The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 Dzyen (pinyin: Chán), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as “absorption” or “meditative state”.
Zen is a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation.
One of my favorite Zen books is The Zen Teaching of Huang Po. He was an influential Chinese master of Zen Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty.
Recently while reading through this book I thought of several ways Zen relates to ultra-distance running.
The single aim of the true Zen follower is to transcend the limitations of his or her ordinary mind and to connect with one’s intuitive knowledge that opens up a different space that knows no limitations or boundaries.
As it relates to ultrarunning, let’s work with the following definition: Zen ultrarunning is operating in a space that transcends the ordinary limitations of the ordinary mind.
The Space of Singularity
That transcendent space of ultrarunning is first a space of singularity. Zen ultrarunners understand the sport in terms of achieving one’s fullest or highest potential in body, mind and spirit.
Ultrarunning is an avenue through which you attain the highest level of human being and living. It tests and transcends our self-imposed physical, mental and spiritual limits.
The Zen ultrarunner does not view running as a mere hobby or on-again off-again interest. Ultrarunning is not a secondary or ancillary add-on to real life and living. It’s more foundational and primal than that.
Ultrarunning is a way of being and living. It is a manifestation of the singularity of life. Life does not mean many different things. It means one thing. It means fulfilling the highest possibilities of who and what we are.
Ultrarunning training is training toward those possibilities. The races themselves are opportunities and milestones in testing and actualizing those possibilities. Running a marathon is something you do. Ultrarunning is something you are.
We strip away from our lives whatever is hindering our physical, mental and spiritual growth and well-being, and we seek only that which promotes this higher way of living. Running an ultramarathon is a powerful expression, manifestations and consummation of this way of life.
The Space of Non-Attachment
Life is change.
There is an inescapable impermanence to human existence. We don’t have control over many things, perhaps most things.
If you’re doing a 50-mile, 100k, 100-mile or multi-day race, things rarely go perfectly according to plan. The most effective ultrarunners are adaptable and flexible. They are not easily rattled and stay centered in the midst of challenge and difficulty.
Preferences, expectations and attachment to outcomes can impede liberative running.
What I mean by liberative running is occupying a space of non-attachment so you can respond to situations as they require without mental drag and emotional drama. It’s letting go of your preferences about the way things “should” be and being fully present and alive in each moment, whatever that moment may hold.
That space of non-attachment leaves behind the dualistic thinking of “good” or “bad.” Over the course of a long training run or race there are many things that happen that can be forced into this dualism of “good” and “bad.” Whatever we put into the “bad” category (weather conditions, monster hills, not feeling our best, injury, ailments, etc.) we imbue with negativity. Whatever we put in that category we make wrong, problematic, undesirable, awful, dreadful, which only serves to stir up drama, angst and negative energy. The real problem here is not the thing that happens itself but all this negativity we stir up about it.
The space of non-attachment is a space of non-judgment — whether “good” or “bad.” Many runners have heard the idea of the “runner’s high” or “running bliss,” and then judge themselves as wrong if they can’t seem to attain or experience this.
The truth is that the only thing that is ever happening in life is what is happening. What it means is what we add to it or how we interpret it. When we are attached to how everything should be, then it sets us up for this mental and emotional drag. It’s our preferences and attachments that get in the way.
The Zen ultrarunner isn’t incessantly judging what happens in their running as “good” or “bad.” They don’t set themselves up with all these preferences and attachments of how everything is supposed to be. Instead, the Zen ultarunner realizes that every training run and race is a unique experience unto itself, and fully engages each moment and happening without attachment. For the Zen ultrarunner there is never any “good” or “bad” run or race. There’s only what happens and the choices we make to respond to what the situation requires.
The Space of Centeredness
Running 50+ miles gives your mind a lot of time to do a lot of thinking. Most people engage in a mental ping-pong game often referred to as “monkey mind” — meaning that the random musings bouncing around your head are like a barrelful of rambunctious primates.
It’s a natural state for runners who are happy to let their minds wander for miles. But when you become stressed (about an upcoming race or life in general), those monkeys can go bananas. And when they make too much noise (“Why did I sign up for this race? My feet hurt! I’m hungry!”), it can be tough to perform your best or simply enjoy your run.
Concentration and meditation are a couple ways to address the “monkey mind” and return to a more centered place.
One way to incorporate concentration in running is through body awareness. It involves paying attention to things such as how you are breathing, how your feet are landing, how your arms are swinging. This can alert you to where you might have tense areas in your body such as clinched fists or tight shoulders, and allows you to relax them. Concentration on the body can help tame the monkeys in your head.
A good place to start, when you’re practicing concentration, is breathing. The sound of your breathing is a useful focal point. Anytime the monkey mind kicks into gear or negative/counterproductive thoughts creeps into your mind, catch yourself, and refocus on the sounds of your breathing. It takes practice, but in time, you will find it useful as a way to clear your mind for longer and longer periods of time. By focusing on your breathing or your feet as they strike the ground, how your body feels or the sights and sounds and smells of nature around you can help silence the monkey mind and center you. Try not to think about the past and the future, but remain in the moment.
You have to practice this kind of concentration. It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us. Try doing it for increasing periods of time on a run, bringing yourself back to the moment every time you find yourself pulling away. Monitor your thoughts, and when you find a thought that is not of the moment don’t try to stop the thought. Just be aware of it, acknowledge it, and allow it to leave gently. Then return to the moment.
Through this kind of concentration you learn to relax and yet be keenly aware of your moment-to-moment sensations, thoughts, and the world around you.
We set our intention to let go of the monkey mind, negative inner-talk, or worrying. By letting go of thoughts and coming back to our immediate physical experience, we find that our body and mind feels lighter, more joyful.
When you tire of trying to concentrate, allow yourself to contemplate. Think about your day, about your life in general, about what’s important to you, about your goals, about the people in your life. You don’t have to leave to chance what bounces around in your head on a long training run or race.
One can use running as a quiet and meaningful time to think about life and what’s important to you. I am a writer and sometimes I will spend some of my contemplation time, pondering various ideas and thoughts about it. At other times I will allow myself to meditate on some of the larger truths I hold about life itself – the interrelated nature of reality, the oneness of all things, the magic and mystery of my life and the universe of which I am part.
It can be useful to alternate between concentration and contemplation. Let’s say on a training run you are doing hill intervals. Concentrate while running hard going up the hill. Contemplate as you take it easier going down the hill. Or on a long run, spend the first 15 minutes of some miles to concentrate, and 15 minutes on alternate miles to contemplate.
There is so much more that could be said about Zen and running. Here are a few resources to explore for investigating this topic further:
- Zen and the Art of Running
- Running & Being: The Total Experience
- Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind
I’m over 40 years old, but I don’t give up easily. It wasn’t too long ago that I was exploring the idea of doing my first triathlon. If I can do it, you can too! I'm proof that with a little determination and training, you can get a great deal of fulfillment participating in marathons, triathlons… even ultramarathons.