The Zen in the Zen of Running

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Today is gorgeous. The sky is clear and bright blue and there’s a steady breeze coming off the Arkansas River near my folks’ place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I’m visiting for the week. This is the perfect day for a run. Doesn’t that sound nice? A light jog in the afternoon sun? But I’m shackled to the dining room table, hammering away at the keyboard trying to finish the manuscript for a long overdue book.

I’ve made good progress today and I just reached a convenient stopping place, but I’m surrounded by legal pads with scribbled notes, dog-eared books, stacks of copies of old newspapers with annotated sticky tabs, all arranged on the table in a particular order known only to me. What if I lose my place? If I go for a run I’ll feel sharper, more awake, but if I run too hard I’ll be spent and unfocused. The run needn’t be long—no one is suggesting a half marathon this afternoon—but every minute counts right now. My first deadline on this thing was years ago, and my editor is hounding me. On the other hand, I spent a good 45 minutes yesterday Googling pictures of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope from Insane Clown Posse without makeup on, for what reason I have no idea, so what am I even talking about?

But my big toe hurts. And I’m full from lunch. And behind my eyes feels foggy. And my body feels sluggish and heavy from too many days on the road, too much time in Ubers and airplanes, too few runs of late. And what do I want anyway? Wasn’t I just thinking about how nice a run would feel right this moment? 

The bizarre, slippery unlogic of these negotiations with myself will be familiar to most runners. We know what we want, we know how to get it, and we will construct enormous, arcane facades of ridiculous rationalizations to prevent us from getting it. 

Yes, there are those who picked up the habit as children, whose very bodies have been shaped at a structural level by the act of running, with figures long and sinewy or thick and muscular, and glutes that look destined to hover there forever, two perfect orbs molded by a lifetime pounding the pavement. They appear unburdened by this tendency to try to talk oneself out of a run. 

But I am not one of those. Most of us aren’t. Most of us are like me: somewhere along the way, to help fight the blues after a breakup, or get in shape for a crush, or manage anxiety, or get pumped for the day, or sleep better, or wake up better, or whatever, we picked up running. We had too much of something and running helped us get rid of it, or a lack of something and running helped us get more of it. We wanted to get somewhere and running helped us get there. As with God and ice cream, we turn to running most enthusiastically when times are bad, which is why it’s especially easy to talk ourselves out of running when times are good.

That’s how it was with me. In college, I bounced back after a break up one stride at a time in the leafy neighborhoods of uptown Dallas. In Manila, I was lonely so I ran, weaving through that city’s schizophrenic streets, coughing on diesel exhaust and high-five-ing the kids in my neighborhood as I galloped past. In grad school in New York City, I outran stress up and down the steps of Morningside Park, and on the streets of Harlem, where sometimes I’d end a run with a game of street craps. In DC, I ran frantically, like an anguished maniac, desperate to mend a broken heart and to outrun the demons, darker still, that had grown cunning and bold while I had been growing old. It was around this time, when I spent hours running circles around Lincoln Park and I drew my world in close around me to a quiet sun room on the second floor of a group house on Capitol Hill and devoured tomes about Zen Buddhism, that I discovered a book called The Zen of Running. 

It’s a weird book. Published in 1974, The Zen of Running is a big, thin paperback, with pictures in black and white and very little text on each page, all in a script font like simplified calligraphy and arranged in irregular columns like a free verse poem, with no particular capitalization or punctuation scheme. It’s not really about Zen, or even Buddhism. Roughly speaking, it’s in the tradition of Ram Das’ 1971 hippie-classic Be Here Now, but instead of meditation, yoga and LSD, it’s just about running. And I loved it. 

I loved that The Zen of Running is silly without meaning to be. The text is interspersed with random black and white pictures of anonymous wilderness, and others of a shirtless man with a huge beard, barefoot in mid stride at various and apparently unconnected spots in the wilderness. It’s full of very specific advice like “be as undressed as possible” and “run erect as possible!” and “you shouldn’t let anyone tell you how to run.” And I loved that it told me to take it easy. “Run within your breath,” writes author Fred Rohe. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Or do the opposite if you want. You do you. Just, “don’t overdo it,” Rohe writes in his hippy-dippy-1970s-San Francisco pentameter. “Under do it. You aren’t running because/you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.”

Those unremarkable lines changed my life. They contain the kind of self-evident wisdom so simple you can forget to look for it. Underdo it. Stop running to get somewhere. It’s the same wisdom, more or less, contained in Zen master Dogen’s dictum to “just sit.” Just run.

So I started under-doing it. I let myself take it easy. I stopped if I felt like it, then started again, or I went home. I ran far and I ran short. I ran to exhaustion and I ran for just a few minutes, stopping before I even worked up a sweat. I annihilated the running ego that made demands of me and my run. Now I just run. 

Just running makes it easier to get up and start running when I start talking myself out of it, and that’s what I do today. I have a little laugh at myself and my absurd inner deliberations, and I ask myself simply and directly if I feel like running for a second. The sun is coming in long beams through the window now, as the afternoon crawls toward evening. I would love to feel what’s left of today’s sunlight on my face, even for a few moments, to be out there in the breeze before the springtime air turns cold for the night, to fall into a gentle rhythm on the running trail along the river. 

So I change into shorts, pull on my shoes, and hit the pavement. I run soft and easy down the hill to the river and then jog gently beside it until I feel like stopping. And it’s wonderful. 

 

Denver Nicks