24 January 2012

The Spiritual and the Physical

Over the last few months I've taken up running again.  Now, I feel the need to point out that I am not exactly what most people would consider an athlete. I'm not slim.  I don't have boundless energy.  I don't glow, rather I sweat like a hog. I'm a short, pudgy, diabetic with pretensions of athleticism.  I've taken up running again (I ran when I was a kid) for two main reasons: to improve my health and, more importantly, to find a better way to incorporate meditation into my life. 

Like most modern Americans, I need to exercise more and stress less.  Exercise is all well and good as a healthy habit but I really don't pick up new habits unless they support my spirituality and magickal practices.  I figured that the only way I was going to be able to really hold on to any form of exercise as a regular part of my life would be to make it part and parcel to my spiritual practice.  It's easy to make hiking in the mountains a spiritual practice because dear gods the mountains are glorious - the interurban trail is less so.  So how do I go about making my thrice weekly pounds around the neighborhood, past the quick-e-mart and the pub, spiritual?

I started off by focusing on my running technique.  I picked up the kindle version of Barefoot Running Step by Step because the idea of running in a more evolutionarily appropriate way than pounding on your heels sounded a lot less painful than what I had been doing.  I've found that running barefoot style is a lot easier and more natural than conventional running and it has an odd way of increasing mindfulness.  Mindfulness, that buzzword of the meditation scene, basically refers to the condition of paying attention to the moment rather than letting your thoughts drift about.  When you're whole mind is enrapt with the thousand natural sensations and bodily observations that running produces it's pretty hard not to be mindful.  After a few weeks of running this way I found myself finally achieving a runner's high - something I had previously thought was just a myth.

Since I seemed to be achieving mindfulness to easily just by paying attention to my feet and knees as I ran along I decided to see what other folks had to say about running meditations.  I picked up Zen and the Art of Running and was happy to find that I was not alone in feeling like running could really support my spiritual practice.  That book talks about the basics of mindfulness and attention and how to allow running or other intense physical activity to focus your attention and make mindfulness more natural. 

I find that shifting meditation time from sitting quietly and focusing on something (which I really do all day anyways) to deliberate movement (i.e. exercise) has really improved my relationship with the depths of my brain.  I've always been crap at traditional zen meditation. My mind is like a rabid hamster that runs on its wheel until it passes out from exhaustion.  Sitting and emptying my mind has really never worked for me.  Doing something intensely physical, like hiking up a mountain or running a long distance, has a way of pulling me out of my head and into my body that makes it impossible for that hamster to keep going and makes a meditative state seem natural.

Now that I'm engaging a meditative practice on a regular basis I'm beginning to appreciate what people have been saying about it for so long.  It helps me to clear my head, de-stress, and refocus my mind from everyday trivialities to more weighty things.  Anything that lets me stop worrying about groceries and my next oil change and lets my mind contemplate the complexities of the soul has got to be a good thing.  If you've been having trouble just sitting and meditating I highly recommend engaging the body with the mind instead. 

And for those of you with smartphones, I highly recommend the Buddhify app.  It's basically a guide to meditation for the busy young professional.  It's quite fantastic.

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