I am not a serious runner. Aside from running “The Mile” in gym class growing up (which terrified me!) I didn’t start running until Sophomore year of college, when I was living on my own for the first time. I had friends who were on the track team while we were in high school, and the idea of getting up early to run a few (read: more than one!) miles sounded awful.
However, faced with the prospect of living on my own, and wanting a way to exercise and spend some energy, I gradually started to run, especially on mornings I didn’t have class. I didn’t even have running shoes when I began: I was running in my beat-up everyday sneakers, flat soles and all. Over time, running has become part of my routine and something I look forward to and enjoy, as a chance to push myself, stay in shape, and a time to think.
I haven’t run any events or races, nor am I part of a team or club. Occasionally, I’ll convince one of my friends to go running with me, but for the most part, running is a singular activity. I sort of regret not having the shared running experience of a track team or something similar, now that I’m running on my own. Without that group knowledge, I’m working on my own to try and figure out pace, timing, what sort of qualities I want in shoes, etc.
This past week has been especially nice weather, after the Winter that won’t die, so I’ve been taking advantage of it and putting in miles in the mornings. Most of the time when I finish a run, I find that I have the stamina in my legs and muscles to keep going, but am short on breath. I thought perhaps I was doing something wrong, so I took to a running forum and asked if anyone had any suggestions for spacing my breathing.
Right away I got a response that made me chuckle. A user said: “Don't think about it. Breathing while running is natural, not mechanical, and you're making it a mechanical process. Just breathe in when you need to breathe in and exhale when you need to exhale.”
This is something that comes up in meditation practice, too: breathing is an automatic process. By and large, your body knows how to breath. You don’t have to regulate it, or control it. Imagine how tiring it would be if you had to manually breath in and out each time!
Often, when people first sit down to establish a meditation practice, they do these big, dramatic deep breaths, probably based on some pop-culture idea of what meditation is all about. When in fact, the point is to focus on the breath while letting it become as automatic as possible.
I recently read ‘The Mind Illuminated’, by Culadasa, hoping to expand my knowledge of meditation and enhance my own practice. He suggests intermixing sitting meditation practice with walking meditation, which I have been trying to do.
Walking meditation is largely how it sounds, in which the meditator attempts to focus not only on the breath but also the sensation of movement in your muscles and the impact of your feet making contact with the ground. Then, with your peripheral awareness, being mindful of the sensory experience happening around you as you walk. Culadasa suggests starting to walk at your regular pace, automatically, and then slowing down ever so slightly enough to become aware of the process.
Of course, the difficulty in focusing on something, without truly “thinking” about it is part of the crux of the issue with meditation. The goal is to use the breath as a mantra, and by holding your attention on that as a meditation object, you’re more able to let your passing thoughts and emotions go. If you continue down Buddhism, the goal becomes to free yourself from your desires, which are the root of all suffering according to the Buddha. But of course, isn’t that a desire in itself?
I over-think things, a lot. Generally, most of my worries come from thinking deeply about something that’s largely out of my control, or that will regulate naturally. How does a flower know when to bloom, or when to close its blossoms in the cold or at night?
Of course, it doesn’t. There’s no brain making these decisions. It just knows. Flowers have been doing it for thousands and thousands of years, from time long before man walked through poppy-covered fields. I’ve had a hard time taking care of plants and flowers in my home, as with a sporadic work schedule I would often forget about them, then overcompensate to try and “make it up”. Of course, that doesn’t work.
My girlfriend and I took a trip to a nearby plant nursery recently, where she hoped to pick up some new plants for her apartment (she has a much greener thumb than I). I was amazed by a long aisle they had of different bonsai arrangements, all different sizes and types of trees. There’s something very alluring about bonsai, little self contained worlds of trees that look like they might have been there for hundreds of years.
They had a sign suggesting to ask an employee why bonsai make bad office plants, and I did.
“Because they need a lot of attention!”, he said, “Like pets.” I asked what sort of maintenance a bonsai tree needed, was it hard work? He smiled and said no, they just need water, eventually pruning and cultivation, just like any plant.
I picked up a small bonsai ficus. A ficus is said to be the tree that the Buddha meditated under while he reached enlightenment. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to take care of it, but I won’t neglect it. Each day, after I finish sitting, I make sure the soil is still moist, everything looks good, and that it’s getting the indirect light it needs. It can take care of the rest.