A celebrated lama’s new book recommends training the mind in conjunction with the body. But can sitting on a cushion before pounding the pavements really make you run further and faster?
Recently, I’ve been training for the Edinburgh half-marathon. But instead of seeking advice from the usual quarters, I’ve been taking tips from a Tibetan meditation master. In just a short time, following his advice has changed how I think about two things I’ve been doing for some years now: running and meditating. Rather than being separate activities, I’m starting to see they have surprising amounts in common. And it’s made me newly excited about both.
The advice comes from a new book called Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham. The Sakyong (‘King’ or ‘Earth protector’ in Tibetan) is one of the highest lamas in Tibet and a celebrated teacher who leads the international Shambhala network of meditation centres, including a vibrant London outpost. He also happens to be mad about sport. His previous books on meditation have drawn on his love of golf, horse-riding and weight-lifting to explain the wisdom of ancient meditation texts. In researching this new book, the Sakyong ran nine marathons in six years. Not bad for someone turning 50 soon – although he looks about 20 years younger.
This experience led him to believe that running and meditation are very similar in many ways. Running well demands focusing on our breathing, while staying attuned to our surroundings. These also happen to be the basic principles of meditation. “If we develop a relationship with our breathing, we do not have to struggle with it as much,” he writes. “Intuitively, runners know this. As we become more familiar with the process of breathing, we are essentially developing a relationship with the most elemental aspects of being alive.”
The Sakyong artfully takes concepts from running and uses them to explain meditation. For example, when you take up running, you are encouraged to “build your base”, which means gradually strengthening the body so it becomes used to running. This process, he says, is similar to gradually developing the mind through meditation. He offers simple meditation techniques that people can build into their running, including contemplations on gratitude, generosity and motivation. And he also suggests that runners take off their trainers and try actually sitting on a meditation cushion. (This month, the US edition of Runner’s World magazine reported that runners who meditate have lower lactic acid levels after a workout than those who don’t meditate.)
In the States, the book launch is being accompanied by meditation workshops for runners. Blessie Selvig, a dedicated runner who studies meditation with the Sakyong in Colorado, has recently taught meditation to runners at the Chicago Evanston Athletic Club. “The feedback I’ve had is that it definitely makes the running experience different,” she says. “It’s more relaxed, clear, pain-free and insightful.” Selvig also saw improvements in her own running. “I actually ran longer and faster than I have before … It was a different run.” Over the summer, similar workshops will be happening in London and Brighton, with teachers from the Shambhala centre hooking up with gyms and running clubs to teach meditation classes.
The idea that running can be meditative will not be news to some runners, particularly those who cover long distances. Lots of runners report entering into “Zen-like” states during marathons. Even going for short runs helps many people to relax and let go of humdrum worries. The Sakyong has given this some thought. “It’s almost like as you run, you’re massaging your mind and suddenly all these different aspects of it – bliss, clarity, joy – begin to emerge, like perfume,” he says over the phone from his home in Boulder, Colorado.
The Sakyong hopes that by discussing meditation in the context of something as ordinary as running, he will reach a new audience who perhaps would not have sought out meditation instruction otherwise. But this is not about altering meditation in some fundamental way. Instead, he is saying that the language we use to describe training our bodies can – and should – be applied to training our minds. This honours the many Tibetan and Sanskrit terms for meditation, most of which are very ordinary and practical, rather than esoteric and otherworldly.
“The way that the Sakyong teaches meditation makes you think about training your mind, a little bit at a time, as a long term thing – just like training for a marathon,” says Ethan Nichtern, an American Buddhist teacher. “He’s saying that we’re not really familiar with our own internal being – we haven’t done that kind of training. So meditating is like learning to use a muscle group you haven’t used before. You could call it your mindfulness muscle.”
As part of my own training, I ran a 10km race in south London last week. Instead of trying to distract myself from the discomfort of running in the rain at 9.30 in the morning, I tried to maintain a sense of gratitude. Rather than resenting my fellow runners for overtaking me, I felt grateful for the chance to share the experience with them. Instead of mentally punishing myself, I tried to keep a gentle attitude. I even smiled a few times. And at the end of the race, I found I’d run four minutes faster than my target time.