Friday, May 11, 2012

Book Review: Running With the Mind of Meditation

I do not have an Eastern mindset.

I remember going to a one-off book club meeting with a bunch of women, all acquaintances of my boss, about two months after Will and Ruthie were born. Other than some "dates" with my husband, I hadn't been out much. I wasn't back at work yet, and my overachieving breasts made so much milk that being far away from the babies and the breast pump for any length of time was a recipe for misery. But I longed for adult conversation, so when I was invited to this group's meeting, I jumped at the chance.

Which book we read eludes me now. But what I do remember is that we had a great discussion. At one point, someone mentioned how she needed to learn more to "live in the moment." (In Boulder, you hear this a lot, mostly from people who are so Type A they twitch with restlessness during yoga.) My response was, "People say that to me all the time. But the truth is, I don't like the moment at all."

People did say that to me all the time back then. Well-meaning folks were constantly telling me to live in the moment with my twin newborns, not understanding that the vast majority of my moments were like Chinese water torture. Most of the other women in the group were silent when I said this. My boss said, kindly, "Thank you for that honesty." And then the discussion moved on.

Five years later, I still have trouble living in the moment, even though the pleasant ones vastly outnumber the unpleasant ones now. My Western head is full of checklists, plans and goals, and the older I get, and the faster the passage of time seems to me, the more I realize that living in the moment, at least a little more than I do now, would be a healthy outlook to adopt. (I can't promise that I'll ever learn to love the moment when the afternoons with the kids get long.)

It wasn't until I picked up Running With the Mind of Meditation, though, that I realized this applies to my running, too. I'm always saying I want to run for the rest of my life. This book has actually given me an idea of why my current goal-driven, failure-anxious approach might need to be altered for that to be the case.

The author, Sakyong Mipham, is the leader of Shambhala, a group of meditation retreat centers including one in Northern Colorado not too far from where I live.

Yeah, I could run there.
Sakyong is also a 3:05 marathoner and leads running/meditation workshops with the same name as this book. (My friend Michael Sandrock has attended the retreats and got me a copy of the book.)

As accomplished a runner as Sakyong now is, he's been meditating for much longer. So as he got stronger as a runner, it was natural that his first calling would begin to deepen his understanding of his running. The result: first the workshops and now the book.

Many passages in this book spoke to me, but, with my Boston Marathon goal looming over everything I do from injury rehab to racing, the passages I most appreciated were in the "garuda" section, which is how the author characterizes the third phase, in which the runner has passed from beginner (tiger) to exultant born-again (snow lion) and now feels like moving into tougher challenges (the garuda, in Tibetan mythology, is a bird with human arms that hatches ready to fly).

Here's a sample:

In both running and meditation, one needs focus, determination and a goal. At the same time, that determination and goal can become a disease. We are ambitious and are therefore plagued by hope and fear, which destabilizes our training and practice. Thus the garuda phase is letting go of hope and fear--not as a technique to achieve our goal, but as a genuine recognition that hope and fear stifle our potential and infringe deeply on our well-being...Both hope and fear result from the inability to appreciate what we have and what we have accomplished.

The man could have been writing just for me. Earlier he had written:

Without patience, people try to run again too soon and complicate their injury. Waiting out an injury is an excellent time to work on our meditation. I have found rehab to be a practice in itself, determining day to day how we feel and responding with the appropriate action--which may mean keeping still. We can use the time recovering from an injury to train our mind in gentleness and firmness.

Other things Sakyong advocates and/or emphasizes throughout the book:

  • The beginning of anything will always be the most challenging time; you can and will get through it with the right mindset.
  • Running without headphones focuses your mind and improves both your running and your experience of your running.
  • Pay attention to your posture as you run.
  • Learn to meditate when NOT on the run. Learn to be still. Stillness helps the mind in the same way movement helps the body. Then bring the focus and present-moment attitude of "real" meditation to bear on your mindset while running.

There's much more, of course. I did a lot of underlining and starring the margins while reading. There was true compassion in this book (and compassion is often lacking in the Boulder version of the Zen attitude, which is usually just Western Type-A driven-ness in Eastern monastic clothing). There was also a sense of humor. I feel that Sakyong is someone I would trust, someone whose suggestions would actually help me both as a person and as a runner. I recommend this book to all runners.

(Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book to review. My good opinion of it is my own. I don't finish books that bore me, and I don't mince words if I think a book is a piece of tripe.)

For more information about the book, visit its Web site. The upcoming retreat dates are all on there. Wouldn't it be fun to attend one of those?!