy to be disembodied nowadays.”

But there is also promise that we can begin to clarify our intentions to ourselves in all aspects of our life through the process of running: “Running can be a process of reembodying yourself, regrounding yourself and being in touch with your humanity.”

To those who are running the half this Saturday, maybe it would be a bit of a leap to try and meditate for the full 13.1 miles, but at the very least it’s an opportunity to remind yourself of why you love to run, and use the experience as a means of celebrating those reasons. And for anyone who is worried about the run, let this piece of wisdom from the Dalai Lama serve as your race day mantra: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

“Because you’re a sentient being, you’re physically wired to experience pain,” Goddard explains. “But suffering is something that we’re constantly creating through the way we use our minds. Pain is just sensation. Suffering is your judgment of it.”

So, while that dull ache in your knee begins to bloom into a sharp pain as you’re halfway to Coney this weekend, or your quad muscles are screaming for relief as you crest a torturous hill in Prospect Park, just remind yourself: “At some point it’s going to hurt. That’s okay.”

The 2016 AirBnb Brooklyn Half Marathon will take runners from Prospect Park through South Brooklyn and all the way out to Coney Island this Saturday, starting at 7am.

For those interested in taking Vanessa Zuisei Goddard’s day-long workshop on running as meditation, she’ll be teaching it at the Zen Center of New York City in Brooklyn on June 4. Details are here.

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