Is Running the Ultimate Meditation Exercise?

Buddhism: Day 5-6

Yesterday I went on a 10 mile run with my running club.  I like running with group, especially during the long runs because it helps makes the run go by faster; the group is a welcome distraction from the aches and pains of pounding the pavement for an hour or more.

However, considering it’s Buddhism month, I wonder if instead of seeking distractions during the run, whether its with music or running partners, we should take the time to use our run as an opportunity to develop both mindfulness and focus.

For example, there were two significant hills on our route. As we got close to the hill, I though “Oh man this is going to suck. Ugh, hills, they are the worst.” Being a temporary Buddhist, this reaction was followed by another thought: I should try to observe my reaction instead of getting caught up in it.

I thought, “Hmm, the hill is a hill. The hill isn’t good or bad. It doesn’t suck, that is just my reaction to the hill.”

Once we started running up the hill, the discomfort came. I experienced shortness of breath, my thighs burned, and my mind kept thinking , “I can’t wait for this to be over.”

But as we continued, I tried to separate my judgment of the sensations from the [uncomfortable] sensations themselves.

I paid attention to my breathing, which was labored and to the other aches and pains in my feet and legs.

I also paid attention to my thoughts surrounding them, which was again, variations on “this sucks.”

I didn’t try to do anything with those thoughts, I just noticed them.

Then I returned to focusing on my breath.

The whole experience was very interesting. It didn’t make the hill easier, but it did make me realize how quick our minds are to apply judgments to our sensations. We jump from “there is a pain in my foot” to “oh my God why do I even run any more I should just stop.”

I suspect this is a valuable evolutionary trait; in most cases when we experience pain, we should probably stop lest we permanently injure ourselves.

But this valuable evolutionary trait also causes us to experience more suffering than necessary.

Does running up the hill become easier because I add the judgment “this sucks” to the sensation?

No, it makes it worse. It adds psychological suffering to the physical sensation of pain.

The added judgment may even be a form of distraction; a coping mechanism designed to draw our attention away from the reality of the situation (exertion causes physical discomfort).

I’m getting a little too metaphysical here, but the point is that Buddhism helped me notice the difference between a physical sensation and my judgment of the sensation.

This is not so different from Stoicism, which said that we should separate our judgment from events from the events themselves.

Where Stoicism differs, however, is that it tells us to control our judgment of the situation.

Buddhism, as far I can tell, just tells us to notice our judgment, to be mindful of it. It seems to be less concerned with any individual perception or thought, than the eventual progression to realizing that there is no such thing as a “self” that is judging.

Again, this is overly metaphysical, but compare this to the lifestyle designers who say “oh, your job is causing you pain? Leave your job and you will end your pain!”

That’s equivalent to saying, “Oh running is causing you pain, stop running!”

It may or may not cause the pain to stop, but it’s a very unsophisticated analysis. They don’t ask you to pay attention to the difference between the external realities of your job and your judgment of it. They tell you to focus solely on the self; they don’t suggest that the self may not be real.

Lifestyle design bloggers may be good at recommending ways to alleviate painful symptoms, at least for a short period of time. Quitting your job to travel the world is the short-term solution to an uncomfortable work environment.

But their solutions generally seem to be distractions, which we know, can only work for short periods of time.

Perhaps as a first step, we should learn to cultivate mindfulness, and learn to separate sensations and experiences from judgments of those sensations and experiences.

Which means I should probably start doing more hill workouts….

*Note: Here’s an article about running meditation, and here’s another with instructions on how to do it.

  • John Isaacs

    Like your website and your exploration. I would like to see you cover Taoism, Hinduism and the religion of the Aboriginal people of Australia. I hear their culture is 50,000 years old and their insights are as profound as Buddhism.

  • An.Eskimo.Outside

    This reminds me of something that an elementary school teacher of mine used to tell us all the time. I did not appreciate what it really meant until many years later, but whenever we would get hurt in the course of his class, he would say, “It is only the pain that hurts.”
    For years I thought it was just a smart a$$ remark, but later I realized he was really saying, “It is only the pain that hurts. Not the fear, not the anticipation of more pain, not the desire for the pain to stop. It is just the pain. And just the pain, you can handle.”
    Great post – thank you for sharing.

    • I like it 😉