If you're already in the habit of walking, sitting, hiking or running through forests or parks with an abundance of trees, you've probably noticed how nourishing the experience is: how spending time in the natural world – immersed in the energy of trees, rivers, mountains and wildflower-filled meadows -- just feels really good. But why exactly is this? How does time away from city streets, in favor of more rural or back-country environments, actually affect our mental-emotional and physical health?
“True greatness comes not by favoritism but by fitness.” – MLK
Invoking the Vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I have found that there’s much more I can do with my daily runs than build my esteem, enhance my mood, or see how my performance compares with others on the various social media networks. Instead of focusing so much on myself, I try to turn my attention outward. Rather than using my run to take a temporary break from dwelling on the world’s problems, I actually try to engage these issues more fully through running. It works wonders on my heart and mind.
Neuroscience has shown that the repetitive motions and complex cognitive functions of running can trigger neurotransmitters, chemicals that boost the brain’s connectivity, thought patterns and decision-making—human qualities that are often compromised by the stress of life, especially in these troubled political times. Meanwhile, spiritual traditions remind us that turning our attention outward, from self-concern to the welfare of others, is the key to peace, love, and sanity. Why not bring these two streams together?
Last month our country celebrated the annual holiday honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was born on January 15th, 1929. On April 4th, 1968, he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. While Dr. King is primarily remembered as a civil rights leader, he also championed the cause of the poor, organizing the Poor People’s Campaign to address issues of economic justice. Dr. King was also a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy and the Vietnam War.
On certain days every year I make it a point to actively remember Dr. King’s life work, a body of teachings that are profoundly relevant to the world situation we face today. Before I lace up and hit the trails, I take a deep breath in remembrance of MLK, a true challenger who used his strength to improve other’s lives, becoming an inspiration to millions. I do these runs alone. I dedicate them to remembering my childhood beliefs and aspirations.
It was growing up in suburban Los Angeles during the era of forced busing (the practice of transporting students to racially segregated schools) that grounded my lifelong belief in civil and human rights. To renew my focus, I take some quiet time once in a while to review one of his sermons like “The Drum Major Instinct,” one of his most cited works. In this speech Dr. King reflected on his determination to leave a legacy of serving others. In that address he spoke these words:
Deep down within all of us is an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct-a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life. So before we condemn anyone else for it, let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct.
Dr. King expressed his determination to leave a legacy of serving others. So I ask myself: How am I living? Would I like to be remembered for making a difference in other people’s lives? What would I like others to be able to say about how I helped people?
I commit my daily run to reflecting on these questions. Once I’ve cleared out my surface thoughts and emotions, I make a conscious shift: rather than trying to relieve my stress, I dive right into the heart of the world’s problems. I journal about my experience later in the day, and I do my best carry it with me after the run. By choosing to concentrate on his ideals of freedom, justice and equality during my run, I am making a firm internal statement: “I believe in civil rights and human rights for all.” I’ve even been known recite the mantra, “How long? Not long!” out loud as I run along the path, adding to the flow of biochemical energy that both calms my nerves and quickens my pace.
I do this as an act of faith. I believe that channeling my passion for running into the world situation is a direct way I can become emotionally healthy and abundant. I dedicate the “can do” attitude and steady inner drive I manifest while running into making a better world for everyone in my life.