Friday, April 5, 2013

Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind

Book Review: Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham  (Kindle Edition 2012)

This is a great book for runners, meditators, and especially for those who do both. Sakyong Mipham is a Tibetan-American lama steeped in two cultures. He has also been trained in the Shambhala tradition that venerates the path of the warrior and recommends athletic development, thus his training in martial arts, archery, dance, and horsemanship.

He took up running much later but has come to be a long-distance runner and has run quite a few marathons. He has also practiced meditation his whole life from a young age. He sees meditation as the chief means of training the mind and running as a method of training the body so the book serves as an analysis of the integration of mind and body training methods. He advises: “Meditate with delight and run with joy.” He appears to be a very disciplined fellow.

Sakyong Mipham relates many personal experiences and tales like running before dawn in India where one must be present to possible encounters with elephants, cobras and leopards, running in the high elevation of Tibet, in the wilds of Scotland, and in various parts of the US and Canada. He sees running and meditation as mutually supportive.

“When we run, we strengthen our heart, remove stagnant air, revitalize our nervous system, and increase our aerobic capacity.”

Running and meditation both support health, strength, and flexibility of mind and body. The stresses of modern society, such as sedentary time due to travel, work, and electronic pursuits and other stresses such as pollution point to a need for physical and mental strength, flexibility, and overall health.

He talks about his early running experiences beginning around 2003 with his trainer Misty Cech. As for everyone else it was a struggle in the beginning and one needs to “build a base” which is simply running enough without overdoing it in order to strengthen muscles, tendons, and bone integrity so that the body becomes used to it. My own first few runs are memorable for calf pain and quick loss of breath. I was amazed that people could run as far as they could (I still am) but improvement and relaxation did come. Building a base takes about two years, say doctors, and my own experience confirms this as well. He compares this to meditation – defined as “the act of familiarizing your mind with what you want it to do.” “The bones and tendons of the mind are mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is the mind’s strength, and awareness is its flexibility.” In one aspect, meditation is simply training the mind as running is one means to train the body. So, he says, ‘building the base’ has to occur with meditation as well – in order to get the mind in shape. He says that when learning meditation it is good to have coaching especially in regards to posture, attitude, obstacles, and antidotes. He says that movement is good for the body and stillness is good for the mind. He thinks that a balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can be attained through this movement and stillness, thus relieving stress. 

The importance of breathing to both meditation and running is emphasized. Connecting to the breath is perhaps the best way to be present. Breath can be a problem when one begins running but this usually improves as one learns to relax and breathe deeper. He gives instructions for meditation using the breath as focus and other useful advice.

The relationship between breath and mind is important. Tibetans say the breath is like a horse and the mind is like a rider. The horse, or breath, must first be tamed, but ultimately it is the rider, or mind, that is tamed. Mongolians and Tibetans depict this relationship of breath and mind in the idea of windhorse (lungta). In the depictions, above the saddle is a jewel. The jewel is the mind, and more specifically the enlightened mind.

The author suggests that running does not tame the horse (breath) but exhausts it into a more settled state. He says the peace from meditation is more cumulative, while that from running is incidental. Even so, the two activities are usually complementary.

He discusses the difficulty of beginning to run and making it a habit, the possibility of overdoing it and losing interest. Gradualness is the key. He suggests interspersing periods of walking and running for beginners. He notes (as I confirm) that the early part of a run is often the most difficult. This likely has much to do with the body adjusting from a relaxed to an active mode. In contrast, with meditation one is typically slowing down the thinking mind. 

Sakyong Mipham emphasizes the importance of motivation in both running and meditation. He talks about types of motivation – from without and from within, - and levels of motivation. Pacing and setting reasonable goals can be important to running. He sees a balance between challenging oneself and not overdoing it as important for runners. He also talks about short-term and long-term motivation. These should be balanced as well so that even if one’s short-term motivation weakens one can still think in terms of long-term motivation. Meditation can be a means to watch how such motivations can change in very short time periods.

He tells of his first marathon run in Toronto. Apparently, he bought new socks and this was not such a good idea. He finished the race but acquired a large and painful blister through most of the race. At 12 miles he decided to pop the blister by stamping hard on it. He describes his meditation on pain and finally finishing and getting his bloody foot fixed up.

Next he goes into the Shambhala warriorship tradition which is a method of training in courage without aggression. Training is given in four phases, called the ‘four dignities’ – tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon. The result is a strong windhorse.

“The Shambhala teachings present goodness as our base and splendidness as our natural state of being. These qualities are neither spiritual nor worldly but inherent – there to be uncovered.”

The tiger phase refers to cultivating mindfulness which leads to contentment. This is the phase of developing technique. Next is the lion which represents the joy of having developed the technique and discipline. Next is the garuda where newly-found skills and abilities appear and new challenges are taken on. Finally, there is the dragon which represents mastery and the ability to see beyond personal goals to benefitting others.

Detailing the tiger phase he notes that gentleness is the key to mindfulness. Building a base and developing and perfecting technique are the work. He notes that there are several different running techniques but that he prefers feeling connectivity from the navel up through his central core leading to mouth and nostrils. This is a focus in meditation as well. Running from the center is also recommending in “Chi Running” which is the technique that I have come to prefer. He gives his own technique and warns against slumping forward too much. He also recommends (as do other runners) landing in the center of the foot. He mentions the technique of counting breaths, as in meditation. I have never done this but I routinely do mantras in rhythm with the breath while running.

He discusses the effects of feelings/emotions/sensations on both meditation and particularly on running. He notes that much of the components of our feelings are mental and often mental discomfort is mistaken for physical discomfort. Mindfulness of how one feels is important. Dealing effectively with injuries takes mindfulness throughout as one needs to regularly assess one’s condition, healing, and readiness. Indeed, sensible pain and injury management is important to any exercise routine and it gets more important as one ages. He uses the term “embodiment’ to describe a synchronization of body and mind that he also equates with the egolessness of windhorse.

He discusses the benefits and pitfalls of treadmills and how they have helped him since he travels a lot. He discusses music while working out as a distraction yet it seems to work for lots of people. I actually like to read on an elliptical or a fast walk on a treadmill. He criticizes our half-hearted multi-tasking and recommends being fully engaged in our activities. As for me, I don’t mind multi-tasking.

Success in meditation or exercise can be simply that the action is sustained and practiced regularly. He mentions that the sluggishness we often feel at the beginning of exercise is not only due to the stagnation of muscles but also to the stagnation of organs – as in Chinese medicine. Exercising speeds metabolism and processing of toxins. Meditation may help us process our mental baggage and societal imagery.

He contrasts an attitude of gentleness with one of aggression and concludes that gentleness leads to a more optimal edge to both body and mind. Gentleness implies more flexibility, understanding, and care than aggression. Stress and worry are mental factors that can affect us physically as well. Meditation, in this sense, can be a means to train ourselves to hold less worry and stress.

He mentions yoga and walking as complementary to running. This is rather obvious as stretching and light exercise can keep one tuned up for more strenuous exercise.

He emphasizes the importance of optimism and confidence in both meditation and running. In meditation one is optimistic about the power of the mind. In running one is optimistic about the power of the body. He notes the importance of staying in touch with one’s confidence.

“With confidence, our activity becomes a path.”

As a tiger phase practice, he gives a technique of contemplation meditation where one investigates one’s motivation(s) for running.

The lion phase is characterized by enjoying the results of one’s hard work and training. Effort gives way to ease. This phase involves “panoramic awareness” where we focus on our surroundings having thoroughly trained in technique. Releasing struggle allows us to tune into the world around us.

In the Shambhala tradition and in Tibetan Buddhism in general, the natural state of our mind is said to be one of “basic goodness.” He posits a similar natural condition of the body as “basic healthiness.”  “… the mind is raw material. It is like tofu – neutral and pliable.”

Dealing with pain can be a part of running. A big part of life is pain therefore we should learn how to relate to it as best we can.

“When we are able to work with pain and understand it, life becomes twice as interesting. Relating to pain makes us fearless and happy.”

Pain should be acknowledged and accepted for what it is instead of overly focusing on it and reacting overly negatively to it.

“… happiness is the natural screen saver of the mind.” He says that “happiness is not a goal, but a by-product of mentally and physically healthy activities.”

He associates egolessness with happiness and lightness, and ego with heaviness and restriction. He discusses pride as a part of the lion phase and notes the five kinds of pride given in the Buddhist tradition: pride from position (family), pride from wealth, intellectual pride (knowledge), pride of youth/beauty/prowess, and pride from thinking you do not have pride. The antidote to pride is humbleness and good humor is also helpful in trimming pride. Healthy pride is simply confidence. A lion phase contemplation is given which focuses on feeling fortunate, grateful, and content. He demonstrates the value of this cultivation for everyone – including the poor, sick, and dying. Simply being content and grateful for the present moment can be a very powerful outlook.

The garuda phase is called ‘outrageous’ since this is when one challenges oneself beyond one’s comfort zone. A garuda run may involve new location or fresh stimuli. It may involve surpassing previous limitations. In meditation this may be an all day meditation or a long retreat. Strangely, after reading about this ‘garuda run’ I actually did one. I went out for a run and planned to go so far but I felt good near the end so I extended it and ended up going twice as far as I had planned and significantly farther than I had ever run before. I kept thinking about the garuda. The power of expectation? Perhaps. He says this garuda phase can help one break out of a rut. He describes his own creation of a 32-mile ultra-marathon in the high elevations of northern Colorado with 1000 ft differences in elevation. To me, that seems pretty outrageous.

The wings of the garuda represent focused mindfulness and panoramic awareness. The garuda symbolizes balance and freedom from hope and fear. Hope arises from not encountering what we want. Fear arises from encountering what we don’t want. Pain and pleasure can lead to avoidance and obsession. How we handle them is very important. Due to our habits in handling pain and pleasure we often switch from hope to fear and back. This cycle of hope and fear can undermine our lives, thus it is important to free ourselves from it when we can. Fear is based on attachment. Scholars are often attached to their knowledge while athletes are often attached to their bodily fitness. We all have hope and fear. The goal is to minimize its influence. Garuda is also associated with freshness and spontaneity. My own garuda run exhibited spontaneity. I did have another garuda run, or rather outrageous run of sorts but this one not so successful. I went out to run on cool day after not much sleep and the wind blowing against me got the better of me so I went far less than my minimum level and just gave it up. Felt bad for a short time then just got over it, no big deal. Sometimes the equanimity is just not there and the conditions get the better of you. Running in the heat is a problem for me as well. Maybe if I took water.

As another possible garuda phase method he mentions trail running. He says it is great for core training as there are more obstacles to overcome and flexibility to develop. I have not done this yet so maybe something to look forward to. Better scenery might also be a benefit of trail running. He relates experiences of running up and down big hills and running in extreme weather. He also relates a run where he and another runner experienced meditational clarity while running in the wilds of Scotland. He thinks that mind and body were in balance that day so their internal beauty allowed them to experience external beauty.

Meditation in the garuda phase emphasizes mindfulness itself as the object of meditation. Having discovered the qualities of a state of mindfulness during previous meditation training, one focuses on getting into that mode and holding to that state. The idea is to not be threatened or seduced by external distractions. Interestingly, he discusses boredom as being influenced by self-worth and pride. He says that in meditation or exercise we do not consider our activity worthy of our attention. The boredom related to pride can be when we become impatient and annoyed about having to wait for something. He says that cultivating attitudes of appreciation and self-worth are more important than ambition. Ambition and goals disappear in the garuda phase. He notes that one can take the outrageousness too far and that it should be grounded in one’s previous training. He gives a contemplation of love and kindness for the garuda phase. Letting go of self-centeredness is a key to happiness for oneself and focusing on kindness and the happiness of others is a key to letting go of self-centeredness.

The dragon represents deep purpose, our secret or innermost level, says Sakyong Mipham. He says dragon also symbolizes inexpressible power, brilliance, and the profundity of mind.

“The dragon embodies all the lessons of the tiger, lion, and garuda – mindful, perky, and in balance. Thus the dragon arises as coincidence and auspiciousness.”

In the Shambhala tradition the dragon represents the recognition of nonconceptual wisdom, referred to as the joining of heaven and earth. In this phase, he sees runs and meditations as focusing on what is most important, most beneficial – compassion, caring for others, and thinking beyond ourselves. He talks about the ‘dragon’s breath’ as being a special way to relate to breath, air, or wind. The yogic winds, or pranas are invoked here.

“The power of the dragon is intention. The dragon knows that with full, unbridled attention we can bring goodness and benefit into any activity.”

He mentions two approaches to breathing meditation – the gentle and the coarse. The gentle is appropriate to sitting meditation while coarse breathing is the method of vigorous exercise and requires control. He recounts an experience of running in the high altitude of Tibet where he was winded quickly and came to understand and appreciate the limitations of breath.

The contemplation given for the dragon phase is about compassion and selflessness. The goal is egolessness and bringing the intention to the best of intentions, that of benefiting others. Another goal of this contemplation is to discover that the self is an illusion.

The next section is about windhorse, representative of the state of egolessness. He talks about having conversations while running and how they can be revealing and without preconceptions. I have only had a few conversations while running and they seemed like regular ones to me so I am not sure I followed that part. He contrasts the bluntness of Western conversational style with the art of conversation among Tibetans. He talks about a run for peace he organized that ended at the Great Dharmakaya Stupa of Colorado. He talks about running for fund-raisers and charities as well. He talks about runners having an ethos of optimism and exertion and perhaps a connection to the life force energy that is windhorse.

“The windhorse phase is realizing we are all gifted; we all have something to offer.”

The windhorse contemplation is on basic goodness. He sort of refers to windhorse as the energy of basic goodness. It is “basic” because it is fundamentally who we area and “good” “in that we are complete, intact, and whole.”

Sakyong Mipham finishes out the book with some recounts of his marathon runs and with a poem called “Freedom” which elegantly expresses for him the bliss of running.

Overall, this is a great book with useful insights. There are better books on running techniques such as “Chi Running” but this one is unique in that it also encompasses meditation.




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