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.
For thousands of years, people have used mindfulness practices to deal effectively with a wide range of life challenges. We are now witnessing an explosion of scientific research demonstrating that mindfulness meditation changes both the function and structure of the brain.
Sitting in stillness is a simple, straightforward way to practice mindfulness meditation. Like physical exercise, sitting meditation has been shown to have many benefits: it can boost your immune system as well as treat and prevent a wide range of psychological, social and medical issues.
Running can bring benefits similar to those of meditation. Sitting quietly for 20-30 minutes every day helps reinforce the sense of calm and peace I experience through running; it affects the quality of energy I bring to my running, and it has a profound effect on how good I feel inside.
The simple act of sitting cross-legged on the ground with my back still and straight helps me deepen my level of concentration by increasing the amount of time my mind can remain undisturbed. By practicing regularly, the deliberate holding of a constant focus and effortless absorption of sitting has given me a sense of unity and rightness of movement.
Whether I am simply out on a routine training run or competing in a hard race, the most important thing to me is that I float along, relaxing rhythmically to allow better delivery of oxygen and nutrients to both my lungs and legs. Running in a “cocoon of concentration,” the freedom from distraction and sustained alertness I get from sitting helps me refine my coordination in every moment to offload fatigue by recruiting deeper tissues found in difficult to activate muscles.
The inner composure, centeredness in action and relaxation I maintain from my sit helps me resist to the urge to quit as I push my lungs, heart, and legs beyond their ordinary capacity. The denying voices that accompany the pain of fat, muscle and capillaries breaking down become easier to endure because I calmly wait for the second energy that eventually surges through me. The newfound strength of my body compensating to regenerate itself adds to the pleasure I get from exceeding a limit and my sense of pride from overcoming my resistance.
Whenever I have dedicated myself to a regular sitting practice, I have been able to tolerate a more exhausting training routine simply by drawing on the capacities I have built through sitting. While I do not have an exceptional physique in any way, sitting and running have made me very robust for my age.
Approached in this balanced way, sitting and running soon merge into the same experience for me. Through sitting practice, I try to develop extraordinary patience and a meditative state. Then when I run, I simply relax and meditate along the way when I need to. However small or great the distance I have remaining to run is irrelevant because my legs will obey me by continuing in the same rhythm.
After many years of training, competition has become a sacred act for me. I am unconcerned with results or times. Whether I am alone, cruising along in the mid-pack or on the heels of the top runners in my age group, I maintain the focus of running from the center, my belly, with little or no wasted movement.
Tips for Sitting Meditation
The physical and mental balance of sitting practice is an empowering tool for your own health care as well as your emotional and psychological well-being. To gain strength in your sitting posture is to open a gateway to hearing and feeling the flow of information from the inner world. Persevering in the pursuit of stillness and calmness can give us the power to organize and reshape our thinking, emotions, and behavior. Even a brief sit in the morning will help you contact and preserve your inner calm at the start of a busy day.
The fine balance of sitting cross-legged on the ground like a mountain, with your back still and straight, can seem like hard work at first because there are actually many more small movements of small parts at work cooperating to maintain your body’s delicate poise in stillness than there are when walking or running.
Since the attempt to sit this still is not entirely natural, it must be directed consciously. To gain strength in your posture you must learn to stay relaxed and ride out the physical stresses and strains you may feel by imposing the right measure of willpower on your body. In this way sitting teaches you about inner poise, grace under pressure, and detachment from results, all of which are fundamental to running, healing and spiritual practice.
Words of a Consummate Master
The following paragraphs by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi provide an excellent introduction to Zazen, the zen style of sitting meditation:
“The most important thing in taking the Zazen sitting posture is to keep your spine straight. Your ears and shoulders should be in a line. Relax your shoulders and push up towards the ceiling with the back of your head. And you pull your chin in. When your chin is tilted up you have no strength in your posture; you are probably dreaming. Also to gain strength in your posture, press your diaphragm down towards your hara, or lower abdomen. This will help you maintain your physical and mental balance. At first, you may find some difficulty breathing naturally but when you get accustomed to it you will be able to breathe naturally and deeply. You should not be tilted sideways backward or forward. You should be sitting up straight as if you were supporting the sky with your head. This is not just form or breathing. It expresses the key point of Buddhism.
It is the perfect expression of Buddha nature. If you want an understanding of Buddhism, you should practice in this way. These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this form itself is the purpose of the practice. When you have the posture, you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state. When you try to attain something your mind starts to wander about somewhere else. When you do not try to attain anything, you have your own body and mind right here. A Zen master would say, “Kill the Buddha!” Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else.
The most important thing is to own your physical body. If you slump, you will lose yourself. Your mind will be wandering about somewhere else; you will not be in your body. This is not the way. We must exist right here right now!
Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind exists when you sit in the right posture is itself enlightenment. — In this posture, there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it.
So try to keep the right posture, not only when you are practicing Zazen but in all your activities. Take the right posture when you are driving your car and when you are reading. If you read in a slumped position, you cannot stay awake long. Try. You will discover how important it is to keep the right posture. This is the true teaching. The teaching, which is written on paper, is not the true teaching. Written teaching is a kind of food for your brain but it is more important to be yourself practicing the right way of life.”